Back in the 60s, Rock ‘n’ Roll was morphing into rock. Nobody really knew what this new music was and so a handful of new young bands created it. “It” was a multi-headed monster, and that monster seduced America’s young million by million.
In the world of art, whether it be painting, music, literature, movies, or whatever, everybody has an opinion. In the commercial arts, it’s easy to tell what’s good. If it sells, it’s good, even if it’s “Surfin’ Bird.” But in its experimental phase, nobody knows what’s good, so the personalities of the artists become terribly important. Were Andy Warhol’s soup cans truly a defining moment in our culture? Maybe not, but Andy Warhol himself mattered.
In the mid-nineteen-sixties rock ‘n’ roll was meeting folk, the British invasion had hit the shores of the American colonies, America was about to discover its greatest internal dispute since the Civil War in Vietnam, and, some would say, Bob Dylan and the Beatles were beginning to figure out for us just what American pop music was supposed to sound like. But something else was happening. New music was arising all over the U.S., and Britain too, which was its own thing. From a creative viewpoint it was fantastic. With the help of a little marijuana, and then LSD, and then a whole cornucopia of mind-altering substances, hundreds, or thousands of musical aggregations all over both countries were creating sounds that surely had not been heard anyplace before on this planet. Suddenly the threat posed to society by early, R & B/hillbilly Rock ‘N’ Roll seemed absolutely benign compared to this new thing, which, it turned out, was more than a new music trend, it was a social revolution.
Austin, Texas, like medium and large cities all over America, had a local music scene, and around 1966 a new band emerged with interesting songs, some creative musicians and a powerful lead singer called Roky Erickson, that attracted an honest-to-goodness following, first in Austin, then in Houston, and eventually in California. Very early on in their professional career they recorded a song called “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which struggled to the middle of the national charts and helped stretch their visibility beyond Texas. It had an intriguing sound, and that, combined with tremendous drug-fueled onstage energy, drew large local followings and beyond-local attention. They settled on the group name 13th Floor Elevators, an odd name at a time when odd group names were the way to go.
Their story is like that of a lot of other bands: drugs, girlfriends, creative differences, police harassment and money troubles combining to tear the original group apart. The author of the book, Paul Drummond, and the three credited editors of the book, told the story strictly straightforward, but they did a lot more than that. With the help of posters and album covers done in the artwork of the era, a huge number of individual and group photos that give us snapshots of the Austin middle class and San Francisco rock culture, and lots of revealing quotes from group members, followers and friends, they do more than tell us about the Elevators, they show us about the Elevators. And in doing so, like archeologists in search of one tomb, they present us with a brief sampling of the early days of psychedelic rock. Today, you will meet many people who have never heard of the 13th Floor Elevators. You will also meet many people who will swear that the 13th Floor Elevators could have been one of the great groups of the era, if only….
One of the editors of this worthwhile book, Mark Iosifescu, had this to say about the band:
“The Elevators sort of prefigured the genre of ‘psychedelic’ more than they participated in it. When they started off, their music was wild and weird, but it was also an outgrowth of the garage rock and R & B that was popular at the time. They went to San Francisco in 1966 – the summer before the so-called ‘Summer of Love.’ And sort of seeded the landscape, but by the time the big SF psychedelic bands took off the following year, the Elevators were already falling apart. So they certainly led the way, but they never really got to see the impact they had or enjoy its effects.”
Naturally Elevators fans will want to read this book, and they’ll want to look at all the pictures. But it’s also a good read for all music fans who are able to separate the history of the art from the art itself. There were a lot of bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, where, against all odds, talent met chemicals, and they came this close to becoming legends of their time. Together and separately, they helped to tear American music apart, and the ones that survived to help put it back together again made sure that it would never again be quite the same.
To purchase this book, follow this link.