We Got Levitation: The 13th Floor Elevators Reunite for the First Time in 45 Years
The legends returned, but 45 years is a very, very long time.
Photos by Steven Ruud
A cab. The BQE during rush hour. A plane. A cab at 1:30AM. An uber. This is the path I took from New York City to Austin, Texas to see the reunion of The 13th Floor Elevators and their first show in 45 years with Roky Erickson, bassist Ronnie Leatherman, drummer John Ike Walton and, possibly the most shocking, lyricist and electric jug player Tommy Hall. And I wasn’t alone; in my short time on site at the festival, I met fans from Australia, the UK, and all across the United States who had taken similar, and probably way more involved, treks for the exact same reason. The impossible was about to happen and if you’ve ever been a fan, you weren’t going to miss it.
The gig, which marked the band’s golden anniversary, was to play a primo slot at the annual Levitation festival, formerly known as Austin Psych Fest. Centered around music of a psychedelic bent and expertly curated to include many of today’s rock favorites, names like the Flaming Lips, Primal Scream, Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, and more—much of the lineup has taken influence from the legendary band, whether directly or indirectly. Even the festival itself takes its name from “I've Got Levitation,” a 13th Floor Elevators song from their 1969 LP Easter Everywhere. The 13th Floor Elevators are legends in Austin and to those in the know, though not necessarily a household name like some of their followers or peers.
There was a fever pitch by the time The 13th Floor Elevators hit the stage after 10 PM on the closing day of the festival. The set started out—to put it lightly—very, very rough. The jug effects were out of time and high in the mix. Walton struggled to lock in with his bandmates. Roky Erickson seemed to be out of the present and in outer worlds documented thoroughly in You’re Gonna Miss Me. But by the middle of the set, the band had loosened up and hit more of a groove, shaking some of what must have been decades of pent-up nerves. The 13th Floor Elevators made it through their hour of stage time, but not without showing their time away and loss of muscle memory.
But how could it possibly have been truly great? Logically, why would we think that a band that has not been in existence in 45 years—with some of its membership moving away from music—still have the magic that powered those fantastic records? And even if it was great, could it ever live up to the expectations of decades of cult worship? Emotion always overtakes reason in these scenarios; we want the myth to be fact, especially in the case of a band like The 13th Floor Elevators who never truly got their due and deserve to be discussed in the greater canon of classic rock.
Realistically, it was more than a tough feat. Lyricist Tommy Hall has not played music since leaving the Elevators and spent most of the past four decades pursuing “intellectual enlightenment through acid.” Ronnie Leatherman and John Ike Walton pursued work outside of the recording industry, keeping active by playing in various local bands but nothing of the magnitude of their Levitation appearance. And after what seemed like strong performances in his 2006 return and for several years following, Roky Erickson’s performance and stage presence has become more and more detached, possibly due to his life long battle with mental illness. These men, and another live guitarist, form the pieces of the Elevators 2015, and reportedly met for a couple weeks of tense practices with Tommy Hall only joining the band in the days leading up to the festival. In all that time away, the members had not communicated with one another for several years if not decades. Music is a conversation and feel for your fellow bandmate, and The 13th Floor Elevators were virtual strangers to each other. The cracks in the dam were bound to trickle towards a gush.
The motivation for the reunion is only known to the band and their inner circle. What is known is that in the past Roky Erickson has shied away from songs written by Tommy Hall on the live stage. The band, long a cautionary tale about how not to deal with record labels, does not see residuals from their classic LPs or the countless boxsets, reissues, and repackaging. At the same time, it seems like a bit too much trouble to reunite for a single appearance, though word from several sources have stated emphatically that Levitation would be due to tension among the members. The only logical reason would be for the fans and to cement the past which, based on the outcome, was not a success.
While the Elevators reunion scenario is different than most, it shares a very key ingredient with the return of similar high profile bands. The day before at Levitation, I caught return of the legendary UK band The Jesus and Mary Chain, who were billed as performing the classic Psycho Candy in full. What made that LP so great was the band’s approach, a pop record masked in darkness and feedback, with songs that were alternately sweet and menacing. The first part of their set was dedicated to some of the hits that followed Psycho Candy, but once Jesus and Mary Chain launched into the LP in full it was clear that the band that wrote the legendary debut did not exist anymore. Gone were squalls of noise, deafening volume, and thick distortion, and they'd been replaced by cleaner tones and exacting pop sensibility.
I shared a cab with four friends from the festival to my hotel, where we got into a heated discussion about the Elevators set. The agreement was that it was hard to watch but worth ultimately worth seeing. My critical mind began to pick apart elements of the live set to the rest of the car, to which I was met with some fervent dissension. I was a blasphemer, a heretic.
“But those records changed my life!”
Mine too, and maybe we should have left it at that.
Fred Pessaro is levitating. Follow him on Twitter.