Roky Erickson Back On Earth
Published Apr 25, 2010It's easy to believe Roky Erickson when, in his jovial Texas drawl, he describes himself as a lucky man. Through the support of family and fans around the world, he has brought a 40-year battle with mental illness under control in the past decade, and restored his reputation as one of America's most influential rock'n'roll musicians. On the other hand, Erickson's clipped, but unwaveringly positive, manner of speaking just barely masks the nightmare he has endured. As front-man of the 13th Floor Elevators, he pioneered the concept of psychedelic rock at a time when the Grateful Dead were doing Motown covers. Yet, it was his band's unrestrained use of hallucinogens that proved their undoing within a few short years. The effect on Erickson was devastating. He spent many horrifying years institutionalized. Yet, he would always emerge with songs that channelled his experiences into either simple pleas for justice, or raging tales of demons, gremlins, and zombies. His first new recording since 1995, True Love Cast Out All Evil, is a journey into Erickson's tortured soul, with his collaborators, Okkervil River, as guides. Although it is comprised of songs Erickson wrote during his lowest points, the end result is a loving portrait of a man whose devotion to music, and the kindness that he believes all human beings possess, has seen him through. As someone whose focus is seemingly always on the here and now, it is difficult for Erickson to talk about his past. But when asked if he thinks his message is still as hopeful as it's ever been, Erickson doesn't hesitate to say, "Yes I do, I sure do. I just believe that you should write about what you're thinking. That will always give you the right answer every time, you know what I mean?"
1947 to 1965
Roger Kynard Erickson is born July 15, 1947 in Austin, Texas, the eldest of five brothers. His parents, Roger Erickson and Evelyn Kynard, give him the nickname Roky (pronounced "Rocky"), a contraction of his first two names. With his father often consumed by his work as an architect, his mother ― a former opera singer and devout Christian ― introduces Roky and the rest of the children to the arts early in life. Roky begins taking piano and acting lessons at age four, but switches to guitar at age ten when he first hears rock'n'roll on the radio. His favourite artists are Little Richard and fellow Texan Buddy Holly. Roky perfects the former's trademark scream thanks to operatic techniques learned from his mother, who in turn fulfils his wish to own an electric guitar and amplifier. Although Roky remains Evelyn's pride and joy into his teens, he no longer follows her religious guidance once he develops a fascination with the era's horror movies and comic books. He also stops going to see Broadway musicals she is fond of, instead catching R&B stars such as James Brown and Ike & Tina Turner whenever they are in the vicinity. At 15, Erickson writes his first songs, "You're Gonna Miss Me," and "We Sell Soul," and forms the Roulettes with neighbourhood friends. This group evolves into the Missing Links, and then the Spades, as Erickson embraces British bands such as the Kinks and Them. In spring 1965, Erickson drops out of high school one month before graduation, rather than bowing to pressure from administrators to cut his hair. By then the Spades have a regional following, leading the band to record Erickson's originals as a single for small label Contact Records. In late 1965, they are playing an Austin bar called the Jade Room when a group of older kids approaches them. Leading the pack is a University of Texas student named Tommy Hall, among the first residents of Texas to use and promote the then-legal drug LSD. Impressed by Erickson's performance, Hall invites him into his circle, and within weeks they form a new band called the 13th Floor Elevators. Hall's main contributions are lyrics that celebrate the LSD experience, as well as his own musical innovation, the "electric jug." For the band's first business card, Hall describes them as "psychedelic rock," a phrase no one has heard until then.
In January, the Elevators record their version of "You're Gonna Miss Me" ― after dropping acid ― for Contact, and it again becomes a regional hit. Erickson's scream that kicks off the track sets a new precedent in rock and roll, and a singer from Port Arthur, Texas named Janis Joplin is among the first to mimic it once she becomes an Elevators fan. The single also attracts the attention of Lelan Rogers (brother of Kenny Rogers), A&R man for a small Houston label called International Artists. It puts out "You're Gonna Miss Me" nationally and the song gets healthy airplay in several cities, most crucially San Francisco. The downside of the Elevators' notoriety is increased surveillance by the Austin police force. They raid Tommy Hall's house ― the band's hangout ― early in 1966 and seize two pounds of marijuana. All charges against the members are eventually dropped due to technicalities, prompting their exodus to the friendlier environment of San Francisco. Their connection there is one-time University of Texas student Chet Helms, who is at the forefront ― in tandem with Bill Graham ― of promoting concerts within the city. Helms had encouraged his friend Janis Joplin to head west and join her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, which debuts at the Avalon Ballroom in June 1966. Soon after, Helms books the 13th Floor Elevators there and at other Bay Area venues throughout the autumn. The Elevators' impact on the San Francisco scene is immediate; Hall's strict rule that the band drop acid before every performance causes even members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane to marvel at their commitment to psychedelics. In early October, they return to Houston to record The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, released by International Artists a month later. But with the label having little money for promotion, album sales are disappointing.
