Trippin’ Out in TX: A journey through Texas’ psychedelic music scene

With its ever-expanding music infrastructure and a deep bench of bands, it’s hard to imagine a Texas where Austin isn’t the focal point of Lone Star music. East 6th, Austin City Limits, Rainey Street, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Red River, Psych Fest, SXSW—there’s a reason why Austin claims to be the live music capital of the world. But if you look back to the 1960s, in one of the most fruitful periods in American pop, a different vision emerges; one where San Antonio and Austin share equal billing as the region’s hotspot for rock ‘n’ roll creativity, working in relative harmony to hook national acts and nurture a local scene in South Central Texas.

Trippin' Out in TX: the Playlist

At the helm of this SA/ATX creativity was the then-young genre of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, merging rock forms with new manipulations in sonic style and chemical balances in the brain. The left-field music of the 13th Floor Elevators and Jimi Hendrix coupled with the newly popular LSD wonder drug were opening porous young minds across the nation, not just along the I-35 corridor.

First synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938, LSD only became popular as a recreational trip in the 1960s, as advocates like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary championed the stuff as a gateway to untapped consciousness. The word itself comes from psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who combined the Greek words “psyche” (mind) and “delos” (manifesting) to translate the experience into language. And like Osmond’s conversion, psychedelic musicians relayed the acid trip in their music, a synethesiac blend of rock ‘n’ roll and serotonin.

Go Southwest, Young Man

Though San Francisco marked the epicenter of the psychedelic shockwaves that swept the nation, South Texas recorded early and independent tremors, churning out a distinctly Texan flavor of psych—cactus kids dancing with California’s flower children.

A poster from the era, tacked to the bathroom wall of the South Texas Popular Culture Center (1017 E Mulberry, “Tex Pop” for short), reps a slightly doofy San Anto and a slightly hipper, mustached Austin basking in the lysergic embrace of Mother Texas. Proud of her fraternal cities, she sighs, “My children of tomorrow are becoming heavy!” Produced by SA poster artist Dan “Boogie” Wynans, the bill promotes an evening at the Sunken Gardens in 1969 featuring bands from both sides of the psychedelic I-35 nexus.

Margaret Moser, SA native, proprietor of Tex Pop and co-founder of the Austin Chronicle, points to surf rock as the instigator of SA psych. Like an older sibling turning the Alamo City on to the good stuff, band members from Bubble Puppy and the Laughing Kind came up from the coast in the early ’60s, bringing with them the carefree licks and early effects pedals native to that surf sound. “San Antonio probably had the biggest non-coastal surf scene of any city I ever saw,” says Moser, “certainly in Texas.”

At the time, San Antonio also had capable music venues to support local and touring bands. Spots like Fredericksburg Road’s adolescent-only Teen Canteen, already in operation pre-Brit Invasion, housed amateur groups looking to hone their talents in a dance-friendly setting. As musicians tightened up and committed to “really being bands all the time,” says Moser, “San Antonio tried to gussy itself up, too.” Shortly after the reveal of HemisFair Park for the 1968 World’s Fair, the Pusikat Club opened nearby at 120 Villita to showcase to the HemisFair crowd, according to Moser, “just how hip San Antonio was.”

As LSD hit Texas in the mid-60s, that surf sound got weirder and heavier. The spaced-out wave journeys got a little more ethereal, the guitar effects got a little more distorted and pretty soon SA artists like Lord August and the Visions of Lite, Swiss Movement and Bubble Puppy were playing what Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators were calling “psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll.”

The most commercially successful of any South Texas psych outfit, Bubble Puppy formed in San Antonio in 1966 when singer and guitarist Rod Prince moved from the coastal ’burbs to collaborate with his writing partner Roy Cox. “I was in Mathis then, having just returned from LA,” Prince says. “I had nothing else going, so I went to SA and Roy and I put the players together to form the first incarnation of what would become the Puppy.” At the time, Prince says the San Antonio music scene was “very tight-knit. Everyone knew everyone, like a family, without much in the way of showbiz competition.”

In 1969, Bubble Puppy landed a Top 20 hit with “Hot Smoke and Sassafras,” a tight, six-string death punch over which Prince sings cryptically of “the place above where it began.” When Prince tells the Current that Bubble Puppy was “consumed with virtuosity,” it’s no joke. Through tempo changes and a wandering guitar interlude, “Sassafras” makes writing an intricate hit seem effortless.

With the opening of Austin Highway’s Mind’s Eye and Mystic Moor, venues as psychedelic as their names suggest, San Antonio developed a solid infrastructure to support local and touring genre players. “San Antonio was really poised in the late ’60s to be in the center of attention,” says Moser.

