Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Jon Savage

15th December 2007

In which, as the year comes to it’s end, our friends and collaborators , look back and share their moments;

“I’m currently obsessed with Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”. I’ve had a taste for this kind of music ever since Paul Oliver put out his great “The Story of the Blues” comp in 1969. After listening to Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson, the British and American blues bands of the day didn’t seem quite so hot. Well they didn’t anyway but this confirmed it for me.

There’s been an explosion in the release of prewar material in recent years, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the recent Revenant comp, “American Primitives Vol II” and Old Hat’s “Good For What Ails You” for the really out-there, spooky stuff. Otherwise the fact that this stuff is well out of copyright has resulted in several labels specialising in detailed, well annotated reissues: Catfish and Proper to name but two.

I found this on a 4xCD set “The Classic Years: 1927-1940” on JSP Records. “Statesboro Blues” has been well known since the sixties, so much so that the Allman Brothers trampled all over it on “Live At the Fillmore West”. In contrast to their galumphing treatment, McTell’s original version is elusive, fast moving and complex. His voice is high, well matched to the 12 string overtones that dominate the sound: it could almost be a woman singing.

The whole feel is multiphrenic. The music shifts around and the lyrics are sampled from several other (female) artists: Sippie Wallace, Ivy Smith, Bessie Smith. As Michael Gray points out in his excellent biography, “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell”, many bluesmen were not, in fact, out of their time Luddites but up to date artists who celebrated the modern world.

So McTell is simultaneously singing about his family psychology, his yearning for the lover he had who treated him like a king, how pissed off he and all his extended family are to be stuck in nowheresville (in this case, Statesboro, Georgia), how hard it is to make the break, and how great it feels to be travelling on that ‘big 80’ out of Savannah, free, breaking right out of the 19th Century.

“Statesboro Blues” contains one of the greatest of all blues lines, echoed in Gray’s title: ‘reach in the corner mama and hand me my travelling shoes’. The whole song makes you want to travel back in time to see and feel what the hell was going in a world that could produce such a sound. Rarely has the excitement and insecurity of a society in deep flux been better caught in song.

It’s been a big year for 45’s around my house and one of my recent favourites is “The Orange Rooftop of Your Mind” by the Blue Things. Released on RCA in the US during December 1966, this is very much a single. The structure is taut and there’s a lot packed into 2’46”. It captures pop music on the cusp of mid sixties disci-pline and full on, balls to the wall post Revolver psychedelia.

The Blue Things were a folk rock group out of Kansas, who re-leased a number of good 45’s and one well regarded lp in mid 1966 before taking the Beatles/ Yardbirds pills and psyching up an acoustic number of singer and leader Val Stecklein’s, originally called “Coney Island Of Your Mind” after the famous Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem that features in the lyrics.

The lyrical theme is our old friend false consciousness. Well, it never goes away, does it? and the dense allusions (‘I heard them say the dogs are coming/ Once again they’re saying blame the saviour’) are sonically backed up by high pitched fuzz guitar, McCart-ney-style pumping bass, snake-charmer organ, wild cross channel fades and deep drum crashes. It’s all too much.

The flip is called “One Hour Cleaner” and is even more reminscent of “Revolver”. Think of a mix of “Taxman” and “Dr.Robert” with added effects (a backwards count in, weird electronic bleeps) and frayed, end of the tether vocals. This nightmare trip to an exploitative psychologist/ druggist was echoed in real life: after this single, an exhausted Stecklein quit the group.

You can hear this extraordinary compression on other 45’s from 1966: the Yardbirds’ “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”, Love’s “7 & 7 Is”, the Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby Standing in The Shadow”, and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”. It’s this tension between the weight of emotions and techniques and the pop discipline of the single that give them their extraordinary power.

Fast forward one year to my final choice: “Easter Everywhere”. I’ve been transfixed by Paul Drummond’s biography, eight years in the making: “Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erikson and the 13th Floor Elevators, The Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound”. The story of how these good old boys became the psychedelic vanguard in near total isolation is just extraordinary.

The Elevators formed out of two local Austin groups, the Lingsmen and the Spades in late 1965, snake year. But they were born under a bad sign: within weeks of forming and recording their classic ver-sion of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” they had attracted the attentions of the local police: the first of many busts and near busts that followed the band over the next few years.

