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Remembering Roky Erickson In 13 Songs

I saw Roky Erickson perform exactly once in my life, at Øyafestivalen in Norway. This was 2007, a big year for the artist, who played Coachella and Lollapalooza and was the subject of a bittersweet documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, which explored his career and his struggles with mental illness. I didn’t know what to expect from Erickson onstage or from the Norwegians in the audience. Would anyone care that the definition of a cult figure was playing the festival’s midsize stage? And what would he sound like? Could he hold a show together?

The stage was configured so that you approached it from the rear, and as I walked up, I was shocked by what I saw: thousands of screaming fans stretching out as far as I could see, even spilling over to the side of the stage. He was, I was told, actually a big deal in Scandinavia, where he was considered a psych-rock godhead. Of course, that’s how he’s known throughout the world, to the extent that he is known at all throughout the world: as one of the figures who defined psychedelic rock in the 1960s, who set its terms and defined its concerns, whose gruff bark sounded narcotic yet grounded, otherworldly yet beneficent.

Erickson responded to the Norwegians’ enthusiasm in kind, playing a rowdy set of mostly old and some new songs, 13th Floor Elevator anthems as well as numbers from his start-stop solo career. He had a sharp band behind him, the Explosives, and he led them through a tight set that was jumpy and rambunctious and — most of all — celebratory. He didn’t come across like an artist reliving old glories. Somehow he sounded present-tense, or at least that’s the impression left by his big, cheerful, endearing grin.

I’ve been thinking about that show a lot since I learned that Erickson died on Friday, 5/31, at the age of 71. In particular, I’ve been thinking of that moment of happy connection with his audience: how each fed off the other. It was more than just an overlooked figure getting something like his due, but an artist overcoming some truly scary demons to create this moment of joy. It can be difficult to talk about Erickson, as his struggles with mental illness loom so large. It’s tempting to make too much of it or to make too little, and in the past many of his fans have asserted a cause-and-effect relationship between his art and his illness. It’s difficult to assess his catalog without addressing the bleaker ends of his biography. But here are 13 songs — arranged in mostly chronological order — that reveal something about the man behind the myth.

1. The Spades – “We Sell Soul”

Born Roger Kynard Erickson in Dallas, Texas, the godfather of psych rock taught himself to play guitar at 10 years old and formed a band when he was barely a teenager. After dropping out of high school just weeks before graduation (reportedly because he refused to cut his hair and adhere to the dress code), he reportedly met some fellow heads while gathering peyote near Laredo. Together, they formed the Spades, dressed in matching maroon jackets, and played covers before venturing into writing their own material. Released in November 1965, “We Sell Soul” was a regional hit in Texas. Erickson introduces himself with a hearty, “Yeah! Yeah, that’s right, baby!” then proceeds to wig out as the band chants that title over and over. It’s hypnotic in its repetition, an early hint at the more psychedelic direction his later bands would take.

2. 13th Floor Elevators – “You’re Gonna Miss Me

If “We Sell Soul” was an introduction, then its B-side, a rave-up called “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was a goodbye. Erickson was recruited by a band called the Lingsmen, who eventually changed their name to the 13th Floor Elevators, and they re-recorded the song for their 1966 debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators. Very quickly they established themselves as the wildest rock ‘n’ roll band in the Lone Star State, and it was rumored that Janis Joplin considered joining their ranks before she wandered west to San Francisco. This second version is livelier, rowdier, less controlled, and somehow weirder. Already consuming massive amounts of hallucinogens, they re-create that crazy trip with Erickson’s feral yelps, Stacy Sutherland’s stabbing guitar licks, and Tommy Hall’s bizarre electric jug, which sounds like the edges of your vision blurring away.

3. 13th Floor Elevators – “Reverberation (Doubt)”

Long considered the godfathers of psychedelic rock, the Elevators were tripping during nearly every show they played, often scheduling gigs and doses to coincide. That alone would have earned them the title of godfathers of psychedelic rock, but their philosophy extended to both their music and the lyrics Erickson was writing. “Reverberation (Doubt),” from their debut, set the tone and established the parameters of that style, shedding the verse-chorus-verse structure of pop in favor of a more open-ended excursion—all with the idea that you might end up somewhere very different than where you started, that rock ‘n’ roll might replicate or at least complement your trip. “Reverberation (Doubt)” is almost a how-to manual for freeing your mind: “You finally find your helpless mind is trapped inside your skin,” Erickson sings. “You want to leave, but you believe you won’t get back again.”

4. 13th Floor Elevators – “Splash 1″

For Erickson and the other Elevators, drugs were a pathway not simply to enlightenment, but to a very particular kind of freedom. That made them targets of law enforcement, which bullied the band in Texas. So they briefly relocated to the LSD-friendlier environs of Northern California, where they fell in with local acts like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & The Holding Company. Erickson began co-writing with Clementine Hall, his friend and wife of bandmate Tommy Hall, and collaborations like “Splash 1″ helped to expand the Elevators’ sound into folk and country. “Roky was unlike anyone I’d ever met in my whole life,” Clementine Hall told the Austin Chronicle in 2004. “He was so free, the freest person I ever met, completely free. He didn’t care what people said or thought about him. He said and did exactly what he felt like doing, and had he been a person who had a bad side or a mean side to him, that would have been uncomfortable for me to be around. But since everything came from such goodness in him, it was okay to let him loose.”

