back in 1990 a compilation came out called where the pyramid meets the eye, featuring alt rockers like primal scream, REM, and the jesus and mary chain, joined by exalted beard rockers zz top and roots rock dude extraordinaire t-bone burnett. the nexus: roky erickson and the 13th floor elevators.
1990 was something of a low point for roky. a full blown unmedicated schizophrenic mess, in 1989 he was arrested for mail theft, after he was discovered to have taken his neighbors’ mail and taped it to his walls, ala beautiful mind. the documentary about roky, you’re gonna miss me [named after probably the most well known 13th floor elevator song], features some of his more bizarre behavior, which included turning on all electrical devices to create a cacophony of white noise.
having been all of three years old when the 13th floor elevators disbanded in 1969, i did not see them play. like many in the pre-internet world, i heard of them when bands i liked and listened to name-dropped and covered them. this was a lot like the velvet underground, who were mentioned as an influence by every self respecting cool band strictly on the basis that their records were impossible to find an lou reed a junkie asshole who sang about trannys. i didn’t know their drummer was a girl for decades.
but back to the 13th floor elevators and roky erikson. i saw roky this week, at the el rey. his backing band was an assemblage of youngish austin musicians. i didn’t care for them when they played as themselves as the opening band. too social distortionesque and too many pork pie hats too many tattoos and i know exactly what that beer baby in the black wifebeater is all about. but sans their lead singer and plus roky, they did a good job steadying roky and hand holding him through a long set of his solo songs and a few old favorites from the 13th floor elevators.
this was the first time i’d seen roky. usually i’m loathe to see these reunion / old timer type shows because it just seems like you’re going just in case they drop dead so you can say you saw them before they dropped dead lest you regret forever that you sat home and watched tv instead of ever seeing Famous Influential Artist Way Past Their Prime. so yes i saw fellow austin schizophrenic daniel johnston at the music box a few years ago. i will forever remember and hold dear when i saw arthur lee and love at sunset junction 2004, when he opened with the legendary shout-out “it’s great to be back in san francisco!” lee was, in fact, just a few miles from his los angeles home, but we can forgive his confusion given that he had leukemia.
obviously i hope roky lives many more years. he did actually put on a good show and sounded in good form, although there were long stretches when he looked utterly confused to be standing in front of an audience, like he thought he was sitting at home on his couch and suddenly opened his eyes and saw that really he was on stage in front of 2000 people. perhaps we were just a dream. maybe if he turned around and turned back, we would go away. no, we were still there.
i really wanted to take pictures of the audience more than anything but most people — especially and ironically those dressed the most provocatively — take offense at that kind of thing. the 16 year old girl with the green mohawk and the subhumans jacket. the old hippy guys with long steel grey hair and comfortable shoes. the intellectual artiste guy with the round glasses early dylan hair and scarf. the psychedelic hair metal band with father guido sarduchi hats and waxed mustaches. the guy with the half shaved head black eye makeup docs and a CHEETAH CHROME MOTHERFUCKER moto jacket (you DO know who cheetah chrome is, do you not? she asked sotto voce). young college girls in flowing skirts hippy dancing. a guy in a judas priest jacket. and me.
what was notably and blessedly (mostly) lacking were the lame filler types you sadly see at any more popular and bigger show (which is why i tend to avoid them). the people who are three degrees+ removed who heard one song from someone on a mixed tape making the rounds and dragged their sorority sisters out to hang with the hipsters. gah! go away! bands like phish were made for you.
roky’s crowd was probably the most eclectic i’d seen in next to forever. i was shocked and amazed that the cheetah chrome guy didn’t pop the hippy dancers but the crowd was good natured and totally enthralled by roky, even when he forgot lyrics and looked to his backup band for guidance. he was a dear old man, looking a lot like santa’s younger brother with a sweet gibson hollowbody.
so what is it that drew punks and hippies and cool kids and the creepy guy who claimed to have once played acoustic guitar with dimebag darrell to roky’s show? what’s the connection?
personally i don’t think the 13th floor elevators and roky have gotten nearly the mainstream recognition they deserve. they’re like what if pink floyd had disbanded after syd lost it and their only albums were piper at the gates of dawn and saucerful of secrets? would anyone other than a handful of knowledgeable music lovers know who they were? would they be cited as highly influential but never commercially successful? probably. and the parallels (and distinctions) are significant and obvious. both bands were at the forefront of their respective psychedelic movements, led by charismatic singers who had serious drug problems and suffered from mental illness (and i’m not going to comment on whether one lead to the other because that would be speculation although i note for the record that cats can carry parasites which also cause schizophrenia, so there.). one band carried on, becoming wildly successful and influential. the other didn’t. both singers lapsed into long degenerative periods with brief bursts of creativity of varied worth and importance. roky is alive. syd isn’t. 13th floor elevators have never done a reunion. pink floyd have, repeatedly. parenthetically, i saw a pink floyd reunion in maybe 1987 in chicago. when they brought the big flying pig out i said i felt crazy and alienated. i was never a big pink floyd fan back then, as they were tainted by their popularity and the fact that every douchetard loved them.
i doubt that the 13th floor elevators or roky will ever get the recognition and credit they deserve which is unfortunate, as their influence is astoundingly widespread. they’re credited with inspiring the beatles shift from pop to psychedelia. bands as diverse and important (well, to me, anyway) as television, primal scream, the jesus and mary chain and spacemen 3 have covered their songs. the music is psychedelic, hard rocking, entrancing and even has strains of olde schoole roots rock at times. and the electric jug? mind blowing.
you are right, roky. we are going to miss you.