The Ups and (Mostly) Downs of the 13th Floor Elevators

13th Floor Elevators

Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center conducts research on deceased NFL players’ brains to examine the impact of the thousands of hits incurred on them during the athletes’ careers. Should the Center ever do research on the impact of hundreds of acid hits on rock stars’ brains, it should contact Tommy Hall of the 13th Floor Elevators and ask if he’d donate his gray matter so the Center could examine one acid-stained cerebellum.

The greatest (and only) electric stoneware jug player in rock, even talked his bandmates into taking a mind-trip with him whenever they played live, a practice he called “play the acid”—giving a new meaning to “acid rock.”

Tommy confessed: “Everything I wrote was inspired through my taking LSD. I invented the electric jug out of my desire to find a place onstage with this group.”

But despite the short-lived band (its original members appeared only on its first two albums) being drenched in acid, it didn’t stop them and their lead singer, Roky Erickson, from being an influence.  R.E.M.’s guitarist, Peter Buck, said that his group’s name stood for “Roky Erickson’s Music.” Other admirers, like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Lucinda Williams sang Roky’s praises by singing on the 2021 album May The Circle Remain Unbroken: A Tribute to Roky Erickson.

The story of Roky and his fellow Texans is one long strange and sad trip, as documented in the fantastic 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. It details how Roky was subjected to constant harassment by Texas lawmen who didn’t appreciate the counterculturist. After he was busted for possessing one joint (and to avoid a ten-year stint in prison), Roky pleaded insanity and instead spent three years in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Austin, TX. While in the joint, Roky had a steady diet of Thorazine and electroshock therapy as “treatment” which only turned him into a broken-down man. He was later arrested for mail fraud because he stole his neighbors’ mail and nailed it all to his wall. His overly-religious mother, Evelyn, believing that praying was the answer to her son’s mental problems, convinced Roky to stop taking any medication. This resulted in Roky not caring for his well-being or for his teeth. An abscess in his mouth nearly caused an infection in his brain and caused a deep rift in the Erickson family. The singer’s younger brother, Sumner, took his mother to court and became his big brother’s legal guardian. Roky had been living in poverty and in government housing where he turned on radios, TVs, and police scanners to block out the voices he heard blaring in his head.  After his brother’s intervention, he slowly found himself mentally, physically, and even financially in a better place, thanks to a successful lawsuit to secure back-catalog royalties.

But years before admirer/rocker Henry Rollins paid for the singer’s dentures, Roky was a 19-year-old with a voice as wild as his group that saw their single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” reach #55 in the charts. It became their commercial zenith as they rapidly became a collective acid casualty. Drummer John Ike Walton recalled: “It got so bad, Roky wouldn’t even sing. He would just sit there with his back to the audience and his amplifiers squealing. He forgot that he was our lead singer.”

And the band may well have just been a one (barely a) hit wonder if not for Patti Smith Band’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, who included their single on his 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968. It was a tune that contained what Kaye called, “The best white screams. They’re on a par with Screaming Jay Hawkins.” Roky’s blood-curdling bellowing, which influenced his fellow Texan, Janis Joplin, sounded as if he foresaw what life had in store for two of his bandmates.

After the Elevators flamed out, John Ike never found his footing in the music business or in life. In Eye Mind, a biography of the band, author Paul Drummond wrote that John has been treated with lithium for years, suffers from bouts of depression, and attends a Pentecostal church where he speaks in tongues. Then again, the paltry paychecks he received for his Elevators’ work is a solid reason to be saddened. John noted: I was on three of the albums, about 23 songs and I’ve gotten a total of about $3,500. Our label (International Artists) told us your royalties have not exceeded your session costs.”

The lack of lucre and an abundance of drugs and drink was the downfall of guitarist, Stacy Sutherland who should have a plaque in the R&R Hall of Fame stating “Most Drug Busts for a Guitarist” (36). After a seven-month prison stint, Stacy married Ann Elizabeth “Bunni” Bunnell an “exotic dancer” who was known as Bunni when she danced at the “Boobie Rock” in Houston. After Stacy drunkenly threatened Bunni’s teenage son with violence the couple engaged in a heated argument, resulting in a smoking .22 rifle in Bunni’s hands.

Stacy’s death at the age of 33 on August 24, 1978, squelched any chance of a reunion tour or for the band to explain the meaning of a joke to Dick Clark. On the group’s lone appearance on American Bandstand in 1966 to promote “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a clueless Dick Clark asked Tommy Hall, “Who is the head man here?” Hall then wisecracked: “We’re all heads.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Roky Erickson, 2008 (Ron Baker via Wikimedia Commons)

PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…

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Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

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