Psychedelic and punk rock pioneer Roky Erickson has died. He was 71. Erickson sang about gods and monsters and kept the energetic simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll alive. Once, when asked where his melodies came from, he said that “the very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly. The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.” His shriek was ferocious enough to make Janis Joplin briefly consider joining his band.
Roky, pronounced “Rocky,” was born Roger Kynard Erickson Jr. on July 15, 1947. His family soon moved from Dallas to Austin, Texas. Erickson’s cultural diet consisted of comic books and the Beatles, and by 1965 he was busking on the streets near the University of Texas. He grew his hair and started getting high, and either dropped out or was kicked out — depending on who you talk to — of high school a few weeks short of graduation. Erickson joined a group called the Spades, who recorded what became one of his most popular songs, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
Soon Erickson was approached by Tommy Hall, a philosophy major, lyricist, and devotee of hallucinogens. “I told him I wanted to do what Dylan was doing, playing rock music but with serious lyrics,” Hall told an interviewer in 2004. ”I told him about what I was learning with LSD, and he really became interested. He agreed to join me in forming a new rock group.”
They called themselves the 13th Floor Elevators, and their 1966 version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was better produced and more popular — ultimately peaking at 55 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hall, who started playing the electric jug, insisted the band trip before every show. This level of commitment, along with the group’s recent arrest record, impressed the Bay Area rockers in San Francisco when the group first performed there. The Elevators were already calling themselves “psychedelic,” and the counterculture followed suit.
In addition to LSD, weed, speed, and mescaline, Erickson began taking whatever drugs were offered him, regardless of whether or not he knew what they were. In November 1967 he hesitated before taking the stage in Houston because “he didn’t want people to see the third eye in the middle of his forehead.” That month the Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere, which opened with the acidic “Slip Inside This House.”
Easter Everywhere failed to chart, but the band remained a strong draw in Texas, even though their stage show was devolving into feedback-soaked jams. Erickson’s drug use continued unabated and became a strain on his mental health. He was prescribed antipsychotic drugs and hospitalized. He only sang a few songs on the last Elevators’ album, Bull of the Woods. One of them was the beguiling “Dr. Doom.”
“Dear Doctor Doom,” Erickson sings in a lyric penned by Hall, “read your recent letter.”
No, you can’t make heaven in the east nirvana
But you can make certain that the ghost is there
And the always presence you have found within you
Is the same in heaven fully made aware
Bull of the Woods was released in March 1969. That year, Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession and ultimately diagnosed with “schizophrenia acute, undifferentiated.” He was institutionalized, but after several breakouts from Austin State Hospital, he was transferred to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane and given shock treatments and Thorazine. “I was in there with people who’d chopped up people with a butcher knife,” he told a friend, “and they treated me worse because I had long hair.” He was 22.
Erickson later claimed to have faked insanity to beat the possession rap, which would have meant a sentence between two years and life.
In 1974, Erickson formed a group called Bleib Alien, a play on the German bleib allein, or “stay alone.” Their single “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” defies category. Its galvanic rhythm predates punk. Erickson conjures horror film images three years before the horror punk band Misfits formed.
A dozen years later, Erickson’s Gremlins Have Pictures contained “I’m a Demon,” a simple number with a dark heart. “I’m a demon, and I love rock ‘n’ roll,” Erickson sings, sounding a little like rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson. “I see a demon, and at the same time I see you.”
I present these songs, not just because they make for great listening, but because even as a writer I can’t conceive of a better way of remembering a musician than by listening to their music.
Moreover, Erickson’s output was so varied as to be uncontainable. Consider the two Buddy Holly–esque versions of “Starry Eyes” from All That May Do My Rhyme as compared to the wayward, anthemic “I Walked With a Zombie” from The Evil One.
We in the West have a propensity to mythologize artists, especially dead ones. We like to send them on what professor and author Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, also known as the “monomyth,” because similar stories have permeated the history of human culture. According to Campbell, the hero must leave the Ordinary World, descend into the Special World, survive an Ordeal, and return with transformative knowledge. In popular culture, we’ve seen this narrative play out many times, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.
Roky Erickson was in many ways an ideal candidate to become a monetized modern shaman. He was an outsider — regional long before regional was cool — and could therefore be allowed to lead and not follow. His prodigious intake of psychedelic drugs perhaps allowed him special insight — as his band mate Tommy Hall described in the liner notes to the Elevators’ first album.
“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,” Hall wrote, adding that hallucinogens can “restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.” Many jazz fans and musicians believed that having a heroin addiction, like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker did, could heighten creativity. Some still do.
Erickson’s mental health issues would also qualify him for artistic canonization, along with other musicians like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and Daniel Johnston. The outlandish Erickson stories are legion. Author Michael Hall recalled his first encounter with Erickson in 1984. “After we started our interview that afternoon,” Hall wrote, “he pulled the cellophane from a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket to reveal a bee crawling around inside. He examined it briefly, returned it to his pocket, and continued, rambling on many subjects, making connections between things that weren’t the least bit connected.”
Even Erickson’s friends and family sometimes hindered him through good intentions. “Everybody treated him like a god,” Erickson’s friend Terry Moore told Michael Hall. “Nobody would say, ‘Roky, you need to straighten up.’” Warner Brothers record executive Bill Bentley “never saw the dark side” of Erickson’s mother and long-time caregiver Evelyn. “She tried to cure Roky in so many ways, according to her belief,” Bentley said. “She might have loved him too much. He was her oldest, the most talented. He was a star, a little god-like creature.”
It seems as if our culture confers a special status on people like Roky Erickson by making them heroes, but what we’re really doing is preserving them as the Other. We make them bring us new perspectives and expressions which, after some resistance, we will incorporate into the culture. Erickson’s gift to us was resonance — he internalized comic books, psychoactive drugs, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and returned his own magical version. And for the most part we understood, even if that meant thinking about the world in a new way. He could ingest DMT, get hassled by the cops, be confined to an insane asylum, and live in near poverty — after all, many people still treat those as hallmarks of artistic authenticity. And we could walk through the doors he opened without risk.
Erickson survived long enough to enjoy legitimacy. In 2005, he performed at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, and anchored a panel on the 13th Floor Elevators, who had been recently inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. You’re Gonna Miss Me, a documentary about his life, came out that year, as well as an anthology, I Have Always Been Here Before. By then, according to writer Margaret Moser, Erickson had become “the very picture of Austin’s sly, laid-back, and plugged-in populace.” It’s a shame he had to suffer so much to get there.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.