Powell St. John and the Aliens
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Powell St. John and the Aliens

Berkeley, California, United States | INDIE

Berkeley, California, United States | INDIE
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Powell St. John retired not terribly long ago and picked up a music career he left behind four decades earlier. St. John was a prominent figure in Austin’s mid-1960s folk and psychedelic rock scene, having written or co-written six songs covered by the 13th Floor Elevators.

By the time that band was making its mark, though, St. John was gone, having relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. He dabbled in music for a few more years and had songs covered by Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs and others. But by 1970, he was out for the most part.

St. John lived in Berkeley, Calif., and worked for a wholesale jewelry manufacturer, picking up the guitar or harmonica from time to time. He started a family in the early 1980s and put the guitar away until recently.

Now he’s on his way to Houston, where it all started. St. John will perform twice this weekend in the town where he was born in 1940.

St. John believes he was only three or four when his father’s work took the family to Laredo. He says the musical culture there was more prominent than the football culture at the time. The high school would send people to the area grade schools with instruments hoping to nurture talent early. St. John received a flute, which he took too immediately. “But,” he says, “as a kid I had horrendous ear infections. The doctors were concerned that playing the flute was pushing impurities into my ears.”

Out with the flute, in with the drum, which he said “was murder for somebody who likes melody.”

He found a harmonica in a dime store and it stuck.

St. John graduated from the University of Texas “despite being very distracted by Austin.” He earned an art history degree “which I’ve never actually used to make money. But it has enriched my life immeasurably.”

Like many other arty student types, he fell under the spell of Bob Dylan, and at the urging of a songwriter named John Clay, St. John began writing songs.

It wasn’t long before St. John felt the need to move, though. He says there were murmurs of a big police bust that would sweep up all the members of the city’s freak culture. “I knew what the Elevators were doing to get in trouble,” St. John says. “I was associated with them, and guilt by association back then seemed fine by the authorities, so I left.”

He went west. His friend and former bandmate Janis Joplin (they worked in a group called the Waller Creek Boys) was doing well for herself in California. “I knew she was either going to burn out and explode or do some great things,” he says. “She did both, I suppose. I was disappointed she didn’t last longer than she did. It was obvious she was a special person.”

In late 1966, Joplin recorded St. John’s Bye Bye Baby with Big Brother and the Holding Company on their debut album. “It gave me the idea that I maybe had some kind of talent, that there was some value to my songwriting,” he says.

But a career in music didn’t happen for him in the Bay Area. He took a job and ceased to be a professional musician. He says he pulled his guitar out from time to time in the ’90s to play for his kids when they were a little older. His jewelry job was shipped overseas, so St. John went back to school and came out of it with a job as a computer tech, which he retired from in 2005. That was the same year he received a call from two admirers. One wanted to bankroll PowellSt. John’s first album. The other wanted to play guitar on it.

The result was Right Track Now, which put a re-emergence into motion. He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame that year.

He later joined the Elevators’ Roky Erickson on stage at a subsequent South by Southwest, singing and playing harmonica. That caught the attention of Josh Rosenthal, who runs the New York-based Tompkins Square label.

Soon after St. John was presented with a contract to make a record for the label, which resulted in this year’s On My Way to Houston, a great garage folk recording that has enjoyed greater distribution than its predecessor. So, 40 years after leaving Texas, St. John has an album that can be found in record stores. The songs are mostly his own, though the two covers — like the album’s title — bring everything back home. The album opens with Erickson’s Hardest Working Man (the author has never recorded the song). It also includes a song titled Jerry Lightfoot, about St. John’s friend, a blues institution in these parts, who died in 2006. St. John will perform at an annual Lightfoot tribute concert Sunday.

And two songs serve as bookends of sort for the album. John Clay is about the songwriter who encouraged St. John to write his own tunes. He also covers Clay’s Ballad of Travis Rivers.

It’s an unofficial history of a time and place St. John was lucid enough to remember and document, which is a rare thing given the troubled fates of his contemporaries at the time. He almost seemed to be referencing it in Bye Bye Baby: “It seems you just got lost somewhere out in the world/And you left me - 29-25 Music


Powell St. John - called by some the "godfather of Texas psych," and with good reason - will drop his new album On My Way to Houston on July 21 via the good folks at Tompkins Square. It was recorded in Oakland with members of Roky Erickson's former band, The Aliens, and features an unrecorded Roky composition, "Hardest Working Man." Austin fixture Ralph White contributes as well. Longtime fan and well-respected publicist/journalist Bill Bentley wrote liner notes for the package.