1967 to 1968
The Elevators' rampant drug use starts to have a serious affect on Erickson, as he begins adding shots of methamphetamine or heroin to his regular doses of LSD. He starts missing gigs, and when he is on stage, he is easily distracted, turning his back to the audience or becoming engrossed in his guitar feedback. Offstage, Erickson is often seen with a bandage on his forehead in order to cover up his "third eye." In the midst of this, the Elevators record their second album, Easter Everywhere, in Houston, released in November 1967. Erickson pushes Hall's psychedelic philosophy even further on tracks such as "Slip Inside This House" and "(I've Got) Levitation," but again their label lets the band down in terms of promotion. "I think we decided to go back [to San Francisco] and then thought about quitting," Erickson recalls today. By spring, 1968, the Elevators are in disarray; drummer John Ike Walton departs, while bassist Ronnie Leatherman is drafted and sent to Vietnam. Erickson suggests replacing Leatherman with his roommate, future legendary singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, but Hall vetoes the idea. In response to this chaos, International Artists stoops to hastily assembling a fake 13th Floor Elevators to play gigs. Largely through the perseverance of lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland, a handful of demos are laid down for a third album, among them Erickson's haunting version of the folk standard "May The Circle Remain Unbroken." Everything comes to a crashing halt, though, at the San Antonio World's Fair in the early summer of 1968 when the Elevators gather for what is supposed to be a high-profile show. Erickson ingests a mix of LSD and speed and refuses to go on stage. As the rest of the band begin without him, he disappears. Two weeks later, Erickson turns up in his mother's backyard talking incoherently. He undergoes a month of psychiatric evaluation and is committed to a Houston hospital where he is heavily drugged and given shock treatment. On July 21, Tommy Hall sneaks Erickson out of the hospital and the pair head back to San Francisco. Erickson is eventually joined there by an old flame, Dana Gaines, but her care does little to pull him out of his abyss. He believes he is possessed by demons, but when he starts saying that voices are telling him to kill Jackie Kennedy, the consensus is to get him back to his mother in Austin.
1969 to 1972
On a spring morning in 1969, Erickson is driving when he notices an Austin police car tailing him. He throws the joint he is smoking out the window just before being pulled over. The officer finds the joint and arrests Erickson for possession. Roky cannot afford a lawyer, so is assigned a court-appointed attorney. Fearful that the judge is determined to make an example out of Erickson by handing him a lengthy prison sentence, his counsel advises him to plead insanity. Doctors in Austin diagnose Erickson as having acute schizophrenia, leading the judge to sentence him to indefinite incarceration at the Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane, where most of the other inmates are killers and rapists. There, Erickson is subjected to more shock treatment and is kept sedated by heavy doses of Thorazine. In the first year, Erickson is resigned to a routine of mopping floors, and abandons hope that he will ever be released. Once some of his innate optimism returns, he revives his religious conviction in order to demonstrate good behaviour. His many hours of study in the prison chapel earn him a minister's card, and staff further reward Erickson with an old acoustic guitar. He starts to write songs and poetry, most of which reflect his renewed sense of spirituality. "I guess in a way it's like a wishing thing, whatever you want to call it, prayers or things like that," Erickson says of what he produced at Rusk. He eventually persuades the administration to allow him to form a band with fellow inmates, all of whom are murderers. Erickson dubs them the Missing Links after one of his first groups, and they play mostly Rolling Stones covers. In 1972, Erickson's brother Mikel hires a lawyer, and on Nov. 27 of that year, a jury decides that Roky can be released from Rusk.
1973 to 1977
Erickson lives with his mother initially, and celebrates his freedom by reforming the Elevators for a handful of gigs. It propels Erickson to start getting his life back in earnest, and he soon reconnects with Dana Gaines. They marry in 1974, just as another woman is pregnant with Erickson's first child. Roky and Dana have a son, Jegar, in 1976. She, along with Erickson's childhood friend George Kinney, also assembles his first collection of poetry, entitled Openers, although soon after Erickson's songwriting takes a new, unexpected turn: the spiritual messages are exchanged for references to horror films and other dark imagery. It is said that in some cases Erickson simply took old lyrics and replaced the words "God" and "Jesus" with "Satan" and "Lucifer." Furthermore, Erickson gets a lawyer to draft a document saying that he is "NOT a member of the human race and in fact from a planet other than earth." He forms a new band in 1975 called Bleib (an anagram of "Bible") Alien that offers a heavy rock sound first heard on the single "Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)/Starry Eyes," produced by Sir Douglas Quintet leader Doug Sahm. The group plays shows in Texas and California, while recording more tracks that in 1977 are heard on the single "Bermuda/The Interpreter," and the Mine Mine Mind EP. By then, punk's infatuation with Erickson and the Elevators is in full swing. "You're Gonna Miss Me" was included on the original 1972 Nuggets, the highly influential U.S. garage rock compilation assembled by Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye. As well, the Elevators' "Fire Engine" is a staple of Television's live set.
