13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS LIVE
A Survey Of Existing Elevators Live Recordings 1966-68
photo by Bob Simmons by Patrick Lundborg
Previously published in Shindig magazine, 2008
While much of the 13th Floor Elevators’ popularity today rests upon their studio albums and 45s, this wasn’t always the case. Especially not in Texas, where the Elevators first became famous as an outstanding live act, with a combination of ferocious drive and dark mystique that was unlike anything seen before. When the Psychedelic Sounds LP was released in late ‘66, some fans in their hometown Austin felt it was missing a bit of the captivating energy they associated with the band. Even Tommy Hall, the band’s lyricist and intellectual nexus, stated in a 1989 interview that “our real show was live”.
Before getting on to the true live recordings, a word about the infamous, fake Live LP on International Artists. This odd concoction was put together by I A producer Fred Carroll in the Summer of ’68, after months of studio sessions with the band had failed to produce anything release-worthy. Pulled together from old outtakes, the Live album is decidedly non-live, despite Carroll’s attempts to create a concert atmosphere via dubbed-in crowd noise. Much venom has been thrown upon this record over the decades, but fake live LPs were common in the ‘60s – much more so than real live recordings – and as far as the actual music goes, it’s a very good album, including a couple of songs unavailable elsewhere. Any fan of the band needs it. ‘Nuff said.
Except for the three core members of vocalist Roky Erickson, guitarist Stacy Sutherland and jug player/lyricist Tommy Hall, the Elevators underwent several line-up changes during their 2.5-year life span. A commonly held opinion back then was that as a live act, none of the later configurations could match the earliest line-up, with bassist Benny Thurman. Thurman, who was a formally schooled violinist but not a “real” bass player, contributed to the strange and exciting aura around the group during the first half of 1966. According to Bill Miller of Cold Sun, who saw the early Elevators several times, “Benny was just as important as Roky” to the band.
At that time, the Elevators’ official recordings were limited to the “You’re Gonna Miss Me” 45 (released January ‘66), and except for some demo tracks, this first line-up was not preserved on any other studio reels. The three live tapes that exist from the Spring ‘66 are thus important documents of the band’s early days, and better yet, they confirm the praise heard from the original fans. The energy level is breath-taking, yet the band finds room to spread their psychedelic message via complex drug songs like “Roller Coaster” and “Fire Engine”.
photo by Bob Simmons
The earliest known live recording of the 13th Floor Elevators is the KAZZ-FM Tape. This was a live, 30-minute broadcast from a concert at the New Orleans club in Austin, Texas, March ’66. The Elevators had been the house band at the club during recent weeks, and this was to be their final performance before embarking on a tour of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. KAZZ-FM was one of Austin’s two radio stations, and unlike KNOW (who banned the Elevators) they had given “You’re Gonna Miss Me” plenty of air play. The KAZZ father and son team of Bill Josey Sr & Jr would continue to support local Austin rock music via their Sonobeat label in coming years. The KAZZ-FM tape features Bill Josey Jr, under his DJ alias “Rim Kelly”, giving enthustiastic intros to the songs, and occasionally ad libbing small talk while the band took their time tuning. Josey’s on-air description of the show as a “farewell performance” later caused confusion, as poorly informed writers and bootleggers assumed it meant the band was headed for the westcoast – which didn’t happen until five months later.
At least one hardcore Elevators fan I know rates the KAZZ-FM tape as the best live recording of the band in existence, and it’s easy to see why. The band is absolutely frantic, the crowd (possibly fuelled by the free LSD handed out by the group) is ecstatic and loud, and the compressed, somewhat overloaded nature of the recording becomes an advantage. Songs include “Roller Coaster”, “Monkey Island”, covers of two early Beatles numbers, and an absolutely blazing 7-minute version of “Gloria”. An edited version of the tape can be found on the Original Sounds and Demos Everywhere vinyl bootlegs from the late 80s, and the complete 30-minute version has gone around in tape trading circles. There are indications of two more KAZZ-FM broadcasts from the same era preserved on tape, but nothing has surfaced so far.
photo by Bob Simmons
Although the subsequent sojourn to Dallas/Fort Worth was generally unsuccessful for the band, they got to appear live twice on the local Sump’N Else TV Show. The audio portions of their appearances were preserved, and have been officially released on Fire In My Bones (LP) and Psychedelic Microdots, vol 2 (CD). Although the TV studio setting removes a bit of the live atmosphere, the Elevators blow through their shortened set lists with tight, high-energy performances. The March ’66 show includes a brief interview with Tommy Hall, who also delivers a long jug solo on “You Really Got Me”. The May ’66 appearance is even more interesting, featuring not less than six songs, among them unique items like Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” and a manic “Roller Coaster”, which has Sump N Else’s host exclaim “wow!”. Unfortunately, the transfer from original tapes, done in the mid-‘80s, caused several tracks to appear at too fast speed; some are off by as much as 10%. As good as the Elevators were, they weren’t quite capable of the shrill, inhuman tempo heard on “Fire Engine”, as an example.
The Elevators returned to Austin, and in the late Spring they hooked up with the Houston-based International Artists label. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” began to make waves outside Texas, which led to I A bringing in Lelan Rogers to help with national promotion. Only one live recording exists from the Summer ’66, and that is the La Maison Tape. Sourced from a live broadcast from the La Maison club in Houston, this 20-minute stereo tape first appeared on the Elevator Tracks album from 1987. Although it was an exciting period for the band, the show isn’t among their finest moments. The predominance of covers is disappointing, but the “Roller Coaster” version is one of the best. It was also around this time that the first line-up change occurred. Partly due to his wild, unpredictable lifestyle, Benny Thurman was replaced by the more placid Ronnie Leatherman, who was also considered a better bass player.