St. John cut his teeth at Austin's Threadgill's Bar, performing with Janis Joplin and Lanny Wiggins in a trio called The Waller Creek Boys. Later, in answer to a request for material from Tommy Hall of the 13th Floor Elevators, St. John wrote five songs for their two first albums. In the late ‘60s, Powell formed the blues/rock band Mother Earth with Tracy Nelson, releasing several albums on Mercury. Among the legendary musicians who have sung and recorded Powell's songs are Janis Joplin ("Bye, Bye Baby"), Boz Scaggs ("I'll Forever Sing"), Roky Erickson ("Right Track Now") and Doug Sahm ("You Don't Know"). The Texas Music Hall of Fame inducted Powell in 2005.





Said Roky Erickson of his old cohort, "I think he is a first-rate harmonica player and I am glad he is still doing it. His songs are some of my favorites!" - Blurt


Powell St. John

9:15pm, the Music Gym While maybe not as iconic as some of his late-1960s Texas psych contemporaries, Powell St. John is every bit the Hall of Famer they are (literally, as he was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2005). The former beatnik is perhaps best known for writing material for the 13th Floor Elevators, not to mention Boz Scaggs and Janis Joplin. – Michael Bertin - Austin Chronicle


An ASCAP member for 40 years, Powell St. John was a major influence on the 1960s psychedelic scene in Austin, TX and beyond. At the beginning of his musical career, St. John moved to Austin from Laredo, TX and performed in a trio with Janis Joplin and Lannie Wiggins called The Waller Creek Boys. Within a few years, he was contributing songs to Roky Erickson's seminal psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevator. The late 60s saw him move to San Francisco and form a band with Tracy Nelson called Mother Earth. His songs have been recorded by such legends as Joplin, Boz Skaggs and Erickson. Many years later, in 2005, St. John was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame during the South by Southwest Music Conference. This trip to Austin led to a comeback that has seen St. John record his first ever solo album, Right Track Now. The album showcases his harmonica playing and unique knack for songwriting and melody that instantly recall his early days. St. John is already looking towards his next solo release, which he will be recording for Tompkins Square Records. - ASCAP Magazine




The band's been playing at least an hour, but it feels like five minutes. Besides "You Really Got Me," "Roll Over Beethoven," and Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," they've done a dozen originals that seem like the beginning of a new age. There's one called "Roller Coaster" that sends shivers through the audience of 50, massed together at La Maison on the edge of downtown Houston.

It opens slow, speaking of one "whose eyes are clear to see," then hits a hurtling midsection announced by the lyric, "It starts like a roller-coaster ride so real it takes your breath away." For 10 minutes, the music pushes everyone in the room through a twisting, turning trip, with Stacy Sutherland's lead-guitar lines feeding back far beyond what rock bands in 1965 seemed capable of.

When the song ends, there's an audible sigh of relief in the crowd. We've all just taken a journey of incredible intensity, and now, newly baptized, we look at one another with a bond of brotherhood. We glance around the room, shake our heads, and smile at one another with knowing glances that each person there has been shown a deep secret. We can only guess where the 13th Floor Elevators will take us next. For the five musicians onstage, there's no question. It's time now to deliver the words they know we've come to hear:

Here you are at my place
And within your glistening eyes
I'm watching your reactions
As the thing within you cries
And I'm bringing you this message
Because I think it's time you knew
The kingdom of heaven
Is within you

The song is slower than a ballad. In fact, it isn't really a song at all. More like a prayer. It begins with a roll on John Ike Walton's snare, followed by Benny Thurman's fearsome bass pattern, and an ominous drone by jug player Tommy Hall. It takes the crowd into a glowing room, filled with flashes of infinity and, well, love. We stand in front of the stage, "fixed with fascination" as one of the earlier songs has proclaimed, not really sure that what's happening is real. It's as if the music is making us levitate, a reminder that there's a true center to life waiting just outside our physical dimension. The chords blend, treble notes melting together into a searing sonic wall. Singer Roky Erickson is lost in his own world, eyes shut tight, his whole body a vessel of vibrations.

