Roky Erickson sadly passed away due to unknown causes on May 31st, 2019, having lived a troubled life but one that happily also included a triumphant return in recent years. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Roger Kynard Erickson was born in Dallas, Texas, on July 15th in 1947. His father was a civil engineer/architect while his mother sung opera. One of his four younger brothers would later play tuba in the Pittsburgh symphony. Playing piano and guitar from an early age, Roky dropped out of his Austin high school a month before graduating, having refused to cut his hair and conform to the school dress code.
Inspired by artists like Little Richard, Bob Dylan (whose “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was to be covered on “Easter Everywhere”, 1967) and James Brown, “Roky” started writing and recording his own music. After playing in the garage band The Fugitives, Erickson joined the local group The Spades in 1965, a band who at that point had released one rather lacking single that featured a cover of Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit “Do You Wanna Dance?”.
With Erickson added as songwriter (using the alias “Emil Schwartze”), guitarist and singer, however, they managed to score a local hit with what was to become and remain Erickson’s most commerically successful song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. “We Sell Soul” was the B-side.
This and their live set of cover songs by Buddy Holly and The Kinks caught the attention of electric jug player Tommy Hall, a university psychology student and a vocal proponent of psychotropic drugs like LSD and marijuana. Hall was instrumental in getting Roky to join up with three members of folkies The Lingsmen to form the 13th Floor Elevators, a name inspired by the superstition that made American buildings omitt floors with the unlucky number. The band suggested that people ought to ride with them if they wanted to reach a new level of consciousness. “M” (as in “Marijuana”) is also the 13th letter of the alphabet. This was of course all taking place in the years immediately after professor Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (soon known as “Ram Dass”) were fired from Harvard University after conducting psilocybin experiments and advocating the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions.
While the rhythm section would undergo several line-up changes (e.g. original bass player Benny Thurman playing only on two tracks on the debut – Roky then failed to replace him with roommate Townes Van Zandt, the country singer/songwriter who’d release his own debut solo album in 1968), Lingsmen guitarist Stacy Sutherland remained in the band from it’s inception in 1965 until it folded in ’69.
During these years the band released seven singles (collected in 2009 as “7th Heaven: Music Of The Spheres – The Complete Singles Collection”) and four albums. Of these, 1968’s “Live” was a record company cash-in (with little input from the band) made up of earlier studio outtakes with overdubbed audience sounds. It did, however, contain five songs not featured on the regular studio albums: Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me”, Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”, Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” and two original compositions, “You Gotta Take That Girl” and Erickson/Hall’s “You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore”.
Erickson was 19 years old when the band released their debut album in 1966. “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” was released by International Artists, a Houson label run by Lelan Rogers – brother of country singer Kenny Rogers – and also home to contemporary Texas underground groups Red Krayola and Bubble Puppy. The album title was one of the first uses of the phrase “psychedelic” in reference to music (predating The Grateful Dead by two weeks) and the album artwork was suitably colourful. The record opened with their re-recording of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” which went on to become such a hit that the band even got to perform on the popular TV show Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. After their performance, Dick Clark asked who the head man of the group was. “We’re all heads!”, replied Hall, an obvious (but apparently not to Clark) reference to the countercultural slang for someone using psychotropic substances.
Lenny Kaye, later lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, would include “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on his legandary 1972 garage rock compilation “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965–1968”. It would also feature in the opening scene of “High Fidelity”, the 2000 movie featuring John Cusack and Jack Black, based on Nick Hornby’s brilliant 1995 novel about the life of record collectors. “What came first, music or the misery?” – that is the question. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is also the name of a 2005 documentary film by Keven McAlester that chronicles the rise, fall and return of Roky Erickson after years as a poverty-stricken recluse.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me” was Ericksons only solo composition on the album. For the most part, Roky wrote the melodies while Tommy Hall supplied the lyrics, often based on religious and philosophical subjects including the ideas of thinkers like Korzybski and Gurdjieff. “Roller Coaster” and “Don’t Fall Down” (an adaptation of The Spades’ “We Sell Soul”) had this set up while “Reverberation” and “Fire Engine” (covered live by artsy New York punks Television in the mid-1970s) were also co-credited to Sutherland. “Splash 1 (Now I’m Home)” was an Erickson composition which got finished through words by Clementine Hall, the wife of Tommy Hall.
