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A Beautiful Mind

A spate of tribute shows salutes a healthier Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators

No band was cooler than the 13th Floor Elevators. -- Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Screw You, We're from Texas"

Credited with being the first band ever to use the word "psychedelic" to describe its music, the 13th Floor Elevators still have a revered place in Texas music history. While the band hasn't played since a reunion gig in Austin in 1984, the Elevators' music will live again May 9 and 10 at Galveston's Old Quarter Cafe.

Despite the fact that the band was active for less than three years, the Elevators are an integral part of '60s lore and legend. They were the first "underground" band to have a Billboard Top 100 hit ("You're Gonna Miss Me" reached No. 56 in 1966 and recently resurfaced on the High Fidelitysoundtrack), and they had a significant impact on the San Francisco psychedelic music scene. In fact, contemporaries such as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead -- who would go on to much more visible and commercial success -- didn't want to follow the Elevators onstage. Influenced by Little Richard, James Brown, Buddy Holly and the blues greats, Elevators songs had tight structures, memorable hooks, heaps of rock attitude and a mainliner energy level that separated them from other "hippie" bands.

Although they worked out of Austin, except for a few months in 1966 when they went to San Francisco to gig and cool off after brushes with the law, there are Houston ties throughout the Elevators story. Signed to Houston's International Artists label, the band recorded its second and arguably best studio album, Easter Everywhere, at Walt Andrus Studios in 1967. The engineer was Frank Davis, the curator of the recently dismantled Hyde Park Miniature Museum, and the producer was International Artists honcho Lelan Rogers (brother of Kenny), who lived in La Porte. Notable Houston psychedelic-era bands like Fever Tree and the Moving Sidewalks (which featured Billy Gibbons on guitar and Lanier Grieg on keyboards) took their cues from the Elevators and were part of a psychedelic scene that revolved around clubs like The Cellar on Market Square and the hippie landmark Love Street Light Circus at Allen's Landing. A live album that captured the band at its performing pinnacle was recorded at La Maison in 1967. Interviews with local bands of that time reveal that the Elevators even had a house on Old Galveston Road, although when Roky Erickson was asked about living in Houston by a British interviewer he said he only "hung out there." This is a typical example of the myth and misinformation surrounding the band.

The driving force behind the Old Quarter tribute shows is Sumner Erickson, Roky's younger brother. Sumner is the principal tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony, but he also plays guitar and will stand in for his mentally ill older brother at the Galveston gigs. The ensemble also includes former Elevator Ronnie Leatherwood on bass, and guitarist Cam King and drummer Freddie Krc of the Shakin' Apostles. Krc and King were members of the Explosives, an early Austin punk band that often backed Roky Erickson in the early '80s and recorded several albums with him. Greg Forest will play the electric jug, the instrument that gave the Elevators their distinctive sound.

According to Sumner, who has legal guardianship of his brother, "all the money from merchandise we sell goes to Roky's trust fund." Both Galveston shows will offer a silent auction of posters autographed by Roky Erickson.

Sumner has set a goal of $1 million for the trust, which is designed not only to support Roky financially but to ensure he receives proper recognition for his music. Roky Erickson was repeatedly victimized by unscrupulous managers, associates and record companies when he was recording. Even today bootleggers and unofficial Web sites continue to use his name and likeness to sell unauthorized albums and merchandise (the official site is rokyerickson.net). Austin attorney Rick Triplett's law firm is negotiating on behalf of the trust to regain control of Roky's publishing and recordings.

"We've finally managed to arrange things so that Roky's needs are met," says Sumner.

Even in the context of an industry steeped in sordidness, corruption and tragedy, Roky Erickson's troubles take on Job-like qualities. Obviously, the Elevators were proponents of the mind-expanding qualities of psychedelic drugs, and that made them highly visible targets for law enforcement in the days when the penalty for possession of one joint could be 20 years. Busted for felony marijuana possession in Austin in 1969, Roky Erickson took the advice of his attorneys and pleaded insanity to avoid imprisonment in Huntsville. Sentenced to a five-year term at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, he was treated with Thorazine, electroshock and experimental drugs. When released in 1972 after a court battle, he suffered from schizophrenia. Although he resumed recording and performing intermittently, he took a severe turn for the worse in 1985. By the mid-'90s his health was wrecked and he was living as a recluse, surviving on a $200 monthly social security check.

When Sumner was appointed his brother's guardian in June 2001, he took Roky to live with him in Pittsburgh, where he arranged medical and psychiatric treatment. The past two years have seen significant improvement in Roky, reversing a 15-year downward spiral. When he was well enough to return to Austin in July 2002, the brothers left Pittsburgh on Roky's birthday, detouring to Cleveland to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sumner called the hall's curatorial director and informed him that Roky would be touring the museum.

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