Subculture Unsung: Roky Erickson

Remembering one of psychedelic rock's true pioneers

Tuesday 3rd September 2019

Roky Erickson by Ron Baker

"We were known as the first psychedelic band, the first one to be able to play music that would make you see things if you wanted to, and then lay back and envision things like Dylan does…
…Say, somebody wasn’t able to get high—well, he'd get high with our music. He could have his consciousness or his cortex opened just by our music."
- Roky Erickson, 1975

The emergence and popularity of psychedelic drugs in the mid-'60s bought around a cultural shift, people now wanted to evoke that altered state of consciousness, the psychedelic experience, by experimenting with the music and art they created.

The Beatles' 1965 album 'Rubber Soul' had heralded the proliferation of psychedelia. Their use of sitar, overdriven bass tones and album-centric focus became widespread staples of the era. The following year, The Yardbirds released 'Shapes Of Things', later widely regarded as first psychedelic rock's first hit single.

It was after hearing 'Shapes Of Things' Roky Erickson and his band The 13th Floor Elevators thought “My God, we better get our stuff out, man…we better watch that, we better get our stuff out because these cats are in on it.”

Roky was raised in Austin, Texas, he dropped out of High School shortly before graduating and was playing in a garage rock group called The Spades. They released one single 'You’re Gonna Miss Me' b/w 'We Sell Soul' (both of which were later reworked by The 13th Floor Elevators for their debut album).

It was lyricist and jug player Tommy Hall who approached Roky and another local group called The Linsmen in 1965 and together they formed a new band - The 13th Floor Elevators. 

At that time they thought they were only ones who were really experimenting and playing with feedback; making new sounds by standing on amplifiers, banging their guitars and incorporating Tommy Hall’s now-famous electric jug. A month before The Yardbirds released 'Shapes Of Things' in January 1966 The 13th Floor Elevators had released their reworked version of 'You’re Gonna Miss Me' as their debut single. A song they reportedly recorded under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, trying to replicate the mind-altering experience through musical experimentation.

The 13th Floor Elevators were well known locally in Texas and through the use of business cards had been advertising themselves as a 'psychedelic rock' band, a move that will forever have their names etched in the annals of rock 'n' roll history as they were the first band to ever do this. This however earmarked them as drug users to the local police and for a while, they were unable to leave the state due to being on parole for possession of marijuana. This initially stopped them from being able to tour America to increase their presence and profile on the national scene following the release of their debut single.

'You’re Gonna Miss Me' was re-released later in 1966 and did go onto to become a minor chart success. The 13th Floor Elevators never fully capitalised on the opportunity, despite two national TV appearances for Dick Clarke and some influential shows while touring the West Coast of America. Specifically, their shows in San Francisco alongside fellow Texan Janis Joplin and her new outfit Big Brother & The Holding Company were instrumental to the city’s burgeoning counterculture and the development of the San Francisco Sound.

The 13th Floor Elevators released their debut album 'The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators' in October 1966. Significantly it was the first time a record was advertised as 'psychedelic' to convey the style of music within. The liner notes also brazenly encouraged the use of LSD as a means for man to chemically alter his mental state and approach his life and his problems differently in a quest for pure sanity.

Roky and Tommy Hall were vocal advocates of the use of LSD, citing it as an inspiration to them and their music to greatness, but like so many others from the era, it came at a cost and Roky spent long spells of his life struggling with his mental health.

The 13th Floor Elevators follow up record, 1967's 'Easter Everywhere' is a fan favourite and critics consider it their finest work. Despite its retrospective status as a classic of the psychedelic genre, the record didn't sell as well as expected upon release and after its initial run sold out, it wasn't repressed. The album's opening track, 'Slip Inside This House' was covered by Primal Scream and included on their era-defining 1991 album 'Screamadelica'.

'Easter Everywhere' also features a cover 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' by Bob Dylan. Dylan is one of Roky's most-cited influences, although as a vocalist and performer he was influenced by the caws and screams of greats like James Brown, Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

While Roky’s vocal performances and musical arrangements coupled with Tommy Hall’s lyrics and electric jug had defined The 13th Floor Elevators up to this point, due to the circumstances surrounding Roky's legal troubles and mental wellbeing, their third and final studio album, 1969's 'Bull Of The Woods' was primarily written and arranged by lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland. It was released effectively after the group had already disbanded and Roky, despite providing rhythm guitar and vocals on a few tracks had only written two of the songs of the final album.

In 1968 Roky had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and in 1969 he was once again arrested for possession of marijuana. To avoid lengthy jail time he pleaded not guilty on grounds of insanity. Roky was then sent to a state hospital in Austin but following numerous escape attempts, he was instead sent to Rusk State Hospital.

It was while at Rusk that Roky was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment. Speaking of his time at Rusk, Roky said they were the longest three years of his life and that he thought he would d never get out. Although Roky did try to make the most of his time there, continuing to write music and poetry, studying and even forming a makeshift band with other inmates called the Missing Links.

"I've gone through three changes, I thought I was a Christian, then I was with the devil, when I signed my soul to the devil...and the third one where I know who I am...a monster...an alien with a brain about this big."

After his release from Rusk in 1974 Roky's next project was a band called Blieb Alien, later changing their name to Roky Erickson & The Aliens. They played what he dubbed 'horror rock n roll' - a brand of hard rock that was heavily inspired by the vivid imagery of horror films and science fiction.

They released two albums, the self-titled 'Roky Erickson & The Aliens' in 1980 and 'The Evil One' in 1981. Roky spent the majority of the '80s flirting with music, a 1986 album titled 'Don't Slander Me' serves as a nice anthology of his solo recordings from this time.

Roky's health, financial and living situations worsened towards the end of the decade but a new generation of musicians who had been inspired by Roky's music wanted to help. A tribute album was released in 1990, taking its name from Roky's succinct definition of psychedelic music as "Where the pyramid meets the Eye, man." 

The album was a compilation of covers by a variety of artists who admired his work and wanted to help expose it to a wider audience - and to financially aid Roky during his troubles. It features bands like Primal Scream, Butthole Surfers, The Jesus & Mary Chain, R.E.M. and The Mighty Lemon Drops.

In the mid-'90s members of the Texan punk band, the Butthole Surfers helped Roky record and release a roots-inspired record called 'All That May Do My Rhyme' and the highly regarded album 'Never Say Goodbye'. The latter was a collection of previously unreleased demos recorded between 1971-85 and this raw, stripped-back acoustic record has been noted to demonstrate Roky's mystical writing and singing ability in its gentlest form. Some of the tracks were even lo-fi tape recordings from his time at Rusk State Hospital.

Roky's brother Sumner successfully gained custody of him in 2001 and this saw a turnaround in Roky's life. His health improved and following some legal advice he began rightfully earning royalties from his music that had so far been denied to him. Roky spent the following years performing semi-regularly and releasing 'True Love Cast Out All Evil' with Okkervil River in 2010 - his first album of new material in 14 years.

A brief 13th Floor Elevators reunion for the 2015 Austin Pysch Festival, which had been renamed 'Levitation' after their 1967 song of the same name, bookended an incredible career and life that tragically ended in May 2019.

Tributes from far and wide emerged following his passing, cementing Roky's incredible legacy as a visionary musician and how his contributions to music will go on provide a constant source of inspiration for generations to come; especially to those looking to do things differently, to go a little further, do a little more and burn a little brighter.

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