Extraordinarily creative Texas psychedelic-garage rock innovators the 13th Floor Elevators amplified rock & roll’s cultural promise to unprecedented heights, but the reality of the band’s methods and ideology was nothing short of flabbergasting, as revealed in all its mad glory in Paul Drummond’s Eye Mind: the Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound. Compelled to live as outlaws, never rehearsing or performing without benefit of pharmaceutical LSD, routinely locked into their own tour van and hotel rooms (both for their own good and to keep the cops away), the Elevators proposed a complex psychedelic philosophy of spiritual liberation, always delivered with more aggressive proto-punk emphasis than trippy noodle-drone. Their rewards were scant: Lyricist-bandleader Tommy Hall wound up living in a cave, singer Roky Erickson was confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane, guitarist Stacy Sutherland landed in jail, drummer John Ike Walton was subjected to involuntary shock treatment.
First-time author Drummond has researched and presented their lurid chronology with impressive, understated fervor — and the book is loaded with photographs, mug shots, flyers, posters and even ticket stubs — yet the overall context is frustratingly inconsistent. He marvelously portrays the 1966 San Francisco scene (showing how most groups at the time were barely able folk rockers unprepared for the Elevators ferocity) but he’s so thoroughly stumped by Austin’s early-70’s, hippie-redneck evolution that Willie Nelson (no stranger to psychedelics) comes off as the enemy. Too, Drummond’s easy-out annotation is a drag: Almost all of the footnotes should have been included as text (why make the reader wait for one of the very few print reviews of the Elevators first album?) and his approach to interview citations (an endlessly repeated series of boldfaced parenthetical initials) are a constant reminder of why God created “ibid.”
But Drummond had something that renders such minor flaws irrelevant: access. He not only tracked down everyone connected to the Elevators (musicians, families, record men, lawyers, fans), he managed to coax out whatever remained in their memory — no small feat considering that many involved had, for decades, refused to discuss the band, not to mention how much acid some fed themselves. The hyper-bizarre truth that emerges — how they went from glue-sniffing “goat-ropers” to avatars of a new, radically influential rock & roll ideal — is consistently fascinating.
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EYE MIND: THE SAGA OF ROKY ERICKSON AND THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS, THE PIONEERS OF PSYCHEDELIC SOUND | By PAUL DRUMMOND | Process Media| 424 pages | $23 softcover