From the police’s point of view, their attentions were understandable. The Elevators were explicit in their acid evangelism. They aimed to play most of their shows on LSD, while the band’s jug player and spiritual leader Tommy Hall gave the keys to the quest on the sleeve notes to their classic first album, “The Psychedelic Sounds Of….”: ‘recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view.’

While controlling and programming the eighteen year old Roky Erickson, Tommy Hall also dealt pot and acid, and one of the fascinating things about this book is that you can see the journey from revelation to criminal duplicity etched in his face and body posture as the photos go from 1966 to 1967 and 1968, during which time the drug culture also turned from transcendence to oblivion.

The group’s drug consumption was Herculean, and their already fragile state of mind was not aided by the extremely repressive nature of Texas in the late sixties (producer Lelan Rogers had to routinely vacuum their van for seeds and stems before the police did), by the ineptitude of their record company, International Artists, and by the constant line-up changes that marked their brief life.

In all the chaos, it’s amazing that “Easter Everywhere” is such a coherent higher key statement. If “Psychedelic Sounds…” was a tough, garage record with psych overtons, their second album – recorded in September 1967 – was pulled back, subtler. The cover is just great, a charm to drive away the bad vibes clustering around the group: a blazing Tantric sun on a background of gold leaf, the colour of the divine.

There’s a couple of headlong, ecstatic rockers that really take the top of your head off if you play them LOUD: “She Lives (In A Time of Her Own)” and “Levitation”. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland reinforces his status as the soul of the group with another rocker, “Nobody To Love”, while Erikson duets with Hall’s wife Clementine on the achingly pretty “I Had To Tell You” – a necessary pause of tenderness in the onrush of words and impressions.

The group’s power really becomes apparent on “Earthquake”, a deep and dirty rollercoaster of tension and release. But it’s the opener, “Slip Inside This House” that is the album’s centrepiece: ten incredibly dense verses that summarize the esoterica of several world religions interspliced with killer choruses, great, tough breaks, and a lucidly transcendent guitar solo. As the track reaches eight minutes, it fades into a deep, cthtonic rumble.

lyrics are wild: ‘Four and twenty birds of Maya/ Baked into an atom you/ Polarized into existence/Magnet heart from red and blue’. Or this final verse: ‘One-eyed men aren’t really reigning/ They just march in place until/ Two-eyed men with mystery training/ Finally feel the power fill/ Three-eyed men are not complaining/ They can yoyo where they WILL/ They slip inside this house as You pass by/ Don’t pass it by’.

And then consider Hall’s explanation: ‘one-eyed men are people who are in power, who are forced to just manage the thing going forward, without an awareness of what they are doing….what they’re doing is just automatic. Two-eyed men are just ordinary people. It’s like the last possible chance that the people have to be able to take over, because material has completely (gained control)…it’s a culture war’.

This was inflammatory stuff but the authorities needn’t have worried, as the group were scooting downhill fast. By the time the re-cord was released six months later, the 13th Floor Elevators were in serious disarray. The vision of an LSD based revolution was unrealistic and unsustainable, as speed and smack came in and singer Roky Erickson buckled under the pressures of being a psychedelic figurehead.

Their subsequent fate is both dramatic and sad: all the three major players, Stacy Sutherland, Tommy Hall and Erickson were incar-cerated in the late sixties on drugs charges. Sutherland kicked heroin but turned to alcohol before being shot by his wife in 1978. Tommy Hall was near destitute for several years and now lives in one room in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

The Elevators were pioneers. They went right out there without hesitation and they paid the price. But with time their story has turned around from despair to hope. After many years of mental illness – including a horrific spell at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane – Roky Erickson is now fully functioning and regularly playing live. For updates, go to

Unlike many first wave San Franciscan bands, the Elevators came out of Texas and so were programmed to rock: their roots were in surf, the Who, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, James Brown, and Blind Willie McTell and rather than folk. They had an earthiness and an attack to their music that made them cult favourites in the punk period and that makes their psychedelic sermons all the more powerful today.

Their small body of work has an existential severity and has become recognised as the ultimate psychedelic catalogue with their second album as their zenith. I bought “Easter Everywhere” when I was 18 and it terrified me at the same time as it drew me in because it was so absolute: there was no press, no context, just the weird, almost homemade cover and the challenging music. It still astounds me thirty-five years later”.