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The Austin Music Scene: 1960-1970

Regarding what is now referred to as Texas Psych Rock

By George Kinney


I will try to concentrate on the scene in general, though so much is subjective and directly related to the events of my life that this task will be difficult. However, in the immortal words of Oat Willie, "Onward thru the fog."

Against most of our parents' wishes, most of my peer group loved Elvis. He went against the grain musically, even more than Buddy Holly, though Holly was a tremendous influence as well. The other major influences were Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding, Robert Johnson, and, of course later, Dylan, The Beatles, Donavan, and the indefatigable Rolling Stones.

For me personally, when I heard Dylan, at the insistence of Roky Erickson, I changed my entire approach to understanding music. Then with the Beatles and the Stones, my fate was sealed. Most of the other English bands and domestic bands, though good, never really got it as far as I was concerned. 

The desire to emulate my new heroes began to burn deep within me. The local rock bands were copy bands playing radio music and it left me flat. Roky and a few others began to form a garage band and try to play Rolling Stones covers and Dylan covers. But I had other plans. I wanted to write and perform my own songs. The only guys I had heard about locally that did this were "folk singers," guys like Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Alan Dameron. 

Roky and I began to take our guitars down to the Drag in Austin and sit out in front of the coffee houses where these new folk singers performed and play songs for tips. We were too young to be allowed in the clubs. Let me add here that the University of Texas Union was a major hub for folk singers, artists of all types and pot smoking was just beginning to take hold in the remote underground of Austin. The burgeoning English rock scene spilled over there and the place became a major contact point for musicians looking for other musicians to form bands. 

It was also about this time, 1966, that perhaps the most profound evolution of the Texas Psych genre began and it was unquestionably and irrevocably lead by the formation of the 13th Floor Elevators. Most of you know the history of that legendary band, so I will not dwell on it here. Suffice it to say they introduced a completely novel approach to rock and roll music. The blending of psychedelic drugs, superb musicianship, and truly artful lyrical content dovetailed perfectly with the ideas some of us were discovering about expanded human awareness through chemical experimentation. The resulting sound was of such intensity and dynamic relevance that audiences were left literally spellbound. 

The band and its members took on an aura of magical significance; the music was mystical and yet physically bone-real and movingˇit had a backbeat you couldn't loose and a mental element that was totally unique.

At that time I was lead singer for a band called the Chelsea. It was formed by a couple of musicians, John Andrews and Bob Arthur, who had just returned from England where they had been fortunate enough to jam with Jimi Hendirx and Boz Scaggs. They wanted to form a cover band and do Rolling Stones songs and Beatle songs. They advertised for a lead singer and I met them at the union and was invited to join the band after the first rehearsal. As friends and band members, we really hit it off. We played frat gigs and clubs in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio and were a very good cover band. Benny Rowe and Powell St. John both did stints as band members in the Chelsea and I was Austin's version of a younger, Texas-styled Mick Jaggerˇ at least in my own mind.

Most of the local bands had taken similar paths, covering the English invasions songs and throwing in a few Motown dance monsters. Everybody had let his or her hair grow long and pot was everywhere. Acid was also readily available, as were mescaline and psycillicibin mushrooms. Things got very far out in River City, to say the least. And the Elevators were the kingpins of it all. They were all talented and charismatic, and the leader, Tommy Hall, was really one of the most significant intellectual precursors of an entirely new genre of thinking that had evolved from Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descarte, and more recently from G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspenski, and their closest and most significant associates, Maurice Nicol and Rodney Collin.

It didn't take me long to decide it was time to form a new band, cut out the covers (except for a few indispensable Dylan and Stone's tunes) write and sing my own songs and try for the sun. Right on time, as if fate itself was arranging events, (which, of course, it was) some of my old high school buddies reentered my life and we formed the Golden Dawn. We practiced at Jimmy Birds' dads' Taxidermy shop way out or town on an otherwise abandoned acreage. Privacy was essential. The law in Austin, shall we say, highly disapproved of our music and our lifestyles. It is hard to imagine in 2006 how seriously opposed to pot smoking the '60's Texas law was. Possession of even a small amount of marijuana could land you in prison for many, many years -- even life imprisonment was a legal option for judges in some cases. To be a young, long-haired hippie musician in those days was like wearing a sign around your neck saying: "Arrest me; I am likely in possession of pot."

But the county mounties and local cops were not the only major obstacles if you were guilty of being young, free-thinking, and desperately in search of that illusive, slippery and overwhelmingly seductive mistress (or master) called liberty. 

At that time in Austin most of the youths were mama's boy frat rats, stuck-up sorority chicks, or more or less ignorant rednecks. It wasn't until Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas football coach, brought the rednecks, frats and hippies together at the World Armadillo Headquarters that a longhaired hippy could safely walk the streets of Austin after hours. And of course that's the only time we ever walked the streets. The difference with my band and most of the others, however, is that we had all been raised in South Austin, and fighting was second nature to us. You can imagine the surprise a group of would-be redneck aggressors experienced when upon attacking us they often found themselves bleeding on the ground, watching us leave with their former girlfriends. It was dangerous fun. But the fun ended there. The law was indefatigable. The Elevators got busted for pot and things were never quite the same. Several of my band members got busted too, and so did I. I remember one particularly large Austin bust that netted the cops over 50 young artists, lovers, musicians, philosophers generally innocent enjoyers of life all to be saddled with felony criminal records for the rest of their lives.

By this time several other notable bands had formed and were experiencing the same harassment. Some good bands, too: Shivas Headband, The Conqueroo, and The Greasy Wheels from Austin, and The Lost and Found. Red Crayola and the Bubble Puppy from Houston were some of the most notable.

The Elevators were exiled to San Francisco, much to the chagrin of Stacy Sutherland and John Ike Walton, who were forever to be Texas blood and bone. With the end of the Elevator era in Austin, things changed forever. The other bands just couldn't fill the void, although they played good music and had good followings. No one will ever forget the splendid violin riffs of Mary Hattersly, the guitar mastery of Johnny Winters, Stevie and Jimmy Vaughn, Benny Rowe, and Jerry Lightfoot, the gutsy wailings of the Austin Blues Mammas, or the beautifully sad and insightfully elegant songs of Townes Van Zandt. But the whole Elevator/Golden Dawn mystique was gone forever, at least as an actual presence on the Austin music scene. It all disappeared like a mysterious dream of super substantial reality, like the shadows of a once and future dawn.

Love had been the basis of it all. Every level of love: sexual, platonic, romantic, familial, humanistic, environmental, socially communalˇ. everything good about being alive and being human and possessing qualities beyond war, greed, and power that's what early Austin music was all about. In many ways, we've come a long way down from there. Today's Austin , the live music capital of the world, is just another big town wishin' it were Houston. Guys like me can't get a gig playing songs for free in a parking lot. Back to the beginning, I guess.

"Pack my bags, and don't be too slow, I'm going to Mexico!"

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


George Kinney 
February 14, Valentines Day, 2006

 

 

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