The 13th Floor Elevators celebrated their 50th anniversary with a reunion show in Austin, Texas earlier this year.
You, of course, know about the 50-year celebration of another seminal American rock band, the Grateful Dead — with a trifecta of mega-concerts simulcast out of Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend.
The Dead may have had a longer run — and I say this as a huge fan, as regular readers know — but the Elevators were the first. They were the first psychedelic rock band, and arguably they made just as big an impact on popular music as their San Francisco counterparts.
The Elevators came out of Texas, which in the ’60s was a fairly repressive place, but they were in Austin, a university town, so they got some exposure to Eastern religion. Those are ingredients that are likely to produce some pretty weird music. While the Dead’s music eventually morphed into a panoramic reinvention of Americana, the Elevators’ short-lived career from 1965 to 1968 set a template for much of indie rock today. Their frenetic energy, acid-drenched guitar and genuinely strange melodic sensibility would find echoes in the late-’70s punk explosion, along with the angst, sonic experimentation and freak-folk leanings of the current indie-rock scene. I put them in a category with the Velvet Underground, Love and the MC5 — three other late ’60s bands that were mostly overlooked in their day, but reshaped the vocabulary of rock.
Music writer Parke Puterbaugh, who lives in Greensboro, changed my life when he exposed me to the 13th Floor Elevators. I was in my car on Wendover Avenue listening to his radio show, “Rock and Roll Study Hall,” on WQFS, the campus station at Guilford College when he played “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the Elevators breakout song from 1965. As Puterbaugh aptly noted, the song marks the transition from garage rock to psychedelia.
The opening chords bear the hallmarks of the early Rolling Stones and a rockabilly sensibility, but Roky Erickson’s feral howl is uncontained, far outside of the musical conventions of the time. Stacy Sutherland’s relentless, amp-turned-up-to-10 guitar playing is a blueprint for punk rock. Tommy Hall’s amplified jug — an instrument that sadly has not been replicated in rock — gives the music a siren-like, alien quality that made the band utterly unique. The lyrics hold a double meaning appropriate for the song’s role as a bridge from garage to psychedelia. At first listen, this could be just another angry teenage lament about unrequited romantic affections. Or it could be a declaration of mind-expanding independence from the drab world of conventional expectations.
“You’re gonna wake up one morning as the sun greets the dawn,” Erickson promises in the opening lyric. By the end, when he concludes, “I’m not coming home” and breaks into an orgasmic wail, you know that from this point forward things will never be the same.
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