Through the incense and the candle
And the colors on the wall
Your image stands reflected
As a princess come to call
Your suspicions you're confirming
As you found them all quite true
That the kingdom of heaven
Is within you

The quintet is now playing the music of the spheres. As the two guitars become one, overlapping instruments of dedication and desire, the emotions of everyone present have moved La Maison, itself a former church, onto an astral plane. Who's this band giving us such a mesmerizing gift of music and meaning? Coming out of an extended instrumental break, the singer steps up to the mic with a beatific smile, one that shoots through everyone in the audience.

Through the blazing stained-glass windows
Moonlight falls upon the choir
And it splashes across the altar
As a flow of liquid fire
And it bathes you in its glory
As your life begins anew
For the kingdom of heaven
Is within you*

Erickson, secure in the sanctity of the song and feeling its power, begins a scream from somewhere beyond the soul that builds to a tremulous shriek of belief. The sound bombards our molecules until it feels like we'll explode. When the song ends and quiet fills the room, the 13th Floor Elevators walk offstage, leaving La Maison humming with electricity from our close encounter with the beyond.

Make a Joyful Noise (l-r): John "Toad" Andrews, George Rains, Tracy Nelson, Bob Arthur, Mark Naftalin, and Powell St. John
Photo By Jim Marshall

For the next year, everyone there searches out the Austin act's first LP, and once procured, we scour the back for that song. There it is, "Kingdom of Heaven," by John St. Powell. For me, it's the start of a 40-year mystery, trying to find out exactly who this person is, this man with the power to put into music what entire religions are forever seeking.

The first thing I discovered, shortly after seeing several songs by St. Powell on the Elevators' 1966 Psychedelic Sounds, was that John St. Powell was really Powell St. John. The band's record label, International Artists, had thrown a curveball into the songwriting royalties. Beyond that, the initial story I found on St. John was in the second issue of Mother, a short-lived Houston periodical devoted to the developing world of Texas rock. In a one-page piece, writer Larry Supulveda gave a quick rundown of St. John's new band Mother Earth, ending with an explanation by the artist of how he saw the new counterculture: "Spontaneity and juxtaposition are both happening everywhere simultaneously." This, obviously, was a man for the ages. Little did I know just how true that would turn out to be.

Rayward Powel - Austin Chronicle


San Francisco Chronicle
BANDWIDTH
Powell St. John and the Aliens

Delfin Vigil

Thursday, March 8, 2007

It only makes sense that first contact from aliens would begin in Berkeley, don't it? The sightings of the sultan of psychedelia, Powell St. John, and his backing band have been substantiated. For those who believe only what they hear, the truth is out there -- Saturday night at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. "I am stoked," said St. John, who nowadays is backed by Roky Erickson's cronies the Aliens. "We will be interpreting about 40 years' worth of song material, and we hope to see everybody there."

After his late '60s work with the 13th Floor Elevators, the native Texan stepped off the lift, packed up his harmonica and headed for San Francisco, where he abducted several more musicians to interpret his out-of-this-world sound -- among them Janis Joplin and Boz Skaggs. These days, whenever a new psychedelic rock band is formed, it ends up referencing St. John's material. At his annual South by Southwest appearances in Austin, in the state where he is also a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame, admirers are invariably looking for advice or an autograph. But St. John and the Aliens will also have new material and messages at Saturday's gig. So open your minds and put on your aluminum foil caps.

Lineup: Powell St. John, vocals, harmonica, guitar; Bob Fagen, bass, backing vocals; Duane Aslaksen, guitar, backing vocals; Oliver Meissner, violin.

1. Powell St. John and the Aliens' music should be filed between:

Somewhere along a continuum between Blind Lemon Jefferson and Nino Rota.

2. The soundtrack to what movie would your music best match?

I can't remember the name of the film, but I know it was a porno flick, possibly starring Annette Haven.

3. If you could collaborate on a song with any person, living or dead, who would that be?

Collaboration is not a subject to which I have given a great deal of thought. But come to think of it, just being able to look over Cole Porter's shoulder would have been stupendous.

4. If a junior high school asked you to play a cover song at the next talent show, what song and school would you choose?

Good 'ol Lamar Junior High (Laredo, Texas). In my eternal quest to charm all the girls at school, even the ninth-graders, I would have to go with "Blue Velvet."

