Saturday, February 02, 2008

Book Review: Eye Mind: Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators by Paul Drummond

With a collective drug intake massive enough to knock out a Clydesdale, frequent harassment and several busts by police, in-fights, mentally fractured band members, one violent death, and one classic album, the story of the 13th Floor Elevators is a music journalist’s wet dream. What’s surprising is that it’s taken so many years after the band’s disintegration to finally get a biography that looks past the myth and provides a detailed account of the band. Paul Drummond’s Eye Mind: Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators is both an exhaustive study of the band’s story and how the band fit (or didn’t fit) into the 1960s musical landscape. Fans of the band or music history won’t be disappointed.

Drummond covers every aspect of the band, including the Elevators’ rise as one of Texas’ premier live acts, the brief national notoriety gained by the single “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” their failed attempts to break out on a national scale, and their record company’s shoddy management techniques. The band’s (primarily Hall’s) psychedelic philosophy of transcendence, drug regimens, and struggle against Texas’ police force and how these influenced their albums, live performances, daily lives, and relationships with each other are also addressed.

Central to the book are in-depth details about the band’s primary members: drummer John Ike, lyricist/jug player Tommy Hall, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, and vocalist/yelper Roky Erickson. While Erickson is probably the biggest draw for fans of the band, Drummond presents all the major and minor players in the Elevators’ twisted tale. Although Drummond is obviously a fan of the band, for the most part he doesn’t let his bias interfere with providing an objective account.

Tommy Hall, depending on one’s point of view, was either a certified genius or a misguided druggie with half-cooked ideas about LSD, the path to enlightenment, the meaning of life, and other HEAVY concepts, and how the Elevators’ music could be used as a conduit for communicating cosmic truths (what that term actually meant to the band is a convoluted mess).

This portrayal of Hall is often unflattering; the lyricist comes across as a pompous ass, a bully, and the worst kind of drug user. Convinced that LSD was central to a greater understanding of life (one story even recalls how Hall attempted to distribute acid to young schoolchildren), and filling his head with writings by philosophers whose names seriously need to buy a vowel, Hall insisted the band take acid prior to performing, in an attempt to convey the psychedelic experience to the audience. Drummond shows how this dogmatic insistence to play on LSD, coupled with Hall’s abrasive and conceited personality, led to numerous fights within the band, and more than one lousy live performance.

Of course, Roky Erickson remains the central figure throughout the band’s history. Either a cautionary tale about the dangers of consuming LSD like Mentos or a misunderstood left-of-center genius (or both), the singer’s tale is one of addiction, mental instability, and varying degrees of recovery. Drummond’s book traces Erickson’s life carefully, with a central question being when the singer’s mind cracked, what caused it, and whether Erickson either faked or exaggerated his mental illness.

What becomes clear is that at some point starting around 1967, Erickson’s behavior became increasingly erratic and bizarre. The singer would often get sidetracked and turn up at the wrong venue or not all, became increasingly paranoid, and claimed that he was receiving transmissions from Russians and Martians in his teeth. In one famous story from the 1980s, Erickson was discovered in his home with several TVs and radios turned to different stations at maximum volume; another time, he was arrested for driving zero miles an error. With symptoms that included traces of autism, schizophrenia, and the inability towards self control, it’s certainly hard to accept Erickson’s later claims that his mental illness was largely a ruse.

A number of causes for this mental decline are proposed. Erickson’s liberal use of LSD, often fed to him by Hall, clearly had its adverse effects, although the singer’s coddling by his religious mother and friends, the various chemicals he received at the sinisterly-named Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane, and Erickson’s sensitive personality cannot be ruled out either.

Despite a few relapses – by 1999 Erickson appeared to be completely helpless and lost man-child when he didn’t have a guitar in his hands, as shown in the You’re Gonna Miss Me documentary – he appears to have largely recovered. Some of his solo “Horror Rock” work almost rivals anything from the Elevators’ classic Psychedelic Sounds album, and Erickson’s also managed a few concert appearances in the last few years.

At its depressing worst, the Elevators’ story reads like a from-the-depths-of hell version of VH1’s Behind the Music. All of the clichés are there: regional fame and a failed attempt at national stardom, massive and naïve drug use, gross negligence from a record label, band squabbles, time spent in both prisons and mental institutions, failed reunion attempts, and tragic personal stories for the band’s members (especially in the case of Sutherland, who was accidentally shot to death by his wife in a drunken/drug-fueled argument). Yet despite the Elevators never achieving the attention in their heyday that should have, the band has been cited as an influence by bands such as Spacemen 3 and R.E.M. In some cases, specifically that of Roky Erickson, the band’s story is one of perseverance and survival.

Drummond’s book was meticulously researched and is deeply detailed. It’s the first definitive history of the Elevators and also serves as a nice study of 1960s psychedelic culture. With many new photos and interviews with the band and other key players in the Elevators’ scene, Drummond’s book is a great read for both fans of the band and fans of music history.

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