Hall and Sutherland also wrote songs together for the debut while three of the songs were penned by Powell St. John, a local songwriter who was seven years Roky’s senior. St. John was once in the trio The Waller Creek Boys with Janis Joplin (who would record his song “Bye, Bye Baby” as the opening track of the Big Brother & the Holding Company debut album, 1967) and would later move to San Francisco and join Mother Earth, the band fronted by Tracy Nelson. St. John appears on the first two albums by Mother Earth, “Living with the Animals” (1968, featuring Mike Bloomfield) and “Make A Joyful Noise” (1969, with Boz Scaggs). Before moving to California herself, Janis Joplin had also considered joining the Elevators. But this never came to be and the rest, as they say, is history.
Following a drug bust that prohibited them from performing in bars or rock clubs in Texas, the band left for an extended 1966 stay in California. Once there, the 13th Floor Elevators shared bills with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape and the Great Society, featuring the soon to be Jefferson Airplane vocalist Grace Slick. They also put on a show with all Texan bands, sharing the bill with Joplin’s group and the Sir Douglas Quintet, a band incorporating Tex-Mex and Cajun styles into rock music.
The sophomore album “Easter Everywhere” followed in 1967, arguably their greatest triumph. Roky co-wrote six of the ten tracks: “Slip Inside This House”, “She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)”, “Earthquake”, “Dust” and “Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)” with Tommy Hall but also “I Had to Tell You” with the latter’s wife Clementine.
At this point the increasingly erratic behavior of the psychedelicized Tommy Hall and the mentally fragile Roky Erickson began to take it’s toll on the band, making writing sessions for their third album less than fruitful when they could only take place between Roky’s recurring hospital treatments. Erickson was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1968 and involuntarily received electroconvulsive therapy at a Houston psychiatric hospital.
The original core trio played their final live show in April 1968 and by August only Sutherland remained to finish “Bull of the Woods”. Released in 1969, their final studio album features only two songs credited to Erickson, the Hall co-write “Never Another” and the haunting album closer “May the Circle Remain Unbroken”. Aside from these, Roky sang only on “Livin’ On” and “Dr. Doom”, both co-written by Sutherland and Hall who himself supposedly appeared only on one album track.
In the year following the demise of the ‘Elevators, many compilations and re-issues with additional material in the form of outtakes and live recordings have been released. Notable among these is the 3 disc set “The Psychedelic World of the 13th Floor Elevators” (2002) which collects the band’s studio output along with live cuts, alternate versions and the two songs by The Spades that featured Erickson. For those in need of even more, look for 2009’s 10 CD box set “Sign Of The 3 Eyed Men”!
A partial 13th Floor Elevators reunion took place in Austin in 1984 (released as “The Reunion Concert” in 1995, despite bad sound quality) with Roky alongside John Ike Walton on drums and Ronnie Leatherman on bass. Sutherland had accidentally been shot and killed by his wife Bunny during a domestic dispute in 1978. Sutherland’s place was taken by guitarist Greg Forest, Tommy Hall did not participate. Hall did, however, join Erickson, Leatherman and Walton in 2015 for a 50th Anniversary reunion concert appearance at Austin Psych Fest (Levitation 2015).
Erickson’s friend and fellow Austinite, Billy Gibbons was yet to grow his ZZ Top beard in the ’60’s but he was so inspired by Roky’s band that he went on to form his own psychedelic blues rock band in 1967. The Moving Sidewalks would release their sole album, “Flash”, in 1969 but before that they also supported The 13th Floor Elevators at several concerts. They would also later reunite to play at the Austin Psych Fest in 2013, thus once more sharing a festival bill with Roky Erickson.
Gibbons also played with Roky Erickson and The Explosives in 2007 on the TV show Austin City Limits, a half hour set featuring nine songs that’s well worth watching.
Erickson was arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint in 1969. Facing a potential ten-year incarceration, Erickson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to avoid prison. After several escapes from Austin State Hospital, he was sent to the Rusk State Hospital For The Criminally Insane where he was to be subjected to more electroconvulsive therapy and anti-psychotic drugs. I can only imagine the horror of scenes such as those in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Roky ultimately remained in custody until 1972.
From here on the discography of Roky become more complicated to follow chronologically but the first 6 tracks on the 1999 collection “Never Say Goodbye” (also featuring recordings from 1974, 1983 and 1985) were recorded in 1971 during his time there. These are beautifully sparse, not least “I Love The Living You”. Having managed to get hold of both a warped acoustic guitar and a copy of The Holy Bible, these song also appear to reflect on Roky’s religious upbringing. During his time at Rusk, Roky also wrote poetry, eventually resulting in the book “Openers” when the material was smuggled outside for publication in 1972. The book “Openers II: The Lyrics of Roky Erickson” followed in 1996.
