The music of the Texas garage band 13th Floor Elevators needs little introduction to PKM readers. They were among the first bands to collectively hitch their wagon to LSD, even coining the term “psychedelic rock”. But there was a visual side to Roky and the boys, beautifully captured in a new coffee table book, 13th Floor Elevators – A Visual History. Eric Davidson spoke with co-editor Mark Iosifescu for PKM.
“That it would end badly was a given, a gift, and their glory that we now celebrate and levitate.” – Lenny Kaye (from his introduction)
Paul Drummond, a renowned antiquarian bookseller in London, started as a fan and ended as the main chronicler of what is arguably the greatest near-miss in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Of course, for fans of the intense cult strata of rock who have long-embraced Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, hit songs and fame are far down the list of interests. But don’t tell that to the band of teenagers in Austin, Texas who formed in 1965, inspired by the fuzzed-out sounds coming from the exploding British Invasion and regional U.S. garage acts. Many of those bands did have hits, and the fleeting contractual bobbles that came with it in mid-60s pop. The fame would come with the Elevators as American harbingers of a wonderful, mind-expanded world. All four members, egged on hard by idiosyncratic jug player/Svengali, Tommy Hall, dove brain-first into the burgeoning belief that LSD was going to make the world a far groovier place.
Drummond clearly loved that hopeful, ambitious band. Starting around the end of the 1990s, he ultimately finished the definitive Roky and Elevators biography, Mind Eye (2007), compiled the 10-CD box set, Sign of the Three Eyed Men (2009), and now this, 13th Floor Elevators – A Visual History, a gargantuan ephemeral and editorial collection that puts the lid on Drummond’s 20 year-plus investigative trilogy of the 13th Floor Elevators. Along the way he soon learned how that early dream of cool rough riffs and daily wild trips could not be sustained.
With the original lineup lasting less than two years, and the band burning out in under four, they were quickly forgotten by the industry. Sadly, Roky’s psychological troubles beyond bad flashbacks became their sole, sad afterthought… for a time. Roky’s release from a mental institution in 1972 had him soon releasing a few amazing, warbly, ur-punk tunes that caught the ear of the burgeoning new wave scene. More fine solo records came in the 1980s, as did many Elevators reissues of often dubious legal footing, cementing them as cult psychedelic masters.
And like any great biography, A Visual History expands the band’s story and legacy, this one serving to dent the notion that the Elevators were just Roky’s vehicle. Actually, Erickson didn’t write much of the music or lyrics for the band. But of course, THAT VOICE! A volleying vehicle of space alien impulses, Jagger’s sullied soul tries, and the aching, suppressed confusion of a teenager stuck in Texas back then all smelted to create one of the most distinctive sounds of ‘60s rock.
A Visual History – through its massive jackhammer of cool, rare photos, fliers, posters, contracts, press clippings, etc., not to mention Jon Savage’s excellent historical introduction, Lenny Kaye’s foreword, and Drummond’s words and oral history slithering throughout – exposes the way in which Tommy Hall really did mastermind the concept of the Elevators. And that the band in fact did gain a smattering of ink and coin along the way, even quickly landing in the hotbed of psych-sounds, San Francisco, where I am sure, among all the sad, sordid drug tales, were a ton of fun parties and backroom boot-knocks. We come not to bury the free lovers who were unable to remember two-thirds of their sexual escapades, but to praise them.
Tommy Hall really did mastermind the concept of the Elevators.
The fact, as Savage points out, that there are essentially no interviews from the original band’s brief run, the sheer mass of material that has been so beautifully presented here not only is just fun and cool, but it further realigns the 13th Floor Elevators as a far more interesting and important band then they have been relegated to as simply another “original psychedelic band.” Yes, Roky’s own personal resurrection in the ‘90s, and his road work that lasted up until just months before he passed helped affixed the Elevators in the canon of rock ‘n’ roll. But, like Smog Veil’s Peter Laughner box set from last year, this is the kind of tactile mantlepiece monolith that could force yet another, deeper reassessment of what the hell we were all thinking. Really, people sat around delineating the merits of Magical Mystery Tour while this incredible band languished in Texas?!
