Hear no evil
Like many people in the 1970s, I too had my first experience of listening to Roky Erickson and the music of the 13th Floor Elevators via Lenny Kaye’s underground garage-rock compilation record ‘Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968’, albeit somewhat later, probably around 2004/2005 as a teenager. My first reaction to hearing Elevators cut ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ was no doubt similar to that felt by many others throughout the decades: ‘What the fuck is that sound?’ That weird, trippy, wobbly sound that felt as though something was rippling through the song. A submerged gargle? A cooing bird? Distorted strings? A technical malfunction? For years I thought that noise had something to do with water, maybe an amp precariously drenched in water to create a sound like no other, or some kind of spillage on the master tape. Only later did I realise it was someone blowing a jug. Then, just as the mind is beginning to process such a strange sound, in comes a scything scream – “ohhhhh, yeahhh”. That scream is of teenager Roky Erickson sounding very much like the next Van Morrison and Mick Jagger rolled into one younger, more out-there body; a role that due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, he never really got to fully live out.
The 13th Floor Elevators are often credited as being the first psychedelic rock band, but their psychedelic leanings went much further than simply their sound explorations. The group – heavily encouraged by bandleader Tommy Hall – were fierce proponents of the LSD movement, openly championing the drug, along with other similarly affiliated ’60s chemicals. The back cover to their debut album ‘The Psychedelic Sounds…’ even reads like something of an ‘open your mind’ manifesto, challenging people to break down institutional barriers via chemical exploration and ‘unlock’ themselves. Sadly, what may have initially opened up a lot of windows to a whole lot of other realms for the band then soon folded in on itself. A change in band line up – some of which is rumoured to be the result of Tommy Hall’s almost militant insistence on drug experimentation within the group – coupled with the authorities placing a keen eye on this rebellious, counter-culture inciting lot, soon led to the collapse of the group and the arrest of Roky Erickson.
In 1969 Erickson was arrested with a single marijuana joint but was due to face 10 years in prison for the felony. At the advice of his lawyer, in order to avoid prison, he pleaded insanity (Erickson had been diagnosed with schizophrenia the year before). After being placed in some low security psychiatric institutions, he continued to break free from those, thinking this situation would be on-going until he ran down his sentence. That is until they transferred him to a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane, Rusk State Hospital, Texas.