John Ike Walton, original member of the 13th Floor Elevators, still lives in the hill country and still plays music. A portrait of Walton in his Elevator days hangs on the wall, and the iconic Elevator logo graces his bass drum. Photo by Phil Houseal
International Artists is releasing the 10-disc "Sign of The 3 Eyed Men" reissue of all the Elevators songs, remastered and remixed by the band's original engineer and producer. Available at www.internationalartistsrecords.com.
Still on the 13th Floor
by Phil Houseal
Unless you were growing up in south Texas in the late 1960s, you might have missed the 13th Floor Elevators.
Until the day John Ike Walton walked in and handed me the video "You're Gonna Miss Me."
I was amazed to learn that a bunch of plain-talking boys from the Texas hill country created the seminal sound for a generation of rock and roll bands.
It takes a book to recount the history of the band (and one has been written - "Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators" by Paul Drummond). But in a capsule, the 13th Floor Elevators started in Kerrville as The Lingsmen in 1965. In addition to Walton on drums, the band included fellow Kerrville resident Ronnie Leatherman on bass, and Stacy Sutherland on guitar. They added singer/songwriter Roky Erickson, along with their signature "electric jug" player Tommy Hall, and became 13th Floor Elevators.
Within months after forming, the Elevators had a Billboard chart hit ("You're Gonna Miss Me") and went on a west coast tour. They played The Avalon and The Fillmore. Among their followers were members and future members of the Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, Moby Grape, and ZZ Top.
Walton and his wife Alice graciously invited me to spend an afternoon at their Hill Country hideaway (in my next column I will write about their music instrument business).
Walton has a philosophical take on the band's musical influence. "Our music was not their inspiration since those other bands don't sound like us," he explained. "No, our success drove them - the fact we were out of Texas and we were the first Texas band to play American Bandstand. We were the spark that kept them going."
(It was on Bandstand that Hall famously replied to Dick Clark's query as to who was head man of the group, with, "Well, we're all heads." Cut to commercial.)
Fredericksburg native Jimmy Reichenau considers himself the band's biggest fan. Too young to hear them live in 1966, he remembers seeing the Elevators on American Bandstand and listening to his sister's records.
"When I heard them on record I flipped out," he said, the excitement still evident in his voice. "Because nobody ever played anything like that. I was amazed at their talent. Then there was that whole psychedelic sound."
The Elevators coined the term "psychedelic rock" and it is not surprising. While Walton and Leatherman disavowed the drug use, drugs did figure highly in the Elevators approach to music. Others in the band didn't play a gig without tripping on a cocktail of acid, speed, grass, and who knows what else. That intense use - along with the usual tragic elements of early rock bands - bad deals with record companies and squabbles among members - led to a brilliant but brief time in the spotlight. Walton and Leatherman left the band in July 1967, and the Elevators disbanded when Roky Erickson committed himself to a mental hospital in 1969.
Forty years on, the Elevators continue to influence artists and are being rediscovered by a new generation. Walton recently went into a music store, where a 30-year-old clerk noticed his 13th Floor Elevators T-shirt. "Hey, I've heard of you guys," the young man said, then asked Walton, "Weren't you before Emerson, Lake, and Palmer?"
Walton laughed. "Heck, we were before dirt."
Since leaving the Elevators, Walton has continued to play music, drumming with Roger Miller, Doug Kershaw, and Ray Price. He works as a carpenter, teaches guitar and banjo, and builds and sells kalimbas and African drums. Walton recently started performing Elevators classics with the John Ike Walton Revival (they will appear at Ruta Maya in Austin this Friday).
Fan Reichenau has built a relationship with Walton, and still believes in the magic of the Elevators.
"There are good people, great people, and gifted people," said Reichenau, who once booked the Elevators into the Fredericksburg VFW Hall ("George Strait used to come hear us there," Walton remembered, "back when he had long hair."). "Those guys were gifted. Like a lot of people in the world, they should be millionaires. Luck didn't happen; they self-destructed. But I think their music is awesome."
So how do we reconcile where we are compared to where we might have been? Would any of us have done anything differently than John Ike Walton did?
"You just went with what you thought you should do at the time," Walton said in his plainspoken manner. "LSD has been described as a drug that puts people on a quest for introspection. You are supposed to arrive at a place where you have a grip on everything. I still haven't figured all this out."
"I'm still on the 13th floor."