Roky also formed the band The Missing Links at Rusk, supposedly playing mostly The Rolling Stones covers. No recordings appear to be available from this line-up but they were allowed to perform outside of the facility, even on TV, despite the other members being convicted murderers. “Our band at Rusk was on television three times”, commented Roky, “but we sang an anti-war song and about a million straights called up and said, ‘That’s a bunch of shit, we believe in war so let’s not have any of that peaceful shit on TV.’” Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Once released from hospital, the most psychedelic aspects of his music were left behind. After a failed attempt to re-unite with original ‘Elevators drummer John Ike Walton, his solo career instead took a turn towards hard rock with lyrics focusing on horror, sci-fi and the paranormal.
In 1974 Roky formed a band called Bleib Alien, a pun on German words meaning “remain alone.” His first solo release was then made possible by Doug Sahm, the singer/songwriter and founder of The Sir Douglas Quintet. They also recorded Sahm’s most famous compositions, “She’s About a Mover” (1965) and “Mendocino” (1969), the latter of which also feature in the movie “High Fidelity”.
Through Craig Luckin, Sahm’s tour manager at the time, Roky came to San Francisco in 1975 and performed a brief four-song set over three nights, backed by Sahm and the reformed Sir Douglas Quintet. Sahm also funded and produced Roky’s first “comeback” single, the brutal “Two-Headed Dog” backed by the beautiful “Starry Eyes”. These were also the songs performed in the mentioned live sets alongside “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and future classic “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer”.
“Bermuda” b/w “The Interpreter” followed in 1977 along with an EP featuring “Mine, Mine, Mind”, “Click Your Fingers, Applauding The Play”, “Two-Headed Dog” and “I Have Always Been Here Before”.
Sahm had earlier worked with the former Creedence Clearwater Revival rhythm section, Doug Clifford and Stu Cook on “Groover’s Paradise”, the 1974 album by Doug Sahm and the Tex-Mex Trip. This in turn led to Cook co-producing 15 songs by Roky Erikson & the Aliens (“Bleib” was dropped in ’78), whose lineup included guitarist Duane Aslaksen, Sahm’s touring sound mixer and guitar tech. Cook himself played bass on two tracks, “Sputnik” and “Bloody Hammer”.
These recordings from 1979 were first released on two overlapping LPs, with 5 songs appearing on both “Roky Erickson And The Aliens” (1980, a.k.a. “I Think Of Demons”) and “The Evil One” (1981). All 15 has been brought together on CD with “The Evil One (Plus One)” featuring a 1979 live bonus disc.
These studio sessions featured most of what continued to be Roky’s arguably most famous and popular songs, many of which have also been covered by numerous other acts. These include “I Think Of Demons”, “Creature With The Atom Brain”, “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer”, “Stand For The Fire Demon”, “I Walked With A Zombie”, “It’s A Cold Night For Alligators” and “If You Have Ghosts”, famously covered by Ghost on their Dave Grohl produced 2013 EP. Also found on these albums are “White Faces” (covered by The Devil’s Blood on their 2008 debut EP “Come Reap”) and “Night Of The Vampire”, a song covered by Entombed in 1995 and more recently by Chelsea Wolfe. Wolfe also performed at Holland’s Roadburn festival in 2017, at which I also got to see San Diego stoner-jammers Harsh Toke perform a covers set in tribute to Roky Erickson. Anyway, her version is absolute magic!
Further recordings by Roky Erickson & The Aliens from 1978 were released as “Don’t Knock The Rok!” in 2004. This compilation of outtakes is probably of interest only to die-hard fans. It does includes six Roky originals but it is largly comprised of ’50’s style cover songs.
Duane Aslaksen was retained for the 1982 recordings of what was to become “Don’t Slander Me” (not released until 1986), the next proper studio album. Aslaksen now also produced in addition to playing guitar. Bill Miller (autoharp) and keyboard player Andre Lewis (formerly in Frank Zappa’s band) were also still on board but for these recordings none less than Jack Casady played bass. Casady had of course been an integral part of the California hippie scene, being a member of psych rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. He’d also played live with Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix, even appearing on the studio version of “Voodoo Chile” off “Electric Ladyland”. Casady also played on David Crosby’s 1971 solo debut masterpiece “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, and here he appeared on yet another awesome album!
The tracks on “Don’t Slander Me” are just about up to par with those on the expanded “The Evil One”, not least the title track, “Haunt”, “Nothing in Return”, “Burn the Flames”, “Bermuda”, “Can’t Be Brought Down”, “Starry Eyes” and “The Damn Thing”. Amazing stuff!