5. What is the meaning of life?

In the largest sense, the meaning of life is that there is no meaning. Nor does there need to be, because "meaning" is meaningless in this context. Locally, however, we are meant to sit back and enjoy the fantastic magic show which reality affords us.

Check them out: www.powellstjohn.com; myspace.com/powellstjohn

Next gig: 9 p.m. Saturday. With the 7th Direction, Ten Ton Chicken. $7. 3101 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-2082. www.starryploughpub.com.
To be featured in Bay Area Bandwidth, you must have a confirmed gig coming up and a recording that readers can buy, download or listen to via a Web link. Then e-mail us at bandwidth@sfchronicle.com with: band or artist name, gig info, Web site and/or MySpace link, a one-paragraph bio that includes your lineup, city location, description of your sound and a link to your two best songs. Do not e-mail music files or other attachments.

Delfin Vigil, bandwidth@sfchronicle.com

- San Francisco Chronicle


Live Shots
SXSW showcase reviews
BY GREG BEETS

Powell St. John

The Hideout, Friday, March 16
Hard as it may be to imagine now, there was a time when being "weird" wasn't an attribute in Austin. Songwriter Powell St. John emerged from the same embattled mid-Sixties enclave that birthed Janis Joplin and Roky Erickson. He contributed six songs to the 13th Floor Elevators, and his influence on Erickson's songwriting is undeniable. Dressed in an Oat Willie's T-shirt and a skull-covered headscarf, St. John's appearance oozes the aura of loyal opposition even today. Friday's set confirmed this notion with a mix of the political, the psychedelic, and the prurient. The former was best represented by "On My Way to Houston," which deftly lampooned preacher-in-the-
whorehouse hypocrisies that define Lone Star political life. St. John's acoustic version of Elevators favorite "Kingdom of Heaven" highlighted the song's hallucinatory swirl of religious imagery, while the playful double entendre of "Piccolo" paid tribute to an unrequited love from the high school marching band. St. John's seat-of-pants approach was unconventional by SXSW standards, but sometimes earnest wit is enough to carry the day. - Austin Chronicle



Article appearing in the June 2006 Studio City Sun

Powell St. John, Right Track Now –

(Dream Tracks)

By Bill Bentley (former Vice President at Warner Brother’s Records)

There are certain pivotal figures in rock & roll that have eluded history’s embrace. Powell St. John is surely one of them. He was in an Austin band in 1962 with Janis Joplin called the Waller Creek Boys (what else, right?), and a few years later wrote a handful of seminal songs for psychedelic pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators, including one called “Monkey Island” that helped define the emerging freak scene in the Lone Star state. Moving to San Francisco, he co-founded Mother Earth with Tracy Nelson, recording two albums with that gregarious group that still stand as some of the most striking music to escape from the Bay Area during the Sixties. St. John’s songs, vocals and harmonica playing are so original it’s impossible to convey their impact, except to say that Nelson recently described him as “the most significant and profound artist of the era.” Now, he finally makes his solo debut, and what an achievement it is. His voice is an emotional live wire, coming from someplace between above the sky and beneath the earth, while lyrically he has a visionary’s view and a poet’s pen. Classics like “Kingdom of Heaven” and “I, The Fly” stand next to newer songs in a seamless beauty. Throw in a bonus disc recorded with two early Elevators, and Right Track Now seems like the second coming of someone who’s been silent far too long. Stunning.

- Bill Bentley - Warner Brothers Records



Just what the f@#$ is folk music anyway?" your faithful Roots Informer hears you cry. Considering that these days the term covers everything from the wispy, cross-legged, sonic macrame of the freak-friendly, weird-beard-folk set to the staunchly traditional broadsides and ballads of moldering McCarthy survivors, it's an inquiry any right-thinking music lover might well make. Well, just to confuse you further on the topic, let's expand the definition even further by taking the examples of a couple of folks currently pushing the boundaries in a low-key but willful way.

Submitted for your approval; the case of Daniel A.I.U. Higgs. Higgs is best known as a founding member of quirky alt-rockers Lungfish, but his solo work leaves any notions of "rock" far behind. That's not to say he's become a touchy-feely folkie, though. First of all, A.I.U. stands for Arcus Incus Ululat, which should tell you right off the bat that we're not in "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" territory here. Rather, Higgs' singular solo vision, as heard on his latest album "Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot" encompasses dark visions expressed through intense symbolist poetry and accompanied by minimal-yet-stirring acoustic backing on Jew's harp and banjo. Seeing him live, with his holed-up-in-a-mountain-cabin beard and spooky stage presence, one gets the vague feeling of taking part in some occult sonic ritual. Keep in mind that this is a man who once made an album of almost nothing but didgeridoo, and it all begins to make sense.

