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The Universe Began in Texas, 1965 - Part 1 Before the nostalgia wagon runs you over, it's high time you hear the acid gospel of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators

The Universe Began in Texas, 1965 - Part 1

Before the nostalgia wagon runs you over, it's high time you hear the acid gospel of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: April, 2007

approximate reading time: minutes

While the folks in SF were looking for a day tripper, a magic carpet ride, it was our beloved Texan heroes that understood that this trip was an emergency, and required sirens ablaze

If this isn't common knowledge to you at this point, Roky Erickson is set to be the Daniel Johnston of 2007.  Their cases are eerily similar: they both roamed the streets of Texas, eyes ripped open by madness and an innate sense of rock-n-roll, both adored with slathering praise from the rock cognoscenti, both feted with sure to be heavy handed documentaries that will imbibe a distinct bland reverence for a guy you marginally heard of before, and now has moved into the give-a-shit category, and finally, both are getting resurrected on the virus-like festival circuit. Roky's documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me" - its title taken from his lone hit with The 13th Floor Elevators from 1965 that supposedly kicked off the psychedelic movement - is up for the Independent Spirit Award, and will probably cycle through my Netflix queue like the flu does a grade school. I never watch these things. I have "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" on the very laptop on which I type this, still unwatched. I feel I should watch them. Were I to vilify these over filigreed self-portraits masked as documentaries, it would reveal a marked lack of self-awareness about what I do. But I can't watch those things. I love me some Wilco, but that scene in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" where the camera lingers outside the stall while Jeff Tweedy vomits out his migraines has nearly ruined the rockumentary genre for me. It made me realize I don't want to know the artist. I want the art. I am a greedy baby bird squawking way in the nest, hungry for worms, I don't care whether they were picked from a well-coifed flower-bed or a murderer's grave.

I mean, I'm sure I'll watch it, just like I'm sure I'll watch the Daniel Johnston one. But, much in the way that the last couple Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash records smacked of premature necrophilia to me, so do these films. I prefer instead the delicious raw, bloody taste of the elaborate re-issue package. The extra tracks, the cover art, the photos, the over-wrought commentary that makes me feel like I show some critical restraint. Before you trek out to see this film at the art house, with you and your girl/boyfriend competing with each other and the rest of the attendees for best t-shirt and glasses frames, I beseech you to investigate the flood of Roky material from the source - the 13th Floor Elevators.

13th floor elevatorsThe 13th Floor Elevators
The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
Charly (originally on International Artists)

The case has been made in the gushing liner notes and elsewhere that this little regional hit record spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement in 1965, taking their "ps"- word and jangly spaced-out drugged up variant of mid-sixties punk to San Francisco and through those that heard them, spread it on into forever. Again, this is the area of historians and pissing-match winners, and I leave the task to them. Mine is to tell you that this is one of the finest rock albums ever made. The opening number "You're Gonna Miss Me" is a perfect song - sneering, weird, urgent, groovy. You could just as easily paint an Ab-Ex masterpiece or rob a liquor store with this rattling in your ear. His endless intoning of "you're gonna realize" is my favorite part. It's a moment of thug Zen, a million bad biker movies chopped in secession, dropped into a wormhole where they begin collapsing in on each other, rage through my mind when it kicks though. It's also got the best knucklehead hook in the business, better than the Stooges, MC5 - what have you. Two minutes, twenty-eight seconds to midnight.

The rest of the original album is just as bountiful, though it never reaches that initial Pinnacle. "Roller Coaster" is a menacing demon rocker that is the obvious precedent to fellow madman Syd Barrett's "Lucifer Sam" to follow across the ocean a few years later. Oh, that weird percussive sound that permeates the Elevators songs - I'd always they were bongos run through the nettle of reverb to which the rest of record is submitted, but it isn't fact a jug in the deft hands of lyricist Tommy Hall. Now you know. Anyway, we move on to the first ballad, "Splash 1" centered on a slow woodblock and the "Now I'm hooooooommme... To stay" chorus. Such a charming song to issue out from the well of time.

"Reverberation (Doubt)" may not be their finest song, but it's their most psyche, looping around a Neanderthal pulse like that snake coiled around the tree of life. Roky gets to jabbering behind the curtain of sound and it all seems like enlightenment is coming and then suddenly, we are at "Don't Fall Down" a warning tale of bad women, just as plaintive and poignant "Splash 1." "Fire Engine" is a barn burner of a track and the first that really gives you a taste of Roky's oncoming obsessive madness. "Let me take you to the empty place in my fire engine," he pleads, and the universe falls in step. While the folks in SF were looking for a day tripper, a magic carpet ride, it was our beloved Texan heroes that understood that this trip was an emergency, and required sirens ablaze.