1978 to 1979
A San Francisco-based manager, Craig Luckin, takes over Erickson's business affairs and persuades him to again move to the coast where his audience remains loyal. Luckin helps Erickson assemble a new band, simply called the Aliens, and taps his friend Stu Cook, bassist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, to produce a new album. Cook meets Erickson for the first time in early 1979 when, back in Austin, Erickson is briefly hospitalized again after a minor arrest. Once released, Erickson and Cook begin recording, and ultimately finish 15 tracks between sessions in Austin and San Francisco throughout the year. The increasing instability leads Erickson and his wife to divorce. He soon marries a waitress he meets in a club. Meanwhile, Elevators guitarist Stacy Sutherland is shot to death by his wife during a domestic dispute.
1980 to 1981
Roky Erickson and the Aliens is released by CBS UK. Its muscular re-working of Erickson repertoire of the previous five years generates glowing reviews, and he visits London for a round of press interviews. Erickson's answers invariably leave all of the reporters baffled. Back in the U.S., he performs regularly with various bands, including the Aliens, the Explosives, and the Resurrectionists, as the album gets its official Stateside release ― with several extra tracks added ― under the title The Evil One. "I just had one band, and then they would tell me you have to play with somebody [else]," Erickson says. "[Sometimes] at the last minute I wouldn't have to, and I'd be real relieved."
1982 to 1985
Erickson keeps up an active live schedule in Texas and elsewhere with a stable core of musicians he calls the Evilhook Wildlife E.T. Recordings of several of these shows later appear as quasi-legitimate releases, such as Casting The Runes (1988) and Beauty And The Beast (1994). Erickson's third child, a daughter named Cydne, is born in 1984. On Halloween that year, Erickson is interviewed and filmed playing acoustically under Austin's Congress Street Bridge for a local television special. This unique performance comes out in 1995 as Demon Angel: A Day And Night With Roky Erickson. A new single, "Don't Slander Me/Starry Eyes," also appears in 1984 under the name the Roky Erickson Band, and a year later comes the single "The Beast," with a raging cover of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" on the b-side. Most of these recent recordings are gathered for the LP Roky Erickson and Evilhook Wildlife E.T., which intersperses interview clips among the tracks. A further new composition, "Burn The Flames," is featured on the soundtrack of the 1985 film The Return Of The Living Dead.
1986 to 1987
A deal with L.A.-based Enigma Records leads to the release of Don't Slander Me, recorded in San Francisco in 1982 with a band anchored by Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. It's hailed as Erickson's most satisfying album since The Evil One due to its sonically consistent mix of new material and revamped versions of older singles. Gremlins Have Pictures soon follows, another critically acclaimed album consisting of full-band and solo acoustic live performances spanning the previous decade. On Feb. 21, 1987, Erickson and Evilhook Wildlife E.T. play at The Ritz in Austin. It will be his last live appearance for five years. By then, Erickson had stopped taking fluphenazine, the anti-psychotic drug he had long been prescribed, saying the tremors it caused impaired his basic motor skills. Off his medication, Erickson loses his drive to play music. His state becomes too much for his wife to handle, leading to his second divorce.
1988 to 1990
Erickson returns to the care of his mother, whose religious beliefs affirm his decision to stay off medication. With no steady income, he moves into a series of government housing projects in and around Austin. Erickson's physical state mirrors his deteriorating mental state. He develops a serious dental abscess that his mother refuses to have treated with medication. She also bars many of his friends from seeing him. Erickson copes with his isolation ― and the voices in his head ― by having several radios and televisions simultaneously turned up full blast at all times in his apartment. He further aggravates his neighbours when he develops an obsession with stealing their mail and taping the unopened letters to the walls of his apartment. He is eventually arrested for mail tampering in 1989 and institutionalized yet again.
