The 13th Floor Elevators is equal parts rock and roll icon and rock and roll cautionary tale: the band, which formed in Austin in 1965, was a very early pioneer of psychedelic rock (indeed, it coined the term), and its music pushed the boundaries of the blues-rock that bands like the Yardbirds played into territory that was both harder-edged and further-out. Everyone from Led Zeppelin to R.E.M. to ZZ Top has cited the band’s influence (and covered its songs). Janis Joplin, after opening for the Elevators at a show, considered joining the group before moving to San Francisco and forming Big Brother and the Holding Company.
But by 1969 things were finished: singer and guitarist Roky Erickson had pleaded guilty by reason of insanity to possession of marijuana in order to avoid a ten-year jail term and would spend several years institutionalized and receiving electroconvulsive therapy.
Because Roky had a habit of escaping minimum-security joints, he was sent to Rusk State Hospital, a facility that housed the criminally insane in East Texas. After several years of gobbling massive amounts of LSD, speed, and any other drugs someone might offer, he was given shock treatment and massive amounts of Thorazine, a drug used to sedate psychotics. Roky later told drummer Freddie Krc how terribly he was treated: “I was in there with people who’d chopped up people with a butcher knife, and they treated me worse because I had long hair.”
The rest of the band fell apart as Erickson left. Co-founding guitarist and songwriter Stacy Sutherland was arrested on drug charges of his own and was later shot and killed by his wife, in 1978. Primary lyricist Tommy Hall spent decades on what he described to the Austin Chronicle as “quasi material abstraction” as part of a “journey of understanding the mathematical expressions of the universe.”
But the past, as they say, is prologue. Erickson began to recover from decades of over-medication in the mid-2000’s and returned to music full-time, playing live, touring, and releasing an album of new material with Austin’s Okkervil River as his backing band in 2010.
In 2008 another successful Austin band—the Black Angels—backed Erickson for a tour that saw him play 13th Floor Elevators material again. And the Angels are also responsible for one of the more surprising second acts in rock history: at Austin’s Levitation Festival in May (formerly the Austin Psych Fest), of which Black Angels members Christian Bland and Alex Maas are organizers, the 13th Floor Elevators will reunite as a four-piece for its first show since 1968.
“Having the 13th Floor Elevators on the festival lineup is just something we hadn’t even dared dream about,” Levitation co-founder and booker Rob Fitzpatrick said in a press release, and it’s not hard to see why not. Forty-seven years is a past that seems all but buried.
But in addition to Erickson, other members of the 13th Floor Elevators remained active in music in Central Texas over the years. Original drummer John Ike Walton and bassist Ronnie Leatherman both lived in Kerrville, at least as of 2004, when the Austin Chronicle’s Margaret Moser wrote a “where are they now” series about the members’ current activities. Both members, indeed, played occasionally with an Elevators tribute band and had been involved in the Kerrville folk and country scenes. (Walton also told Moser not to print his phone number. “People will just call me and ask about Roky.”)
With that in mind, even with the nearly five-decade gap, a 13th Floor Elevators reunion seems almost inevitable in retrospect—the surviving members of the band still live in the same area and are still interested in the seminal music they made fifty years ago. So, too, are thousands who will be trekking to Austin from around the world to see a once-in-a-lifetime reunion of a band long left for dead.
Yui Mok/PA URN:11121346 (Press Association via AP Images)