The 13th Floor Elevators’ legendary appearance on American Bandstand. (Stick around for the post-song interview with Dick Clark, in which Tommy Hall informs the clueless host, “Well, we’re all heads”):
Here were the Elevators on their debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of… (1966), taking the body of garage rock – itself still in its teen phase with the Sonics, the Count Five, the Standells, et al, just starting to make waves – and shoving LSD down its throat. Rarely would lysergic-fueled rock be this raw and proto-punky again, which made the Elevators’ musical influence much sturdier than most of the forgotten flower power bands.
“Levitation” – 13th Floor Elevators:
By early 1967, the original Elevators lineup was done, and so was scuttled one of the greatest American rock bands, a classic example of an originator not cashing in. Yes, their second album, Easter Everywhere, was a true psychedelic masterpiece, if one quickly sunk in a sea of record industry hype focused on slightly more reliable and marketable dopeheads. As we’ve come to expect, the mainstream jumps on a trend right when it’s already waning, and indeed, by the end of the Summer of Love, the acid casualties were starting to pile up, and the genre was already becoming a parody. Interesting that a genre which prides itself on experimentation seemed to run out of ideas faster than the basic bashing of original punk rock. I’d argue though that what became the Elevators’ prime influence – wild garage rock – was set in stone already, only to be dug out of music history dirt when Roky came out of his institutionalization and into the open arms on the edges of the punk movement.
We caught up with co-editor, Mark Iosifescu, to further elucidate the making of 13th Floor Elevators – A Visual History.
PKM: So how did you become involved with 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History? And what was your main job on the project?
Mark Iosifescu: I’ve worked as editor at Anthology Editions for the last few years, so I’m usually involved in some editorial aspects with every book we do. In this case, Johan Kugelberg and I worked with Paul [Drummond] over a period of several years to help shape his archive and text into the finished product.
PKM: In Drummond’s 2007 bio, Eye Mind, there was already a treasure trove of images, B&W and color. So how did you approach this book, as far as making sure it was an extension past what was already covered in Eye Mind and the Sign of the 3 Eyed Men CD box set?
Mark Iosifescu: The big touchstone for us in putting the book together was Paul Drummond’s archive of Elevators materials more than any previous publication. Because we knew we were putting together a largely visual book, we made every effort to let the collection inspire the project. But it’s true, Eye Mind was a reference for the text insofar as Paul had collected so much new material since 2007 that there was definitely an effort to expand on what had been presented in the first book.
PKM: How did you decide on the oral history format in the book?
Mark Iosifescu: That was all Paul Drummond. He stitched together decades of material gathered from numerous sources with the extensive interviews he’d conducted himself.
PKM: One gets a sense of the strong role Tommy Hall held in the band. Do you think there was inter-band tension about that from the very beginning, or something that developed as the band got busier?
Mark Iosifescu: According to the band members, it was a pretty contentious situation right away. Every decision – money, bookings, the band name – were subjects of dispute, usually with Tommy in a central role.
PKM: There is obviously a long-settled narrative – Including much mythology – about the “original psychedelic band” portrait of the Elevators, with an emphasis on the band’s most drug-addled exploits, musically and personally, I would say to an almost detrimental effect, with Roky unfairly framed as just a burnt-out “shouldabeen.” But the Elevators I originally ingested – as their records got slowly bootlegged and reissued in the ‘80s – was a kind of proto-punk band, a pretty raw and mean garage group. Do you think that side of the band has been somewhat subsumed, considering it may be their most long-term influence?
Mark Iosifescu: Great question. I think, for better or worse, the “drug angle” is pretty inextricable from the band’s history, considering how it impacted their history and the lives of the band members. The Elevators – mainly Tommy Hall – were obviously mostly responsible for their being saddled with the psychedelic label, since they were extremely public about their advocacy for acid, and they showed up in San Francisco just as the larger psychedelic acts were starting up. It’s not some accident that they’re associated with drugs. That said, there always was a ton more happening musically, and that rawer garage rock vibe is a huge piece of the story. The punks loved the Elevators, in a way that they probably didn’t like, you know, Country Joe and the Fish or whatever. And I think there’s a reason for that.