1991 to 1994
When word of Erickson's desperate situation circulates, Bill Bentley, a longtime fan and executive at Warner Bros. Records, organizes Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye, a tribute album featuring R.E.M., ZZ Top, Primal Scream, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Doug Sahm, the Butthole Surfers, and many other artists with a direct connection to Erickson's work. Its release coincides with You're Gonna Miss Me: The Best Of Roky Erickson, compiled by UK label Demon Records. Sales of both discs put a small dent in Erickson's growing legal and medical bills, although his mother continues to keep a tight rein on all aspects of his life. Still, this new attention coaxes Erickson back to the stage. In July 1992, he plays a brief solo set at Liberty Lunch in Austin, and by 1993 he is appearing regularly with a full band again at various Austin events and venues. In October 1993, the Butthole Surfers' King Coffey persuades Erickson to record for his Trance Syndicate label. These sessions, overseen by Speedy Sparks of Sir Douglas Quintet, continue into 1994, as Henry Rollins prepares Openers II, an updated collection of Erickson's writings published the following year by Rollins' 2.13.61 imprint.
1995 to 2000
The Trance Syndicate album, All That May Do My Rhyme, is released in 1995. Although its foundation is again new versions of familiar songs, the overall sound is surprisingly tender. Erickson's voice remains in fine form, and the performances display more of Buddy Holly's influence than ever before. Coffey later divulges that Erickson told him it was the first time he'd ever received a royalty cheque from a record label. Another side of Erickson is further revealed on the 1999 disc Never Say Goodbye, a compilation of personal recordings dating from the early '70s, some of which were taped by his mother during visits to Rusk. While Erickson's music continues to reach new ears ― "You're Gonna Miss Me" is heard over the opening credits of the 2000 film High Fidelity ― his mother's staunch determination to prevent him from taking all forms of medication keeps him in an extremely fragile state throughout the last half of the '90s.
2001 to 2004
With Erickson's teeth now needing immediate attention, his youngest brother Sumner ― a tuba player with the Pittsburgh symphony ― mounts a challenge to become Roky's legal guardian. Sumner wins the case based on a dentist's testimony that, if left untreated, Roky's abscesses will soon spread to his brain and potentially kill him. Roky spends the following year in Pittsburgh, living with his brother and seeing new doctors, while Sumner works diligently to track down unpaid royalties dating back to the start of Roky's career. In 2004, Sumner quits his job with the symphony to effectively become Roky's full-time manager back in Austin, where, since Roky's return from Pittsburgh, has held an annual concert for the Roky Erickson Trust.
2005 to 2006
You're Gonna Miss Me, a documentary about Erickson's life and the family's legal battles, premieres to rave reviews at 2005's South By Southwest festival. It is accompanied by Shout Factory's two-disc I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology, compiled by Bill Bentley. At the Austin City Limits festival that September, Erickson performs a stellar set accompanied by the Explosives, and old friend Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. By the end of the year, Erickson is no longer taking anti-psychotic medication, has quit smoking, has a driver's license and a car for the first time in 30 years, and has reunited with his first wife Dana and their son Jegar.
2007 to 2009
Sumner relinquishes guardianship of his brother. Roky and Dana buy a house in Austin, and he starts touring again, with Jegar as his road manager. In 2007 he plays his first-ever concert in New York City, and also the Coachella Festival, before travelling to England for the first time since 1980 for a show at London's Royal Festival Hall. He receives rapturous receptions at other European festivals that summer, as well as in cities he has never played before, such as Detroit and Chicago. In 2008, he contributes vocals to the track "Devil Rides" on Mogwai's Batcat EP and teams up with another young band, Okkervil River, for a performance at that year's Austin Music Awards. Shortly after, Okkervil River front-man Will Sheff receives a call from Erickson's new manager Darren Hill asking if he and the band would collaborate with Roky on a new album. When Sheff agrees, Hill sends him dozens of Erickson's past recordings in order to choose the material he feels will be appropriate.
True Love Cast Out All Evil is released on Anti Records. By focusing on Erickson's most poignant songs such as "Be And Bring Me Home," "Please Judge," and "Birds'd Crash," the album paints a vivid portrait of Erickson's lifelong struggles. However, Sheff's lush arrangements and overall attention to sonic detail set the album apart from anything else in Erickson's body of work. It is, essentially, the most uplifting and hopeful record he has ever done. Sheff says, "We worked together pretty well. I thought it was a really good vibe, I thought it was really good chemistry. After a while we got used to the way we played together, so it became really easy and really exciting to do." Concerts are scheduled for L.A., San Francisco, Austin and New York, before seeing what might happen next. "We just did South By Southwest and it was really fun," Sheff says. "We're playing mainly songs from the album, like 'Goodbye Sweet Dreams,' 'Be And Bring Me Home,' the title track, and other stuff like that." Erickson's own opinion of how the project turned out is typically enthusiastic. "I like the slowness of it," he says. "I just like relaxing a lot, and doing the safe things, you know? I wrote this poem called 'It Must Be Safe All Around.' You see what I'm saying? I always tell people, 'Stay safe.'"