Roky Erickson never did what was expected.
There’s a often-repeated story about his formative years, whereupon attending Travis High School in Austin, Texas, he dropped out a mere week before graduation because he was so appalled by the idea of cutting his hair and conforming to the school dress code. This stubbornness, this relentless quest to do his own thing, would define Roky Erickson’s life to come.
Much like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett or Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, Roky Erickson is a poster child for both the dangers of psychotropic-fuelled-self-exploration and for the boundless possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll’s most experimental decade. The group for whom he’s best known, Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, were a mayfly of a band; they only existed between 1965 and 1969, but their influence shows no sign of fading.
The likes of Spacemen 3, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and – live, at least – Television have covered their songs. Without them there is no The La’s, no Pavement, Butthole Surfers or any other weirdo who ever looked at rock ‘n’ roll differently. Their music is innovative, challenging, intoxicating; even if it wasn’t, their place in history is assured by being the first group on record to refer to their music as ‘psychedelic rock’. The business cards used by the band from 1969 onwards were stamped with the now ubiquitous term.
Taking their name from the superstition that dictates the blueprints of many U.S. buildings skip a designated thirteenth floor, during their brief existence the 13th Floor Elevators made four albums and seven singles. In truth, only the first two count. Album three, ‘Live’, was a collection of studio outtakes and rarities, complete with overdubbed crowd noise, made with minimal input from the band. The final record, 1969’s ‘Bull Of The Woods’, is essentially a solo record by Elevators guitarist Stacy Sutherland and only features Roky on a handful of songs. By that point, mental and legal issues had curtailed the band’s brief existence.
It’s unsurprising, really. The first Elevators record set out their stall from the off. “Recently, it has been possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view,” read the liner notes for debut ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’. At the time LSD wasn’t yet outlawed, and yet it still felt like an outlaw declaration. “Come with us down the rabbit hole…” it said to the listener. The band’s one (semi)hit, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’, comes from this record. It features the jug playing skills of fellow founder Tommy Hall, who also wrote the album sleeve notes. REM’s Pete Buck once described the song as “Louis Louis, sideways”, which is as good as music criticism gets, really.
At the heart of the 13th Floor Elevators was principal songwriter Roger Kynard ‘Roky’ Erickson. Born in Dallas, Texas, on July 15, 1947, Erickson was a musical prodigy. By five he could play the piano pretty well. By 10 he could coax a tune out of a guitar. The Elevators’ debut album was released when he’d just turned 19. Even before the Elevators formed, Roky had a regional hit with his band The Spades and his song ‘We Sell Soul’; you can find a reworked version of it, entitled ‘Don’t Fall Down’, on that first Elevators record. Ditto The Spades’ take on ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ on the seminal garage rock compilation ‘The Best Of Pebbles Volume 1’.
Two more things you need to know about the Elevators; they almost featured the talents of Janis Joplin, who instead ultimately decided to head for San Francisco and join Big Brother and the Holding Company. And the band’s second record, 1967’s ‘Easter Everywhere’ – maybe the best psychedelic record ever made – features an amazing cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.
It’s impossible to quantify how much Roky’s interest in LSD contributed to his mental health problems. What we do know is that as early as 1969, while performing at the 1969’s World’s Fair in San Antonio, Texas, the crowd were alarmed to hear him speaking gibberish. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Houston and administered electroconvulsive therapy, against his will.
Then, a year later, with the band coming under scrutiny from law enforcement as the ’60s got serious on drug use, he was arrested for possessing a single joint of marijuana. Faced with 10 years in prison or pleading insanity, he chose the latter. Or did the latter choose him? He was sent to the Austin State Hospital. He tried to escape. He tried to escape over and over again. Then he was sent to the Rusk State Hospital. More electroconvulsive therapy followed. More Thorazine treatments. If the drugs didn’t fry his brain, the doctors certainly did.
When he was released in the mid-’70s he formed a new band, Bleib Alien; the German translation, taking a few liberties, is ‘stay alone’. It says much about his headspace. The new band would soon be renamed Roky Erickson & The Aliens, though not before releasing the excellent single ‘Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)’. It, like most of Roky’s new music, was more hard rock-orientated in tone than the Elevators had been. It was also inspired by the experiments of one Vladimir Demikhov, the perhaps-also-insane Russian scientist responsible for the first-ever head transplant. By 1982 Roky was convinced that a Martian was inhabiting his body.
Things got more unhinged. During the ’80s, he became obsessed with mail; in 1989 he was arrested on charges of stealing his neighbour’s post. The story goes that Roky had stolen mail from neighbours who’d vacated their property and taped it to the walls of his bedroom. The charges were dropped. A year later, Sire Records released a tribute to his talents, ‘Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson’. The tracklisting included the likes of REM, ZZ Top, Julian Cope and the Butthole Surfers. With a name taken from a quip Roky had once used to describe the essence of psychedelic music – and most likely a reference to the Eye Of Providence and the Great Seal Of The United States – it was a timely reminder of the genius of a man whose brilliance was threatening to be eclipsed by the chaos of his mind.
If Roky’s music had provided the inspiration for subsequent generations of musicians that followed, it was said devotees who gave him a hand up when he needed one. In 1995 King Coffey, drummer in aforementioned Texan space cadets Butthole Surfers, released Roky’s really quite beautiful solo record ‘All That May Do My Rhyme’. Henry Rollins published a book of his lyrics. His younger brother Sumner Erickson, a classical tuba player, took custody of him and finally had him taking the right medication and sorted out the legal entanglements that had deprived him of making the publishing money due to him. Subsequent re-issues of his solo work on the Light In The Attic label finally put his catalogue out to a wider audience.
In 2005, the brilliant career-retrospective documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me was screened at SXSW. That same year he performed his first concert in two decades at Austin’s legendary City Limits Festival. In part, Austin’s reputation as music’s capital of weirdo cool is down to the Roxy and his misadventures there. There’s so much love in Roky’s music, it’s fitting that in his later years he finally got some back.
Roky Erickson died in Austin on May 31 of as-yet-unspecified causes. He leaves behind a legacy that is remarkable.