Roky Erickson: To Hell and Back The Resurrection of a Psychedelic Hero

By Cliff Rhys James

“I’ve gone through three changes– I thought I was a Christian… then I was the devil… then the third one, where I know who I am… you know… I feel like I’m an alien.”  

-Roky Erickson

 Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson was born in Austin Texas on July 15, 1947 with an abundance of gifts. He had it all: talent, charm, intelligence and a harrowing case of paranoid schizophrenia. The chilling symptoms which had first emerged in his teens were likely worsened by his heavy LSD use as the primary writer, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the 13th Floor Elevators – the influential Austin based psychedelic rock pioneers of the mid to late 60’s. Then, one fine summer day during the 1968 World’s Fair in San Antonio, he lapsed into the incoherent gibberish of word salad which was soon accompanied by active hallucinations and inappropriate behavior – all signs of serious psychological disintegration. And so began in earnest his life-long battle with the noisy demons in his head. Soon thereafter he followed the voices and visions across some line, over the edge and into the darkness where he claimed the madness that was rightfully his – the madness that had been waiting patiently for him ever since he was a sensitive child raised in the dysfunctional wreckage of a shattered home-life. Still, when channeled into song his was a strangely beautiful, often macabre and creative madness, so much so that it catapulted the 13th Floor Elevators and especially Roky into rising cult like status which would have surely ascended to the level of super stardom had he not been arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint on yet another fine summer day – this one in 1969.

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Weeks prior to that fateful arrest in Austin his band had toured California, appearing twice on TV everywhere making an indelible impression. From LA to San Francisco and points in between fans were gripped by what they saw and heard. Eyes rolled back into his head shaking shriek, he reportedly inspired Janis Joplin to develop her own primal scream vocal style. His sound is generally credited with steering the San Francisco area bands like Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead who were then emerging toward a more fiery blues rock based sound. Famed Texas guitar slinger Billy Gibbons still speaks in awe about him saying things like, “they (the 13th Floor Elevators) were doing stuff nobody else had even thought about and to this day Roky Erickson stands alone because he had the gift of that wonderful voice.” At a loss for words, the term Psychedelic Rock was first employed in a desperate attempt to label the band’s strange and hauntingly evocative music. To writer Ritchie Unterberger Roky Erickson remains the “great unknown hero of rock n roll,” and his screaming vocals have been described as second only, if at all, to those of “Little Richard.”

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But on that fateful day facing a possible ten-year sentence, Roky was encourage by his attorney to plead not guilty by reason of insanity in order to avoid prison. Later, after several escapes from the Austin State Hospital, he was sent “up the river” to Rusk State Facility for the Criminally Insane where he was subjected to repeated rounds of electro convulsive therapy (which in those days more closely resembled the crude electric shock treatments depicted in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). While in custody through 1972, he also received powerful drug injections including Thorazine.

No longer institutionalized but still damaged, Roky’s musical themes veered toward subjects which had always fascinated him, those found in old horror movies and science fiction books. With help from former Credence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook, he recorded 15 haunting, hook laden hard rock songs with titles like: “Two Headed Dog”, “Bloody Hammer”, and “Don’t Shake me Lucifer,” which appeared on a 1980 album entitled, “I think of Demons,” as well as his 1981 LP, “The Evil One.” Then in 1982 Roky publicly proclaimed that an alien had inhabited his body – which led to the following recorded, signed and notarized statement:

“I Roger, Kynard ( Roky) Erickson do hereby declare that I am not a member of the human race ( not an earthling ) and am in fact an alien from a planet other than earth. Moreover, I hope that this will prove to the person who is putting electrical shocks to my head that I am an alien. I am declaring this so that I am not in violation of any world or international laws of the earth as I am showing by this admission that I am in fact an alien.”

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 For those who want to unlock the mysteries of a fascinating tale, the following guidance will help. It’s a navigational aid to the kaleidoscopic arc of Roky’s life and music from the early days of promise – through his decent into neglect, poverty and madness – and then onto his touching re-emergence as an achingly gentle soul in search of peace and happiness.

First: Stop what you’re doing right now, go to You Tube and watch the video entitled You’re Gonna Miss Me. No, not the more recent pop ditty by actress Anna Kendrick for God’s sake. I’m talking about the 1966 hit song by Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators as shown on the old Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Show. There, see it – the clean rhythm guitar chords followed by the guy sputtering into the miced up jug and then that otherworldly and yet perfectly lyrical scream coming out of the fresh faced but tormented guitar player / lead singer. Hear it? Right there, that melodic high pitched shriek which made Janis Joplin so envious. See the madness even then beginning to shine in those eyes. That guy, that’s Roky Erickson. Listen to the song, it only takes about 3 minutes.

Second: Listen to his 1981 album “The Evil One” by Roky Erickson and the Aliens. It’s a startling mix of melodically grooved, hard rocking, horror themed songs straight from the strange but lyrical hell that bangs around in Roky’s head.

Third: Now, and this is very important, take the time to watch the 1995 Documentary, also entitled, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” You can find it on You Tube as well. For me it was heartbreakingly tragic and sad; while still managing at moments to be comical and uplifting. The fragile power of his fractured presence emanates from this film and it stirs the soul.

Fourth: Listen to his 2010 Album with Okkervil River entitled “True Love Casts Out all Evil” In addition to the title song, it includes “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.” If you’ve followed my advice so far and if you possess even the smallest dollop of humanity, you will find these hymn like anthems by Roky deeply moving.

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Will Sheff, front-man for Austin indie rockers Okkervil River has called Roky “the most blessed and cursed person” he’s ever encountered. Someone else once said, “The arc of a moral universe bends toward justice.” Currently there’s a movement afoot to have Roky inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Who knows, maybe as the great cosmic wheel turns in time things will come around his way at last.

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