A Difficult, Brilliant Life: Roky Erickson 1947 – 2019

Roky-Erickson

Roger Kynard Erickson, known to the world as Roky,  was one of the most significant figures of the psychedelic underground in the late 1960s. His band The 13th Floor Elevators might have been defiantly under the radar for most people, and would probably be dismissed as one hit wonders (but what a hit!) by many people, but their legacy has been significant, and Erickson’s post-Elevators work has been extraordinary.

Formed in Austin, Texas in 1965, the Elevators produced punchy, aggressive psychedelia, and in their short existence (four albums, including a fraudulent ‘live’ LP that the band had nothing to do with) they produced work that would have a hugely disproportionate influence on future acts – maybe not on Velvet Underground levels of sales vs influence, but not that far off. Their one hit single, the blistering You’re Gonna Miss Me, is a genuine masterpiece – one of the great records of the era and still sounding fresh, powerful and authentic today. The band could never quite reach those heights again, but then again, few acts could. If this was the only Elevators song, it would ensure their place in history.

But Roky was a victim of the times, the proverbial acid casualty – his copious use of LSD seems to have triggered – or at least unleashed – the paranoid schizophrenia that would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1968, Roky was institutionalised for the first time, receiving electric shock therapy. A year later, after being arrested with a single marijuana joint and facing a possible ten year prison sentence under Austin’s harsh drug laws, Roky pled not guilty by reason of insanity. What probably seemed a good ‘get out of jail’ plan led to him being incarcerated for three years at the Austin State Hospital. This did little for his mental state.

13th-Floor-Elevators

In 1974, Roky restarted his music career with a series of backing bands and short lived record deals. By this point, he had adopted a harder sound and a fixation with horror movies, the latter  reflected in the song lyrics and titles – I Think of Demons, Two Headed Dog, Bloody Hammer, Night of the Vampire, I Walked with a Zombie, the brilliant Don’t Shake Me Lucifer). These recordings, and Roky’s eccentricities brought on by his precarious mental state, made him something of a hero for alienated youth exploring the outer fringes of rock – I know, because I was one of them. His music crossed the boundaries between punk and hard rock, having a driving insistency and often basic production values (he worked with Credence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook on a couple of albums, but Cook sensibly kept the recordings as raw as possible) that made it seem very edgy and modern in the mid-1980s, when just about everything was over-produced and insipid.

During the psych revival in the early 1980s, his music was much sought after by fans. But Roky’s life by this point was out of control. He believed himself to be inhabited by a Martian, and developed an obsession with mail – both writing and collecting. In 1989, he was arrested on charges of mail theft after he collected mail sent to a former neighbour and stuck it on his wall – the charges were finally dropped when he showed that he hadn’t opened any of the post, all junk mail sent to someone no longer at the address.

During the 1990s, the Erickson legend grew even as his life remained chaotic and his royalties stopped being paid. In 1990, an all-star tribute album, Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye, was released, and during the decade a book of lyrics was published by Henry Rollins, while Roky continued to record new music. Eventually, his brother Sumner took legal custody of Roky from his equally unstable mother (the story of which is chronicled in the painful documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, released in 2007), and got his medication and legal affairs in order. By the middle of the 2000s, Erickson was healthy for the first time in decades, weaning himself off the meds and starting to perform internationally. Still a fragile figure, he at least seemed in control and happy, and in 2015, he reunited with the Elevators for a show at the Leviathan festival in Austin.

Roky Erickson’s musical legacy might be laced with the effects of mental illness and drug abuse, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. The fact that, even at his most unstable, he could create extraordinary music, is pretty remarkable, and his final rehabilitation was a joy to see. We’re gonna miss you for sure, Roky…