“Gremlins Have Pictures” was also released in 1986, having been compiled and edited by Craig Luckin and future Tom Waits associate Karl Derfler. Roky is accompanied by either The Explosives, The Aliens, Bleib Alien or Jack Johnson on the various tracks. It consists of recordings spanning 1975-1982 and has a wildly varying sound quality.
Still, worth hearing for tracks such as the Dylanesque “Warning (Social And Political Injustices)” and the Blieb Alien live recording of “Sweet Honey Pie”, both from 1975. “John Lawman”, recorded with The Explosives in 1980, is also a pretty cool song. What really makes this album worth hearing, however, are the tracks recorded in California with Jack Johnson on guitar in 1976 and ’82. “Anthem (I Promise)”, “I Am” and “I Have Always Been Here Before” is pure gold!
Austin-based band the Explosives served as Roky’s most frequent back-up band between 1978 and the early 1980s but Roky also tended to use various other groups as his backing band, starting with Dallas-area punk rock band The Nervebreakers. One of their joint shows was released in 1992 as “Live Dallas 1979”. Live recordings from 1979 with The Explosives were released as “Casting The Runes” in 1987 and “Halloween” was released in 2007, featuring a collection of live tracks with The Explosives recorded at various venues between 1979 and 1981. A live recording of Roky Erickson & The Resurrectionists from 1982 was released in 1993 as “Beauty And The Beast”.
In 1982, Erickson asserted that a Martian had inhabited his body, going on to claim that he was in fact an alien. “I am an alien, I am from Mars” was something he had already claimed on the rear cover of the “Bermuda” single back in 1977 but his mental status would seemingly only get worse from this point. Roky became obsessed with mail for years, to the point that he was arrested in 1989 on charges of mail theft. He had picked up mail from neighbors who had moved and gone on to tape them to the walls of his room. At that point he hadn’t recorded any new music since 1985 nor played live since ’87.
Burdened by management who exploited his instability and involved him in contracts that left him no control or profit from his music, several albums were released by various small record labels during the ’80’s. Getting a good overview of the man’s discography becomes difficult from this point on, with many songs re-appearing in different versions on several releases. The tracks released together would not necessarily be recorded even close to the same year as each other or the year of release. The blurred line between official albums and bootlegs can also be somewhat hard to distinguish.
Releases from this period include the mini-album “Clear Night For Love” (1985), “The Holiday Inn Tapes” (1987, acoustic recordings from 1986), “Live At The Ritz 1987” (1988), “Openers” (1988, featuring acoustic solo recordings from 1985 and live tracks with The Explosive from 1979) and “The Friends Of Roky Erickson” (1988), an album featuring an interview along with live material from 1975. “Click Your Fingers Applauding The Play” (1988) compiles all tracks from the “Clear Night For Love” EP, “The Holiday Inn Tapes” LP and the 1977 EP. “Reverend Of Karmic Youth” was released in 1990, being a compilation of tracks from “Casting The Runes” and “Openers”.
Roky Erickson And Evil Hook Wildlife ET. had released two singles in 1986-87, including a cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Heroin”. All four songs were later included on the 1995 album “Roky Erickson & Evil Hook Wildlife E.T.” which also featured live recordings and a 1983 radio interview.
“Two Twisted Tales” was released in 1988, an odd 7″ single with spoken word performances written and read by Roky. 1990 saw the recording and release of two songs by Roky Erickson & 27 Devils Joking, one of the few ’80’s hardcore punk bands in New Mexico. Roky sung on “You Don’t Love Me Yet” while Brian Curley of 27 Devils Joking handled the vocals on the b-side, “I Am Her Hero, She Is My Heroin”. Both songs were written by Erickson.
“Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson” was also released in 1990, an album featuring covers of Erickson’s songs performed by acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope, T-Bone Burnett, Butthole Surfers, Doug Sahm and Primal Scream. 2000 copies of a two-LP edition of the album were released exclusively for Record Store Day in 2017.
The drone/space-rock band Spacemen 3 had covered “Roller Coaster” twice in 1986, for their debut album “Sound of Confusion” and as a 17-minute version for their EP “Walkin’ With Jesus”. “Slip Inside This House” was covered by New York noise rock band Oneida and Norwegian band Madrugada. The latter version appears on “Scandinavian Friends – A Tribute To Roky Erickson”, an album from 2007 that also features bands such as Witchcraft, Baby Woodrose and The Hellacopters. Stoner rock bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and Nebula have also claimed The 13th Floor Elevators as an important influence.
“Love To See You Bleed” (1992) collects previously unreleased acoustic solo songs and live recordings with both The Explosives and The Aliens from 1976, 1977, 1980 and 1992. “Mad Dog” from the same year collects recordings from 1976, 1977 and 1982 in a similar fashion.
