Beers with Ronnie Leatherman of the 13th Floor Elevators
The 13th Floor Elevators are inarguably one of the most influential rock bands in American history. They are credited with being the first band to use the term “psychedelic rock” to describe their sound back in 1965. Other bands have attempted to make similar claims but it was definitely the Elevators that played all of their shows with a head full of acid and pushed their electrified instruments to a new level. A three-month trip to San Francisco in 1965 had a profound effect on the folk-based bands of the bay area and led them in a wild new direction. The likes of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company were directly influenced by and built upon the musical precedent of these crazy Texas boys that came roaring onto the scene like a wonky fireball and disappeared almost as quickly. By the time the ‘70s rolled around, the 13th Floor Elevators were all but forgotten by everyone except those that were close to them or followed their short and tumultuous career. However, in the last 10 to 15 years there has been a huge resurgence in the realm of psychedelic rock and many of the original hippie bands of the era have been resurrected in various forms. The 13th Floor Elevators have since been placed on their rightful throne as the Kings of Psychedelia.
I have been fortunate enough to find a connection to bass player Ronnie Leatherman and was invited out to his Kerrville, Texas home to conduct an interview and document his verbal reminiscing about his time spent with the 13th Floor Elevators. I made the 2-hour drive West of Austin on a dry 100-degree afternoon bearing a bag of It’s Psychedelic Baby! swag and a six pack of Lone Star Beer tall boys – The National Beer of Texas!
Are you originally from Kerrville and did you grow up in this area?
Yeah, I was born here – I was raised here. Travelled a lot of the back roads. Of course, that’s all there was to do in Kerrville. [laughs]
What was the first instrument you ever picked up?
Actually, the first instrument I played when I was in 4th grade. I took lessons on an ukulele from this lady and actually I graduated up to a baritone “uke” which is a bit bigger. And yeah, she was cool but she wanted me to learn the violin. She thought I had potential there but then she passed away. And then it was not until about 7th grade that I started messing with guitar.
Were you in any bands before the 13th Floor Elevators?
I got started playing bass – there was a band that got together and they needed a bass player but nobody in town played bass. And they did all instrumentals so I bought the first Ventures album and a bass guitar. Actually, I sold a 1950 Ford Coupe that would probably be worth a fortune now to buy a bass guitar. And that Ventures album, I just set down and didn’t really know what key it was in. I just knew it was here, here, or here until I learned it all. So, I learned that, went to that band, and said “Here. I’m your bass player.” And it worked out. Yeah, It worked out good. We had a good band for a long time. We were in High School. I guess we were sophomores and we played all the High School parties.
What were you guys called?
We were called the Penetrators. We ended up having this singer Max and then we were Max and the Penetrators.
Were you in multiple bands before the Elevators?
Yeah, I was in two or three different little bands but mostly the Penetrators and then I was in a trio with a real good friend of mine – two good friends of mine and they both passed away the same year. It was awful. Almost the whole band. But every time we weren’t playing with someone else we had a trio.
How did you come to be a member of the Elevators and replace the first bassist Bennie Thurman?
I was in that other band when the Elevators came down and I had already met Stacy (Sutherland) and John Ike (Walton) and Bennie (Thurman), the other bass player, and they had a band in Port Aransas with a guy named Max [The Lingsmen]. And Stacy, John Ike, and Max they got Bennie – he was a great violinist but he didn’t know a thing about the bass. So, they got down there and they had a gig and he didn’t know how to play. So anyway, they called me up and I went down and taught Bennie and played with them for about three weeks and then about a year later they started the Elevators with Roky (Erickson) and Tommy (Hall). So anyway, Stacy was the one that wanted to get me in the band. I don’t know what the deal was with Bennie but I didn’t ask but I’m good friends with him and it was all okay when I took over playing bass with them. Well, that first night playing with them and all the people that knew the band and knew Bennie we were at the Jade Room in Austin and they were all just looking at me like “Why are you playing instead of Bennie?!” and I was like “Oh no!” but after the second time we played there it all went well.
They got over it?
Yeah. That was a long night.
“Hey, do you want to join the band and go to California?”
So, I guess shortly after that you guys recorded the Psychedelic Sounds LP?
Well, we went to California first. I was 18, graduated from high School, and then in August they called up and said “Hey, do you want to join the band and go to California?” And so, we played 4 or 5 gigs there in Austin and then went straight to California. We played the first gig in Redding, California and then we played, I think, Sacramento, and then on to San Francisco. We played the Avalon and the Fillmore and the Longshoremen’s Hall and a lot of gigs and then we stayed there 3 or 4 months travelling up and down the coast and playing. Yeah, we played about 4 times a week.
What were some of the bands you guys played alongside when you were out there?