It’s not some accident that they’re associated with drugs. That said, there always was a ton more happening musically, and that rawer garage rock vibe is a huge piece of the story.
PKM: Of course the band’s run-ins with the cops was a plight for many a long hair back then, but has added a, shall we say, precocious JD edge to the Elevators not usually afforded the ubiquitous “sixties psych band.” One doesn’t immediately envision peace sign-throwing, flowers-in-hair hippies with the Elevators.
Mark Iosifescu: These guys also had the strange luck to be preaching this lifestyle in mid-’60s Texas, not late-’60s San Francisco. Objectively, and with hindsight, it was a tragic, dangerous way to live in that time and place.
PKM: What is your personal opinion about the main influences of the Elevators and Roky?
Mark Iosifescu: Jon Savage, in his intro to the book, sums it up better than I can: “The Elevators were an intense hybrid of the British R&B groups – Them, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones – and their Texan heritage.” They mixed the garage rock and teen R&B styles that had begun to dominate in the U.S.A. with Stacy’s [Sutherland, guitarist] kind of down-home guitar and Tommy’s unmistakably psychoactive lyrics. It’s a pretty insane combo.
Objectively, and with hindsight, it was a tragic, dangerous way to live in that time and place.
PKM: To this day, the Elevators are still considered somewhat of a cult act. But thumbing through the gargantuan amount of visual artifacts in this book, it’s clear that the band had their moments of hype, press, and industry interest.
Mark Iosifescu: For a brief moment. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was a regional hit and did okay nationally, but after that, it was over. The band’s label, International Artists, tried to build hype how and when it could, but as detailed in the book, the efforts were sort of a comedy of errors.
PKM: One of Jon Savage’s ongoing aims is to expose the often hidden or forgotten pieces of underground pop culture that predate our settled assumptions of when various “revolutionary movements” first appeared. Do you think that impetus weaves through this book, beyond his excellent intro?
Mark Iosifescu: Yeah, Jon did an absolutely incredible job laying out the woefully complicated story of the band clearly, but without doing violence to any of the complexity. I absolutely think the mission of undermining or complicating the counterculture narrative extends across the book as a whole. The Elevators are reasonably well-known now, but in other ways they are the quintessential passed-over rock band, and our desire to address that oversight is what animated this whole process.
PKM: As Savage notes in that introduction, there is barely any press documentation of the earliest days of the Elevators. So that’s just one of the amazing things about this book, that you compile a lot of fascinating early photos, articles, and such. Was there a particular piece of ephemera or three that really blew your mind while compiling and editing the book?
Mark Iosifescu: The photos of the Lingsmen and the Spades, the two groups the band members were in pre-Elevators, are really extraordinary. There’s also the handwritten drug deal letter that precipitated the band’s first big bust, which is really wild to see in light of how impactful that event would end up being.
Multiple shows a day, for huge stretches, while being utterly gone on acid the entire time. It’s maybe not your traditional work ethic, but it was something!
PKM: Any particularly crazy archaeological story you heard about – photos found in a vault, a box in a closet of some old club being torn down, someone about to throw out a box of “crap,” something like that?
Mark Iosifescu: Nothing too dramatic as far as I know, though Paul may have dealt with a lot more trying to get the ball rolling on his studies of the band twenty years ago. We didn’t have much trouble accumulating the materials. Among the folks who saw the Elevators play, there seems to have been some awareness of how special it was, because people held on to these photos for fifty-plus years, and were for the most part psyched to share them.
PKM: As a music fan, one can stumble on things about their musical heroes that maybe they’d rather have not known. Was there anything you learned while working on this book that dented any level of love for the Elevators?
Mark Iosifescu: There’s definitely a lot of tragedy in how the band’s story shook out, whether among the members themselves or in their various struggles with the authorities, with drugs, etc. It was pretty sobering to get into the brutal details.
PKM: Conversely, did you learn anything new that gave you even more respect for them?
Mark Iosifescu: I certainly didn’t realize just how much the Elevators played out when they were actively touring, trying to make it on the West Coast. Multiple shows a day, for huge stretches, while being utterly gone on acid the entire time. It’s maybe not your traditional work ethic, but it was something!