Roky Erickson died this weekend in Austin at the age of 71, having created some of the most urgent, influential and truly psychedelic music of the 20th Century. His music genuinely manifested an expanded consciousness to be shared with others through a prophetic voice of visionary resonance. And, as the narrative customarily goes, there was a heavy price to be paid for the reverberating communication that Erickson brought back from distant planes. But the traditional tale of hippie acid casualty whose light burned brightly but briefly, repeated in coverage throughout his life and in some obituaries after his death, tells only half the story.
Erickson was chiefly known for his wildly intense vocal performances for the Texas band 13th Floor Elevators, who stayed in their native Austin to release their lysergic missives while others migrated to San Francisco: as the much-told fable has it, Janis Joplin was on the point of joining before she too struck out west. But the truth is the Elevators don’t need this legitimating story of association with a household name, for theirs was a magnesium-bright scalding light of psychedelic righteousness from the start to the extremely soon finish, a tale of barely even three records between 1965’s incandescent The Psychedelic Sounds of… , to 1967’s sky-piercingly smouldering Easter Everywhere, and then the fragmented but stutteringly brilliant Bull of the Woods that came out in 1969. By the time this latter collection found its way into the world Erickson had been arrested for possession of one single marijuana joint, and, in hoping to escape a long jail sentence had been advised to plead insanity. He remained in custody for three years at hospitals in Texas, where he was treated with Thorazine and electroconvulsive therapy, and after which his mental health was a serious concern for the rest of his days.
And this is where some obituaries have signed off: a visionary who contributed much to early, striking examples of ‘60s American psychedelia before becoming another cautionary tale of acid and excess, who may have lived for another fifty years but whose legacy was already over before the decade ticked over to 1970. Empty news stories list more famous bands (Ghost, Primal Scream, R.E.M.) who covered his songs, and famous fans (ZZ Top, Chelsea Wolfe, Mark Lanegan…) without acknowledging any other output after the Elevators. Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian barely mentions his post 1969 career, mentioning simply that his mental health suffered and that he once told a journalist he thought he was an alien. For Michael Hann in the same paper, “His contribution to rock history is narrow – in effect, a brief couple of years from late 1965 to the end of 1967 – but it is deep.”
Deep indeed, but perhaps not so narrow. Erickson’s work with the 13th Floor Elevators is certainly startling: their precocious and intense unity as a band is astonishing… Erickson in his far out singing is not reciting his own lyrics but those of Tommy Hall, whose electric jug added the bizarre wobbling that intertwined with Roky’s vocal lines and the screeching-tight psych guitar of Stacy Sutherland. Their debut record is a technicolour burst of early rock songwriting with wide-eyed keenness to bring their audience vital truths from the other side of the veil: in the crazed jig of ‘Fire Engine,’ in the slow-growing inner-peace-knowing mushroom spores of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, and just in the pure visionary wail of the band’s best known song “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. And while Bull of the Woods has its moments, Easter Everywhere already feels like the swansong of the band. The melancholic ‘She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)’, the sprightly ‘I’ve got Levitation’, the street-preacher gesticulations of ‘Earthquake’, the hazy, drifting Dylan cover ‘Baby Blue’ all combine to make the album overall a mature and intriguing concoction of esoteric lyrics and accomplished elsewhere-directed music. What really marks the record out as something special is the first and last tracks: the album is bookended by two stream-of-visionary-consciousness epics of psychedelic timelessness that serve as a high water mark of this band and therefore of America in 1969: the elevationary encyclical ‘Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)’ that closes the album, and the scorching opener ‘Slip Inside This House’, with its incantation of apocalyptic truth, at once peaceful and urgent, encouraging us to acknowledge “the unending subtleties of river power,” calling us to “live where your heart can be given, and your life starts to unfold, in the forms you envision, in this dream that’s ages old.” For sure, this briefly extant band and its eternally glittering shards of acid truth in joyous sound is legacy enough. But the familiar template of psychedelic explorer burnt out too soon by his own experimentation sells Roky short.
Encountering the 13th Floor Elevators’ intense mental expansion programme in parallel to my own experiments in consciousness as a teenager, I also took a too-brief look at his 1980s output and couldn’t find a hook: too much 50s B-movie schlock spookiness, compared to what felt like Easter Everywhere’s shining messages from the cosmos. However, later I returned to these albums (Don’t Slander Me and Gremlins Have Pictures especially, both released in 1986), and found a striking extension of Erickson’s vision, and a kind of hope beyond tragedy. Because I think the ballad of Roky Erickson is not so much, or not just, the tragic hippie-casualty narrative that has appeared throughout his life and again in the wake of his passing. Instead, his biography and music I think are stories of resistance for those outsiders attempting to bring their weird lights to a more earthbound audience. Erickson’s mental health problems were indeed shocking and traumatic, no doubt for those who attempted to care for him as well as for the man himself, through all the tawdry accusations of exploitation or well-meaning harm that bedraggled him (as documented in Kevin McAlester’s touching 2005 film named after the Elevators classic hit song). All the more so because, even if the exact balance of causes between recreational drugs and brutal institutionalisation can never be known, it seems clear that LSD journeys with friends were less to blame than the violence of electric shock therapy for the mental trauma he suffered for long decades after his release from secure hospitals.
