Thursday, September 30, 2010

13th Floor Elevators - Easter Everywhere

Any decent rock ‘n’ roll fanatic knows the story about Roky Erickson. They’ve heard the stories of his struggles with mental illness. They know the tale of his unjust incarceration(s). They understand that his legacy has been assured an honorable nod, thanks in large part by one of the only decent tribute compilations ever released (Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye) and the caliber of contributors on it.

Yet there is a good possibility that you only know Roky from only one song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from his band 13th Floor Elevators. And there is a good possibility that you only know that one song from the scene in High Fidelity when Laura leaves Rob and he cranks up the stereo, blaring that classic Elevators’ tune as she retrieves the last personal belongings from their apartment.

As good as that song is…and as wonderful as its source album is (1966’s The Psychedelic Sounds Of)…it isn’t the band’s defining moment. That moment would come with the second long-player, Easter Everywhere, an album that not only continues the 13th Floor Elevators road trip to mind expansion, it manages to send us the obligatory “Wish you were here!” postcard while the rest of us were still on the road trying to catch up.

Subdued, restrained, yet even more expansive than the aptly titled debut, Easter Everywhere shows the band mixing real emotion with the lysergic-fueled imagery. It’s still a mind-blowing listen, but not to the point where the band’s altered imaginations sound silly to the uninitiated. The straight and narrow can also enjoy the Elevators twists and turns through unchartered territories. It’s a communal affair that incorporates the band members themselves, a single mom with a maternal instinct that encouraged the member’s creativity, and the elder brother of Kenny Rodgers who managed to capture the unique results on magnetic tape.

This is important to remember when understanding Easter Everywhere. It is not, as some may suggest, the work of an individual with enormous talent and unfortunate circumstances. It’s the product of several people, some of which have back-stories that are almost as fabled as Erickson’s.

One of those members was Tommy Hall, a former chemical engineering major at the University of Texas. Thanks to an increasing drug intake and a growing resentment towards the intellectual establishment, Hall became so fixated on spreading his pharmaceutical gospel that he practically invented an instrument (the “electric jug”) and recruited a few local musicians to help with his lofty visions.
Since we’re clarifying Erickson’s role, let’s address Tommy Hall’s too. You notice the electric jug immediately on Easter Everywhere. The sound it produces is unmistakable and unique.

They’re also a sham.

Sources close to the band later revealed that Hall’s ceramic jug was merely a prop. The sounds being made were just noises made from his mouth with the jug providing minimal resonance and a distraction for people to focus on.

With that being said, they are intriguing sounds, heavily reverberated, occasionally eerie and profoundly child-like when you consider the manner in which they were created: An intelligent young man with little musical ability that became so hell-bent on playing an instrument…any instrument…that he effectively made one up while managing to make it an intricate part of the band’s sound. By some strange manner of coincidence, the 13th Floor Elevator is probably the only band in existence where an “electric jug” sounds positively perfect.

Phony instruments aside, Hall’s other two roles seemed to play a greater part in the band’s creative arsenal: chief poet/lyricist and dispenser of mind-altering substances. Of course, the two roles were inherently intertwined and, as in any great acid-casualty story, the creative peak resulting from such substances is relatively short lived. For listeners, Easter Everywhere blends together the perfect balance of cerebral calisthenics and acid eating excess.

It begins with “Slip Inside This House,” an eight-minute song/poem modeled after the same linear structure of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” It’s the band’s epic and it remains the greatest song they ever managed to produce.
Speaking of Bob, there’s also a spot-on version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” where Erickson’s phrasing sounds sweetly exasperated. It’s perhaps the best version of this song that you will ever hear.

But the real jewels of Easter Everywhere are in the originals. “Levitation” may be the album’s closet thing to a single. “Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)” takes a slow Texas soul groove for six minutes and provides the album with an uncommonly collected closer. And then there’s the prophetic “I Had To Tell You,” a song Roky co-wrote with Tommy Hall’s wife, Clementine. Clementine Hall entered into the Elevators world as a single mother with a few years of seniority on the rest of the members.

In addition to encouraging and praising the band’s creative direction, she occasionally participated in it. The band entrusted her with lyrics and, as is the case on “I Had To Tell You,” backing vocals. Their tender duet on this song is beautifully fragile and frighteningly prophetic. She penned the songs chorus, “If you feel I’d loose my spirit/Like some drunkard’s wasted wine/Don’t you even think about it/I’m doing fine,” while it could have easily serves as the departing words from Erickson himself. Shortly after the release of Easter Everywhere, Erickson met with legal turmoil and some suggest that it was Texas’ draconian methods in treating “drug abusers” that helped push Roky into the mental abyss. Whatever the cause of his subsequent breakdown, he never sounded more in touch with his talents than throughout Easter Everywhere.

As do the rest of the band. Their contributions are so vital and fluent that they even managed to carry on without Erickson for one more album. The third release, Bull Of The Woods was created amid Erickson’s legal and mental turmoil and Tommy Hall’s lack of initiative. But thanks to guitarist Stacy Sutherland’s leadership, Bull Of The Woods managed to be a credible finale for a band that began to crumble after ascending beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

As under-appreciated as Bull Of The Woods is, it’s Easter Everywhere that’s been even more criminally overlooked. The album has been name-checked by fans and critics alike, but even that lofty praise hasn’t prevented it from falling out of print for years on end and being subjected to limiting distribution.

Easter Everywhere is an album so good that it should always be offered an opportunity with prospective audiences, and now is the perfect time for this landmark to be resurrected and examined once more.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

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