“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view (that is, his own basic relation with the outside world which determines how he stores his information). He then can restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, before approaching them more sanely. It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album.”
So intoned the back cover notes to the The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, a historically groundbreaking album not just in rock music history but also in popularization of the word “psychedelic.” Released in November 1966, those not-so-veiled references to LSD and similar drugs such as mescaline and peyote caused twin sensations — among the youth, a mania for their use, and among their elders, a fear-induced, severe crackdown. And Spring Branch’s legendary Living Eye teen club was a key battleground in that intergenerational war between the Boomers and the Greatest Generation.
Last month we brought you some of the history of the Living Eye, the teen rock venue that once occupied the former TKTK’s grocery on TKTK. Over the last half-century the scene the club fostered has garnered an international cult celebrity, with CDs featuring many of the regulars — Neal Ford & the Fanatics, Bubble Puppy, Fever Tree, the Stoics, the Coastliners, ZZ Top forerunners the Moving Sidewalks, and others still drawing rave reviews on re-release.
One band — the Misfits — were early in a six-month residency at the Living Eye when they became the first Texas band to be arrested for possession of LSD. Luckily for them the case fell part due to a technicality — the drug was not yet illegal at the time of their arrest. Nevertheless the band deemed it wise to select a new name and became the Lost and Found.
That was the name with which they signed with International Artists, a local record label founded by Lelan Rogers, brother of Kenny, “the Gambler” himself. They got that deal in part because of their friendship to the 13th Floor Elevators, the label’s first signees.
If there was a Texas rock band more dangerous to the social order of their times than the Elevators it’s hard to think of their name. The band neither practiced nor performed unless they were on LSD. Along with his wife Clementine, singer and electric jug player wrote all the band’s lyrics while similarly elevated, and neither Hal was shy about advising the band’s young audience to follow in their wake.
The draw was not just the novelty of the drugs — it was also that they shattered the norms of what rock and roll shows had been: relatively quiet affairs with bands playing covers from elsewhere. The Elevators played impossibly loud songs with cryptic lyrics howled preternaturally in Erickson’s banshee wail and all of this adrenaline came roaring forth amid swirling light effects. To those who spanned those generations, it was as if the Elevators had arrived from another planet.
To authority figures, by then, the switchblade-toting greaser juvenile delinquents of the previous decade now seemed quaint. Like the movie said, those rebels had no cause. All of a sudden this new generation had not one but many: chiefly, ending the war in Vietnam and then whatever else you had.
The mysterious lyrics to “Louie Louie” were bad enough. What to make of Hall’s cryptic revelations, like these from “Slip Inside this House,” perhaps the band’s studio pinnacle:
Beduin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
State within the heaven shower
From disciples the unending
Subtleties of river power
They slip inside this house as they pass by
Live where your heart can be given
And your life starts to unfold
In the forms you envision
In this dream that’s ages old
On the river layer is the only sayer
You receive all you can hold
Like you’ve been told
And so it came to pass that the Elevators were hounded by police at a great many of their shows, and perhaps most spectacularly of all at a show at the Living Eye.
Here is how late Fever Tree guitarist Michael Knust remembered it decades later. (Scene-setting: May 19, 1967. Fever Tree were the opening act of the Elevators):
“There were two stages. And it’s all, you know, the early freaks or whatever… one stage is over here, and the main stage is over here. So we play our set, and it’s just packed. And the Elevators, [are] onstage doing their first or second song and I notice these two or three guys kinda drift in… and they have suits on, right? Next thing I notice there’s eight, ten guys in there in SUITS and next thing I know, they’re jumpin’ up on stage grabbing Roky (Erickson, singer) and Stacey (Sutherland, guitarist). Roky had a joint in his pocket.”
In the short term, it appears the band was unfazed. Once Sutherland and Erickson bailed out, the show went on the next day, as this unattributed photo attests:
But as Knust recalled it, this arrest led Erickson spiraling down through the legal system to his ultimate years-long stay at Rusk State Hospital, a former prison converted into an asylum for the “criminally insane.” And with that arrest, so went the band and the entire International Artists label. Living Eye wasn’t much longer for the world itself, though it achieved a whiff of immortality in a song of the same name by the Lost and Found.
It is now widely believed that Erickson’s heavy use of psychedelics triggered latent schizophrenia, so perhaps it was best he was in a mental institution. (At one show — it would make sense if it had been at the Living Eye — Erickson became convinced he had developed a third eye in the middle of his forehead and would not take the stage until it was bandaged over.)
However, Rusk was not the place Erickson needed to be, to put it very mildly — that facility housed violent criminals alongside merely troubled souls like Erickson. When he was released in 1974, after years of Thorazine and shock therapy treatments, his mental health had only worsened. He heard voices and saw demons and surrounded himself with a steady din of several TV sets and radios blaring programming or white noise in an effort to drown out his troubles. After a custody battle with his mom, Erickson’s brother Sumner (a classical musician) got Roky the help he needed — an adjustment to his medications and better counseling. Before his death, Erickson was able once more to perform and function albeit never as he had before all the drugs and jailings.
Sutherland turned to other drugs after the break-up of the Elevators — including a nasty descent into alcoholism — and was murdered by his wife Bunni in Montrose in 1978. Tommy and Clementine Hall, the band’s coupled lyricists, divorced but are said to be friendly still. Hall still regularly partakes of psychedelic drugs at his home in San Francisco, where his quest for pure sanity continues.
And so does the band’s legacy. Today they are cited reverentially as among the founders and still most important bands in the history of psychedelic rock, a key influence on ZZ Top, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., and Queens of the Stone Age. Their one radio hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me” opens the snarky John Cusack rom-com High Fidelity and later appeared in ads for Dell Computers. Other Elevators songs have been in True Blood and True Detective.
And as for LSD itself? Doctors are once more experimenting freely with clinical applications for the drug. It’s on the comeback. Microdosing the drug is all the rage in Silicon Valley these days, as an army of mini-Steve Jobses (he publicly touted his experiences) dream of matching his success, but it’s doubtful many of those techies are indulging in the steady stream of “hero doses” the Elevators inflicted upon themselves.
Given the tragedy in the band’s wake, perhaps an all things in moderation including moderation approach might have worked best. Perhaps one best consult the wisdom of the Living Eye.