Actually, when we first got there – we didn’t know anybody. I mean, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother – they were all local bands and didn’t have a record out but they were playing everywhere we were. Every one of those bands has opened for us at one time or another. It was cool. And the Grateful Dead. And actually, Roky was friends with Janis Joplin and brought her out there and we actually introduced her to Big Brother and helped get her into their band. But the funny thing about her and Roky is that they did folk songs in Austin together. That’s what they both started doing and they both ended up being screaming rock and rollers. So, it was like “How did this happen?”
Are there any recordings of them together?
I don’t think so but they played at Threadgill’s. The old one out on… I think it was North Lamar. I didn’t actually meet her until she was out in California.
What was she like?
She was cool. She was just another one of those hippie chicks but she could sing her ass off! You know? It was like, “This is cool.” But we all played together. The Avalon and Fillmore were cool places to play and there were 1500 people there – those places were huge.
So, you guys were around San Francisco for a few months…
Yeah, maybe 3 or 4 months and we did American Bandstand and Where the Action Is. Those shows. One day we played a tour on a boat – a pretty good sized boat that toured around Alcatraz. It left at 7 o’ clock in the morning and we played at 8 o’ clock. It was like 250 kids that had won the cruise. And we played while it circled Alcatraz – kinda’ interesting. And that’s when we flew down to LA and did American Bandstand in the afternoon and then flew back to San Francisco and played a gig that night. So, we had three gigs that one day. It was kinda’ fun! There was always so much going on. There was this place out in Sausalito called the Ark and usually every weekend on Friday and Saturday after 2 am half of everybody that played shows would show up at the Ark and we got to jam. There would be a mix of Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, us, and somebody else. Everybody would just take turns playing and it was a big jam all night long! It was cool.
Then you went back to Austin and recorded the first album?
We recorded in Dallas – well, most of it. All but two songs. We recorded it all in 7 hours because we had been playing all those songs and just played through it and redid the vocals and added some guitar. Then we did two songs in Houston at another studio but we used the same engineer.
Which two songs were those?
“Kingdom of Heaven” and “Reverberation” we did in Houston and the rest in Dallas.
I have read that International Artists were a difficult record label – they even rearranged the track list of Psychedelic Sounds?
They rearranged everything. They even remixed it after we mixed it and it didn’t really work out like we wanted it to. But, you know, you have no control over those kind of companies. And the worst part was that it was the lawyers that didn’t have a clue about the music. We did have a good producer, Lelan Rogers, that was Kenny Rogers’ brother. He produced Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and he had already had million sellers as a producer. Anyway, he was good. I liked him. He was easy to get along with. But the lawyers were just in it to “Oh, this is fun. Let’s do this on the side.” And they’d bring all these people out to watch the hippies record. But that was fun.
What lead you to leave the Elevators after the first album?
John Ike and I had decided…. Well, when we came back from California we had a bunch of shows booked on the East coast and the record label canceled them and said “No. You are going to start the second album.” And stuck us there in Houston and then it just kinda’ went downhill. They wanted us to do it this way and I don’t know. They offered Tommy, Roky, and Stacy all this new equipment and they went for that but John Ike and I had just had enough. It wasn’t going anywhere and it didn’t look like it was going to go any further. And it didn’t. But then I ended up coming back and playing on the rest of the Bull of the Woods – the last album. And I actually got paid for that one because I wasn’t under contract anymore.
You are credited with writing “With You” on Bull of the Woods – what can you tell us about that song and it’s meaning to you?
It was just one of those things that came to you in the ‘60s. And Stacy helped with it a little bit and he and I were just working on different things. Yeah, I don’t do much songwriting. I do more music. I am not very good with words. They just don’t come to me. I can do a real neat chorus or one verse and then it’s like “Well, that’s all I wanted to say.”
What’s the deal with the fake “Live” album from 1969?
Yeah, International Artists put that out and none of them were actually live. Half of it was songs from the first original album and they dubbed in crowd noises from Madison Square Gardens and if you listen real close with some headphones you can hear “Hit ‘em again! Hit ‘em again!” It was from a boxing match or something – that background noise. Actually, I think some of the songs were really live from one or two places but actually, no they weren’t. They were just old recordings that they dug up. We didn’t have any control over that album.
I heard there was a rumor about the planning of a collaborative album between the Elevators and Texas Blues Legend Lightnin’ Hopkins – that never happened. Kind of like Electric Mud (Muddy Waters) or the Howlin’ Wolf psychedelic-blues album both recorded with Rotary Connection in 1968. Any truth to that?
I think after Bull of the Woods, Stacy and the drummer at the time, Danny Thomas, had another band they were trying to form and it might have been between them. Not when I was there. So, I don’t really know anything about that.
I also heard that the Elevators used to recreationally tie each other to the top of a Volks Wagon van and drive down the highway…
No, it was John Ike that had a ‘64 Pontiac Bonneville Station Wagon and that was when we were in California. And on a full moon or something like that we would go out and it had a good rack on top so we didn’t have to tie on – just hang on and watch the stars going by at 70 mph. It was kinda’ cool.