Recorded live in Austin on Halloween in 1984, “Demon Angel : A Day And Night With Roky Erickson” was released in 1994. The same year also saw the release of “The 1966 – 1967 Unreleased Masters Collection”, a 3 CD set featuring not only previously unreleased material by the 13th Floor Elevators but also one disc of solo material by Roky Erickson, namely acoustic tracks from 1975-76 and covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Donovan that had supposedly been recorded in 1988.
Also released in 1995 were “The Interpreter” and “The Interpreter Vol.2”, collecting various odd track by both The 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson solo. “Grackle Debacle” followed in 2002, a CD featuring live recordings of both the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966 and Roky Erickson solo in 1976.
Produced by Texas Tornados bassist Speedy Sparks and others, “All That May Do My Rhyme” was released in 1995 on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s label Trance Syndicate. This one included both recordings from 1984-85 and 1994. Erickson said that this was the first time he’d ever been given a royalty check for his music. This one features a recording of “Starry Eyes” as a duet with Lou Ann Barton, a local blues singer who was in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble between 1977 and 1979, later recording with his brother Jimmy Vaughan. The new songs are sadly not up to par with the ’80’s recordings. Best of the bunch is arguably “For You”.
Roky’s younger brother Sumner Erickson was given custody of the troubled musician by 2001. This came after years of living as a poor recluse, seeing few aside from his own mother. Being a religious woman she made Roky stop taking his anti-psychotic medicine, putting his health in God’s hands. Something that didn’t work, for obvious reasons. Sumner helped Roky receive better psychological treatment and restore his physical health. Henry Rollins, formerly frontman of hardcore punk band Black Flag, paid for Roky’s dental surgery. Sumner Erickson also connected with a legal team that helped untangle Roky’s complicated past contracts.
“I Have Always Been Here Before”, a 43-track compilation spanning his entire career, was released in 2005. Finally giving Erickson full royalties, the set features recordings from 1965-1995. The Spades, 13th Floor Elevators, Bleib Alien, The Aliens and Evil Hook Wildlife E.T. are all represented, making this pretty much the ideal place to start for anyone interested in the musical universe of Roky Erickson!
In 2005, Roky also performed his first full-length concert in 20 years at the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, with The Explosives and longtime associate Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top as special guest .
Roky also went on several European tours, using Swedish garage rock pioneers The Nomads as his backing band during his performance at the Peace and Love festival in 2008. He also featured on the track “Devil Rides” by the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai on their 2008 “Batcat” EP.
Using the young psychedelic rock band The Black Angels as his backing band, Roky went on a tour of the US west coat in 2008, performing both solo material and songs from the 13th Floor Elevators catalog that had not been performed in decades. Roky Erickson & The Black Angels would also release a single in 2014, “Thank God for Civilization” b/w “Bo Diddley’s a Headhunter”.
Erickson performed alongside Austin-based indie rock band Okkervil River at the Austin Music Awards in 2008 and then again at the 2009 South by Southwest music festival. In 2010, Roky released his final proper studio album, “True Love Cast Out All Evil”. His first new recordings in 14 years was also a full-length collaboration with Okkervil River. The album was produced by Will Sheff, the frontman of Okkervil River (1998–present) and Shearwater (2001–2009).
Sheff was mailed sixty songs written by Erickson during the course of his life, for The Elevators, at his mother’s home, with The Aliens. Twelve were selected, several of which were first written during Roky’s stay at Rusk in the early ’70’s. This resulted in a stunning swan song with highlights in “Be and Bring Me Home”, “Please, Judge”, “John Lawman”, “Forever”, “Think of as One”, the beautiful title track and the haunting “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”.
Sweet dreams, Roky, and good bye! We’re gonna miss you.
Your living is my music
Your deeds are your song
My needs are that music
My needs are that song
Peace, love, chastity and grace
Mercy and justice throughout every race
True love cast out all evil
At the pentagram
The clock strikes twelve
Me for you, you for I
Love has been said
It should come and go
Roky’s main albums, arguably:
1966 – The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (w/ The 13th Floor Elevators)
1967 – Easter Everywhere (w/ The 13th Floor Elevators)
1980-81 – Roky Erickson And The Aliens + The Evil One (recordings from 1979 w/ The Aliens)
1986 – Don’t Slander Me (recorded 1982)
1995 – All That May Do My Rhyme (recordings from 1984, 1985 and 1994)
1999 – Never Say Goodbye (recordings from 1971, 1974, 1983 and 1985)
2010 – True Love Cast Out All Evil (w/ Okkervil River)