And in this corner, there's Texas cult hero Powell St. John, who's been toiling under the radar for even longer than the fortysomething Higgs. In the wake of Texas psych legend Roky Erikson's revitalization, maybe there'll be some residual interest in St. John, who penned some of their best material (such as "Monkey Island" and "Kingdom of Heaven"). Subsequent to his Elevators involvement, St. John had songs recorded by Texans Janis Joplin, Doug Sahm, and others, and performed with Tracy Nelson's Mother Earth. Above and beyond all this, he carved out a solo career that more or less made him the Michael Hurley of the Western U.S., utilizing a folk/string-band format to convey subtly unconventional tunes mixing a rootsy, organic quality with a staunchly nonconformist, old-school hippie vibe. He's currently planning a new album (watch for it!) on the Tompkins Square label, which has already taken part in the reanimation of Charlie Louvin's career, so who knows? There just may be a St. John renaissance afoot in the near future. photo by Toby St. John
- MTV Networks Digital Music Service


Discography

Janis Joplin - Big Brother and the Holding Company
Boz Scaggs - Moments
Right Track Now - Powell St. John
Mother Earth - Living with the Animals, Make a Joyful Noise
13th Floor Elevators - The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators - Easter Everywhere
Doug Sahm - Day Dreaming at Midnight

Listen to tracks at www.powellstjohn.com

Photos

Bio

Powell St. John went from Laredo to Austin, Texas in 1959, a harmonica playing, beret wearing beatnik kid who had a hunch that something was going on somewhere. Powell began his musical career in Austin in the early 1960’s, playing at parties and clubs around the University of Texas campus. Eventually he came to work with Kenneth Threadgill of Austin’s Threadgill’s Bar, performing with Janis Joplin and Lannie Wiggins in a small trio called The Waller Creek Boys. Later, in answer to a request for material from Tommy Hall of the 13th Floor Elevators, St. John wrote six songs for their two first albums. In the late 60’s, Powell formed a blues and rock band with Tracy Nelson named Mother Earth.

Powell’s songs have been recorded by such musical legends as Janis Joplin (Bye, Bye Baby), Boz Scaggs (I’ll Forever Sing), Tracy Nelson (Livin’ with the Animals), Roky Erickson (Right Track Now) & Doug Sahm (You Don’t Know).

Over the years, Powell has been interviewed by many of the top television stations from the US and Europe, BBC, CBS, E! Entertainment, Lifetime, and others, about Janis Joplin, the Psychedelic scene in Austin, and his own music career. After a 30 year run of royalties and licensing for film, stage and TV, the Texas Music Hall of Fame inducted Powell in 2005 as part of the South by Southwest Music Conference. At each event attended in Austin during this time, he was mobbed by people, telling him how much they liked his music and asking for his autograph. Taking advantage of the fact that Powell returned to Austin, several of his fans arranged for him to record a new CD, “Right Track Now.

Powell has fans the world over, including many important and influential music industry professionals, such as Julian Cope from the UK, David Fricke from Rolling Stone magazine, and Bill Bentley, senior vice president at Warner Brother’s Records, all emerging from the woodwork as long time St. John fans:

∑ “Powell’s CD is nothing short of amazing. I've listened about 5 times all the way through, and there are so many highlights I can't start to list them. Over the years his music and songs have given me so much joy.” – Bill Bentley, Senior Vice President, Warner Brother’s Records

∑ "I think he is a first-rate harmonica player and I am glad he is still doing it. His songs are some of my favorites!" - Roky Erickson

∑ “In the midst of the budding psychedelic sound, Powell's music was unique, completely original and brilliant. He gave us validation as something more than a derivative R&B band and he inspired me to stretch out beyond my desire to be Irma Thomas. I think he was the most significant and profound artist (and by the very nature of that the least appreciated) of the era. I'm so glad he's making music again”. - Tracy Nelson

This CD highlights this amazing lyricist, who has a timeless knack for song writing and a unique sense of melody. His music is both original and fully engaging, representing the best of the past and greatness for the future.