My favorite moment on this record is the apocalyptic molasses striptease of "Kingdom of Heaven" where a slow burn ramble always leads up to "and the kingdom of heaven is within you." This is one of my favorite drunken philosophy mutterings, lifted from Funkadelic's "free your mind and your ass will follow; the kingdom of heaven is within you" but here the mystery of internal discover is rendered with opium precision. I was stuck in traffic when that song came on the other day, and I was compelled to crawl out my window and deliver this gospel to my fellow drivers who were aggravated, staring at the stopped car in front of them rather than looking within for a WAY OUT! The last two songs on the album proper "Monkey Island" and "Trying to Hide" are fine examples of mid-tempo psyche rock, but all I hear is the hum of the universe after "Kingdom of Heaven"

The extras here are your usual grab bag of lost demos and dodgy R&B covers. Notable among them are the insidious breakdown over "Everybody Needs Someone to Love" and the lysergic take on Them's "Gloria" but none of it really hits the heights of the actual record. Because nothing does.

13th floor elevatorsThe 13th Floor Elevators
Easter Everywhere
Charly (originally on International Artists)

Come two years and a trip to the Bay Area later, our drug-addles pioneers return to native soil to spend six weeks crafting a follow-up to their, by then, long forgotten debut. Such genius is always born in the crucible of obscurity. According to the liner notes, there was not only a shift in personnel (drummer John Ike Watson was traded for Danny Thomas, bassist Ron Leatherman for Danny Galindo) but in fuzzy focus. The first album is born of the rock sensibilities of Mr. Erickson, but this one is largely the product of chief lyricist and jug blower Hall. It shows - the opener, and standout track "Slip Inside this House" is an 8-minute apocalyptic lyrical miasma barely shackled to this plane by the relentless groove. "Alpha information sending/State within the heaven shower" and "Sweep the shadows from your awning" are but the crust of this hippie pie. The beauty of the 13th Floor Elevators is that they were there first, and they could chart the ground as they saw fit. Two tracks down is maybe their second finest song (after "You're Gonna Miss me") in the blathering heavy "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)." It is one of those songs that has the Wavy Gravy light show all around it, possessing equal parts menace and swirling drum circle. Its like two magnets dropped in a glass dish, constantly repelling and attracting, always moving shooting off sparks with each second.

The band was starting to give in to its influences, and perhaps it's why it was their last real record. There is the undeniably Byrds-y "Nobody to Love" and the requisite Dylan cover - "Baby Blue," though in their defense the reverbed haze around "Baby Blue" and Erickson's nasal fragility takes this is weirder directions than most versions of this tired old chestnut go.

Fortunately, it's back to business with "Earthquake" and "Levitation." Both of these tread the same wild planet that "Reverberation (Doubt)" from the first record occupies. Neither quite have the bite of "Reverberation" but I'm tempted to say that neither does any other song ever written. They are still powerhouses of boogie death rattle; Roky's croon rides right along with the guitar lines and undulating bass gallop and the beat - coming on like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in tie-dye. "Levitation" has a Monkees-like head bob factor about it, in fact bearing not a minor resemblance to "(I'm not your) Stepping Stone" which came out in January of that same year. That's not a dig, you dig - Stepping Stone is a great song by a great band, one that also served as a high point the catalog of another joke band invented for commercial purposes called The Sex Pistols.

Another hidden discovery is "I Had to tell you" which features the prophetic reassurance for Erickson's future "If you fear I'll lose my spirit/Like a drunkard's wasted wine/Don't you even think about it/I'm feeling fine." This is one of those songs that are immediately familiar, so much so that I had to look to see if the Byrds or some other murder of crows had picked at that corpse. The reissue is fleshed out with a splattering of live recordings form Texas and San Francisco. The album proper closes with the decent R&B slow dance "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)" which is kind of hilarious - the evangelical Timothy Leary acid-gibberish of the lyrics over a song that Ritchie Cunningham might have had playing as he stuck it to Mary Beth in Howard's Desoto. But it is fitting that this record, and the band itself, should go out on such a note. The 13th Floor Elevators are the last of the great rock combos' of the 60's, and the first of the surfing the wave of the mushroom cloud to come. Roky's drug problems basically rendered the band inert, unable to leave Texas because of legal restrictions and so on. It's all dull anecdotes of legality and the even duller tale of a weird guy frying his Roky has emerged over the years with a number of good records, particularly 1981's completely unhinged The Evil One and his plaintive acoustic record from 1995 All That May Do My Rhyme but none of them ever really hit the highs/lows of these two. Ever door that opens must close is the moral of this tale, one that gets re-hashed in every half-ass copy band whose elevator never reached the 13th floor.

* There was one more - Bull of the Woods in 1969, which is largely the work of guitarist Stacy Sutherland. Roky's well known descent into drugg-addled madness and hospitalization was in full swing. It's a decent bit of psychedelic psychosis, especially the demented take on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" but is more of a curiosity.

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
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