The 13th Floor Elevators are the best kept secret in the history of 1960’s rock music.
My first encounter with The Elevators happened on a primitive version of streaming radio. This station also introduced me to The Who, Eric Burdon, The Stooges, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, and many other acts that I soon became obsessed with. It wasn’t “classic rock” to me back then. It was just this new, incredible music.
As with all the other bands that I fell in love with around this time, I heard one good song and proceeded to immediately order every album in the band’s catalog. When I heard the Elevators, I ordered their two legendary albums, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, and Easter Everywhere.
I sat in my living room completely enthralled by both albums. The first album mixed 50’s style rock n’ roll with blues. Roky Erickson’s voice arrested my attention right away; he moaned and screamed like a zombie possessed by electric current. The lead guitar cut through the mix with alarming precision, and the overall effect was masterful. A kind of magnetic force or energy drove the entire sound which can’t be explained in standard music terms – there was a conviction, an absolute now or never attitude. It was as though a group of fire and brimstone preachers decided to form a rock and roll band.
The first time I listened, I sat cross-legged on the floor directly in front of my stereo. I put on Psychedelic Sounds and started reading the liner notes. The liner notes had this weird philosophical content. I was immediately puzzled. The writing was academic, but strangely esoteric. The text seemed a little heavy for the album opener; a countryfried punk stomper called “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
As “Roller Coaster” began playing, I listened to the lyrics closely. At this point, I began to slowly piece everything together.
Here we arrive at the mystique of innocence – that moment of discovery when you absorb information for the first time, but you have no idea who the author is. You have no precedent for the information you are receiving – no historical context for whatever theory, song, or piece of knowledge imparted to you. It was just new, strange, and exciting.
I was blown away. Roky Erickson’s haunting, reverb saturated voice blasted through the speakers and created a resounding echo in my living room. A very strange whooping sound flew back and forth across the speakers. I turned the dial up. The music shifted suddenly and dropped into a swirling whirlpool of menacing blues guitar and raga.
Easter Everywhere was different, but equally good. “Slip Inside This House” combined lyrics inspired by classical poetry with backing music that, somehow, perfectly matched the lyrical content. It was a feat of genius. The Elevators completely outshined other underground bands from that era.
Their story is a sad one. The general narrative contains two key circumstances that contributed to their plight – an incompetent Texas record label, and their insistence on consuming LSD on a regular basis. Excessive drug use ultimately lead to mental health issues among several band members, most notably Roky Erickson.
Their live shows are the stuff of legend. People who saw them live in their heyday have said that the albums are nothing compared to their early live shows. They played live on LSD, and it apparently didn’t slow them down at all. In interviews, people who went to their live shows in 1966 say they were the kings of the San Francisco scene. All of the Bay Area bands from this period went to see The Elevators, and they were all floored.
The consensus among people who knew them and saw their performances is that if they’d backed off the drug use and aligned themselves with a good record label, they would have been as big as the Rolling Stones.
The reality is that their situation was a catch-22. The Elevators whole philosophy (and all of the strange power behind their music) was driven by consciousness expansion. They wouldn’t have remained the same band if they had cleaned up and started behaving. Instead, they became the very definition of a cult band.
Years later, I can still feel the chills rush over me when I play these albums. My heartbeat kicks up, the speakers magnetize my blood and I want to be inside of that strange musical canvas. I want to just walk right into that room.
These albums are best listened to by candlelight and without any distraction. This is music you cannot listen to passively. As with Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Buckley, Tori Amos, and The Smashing Pumpkins, you live inside of this music.
It is an alternate universe; a sonic island that redefines the concept of what music is. It’s a philosophy, an experience, and a dream – alive and pulsating in time. It shapes your mood and your perception of the environment around you. When you connect to music this good, you transcend your life. You transcend into a power connected to everything.
“Every day is another dawning
Give the morning winds a chance
Always catch your thunder yawning
Lift your mind into the dance
Sweep the shadows from your awning
Shrink the four fold circumstance
That lies outside this house
Don’t pass it by”
-Slip Inside This House