Every 15-year-old needs a hero. It's a year when the world really starts turning at a faster rate: a lot of the old toys of childhood become meaningless and a new search for direction begins in earnest. For me, that search led to a rock & roll club in Houston called La Maison, and a band called the 13th Floor Elevators. There was some kind of glow around the band's name, like it meant more than just a moniker. In 1966 Houston was about as uptight as a city could get, with police on the lookout for minorities and long-haired reprobates to harass as often as possible. Just going to La Maison could involve a law enforcement juggernaut, but it was worth it. Once inside the club, waiting for the Elevators to start, an electrical force surged through the audience. You could almost see it. A counterculture was being born, and as powerful as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were then, it wasn't enough. In Texas, we needed our own musical gurus to follow. It wasn't working to always be looking to Great Britain for the next surge. It was time to discover our own.
When the five Elevators took the stage that night in Houston, everything changed. Before, there wasn't a light strong enough to pull the ravenous youth brigade together. Things were split up, with different factions pulling in different directions. With the oncoming wave of psychedelics, though, division wasn't an option. This mind expansion pursuit was serious business, so we had to stick together. It would take real devotion and new leaders. Dr. Timothy Leary was too far away, plus he was from the East Coast. We didn't need anybody from that side of the country telling us how to become enlightened. Texans are a proud crowd, and we wanted our own prophets.
Roky Erickson, Tommy Hall, Stacy Sutherland, John Ike Walton and Bennie Thurman were based in Austin, which was ideal to lead us into the new age. Austin had always been the most enlightened spot in the Lone Star state. It had the University of Texas, the hill country and an inquisitive crowd seeking to push beyond conventional boundaries. The 13th Floor Elevators were openly promising a new way to perceive life, which is exactly what we were looking for. Their small record label, International Artists, was headquartered in Houston, created by a rich oil man, a lawyer or two and a Svengali of a front man named Lelan Rogers, older brother of Kenny Rogers, who had been the bass player in the Bobby Doyle Trio but was now fronting a band called The First Edition. Lelan knew his way around the record business and had picked the Elevators as his ticket to Valhalla. The band's first single, "You're Gonna Miss Me," was already roaring up the local radio charts, a little under three minutes of contained hysteria.
To say the audience that night at La Maison was ready was about as big an understatement as the state of Texas itself. So when Roky Erickson, all of 18 years old, walked onstage it seemed like he was floating. Erickson had a cherubic countenance crossed with an other-worldly aura. His smile was almost as big as his face, and it looked like he knew he possessed a magic potion inside the band's music that was going to change everyone's lives forever in a matter of a few minutes. He plugged in his glowing red Gibson electric guitar, and looked around at his bandmates to see if they were ready to light the fuse. On the singer's left, Stacy Sutherland created a cocoon of darkness around him, like he held certain secrets within that he wasn't quite ready to share. Drummer John Ike Walton sat atop a mountain of drums and cymbals, tall and regal and ready to pound everything he got his hands on. Bassist Bennie Thurman was a flat-out pirate, wearing a big hoop earring on his left ear in a time when men simply did not wear earrings. He also had the somewhat crazed look of a man who had just been released from a cage of some kind.
The last Elevator, on Erickson's far right, was the Lonesome End of the band. He stood solitary in his own world, holding a large clay jug that he would play with a microphone held near the opening at the top and blow into it. Dressed in a pitch-black Navy P-coat and sporting the transcendent smile of an enlightened scientist, it was Tommy Hall who had first formed the 13th Floor Elevators. Convinced that through the use of psychedelic drugs mankind could find a way to evolve into higher beings, he decided a rock & roll band would be the perfect project to share his findings. So he formed the Elevators, wrote the lyrics to most of their songs and began the march to influence and infamy. The orders had been given, and the quintet began their mission.
Once the music started, it was Roky Erickson who split the atom and took the audience on a jet-propelled ride into the future with the Elevators providing a rocket-engine propulsion behind him. I've never seen anything like it, before or since. Songs would begin with a small sonic boom, and then gain in firepower exponentially with each verse. By the chorus, everyone in the audience was hanging on each syllable and chord, having entrusted their psyches to this brand new musical phenomenon called psychedelic rock. Outside the club was a booming city in the chaos of massive changes, but inside La Maison was the spiritual beginning of how music could build a world of its own, devoid of the eggshell existence of normal life. No other band had ever crossed that bridge, but tonight the Elevators were reaching out their hands through songs like "Reverberbation," "Fire Engine," "Rollercoaster" and "The Kingdom of Heaven (Is Within You)" and inviting us all to go there with them. We would look at each other in the audience and seal the deal that this would be our lives, this would be the thing that let us live inside eternity and find salvation once and for all. Since its birth rock & roll had promised that it would save the day, and now — beyond Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, beyond them all — the prophets had arrived to deliver that momentous gift.
it's the inner world where time disappears
and our spirit sets the clock
By the end of that first evening in 1966, Roky Erickson was beatific. He stood onstage and didn't move. He just looked into the crowd with eyes that promised a new beginning. And that's the way he was for the next 53 years, until he passed away May 31, 2019. I would see him share his
music dozens of nights, sometimes in the roar and sometimes in the silence. In those years Erickson had lived a thousand lifetimes, many in the confusion of mental illness, and also in the euphoric nirvana of total bliss. I had loyally followed him, because he and his band opened a door to a place I'd never been and held such high hope for humanity. No matter where the path took us, I believed that in him I had found someone who would share with me an eternal light. And it was always there, even when very few could still see it. Through the Elevators' songs and Erickson's performance I learned that the outside world should not lock us in. Rather, it's the inner world where time disappears and our spirit sets the clock.
When I saw him performing all those 13th Floor Elevators songs in San Francisco a few weeks ago, his eyes still carried the magic even if his body struggled with its ties to this physical world. Now he has broken that earthly bond and moved into the cosmos where his mind had lived for so long. One day we will surely follow him there, hopefully to a place where we can share this life and all the others in store for us. And the circle will remain unbroken.
Bill Bentley © 2019
Bill Bentley's first interview with Roky Erickson appeared in the Austin Sun in 1975. Bentley is executive producer of WHERE THE PYRAMID MEETS THE EYE: A TRIBUTE TO ROKY ERICKSON, released by Sire/Warner Bros. Records in 1990.
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: LIVE AND UNSEEN was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.
Photos by: Ken Hoge © 2019 (top photo) www.kenhoge.com & Bob Simmons © 2019
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