A Tribute To The 13th Floor Elevators – Old Quarter (Galveston, TX)
Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators had an influence on modern popular music that far outweighs the brief lifespan of the band. Part of a vibrant psychedelic music scene percolating in Austin circa 1964-65, the Elevators’ creativity and talent were matched by self-destructive tendencies and lightning-rod drug culture status that brought law enforcement down on them hard, and often.
Their meteoric rise — a #56 Billboard hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, a historic series of gigs at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom, appearances on “American Bandstand” and “Where The Action Is”, and the 1967 release of their finest work Easter Everywhere — was followed by an equally precipitous fall that broke and scattered the band by 1968 and left Erickson in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland was murdered by his wife in 1978. Jug player and metaphysical lyricist Tommy Hall split for San Francisco, where he continues his experimentation with LSD.
Considerably improved since his younger brother Sumner was granted custody in 2001, Roky now lives in the Austin area and is gradually re-emerging after years of health and psychological problems. Aside from improving Roky’s quality of life and assuring his financial security, the Roger Kynard Erickson Trust (www.rokyerickson.net) is attempting to regain legal control of Roky’s music and to gain wider recognition for his accomplishments. Except for occasional covers, the High Fidelity movie soundtrack, and rampant bootlegging, the music of the 13th Floor Elevators has been virtually dormant since a 1984 Austin reunion show — until three recent tribute shows organized by Sumner and Shakin’ Apostles leader Freddie Krc.
Fans didn’t know quite what to expect from a show billed as “a tribute to the music of the 13th Floor Elevators.” Would once-vibrant songs be presented as kitschy played-by-the-numbers oldies but goodies by somnambulant has-beens? Would what once seemed absolutely essential now seem pale and anemic, or perhaps suffer from terminal irrelevance? Would the “tribute band” preen and pander shamelessly, paying more tribute to themselves than to the Elevators?
Once the music started, such considerations were rendered null and void. Tie-dyes were in abundance as Sumner Erickson, whose day job is lead tuba for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, stood in for Roky and led an ace band through a broad sampling of Elevators material. He was joined by Krc on drums, one-time Elevators bassist Ronnie Leatherman, Shakin’ Apostles guitarist and noted Nashville songwriter Cam King, and Greg Forest, the 1984 reunion show jug player.
With Craig Malek’s Jar of Fireflies lightshow pulsating behind them, they wasted no time diving to the heart of the matter on the first night of a weekend stand with a searing version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. Despite only a few rehearsals, the band found an intense groove immediately and the appreciative crowd erupted, relieved that they proved able to give the music its due. The Elevators weren’t back, but this was going to be pretty close.
The sets included trippy Elevators standards such as “Roller Coaster” and a mesmerizing version of “The Kingdom Of Heaven Is Within You”, as well as softer songs such as “Splash 1”, “I’m Feeling Fine”, and Powell St. John’s “Right Track Now”. Sumner shared several anecdotes, introducing “Fire Engine” by telling the crowd, “When I was three years old, Roky would let me watch the band practice, and this was my favorite song.” Another favorite from an early age was “Monkey Island”, and Sumner’s imitation of Roky’s primal screams on what had been something of an unofficial anthem for the Galveston Island surf community in the Elevators’ heyday brought a number of knowing smiles.
A highlight of both evenings was a mid-set phone call to Roky. Sumner held the cell phone high as an adoring audience chanted “Roky! Roky!” When the crowd quieted, Sumner said, “Well, brother, you told us we were gonna miss you.” It was cheesy but lovable.
Mixing Shakin’ Apostles and Elevators material, Krc and King began each evening with brief acoustic sets that concluded with their raucous adaptation of “Levitation”. Both nights, an unknown opening band playing its third and fourth gigs as the Tommy Hall Schedule received enthusiastic ovations for a set that began with a blistering spot-on version of the eight-minute epic “Slip Inside This House” and finished with beam-us-up renditions of “Levitation” and “Reverberation”.
The shows proved to be as much a reunion of old-timers and minor celebrities from the area’s hippie heyday as musical events. Many in the crowd sang along to obscure songs that had been out of vogue for 35 years. There was a feeling of easy camaraderie as strangers found themselves at the bar telling “the first time I saw the Elevators” stories or recalling now-legendary Houston venues of the era such as La Maison, the Cellar, the Catacombs, or Love Street Light Circus and Feelgood Machine. It was all so ’60s.
Yet fans seemed relieved by the evidence that the Elevators’ music is not stuck in time, a faded-glory period piece shelved like a curious heirloom. On the contrary — in its live form, it maintains a melodic vitality and lyrical relevance the equal of any in rock, despite its relative obscurity.
Krc and Sumner Erickson plan to book other shows in the future. And while Roky didn’t perform, Sumner describes his progress the past two years as “phenomenal” and doesn’t rule out that Roky may again write songs and play in public.