If Alamo City psych grew out in the open, up the road in Austin the music was nurtured underground, like pot plants growing in the back of a bedroom closet. The University of Texas was already cultivating a small, experimental folk community that attracted other young Texan beatkniks (like Janis Joplin, for a hot minute).

When acid emerged in Austin in 1965 and guitarist Stacy Sutherland, drummer John Ike Walton and songwriter and electric jug player Tommy Hall teamed up with the young, scabrous voice of Roky Erickson to form the 13th Floor Elevators, psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll was born. With their debut release in 1966, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, the quartet, widely lauded as the architects of psych rock, were indeed the first band to use the word “psychedelic” to describe their sound.

From here, the folkers operating in Austin’s bohemian outskirts went electric, buying the necessary gear to turn on and drop out. “I would defy you to find an open psychedelic band operating as early as the Elevators were,” says Elevators contributor Powell St. John in Scott Conn’s rock-doc Dirt Road to Psychedelia. The Elevators were the centrifugal force for a scene that included bands like The Conqueroo, Shiva’s Headband and the Golden Dawn. To keep it in Texas, Houston’s International Artists records housed the Lone Star psych bands.


The Children of Tomorrow Come Together

When Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company opened its doors in the fall of 1967, the San Anto and Austin psych scenes sang in harmony, filling the dive with mind-manifesting rock. “When the Vulcan opened up,” recalls Moser, “I would say that fully half the bands that played there were SA bands. Austin was essentially a political capital and a college town. When a cool club came along like the Vulcan, it couldn’t really pull the stature of bands that were touring to San Antonio.” For instance, when Jimi Hendrix came through Texas in 1968 and 1970, he played San Antonio, oozing psychedelia and shattering minds at the Municipal Auditorium and HemisFair.

One imagines the blues-influenced Hendrix could have dug the South Texas psych sound as it grew up among the regional giants of blues history, from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s tinny 1920s classics to the swingin’ power of Big Mama Thornton.

“One writes what one knows,” says Rod Prince, “so environment plays a part for sure, and flavors any style of music. So I’d say that made the Texas psych offerings different from the city-oriented bands.” Perhaps that explains the squirrely squeal of Tommy Hall’s electric Elevator jug and Roky Erickson’s feral yells, cured from the best of the black blues musicians.

Young music freaks could often see the influencers on the same stage as the influenced. Accidentally ahead of its time, the Vulcan, out of necessity, booked blues greats like Big Mama, Freddy King, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed alongside rock acts. “They were part of that scene and part of that identity,” says Spencer Perskin of Shiva’s Headband.

In 1969, Shiva’s Headband released the definitive tune of this psych-blues nexus, the awesomely titled “Homesick Armadillo Blues.” Perskin trash-talks the Frisco rain and longs for the Texas sun, resolving on the twelfth-bar of the tune, “I don’t hate California, it just ain’t my style.”

The Head Trip Ends

The I-35 psych oasis wasn’t to last into Nixon’s second term. Just as the Manson murders and the Altamont meltdown deadened the good vibrations in California, police crackdowns in Texas put a damper on the music.

“I was living here [in San Antonio] in the early 1970s and there really was a sense of Feds and ‘heads all over again,” says Moser. “We got our one joint and we’re being chased down by a pile of cops … The paranoia was very real.”

Bubble Puppy’s Prince put a Texas twang on the situation, calling it “the longhairs versus the goat-ropers.”

The Austin Police Department looked to chop the head from the psychedelic snake by targeting the Elevators. “This was when the police in town were convinced if they could pick off the ringleaders, they cold nip it in the bud,” says St. John.

Already suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia, in 1969, Elevators singer Roky Erickson was convicted for possession of a lone joint and sentenced to the Austin State Hospital until 1972. As Erickson underwent electroshock therapy in a radically different psych scene, the Texas genre he inspired dissipated in the late ’60s. Police kept on busting, musicians moved out to California and in the summer of 1970, the Vulcan Gas Company closed its doors.

Though it was in operation for less than three years, the Vulcan Gas Company’s influence can still be felt in Austin. “Around 1970, Austin stole all the music thunder,” says Moser. “Partly it’s the booking policy of the Vulcan and Armadillo and their incredibly broad view of what kind of music you could play in front of people: ballet, Stanley Clarke, Chuck Mangione, Devo and the Clash. When you had that menu of music laid out to you week after week, night after night, there wasn’t any reason not to go. That spilled over into other clubs too.” While Austin diversified and its music clubs took off, San Antonio dug its heels into burgeoning punk and metal scenes.

