Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound, by Paul Drummond
Texas genre-defining psychedelic garage rockers the 13th Floor Elevators have a wild and tragic back story most fans are familiar with. It's a story of drugs, mental institutions, and some of the most crazed rock'n'roll sounds to come from the crazed druggy rock'n'roll of the 1960's. In his book, Paul Drummond searches further inside the history of this group than any previous writings, and comes up with one of the most engaging and even-handed, yet full of the excitement of a true fan, rock biographies around. The moment I finished it, I went back to page one and started again!
The history of the band goes as deep as the sounds they produced with their songs. It's a psychologically deep history. The musical roots of the main instrumentalists and vocalist come from a shared love of early rock'n'roll and the ensuing British Invasion sounds, with a little Texas hillbilly thrown in the mix giving them a touch of regional flair. The music, however, was only half of what made this band so special. The other half was their lyrical and spiritual searching for the keys to existence. We learn in the book that each of these elements was not only artistically, but also physically half the band; main lyricist/electric jug player Tommy Hall, and vocalist/guitarist Roky Erickson were dedicated to the spiritual quest of the band. The rhythm section, which consisted of a couple different drummers, though for most of the band's existence was John Ike Walton, and a small handful of bassists, was generally far more dedicated to their musical craft than the spiritual quest the band was supposed to be about; some even felt it detracted from the music. Although common legend has it that the whole band performed every show while on LSD, Walton took the drug only twice; the second time was at an early band rehearsal, where he had a hellish trip, and never touched it again. Quite possibly this was a good thing for the musical power of the band, as his performance at that rehearsal was noted to be very off-time. Finally, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, a man torn in two by his own emotional conflicts and demons, spent the entire history of the band vacillating between the two differing schools of thought within it.
This is the kind of tension that is infinitely important to the creative output of many of the greatest bands. There are certainly exceptions, but the groups who don't get along fabulously seem more likely to create art with greater emotional and psychological depth than a group of great comrades. With the Elevators, this tension, including a fair amount of resentment against Tommy Hall for his attempt to be the leader of the band yet hardly being a musician, along with the psychoactive drugs at the core of their disagreements, gave the world a candle that burned viciously bright for a brief time before slowly flickering down from both inner and outer pressure. The outer pressure came in the form of constant police surveillance and busts. Roky's grasp on reality loosing itself more and more was the real nail in the coffin for the Elevators.
The book handles this last subject very deftly, voicing the author's own opinion on the matter, pieced together from the interviews he prints within the book. Which brings me to the thing I most appreciate about his writing. He writes from the standpoint of both a huge fan of the 13th Floor Elevators' wild garage rock sounds, and a true appreciator of the importance to the band of their spiritual quest. This book could have easily been written by someone who would dismiss the latter in favor of the blinding amazingness of the former; or by a crazed acidhead who doesn't quite get the power and fervor of their music. Drummond handles all points of the band's history with an even hand, yet still with the excitement of a genuine fan. He shows clearly how the depth of the Elevators' acid-informed lyrics were head and shoulders beyond the merely presentational psychedelic lyrics of their contemporaries. Through his exhaustive interviews with every available person in the band - Sutherland died in 1978, but is well represented by an in-depth 1973 interview - and dozens of their close friends, fans, and family, Drummond's style of using unaltered quotes from these interviews, interspersed with his own piecing together of the story, pushes the tale along at a perfect pace. All the details you could ever be curious about are in here, including the secret to Tommy's electric jug, and the jazz influence he was trying to bring to the band through it. Their three month stay in San Francisco in late 1966 left me dazzled at how much they accomplished and changed as a band in such an amazingly short time.
Even if the whole book were about that stay in San Francisco, you'd have a well-encapsulated history of the band, written in a balanced yet engaging hand. But the book covers every corner of the Elevators' existence, from their earliest, locally well-respected cover bands through interesting where-are-they-nows and personal reunions. When I learn a great deal more about an artist or group than I had previously known, I often feel that too much mystery has been taken away, and no longer have as much interest in them. With this dense of subject matter, Eye Mind does not reveal enough to take away the mystery of the 13th Floor Elevators. This is no slight on the book. It illustrates how vastly deserving this group is of the in-depth look Drummond has given us.