The new line-up toured California during the second half of ’66 and, at the height of their success, appeared twice on Dick Clark’s national TV shows. Evidence suggests that as a musical engine, the Elevators may never have been better than in the early days of their west coast stay. In his fanzine Mojo Navigator, a teenage Greg Shaw reported on seeing the band live at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, obviously impressed: “The most interesting group musically was the 13th Floor Elevators. They are a really freaky group. They look strange, they sound strange, and they are all good musicians, doing all original material. The lead singer, whose voice is truly odd, also plays lead guitar pretty well. The drummer is excellent. They have one guy who does nothing but boop-boop-boop with a jug. The songs they do are new and different.”
The Elevators never felt entirely at home in San Francisco, although fellow Texan Chet Helms offered them many chances to play at the Avalon. Compiled from those gigs, the Avalon ’66 Tape gives terrific proof of the band’s prowess. Ronnie Leatherman’s bass adds a steady, almost majestic power to newly added numbers like “Before You Accuse Me” and (arguably the high-point) “You Don’t Know”. Compared with the fire-breathing r’n’b drive of the Spring ’66 recordings, updated covers of “The Word” and “You Really Got Me” show the band moving towards a more mature, acid-rock sound. The tape shows, quite simply, a great 60s rock band at the peak of their powers.
All copies of the Avalon ’66 Tape seem to derive from the same source, a broadcast on the SF Bay Area KSAN radio station in late 1977. Listeners would record KSAN’s shows of archival 60s live music, and those tapes made their way to vinyl bootleggers. The first Avalon ’66 boot came out in Italy 1978, and many have followed since. Unfortunately, the most well-known of these, Live SF ’66 on Lysergic Records, has the worst sound quality of all. It was produced by well-known LA collector Dave Gibson, whose Moxie reissue label was infamous for its shifting audio quality. Later Avalon releases such as Flivver and Rocky’s Horror Show are superior to Lysergic’s weak, muffled sound. The best-sounding version may yet be to come, as the Elevators box-set currently in production will utilize a great-sounding tape copy of the old KSAN broadcast that surfaced recently. Incidentally, “Roller Coaster” was aired separately from the rest of the Avalon tape, and is missing from some of the bootlegs. A live recording of “Reverberation” from (probably) the same source tapes is also known to exist, but has never been released.
As a footnote to the Avalon ’66 Tape, there is known to exist another live tape from the west coast tour, from Fresno in inland California. The people in possession of this tape like to keep it to themselves, and are unwilling to divulge even track list info. Perhaps it will see the light of day some time.
Despite their commercial success, it was in California that problems began developing around the Elevators in general, and Roky Erickson in particular. After returning to Texas around Christmas, the band played a large number of gigs during early ‘67, but their performances were getting uneven and unpredictable.
Nothing illustrates this better than the notorious Houston Mustic Theatre Tape, from February ‘67. Through a twist of fate, this is the best documented concert in the entire Elevators annals. Apart from the professional live recording, there exists a poster, old ticket stubs, detailed comments from band members, and personal reminiscences from audience members. How unfortunate then, that the Elevators decided to drop more LSD than usual before the concert, and went on stage zonked out of their skulls. While the crowd was yelling and IA:s tape deck was rolling, lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland entered a profound hallucinatory stage, which he described years later as: “...Everybody turned into wolves, and I thought that our band was evil, because of some of the things we had advocated. And I was tryin' to escape the room, I didn't know what I was gonna do, but I was gonna get out of there. I didn't want anything to do with it, because everybody was turning into animals...”. While on stage, Sutherland entered a dissociated spiritual space wherein an angel gave him three “prophecies”, all of a negative nature. This vision would continue to haunt the guitarist, and informed some of the lyrics he later wrote for the band’s final LP, Bull Of The Woods.
On top of these heavy acid vibes, the revolving stage of the venue contributed to the musicians’ confusion. On the live tape, you can hear drummer John Ike Walton desperately trying to hold the gig together, while Roky forgets his lines or his vocal mic, Stacy’s guitar leads abruptly come and go, and the whole thing is pretty much out to lunch. As a freak document of a very freaky night, it has its moments, but for the Elevators legacy we would have been better off without it. To add insult to injury, when the recording was made available in the late ‘80s, the clueless people involved simply put it out with zero corrections of the raw mix, which means that it sounds even more bizarre than it had to. Furthermore, it was incorrectly listed as coming from La Maison, which didn’t even exist by early ’67. For the bold or curious, the concert can be found on Big Beat’s I’ve Seen Your Face Before – Live LP/CD, as well as the Magic Of The Pyramids bootleg CD. A chaotic post-concert jam with the Conqueroo from the same night has also been released.
Problems mounted within in the band, and in mid-‘67 the rhythm section was entirely overhauled – for a brief period, the Elevators didn’t even exist anymore – and “the two Dannys”, Galindo and Thomas, took over on bass and drums, respectively. The main project for this line-up was the Easter Everywhere album, which was successfully completed by October ‘67. The new line-up played a few stray gigs early on, before getting into a steady flow of work around the time of the album release in November.
Dan Galindo around the time of Easter Everywhere,
photo courtesy of Bob Galindo
The fragmentation of the band continued, and the concerts were getting increasingly erratic, as were the antics of both Roky and Tommy. Of the many dozens of gigs performed during ‘68 (Galindo having moved on), no recordings have surfaced. Rumors of an Easter Everywhere-era live tape with “Slip Inside This House” have circulated, but appear to be untrue. Although the final year of the 13th Floor Elevators was perhaps the most unusual of all, their days as an awe-inspiring live act were no more.
Rare, poor quality live pic of the "Easter" line-up
Photos by Bob Simmons used with kind permission
© Patrick Lundborg 2008-2014
13th Floor Elevators The Lama Workshop