Reverberation Appreciation

Sometime in the mid 2000s, psych returned to Texas in a kaleidoscopic blaze. Since 2004, Austin’s the Black Angels have led the charge with five albums of revivalist psych as pure as a hit of Stanley Owsley acid. The Angels’ Christian Bland has his own theory on psych’s re-entry.

“It’s hearing real rock ‘n’ roll again on the radio,” says Bland. “I got into it hearing the White Stripes on the radio in the early 2000s and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The Warlocks, Clinic and the Brian Jonestown Massacre got me interested in trying to play the ’60s style, which I grew up listening to.

When I heard these newer bands bringing this sound into the modern day, that piqued my interest and I wanted to do the same.”

Moser, who saw it all as the Austin Chronicle’s music editor from its inception up until this year, understands the new attention a little differently. “Roky never went away,” she says with a smile. “Roky, like Willie Nelson, is one of those musicians who’s revered by everybody. Because the Elevators’ music really was born out of Austin, the city always kept it very close. So when it was time for a genuine revival in psychedelia like the mid-2000s and a band like the Black Angels comes along, they carry the Elevators’ gravitas.”

Marc Anthony Smith, a veteran of psychedelic San Anto, poses an alternative, lysergic account of psych’s return. In November of 2000, the DEA bagged William Leonard Picker, the Walter White of LSD. According to the US government, with Picker’s operation shredded, worldwide LSD availability dropped a staggering 90 percent. “When that happened, LSD was off the scene, too. If anyone said they had it, that was a lie ‘cause it was not anywhere in the South,” says Smith. “Sometime in 2005, it started coming back. And I do think it has something to do with it. If you’re a [air quotes] psych band, if that’s your ethos and there’s not anybody who gets it, that’s hard to play.”

Whether it’s a retro-regurgitation of pop culture, a guitar-rock renaissance, a great time for drugs or a confluence of it all, psych is booming in American music. “There’s a lot of bands playing in garage and psych, the ’60s kind of style,” says Bland. “There were some when we started, but there’s been an explosion that we’ve seen all around the country when we’re on tour.”

To help keep the psych movement churning, Bland and the Angels founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society. “Our goal is to preserve the heritage of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll that we believe started here in Austin and to keep the legacy alive and to push it into the future,” he says.

The Reverb Appreciation Society record label has recently pressed wax from up-and-comers Holy Wave and Night Beats, and Reverb’s annual celebration Austin Psych Fest has joined the big wigs of the Austin festival circuit.

“The idea came about in 2008,” Bland says. “Having been on tour for two and a half years at that point, we’d met so many cool bands around the country. We decided, ‘Why not throw a psychedelic gathering with our friends on the Saturday before SXSW?’” Since then, Psych Fest has ballooned from a SXSW satellite to its own three-day palooza on Carson Creek Ranch.

“It’s almost doubled every year since we started,” says Bland. “Last year we had 3,500 [attendees]. Our goal is to continue to grow every year. But not by sacrificing and having Toyota come in or something crazy like that. We want the organic and not [to] force any random bands that don’t fit Psych Fest. It has to be a psych-influenced band.”

For Psych Fest 6, “psych-influenced” takes a broad, poptimist definition, concerned more with the mind-manifesting spirit than with the psych rock style. Indie icons Avey Tare and Panda of Animal Collective both play solo sets on Saturday and Sunday, while vaporwave pioneer Oneohtrix Point Never plays Friday night. Of course, the Reverb Appreciation Society chartered some traditional acts too: The Black Angels, ’60s icons the Zombies, San Fran legends Flamin’ Groovies and South London’s Loop, touring the US for the first time since 1990.

In Austin, psych’s heartbeat obviously pulses strong, but if you roll your windows down for a Friday night drive on the St. Mary’s Strip, you’ll hear psych creeping back into SA’s sonic landscape, too. The chameleonic pop of the Flower Jesus Quintet, Crown’s pulsating blues-psych rhythms or Lonely Horse’s spiritual visions burst from SA venues on a weekly basis.

Marc Anthony Smith, who drums with Creatura, “of the Jefferson Airplane school,” and fronts and plays guitar in the Mockingbird Express, “from the Jimi Hendrix school,” credits SA’s psych interests in part to the vanguard up I-35. “It’s a feedover,” says Smith. “It’s like a watering hole. We go up there, get nourished, get worn out and come back. But it’s a return of the style, the psychedelic ethos never left.”

In 2014, with psych re-emerging via exciting new bands in SA and Austin, Texas’ children of tomorrow are becoming heavy once again.

Austin Psych Fest

2pm-2am Friday-Sunday, May 2-4
Carson Creek Ranch
9507 Sherman (Austin)

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