But amidst chaotic periods and drastically uneven access to healthcare, Erickson rose again to create music that expressed his experience of the world. Several albums appeared in the late 80s, with a variety of bands, the Aliens, Bleib Aliens (a weird anagram of Bible, and a clear hint at a kind of mania), the Explosives, later the Nervebreakers, often with repeat or alternate versions of the same songs. And several more releases of live sets of varying quality, and demos recorded in hotel rooms or in otherwise transient circumstances. This material was predominantly strange vignettes about vampires, aliens and the like welded to classic garage rock styles, occasionally with more contemporary keyboard and synthesizer swoops and zirps. I suspect the slightly anachronistic presentation of early 60s rock’n’roll sounds and early 60s B-movie gonzo plots in the 1980s puts off some, particularly journalist guardians of impeccably alternative taste. Though undeniably associated with subject matter deemed trashy, Roky’s presentation speaks of an attempt to understand and express his outsider status and experience, thereby transcending the kitschy or campy feel that might plague other treatments of similar material. The cheesy themes are totally redeemed by the steely commitment that Erickson gives, for example, to the vocal explosions of ‘Night of the Vampire’ or the overflowing incandescence at the peak of ‘Stand for the Fire Demon.’
The non-sequiturs or lines that veer off strangely only serve this intensity, as in the deadly portentous delivery of lines like “Every creature is stirring.. EVEN THE MOUSE!” in ‘Burn the Flames,’ or the odd cadence of the intro to ‘Night of the Vampire’: “if its raining and you’re running don’t slip in mud/if you do you’ll slip in blood tonight.” While sometimes off-kilter or hinting at impending derailment, these lines are delivered with the same fire as all the other starstruck declamations, lending a genuine power to the whole.
There’s humour too, in tracks like ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ which just repeats and repeats “I walked with a zombie/I walked with a zombie/I walked with a zombie last night,” a sublime ridiculousness that works only in propulsive head-nodding music (reminding me of the similar wry trick of Professor Longhair’s ‘She Walks Right In’). And it’s humour that is unadulterated with irony. One of the striking things about Erickson’s caustic, bulldozing yet somehow life-affirming cover of ‘Heroin’ is that it transforms the Velvet Underground’s arch and distancing pose, by leaping with both feet into the track- you fully believe that Roky fully believes that he wishes he was born a thousand years ago and wants to play pirates on a great big clipper ship sailing the darkened seas from this land here to that.
What gives these songs pathos to underscore their riotous energy is exactly Erickson’s identification with the strange and estranged. In ‘Bermuda’ there’s a spontaneous-feeling explanation of the title as “it’s just the innocent devil’s triangle!” while in ‘Ghosts’ he’s exclaiming the apparently redemptive effects of being haunted (“if you have ghosts, you have everything”). Throughout these weird tales, there’s a heartfelt understanding for the scorned, the undead, the extra-terrestrial, a true understanding from experience of the figure of the outsider. Sometimes you can’t avoid reading these songs with his biography in mind, and so things like ‘Starry Eyes’ (“how can I get to you?”) can seem like tragedies of naivete in a lost mind, or in the song ‘The Interpreter,’ the brazen calls of “Where is he now?” hint at a need for someone to translate for him. But the infectious power of the songs encourages you to wonder that, even if in fragile connection to a mundane existence, against health problems and sad legal tussles, Roky Erickson clearly did have ghosts, but that he learnt to live with them and even empathize with them.
So when Erickson’s story is reported as a precocious talent undone by his own drug use, this masks another sadly familiar story, of brutal state retribution against those who think and experience the world differently yet speak their experience into the world nonetheless. And when Erickson’s later career is casually dismissed with a sentence or two as a mere symptom of tragic self-destruction, this is maybe an attempt to avoid condescension for the perceived naivety of outsider art. For me though, to overlook the vital energy of his work shows a lack of ear for Erickson’s extraordinary resilience, his ability, in spite of suffering shocking institutional violence that literally damaged his mind, to stagger onwards in order to communicate something of his otherworldly musical vision, however that was refracted through his trauma and his consciousness of his outcast status, in garage rock and vampires, and creatures with atom brains, and lucifer, and two-headed dogs, and alligators, and zombies. And the music that seeks to explore the strangeness of the world and the mind is therefore forever richer for Roky Erickson’s achievements, not just in the 13th Floor Elevators but also in his later career in the company of demons, ghosts and aliens.