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Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, The Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound
by Paul Drummond
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Arnson, 9/9/2009

Four and twenty birds of Maya

Baked into an atom you

Polarized into existence

Magnet heart from red to blue [...]

If your limbs begin dissolving

In the water that you tread

All surroundings are evolving

In the stream that clears your head

Find yourself a caravan like Noah must have led

And slip inside this house as you pass by.

from “Slip Inside This House”

Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson (1967)

In the early 1960s, several years before the LSD-fueled psychedelic culture bloomed in San Francisco, students at the University of Texas in Austin were already experimenting with peyote and mescaline. Marijuana was in common use, but possession was a felony that could automatically land one two to five years in prison, or up to a life sentence for a second-time offender. The years 1962–1965 saw students, proto-hippie beatniks, and intellectuals congealing into a hipster underground, which included the likes of Janis Joplin, Chet Helms (who promoted the first psychedelic concerts in San Francisco), and Gilbert Shelton (author of the underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers). Among this group was one Tommy Hall, a brilliant philosophy and psychology major. When LSD hit the Austin scene in 1964, Hall became enamored with its mind-expanding possibilities. He began to formulate an elaborate multi-layered approach to life, inspired by such luminaries as Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Hesse, Huxley, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and famed semioticist Alfred Korzybski.

Meanwhile, the hottest rock ‘n’ roll band in town was The Spades, led by guitarist Roky Erickson, who was blessed with an astounding and mighty howl of a voice that many locals say influenced Janis Joplin. Eye Mind recounts in elaborate detail the rise and fall of the 13th Floor Elevators, the band formed from the union of these two amazing and eccentric characters. It is a tale almost Shakespear-ean in its ascent and downward trajectory, from the formation of the psychedelic scene and their first hit record, to label mismanagement, police harassment, mental and drug problems, busts, and the dissolution of the band and their dream.

Documented as the very first self-professed “psychedelic” band, the Elevators were a true cultural phenomenon. The liner notes for their debut LP expound Hall’s theories, including passages about “Man’s quest for knowledge,” and how, by the use of “certain chemicals” one can pursue the “quest for pure sanity…”

The Elevators saw some success with their song “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” an impassioned garage-rocker distinguished by Roky’s howling vocals and what would become their signature sound (for better or worse): a burbling, hooting background noise produced by Tommy Hall scat-singing into an “electric jug.” (ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons had a band in Austin at this time, The Moving Sidewalks, who were totally influenced by the Elevators’ sound.) The Elevators even made it onto Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. When Clark asks the band, “Who is the head of the band here?” Hall replies, “Well, we’re all heads…”

Band leader Hall’s insistence that the band trip on psychedelics like LSD and DMT at rehearsals, performances, and recordings invariably led to some very intriguing music, and ultimately some not-so-intriguing mental health problems. Drum-mond’s exposé contains great descriptions of the Elevators playing the Texas teen club scene, mixing standard dance classics of the time with their new “psychedelic message” songs. In 1966, the band also frequently played the California Bay Area, to supportive and receptive audiences who were totally in tune with their sounds. They shared bills with artists such as Janis Joplin, Big Brother, Quicksilver, and Grace Slick’s Great Society; they even ended up living in San Francisco for a while. One interesting speculation made in the book is that if the Elevators had stayed in San Francisco, they might very well have gone on to become as successful as their kindred Bay Area bands.

At over 400 pages, Eye Mind is a fascinating book, written by an obviously loving fan. Regardless of your taste for their music, this is an invaluable account of not only a seminal American band, but of the very roots of the psychedelic counter-culture itself. The book is full of priceless anecdotes on what it was like to be a head in the then-hostile Texas environment, as well as insights into the West Coast musical and cultural scenes. Innumerable punk, new wave, and psychedelic bands have counted the 13th Floor Elevators as an influence. Busted for a miniscule amount of marijuana in 1969, Roky Erickson was incarcerated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style in a psychiatric hospital for several years, where he received shock therapy against his wishes. Yet between various mental conditions since that time, Erickson has continued his career in music to this day. He remains one of my favorite American songwriters. Eye Mind is an unforgettable read about an unforgettable time.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review

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