A Gathering of Promises by Ben Graham
Zero Books, paperback. Out now.
Review by Jon Berry
A lifetime ago I found myself, a fresh-faced undergrad, in a Canterbury bedsit. It was one of those patchouli-tinted evenings and the usual suspects were on the music centre. Morrison. The Dead. Carlos. Frank. Beefheart. I don’t remember who put the Red Crayola cassette on, but I do remember the sense of exhilaration, and no little bafflement. It was a long way from Light My Fire, and I rather liked it.
I haven’t heard the Red Crayola since but the arrival of this book, courtesy of an old pal called Psychedelic Steve (and everyone should have a friend of that name), refreshed memories that weren’t too clear in the first place.
A Gathering of Promises – the battle for Texas’s Psychedelic Music, from the 13th Floor Elevators to the Black Angles and Beyond is my kind of book. It celebrates the obscure with a kind of detail known only to obsessives, and urges the reader to explore forgotten musical cul-de-sacs.
Graham is a Brighton-based music journalist, writer and poet, and the book’s tone is as thorough, analytical and engagingly-written as one might expect. It offers a history of the Texas-based acid rock/psychedelic scene from the early sixties to early seventies, focusing inevitably on Roky Erickson and the Elevators but pulling in others, both peripheral and significant. The author starts the story at the 2014 Austin Psych Festival, and then charts the scene that, half a century later, led to it. It’s a tale of experimentation, obviously, but also of fearlessness and recklessness and the victims and survivors of both.
Those more familiar than I will know already that the Texan psychedelic scene differed from the west-coast scene which grew in parallel. It was harder, edgier, borne from the tough lives of its people and the harshness of the peyote-strewn landscape in which it thrived. As Graham concedes, ‘Texans don’t do things by half measures. If they’re going to rock, they’re going to rock hard; if they’re going to drop acid, they might just drop enough acid to kill a buffalo’.
The book works because of its pace, and because Graham works hard to set the context in which the scene existed. Texans found psychedelia at a time of national turmoil, when long hair and the complex emergent counterculture met with frenzied resistance from political and Christian conservatives. The infamous severity of Texan law enforcement is evident throughout, and these inhibiting forces create the battle referred to in the book’s sub-title. A prior knowledge of the music referred to isn’t essential, and A Gathering of Promises works well as a socio-political and cultural portrait of sixties America, regardless of the reader’s familiarity with the Golden Dawn or Bubble Puppy.
It is only in the final chapter that Graham returns to the near-present. We learn of the influence of the Texan scene on the likes of Julian Cope, Henry Rollins, the Butthole Surfers and Primal Scream (who famously covered an Elevators track on Screamadelica, bringing it up to date for the MDMA generation). More poignantly, Graham offers a ‘where are they now?’ summary of the original scene’s protagonists. It serves both as an indictment of US mental health care and the horrors of electroshock therapy, and as a celebration of those who survived the battle. It’s torrid stuff.
That said, the reader will find joy both in the writing and the story; there are some gems here, sentences that would otherwise never have been assembled in any language. I’ll leave you with one of them:
‘The Red Crayola’s Sunday night set was memorable for Steve Cunningham playing a block of ice that was melting on to an amplified aluminium foil sheet’.
If I’d known that all those years ago in Canterbury, my precarious grasp of events that night might have been very different.