“We were probably the only psychedelic band out in San Francisco that played every show on acid.”
I assume with some visual enhancements involved?
Yeah, there was a little bit of acid on the way. [laughs] Yeah, we were probably the only psychedelic band out in San Francisco that played every show on acid.
Yeah, I heard that. That’s amazing.
Yeah, it was. Sometimes a little too amazing! [laughs] But it was fun. Yeah, we can say that because Tommy made sure. He’d say “Did you take your acid?” He’d make sure everybody did before a show. Of course, then they had that good Owsley acid and you know it was the real stuff. Then they started adding more crap to everything there was. That’s when drugs went way downhill. Everybody wanted to enhance one thing with something else and then it was like “oh crap.” I watched many people go downhill forever… you know… from all that.
Were you close to many of the other Texas Psych bands?
Well, we knew the Moving Sidewalks and a whole lot of different bands but we didn’t really hang out with many of them because we were all playing different places. Bubble Puppy were good friends. I still stay in touch with Rod Prince. They wanted to do a show together with Bubble Puppy and the Elevators in Austin but Roky’s manager and everybody blew that. We were lucky to get the Psych Fest in. There have been some other offers lately for different gigs but…
Do you think the Austin Psych Fest [Levitation] 50th reunion show (2015) was the last one?
Well, I had heard Paul Drummond mention something about some guy wanting us to do a show in New York in November but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Mainly, Roky’s manager can send him out with [Roky’s son] Jaeger’s band backing him up and it’s as good as if they were trying to promote a whole show with the Elevators. He’s looking for what’s in his pocket. And some big show with the Elevators doesn’t put much in his pocket. Yeah, I don’t know what the deal is.
Well, I was out there at APF and it was a really good show you guys put on after 50 years. It was amazing seeing you guys in front of all these people and bands that you have had such a major influence on.
Oh man, yeah – I had a blast out there! I had my daughter, my son, my granddaughters, my sister, one of my nephews, and a lot of my friends. It was too cool.
Okay, I have to ask for a crazy Roky story!
Oh man. Not off hand. I mean, you know, you could go to a restaurant late night and Roky would be there and there would be girls everywhere. Everybody would want to meet Roky and all the girls would be hanging around. He was a good looking, screaming, one of the best vocalists I’ve ever known in my life. Yeah, but some of them would just never have a clue what he was saying. He’d say something to them and they would look at him like “what?” and then he’d just be kidding. You know. Back then he was more in control of himself than now. I hate to say that but yeah…
I’ve seen him play a few times with the Hounds of Baskerville and he does a lot of this [arms crossed] when he’s supposed to be playing. I don’t know if he forgets to play or just doesn’t want to…
Yeah, he gets real distant. And then he went through a stage where he wouldn’t face the audience. He’d just turn around backwards and play. It was hard but I’m glad to see him come back a little more and the last few times I talked to him I could actually talk to him. But there was a time… probably 15 years ago, that if you ran across him he acted like he knew me but wasn’t sure and then didn’t have anything to say. But yeah, like I said, the last few years he’s been doing a lot better than the earlier years. I remember going to see him and his parents had him put up somewhere and they left him there but I went in and there was probably 10 TVs and 15 radios and they were all on a different channel. I went in and I said “Roky, can we go outside to talk? Because if you’re getting all this information – fine. But I’m not. It’s not coming to me.” But that was the wildest, going in there and all those things were going on. But then we went outside and had a pretty good visit.
You said that you played two shows the last two nights – who are you currently playing with?
Oh, yeah. I play every Tuesday and Wednesday in Fredericksburg with a band called Sol Patch. We do a variety of different stuff. It’s fun. I’ve been playing with them a few years now. I still play with 3 or 4 bands.
Are you currently recording anything to be released?
We mostly just do live shows but I’m starting a CD of my own and then my friend Greg (Forest) is doing one and we trade out. He has the studio and I’ve got time. Greg and I have been in bands together on and off for the last 30 years. He’s a good player/singer/song writer.
What kind of music are you listening to currently? Obviously blues… [playing softly in the background]
Yeah, I listen mostly to blues. I tell you what, the new Bob Dylan album (Fallen Angels) is amazing. You will not believe… It’s like all these old Tony Bennet songs and all those real old songs but he actually sings and it’s amazing. And there is some super players on it. You won’t believe it’s Bob Dylan…
Thank you so much for allowing me into your home, showing me some of your memorabilia, photographs, instruments, and letting me spend some time chatting with you. I enjoyed it very much!
Part two of the interview continued on Ronnie’s back porch taking in some of that fresh country air. I didn’t record this portion and it is thus “off the record”. If anybody is ever in the Kerrville/Fredericksburg area of Texas – you should try to catch a show by one several bands that Ronnie plays in. You could also just wait for another miraculous 13th Floor Elevators reunion show – but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Written and illustrated by Justin Jackley (August 4th 2016)