5. 13th Floor Elevators – “Slip Inside This House”

The Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere, in 1967, and opened it with their boldest composition yet: the eight-minute “Slip Inside This House,” which sounds like five musicians astral-projecting in one multi-limbed body. It’s arguably their most psychedelic moment, if such a thing can be measured, but what’s remarkable is how many words Erickson packs into those eight minutes. Other psych bands, such as the Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead, usually equated the psychedelic with long instrumental passages, but Erickson keeps talking you through your trip, half-rapping his mind-bending narration as the band blurs in and out of a midtempo groove: “If your limbs begin dissolving in the water that you tread, all surroundings are evolving in the stream that clears your head.”

6. Roky Erickson & Bleib Alien – “Starry Eyes”

The band’s reputation as acid gurus meant they were hounded by the law almost constantly, even after they returned to Texas from San Francisco. A turning point came in 1969, when Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession. He had already been treated for schizophrenia on multiple occasions, and rather than go to jail, he opted to spend three years at the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Texas, where he was subjected to a heavy shock therapy regimen. It not only ended the 13th Floor Elevators, but left Erickson in a precarious mental state. He suffered bouts of depression and paranoia, referred to himself as Reverend, and for years claimed he was an alien. His reputation in Texas, however, was barely diminished, and in 1975 Doug Sahm, one of the giants of Texas music, bankrolled a recording session for Erickson’s loosely defined band Bleib Alien and produced two songs to help him secure some bookings. One of those was “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” a searing rock song with lyrics about Cerberus guarding the Kremlin (Erickson played it near the end of his final show in April). Much more intriguing is “Starry Eyes,” a rambling country-rock love song that shows Erickson’s range as well as his Lone Star roots. Several times he hiccups his vocals to sound more like Lubbock’s own Buddy Holly.

7. Roky Erickson – “Bermuda”

When he was well, Erickson continued making music. In 1976 he wandered out to California and recorded a handful of songs with John X. Reed, a Texas guitar player for the Supernatural Family Band. While not quite as revelatory as the Sahm sessions, these songs show Erickson homing in on new themes and weird imagery, in particular on “Bermuda.” It is, of course, named for the Bermuda Triangle, although it may be just another name for the realm he explored with the Elevators. If so, this one is less welcoming, trapping rather than freeing visitors: “It’s just the innocent Devil’s Triangle,” he cautions. “It dares you to come there, that’s its angle.”

8. Roky Erickson & The Aliens – “If You Have Ghosts”

In 1979 Erickson recorded his first solo full-length with Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater producing. The European release of Roky Erickson & The Aliens seemed to herald a comeback for the psych-rock icon, but he suffered a setback while promoting the album in England and its US release was scrapped. It wasn’t until a year later that he seemed stable enough to tour, and his American label resequenced the album and finally released it as The Evil One. A highlight from both versions is “If You Have Ghosts,” an urgent rocker with some of Erickson’s fiercest vocals and most haunted lyrics. “I don’t want my fangs too long,” he sings, as though in no control of the powerful transformations that overtake him.

9. Roky Erickson & The Aliens – “Creature With The Atom Brain”

A fan of the old black-and-white sci-fi and horror movies that ran on late-night TV, Erickson filled his songs with images of monsters and villains, aliens and mutants. One of several songs from this period that takes their titles and entire premises from drive-in fare, “Creature With The Atom Brain” is based on the 1955 B-movie about a mad scientist, a gangster, and an army of zombies. Erickson even playacts scenes during instrumental breaks, which makes it tempting to read these actual ghouls as celluloid manifestations of the demons that had been plaguing him for more than a decade. And, of course, those monsters were already being deployed as Red Scare metaphors, so Erickson was repurposing them to express a much less public paranoia: “Why is he acting so strange? Do you think he’s one of them?”

10. Roky Erickson – “Don’t Slander Me”

Released in 1986, Don’t Slander Me may be Erickson’s finest solo album: His voice is in good shape, he’s got a sharp band behind him, and producer Duane Aslaksen streamlines everything. Borrowing its chord progression from Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions,” the title is a jumpy number that may or may not address the various rumors circulating among his fans about his mental health, but since it’s an older song, it might also be directed at the police for hounding him so persistently in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What should have been a comeback instead closed out a period of relative productivity, when Erickson tried to live up to the cult that had grown up around him.

11. Roky Erickson – “You Don’t Love Me Yet”

His career after the Elevators was a series of thwarted comebacks, each one offering new versions of old songs. His sole 1990s effort, released on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label, trades heavy rock for acoustic folk and country. As always, he’s got good people backing him up, including guitarist Charlie Sexton (currently in Bob Dylan’s touring band) and members of the Butthole Surfers. Rather than jittery and paranoid, the songs are looser and more reflective, particularly “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” It sounds almost like an apology, a plea for reconciliation with someone he maybe hasn’t even met. Perhaps it’s an old friend, or a bandmate, or a new fan. “Without you,” he sings, “my life is unsung.”

12. Roky Erickson With Okkervil River – “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”

In 2010 Erickson released what was his first album in 15 years and what would sadly become his final statement. Fellow Texan Will Sheff sifted through more than 60 songs from throughout his career and put together a playlist that comments on Erickson’s life and reputation as a drug casualty, then worked out arrangements with his band Okkervil River. Sometimes it’s a little heavy handed, as on “Please, Judge,” but True Love Cast Out All Evil is more often than not deeply humane as Erickson ponders his life, the people he left behind, and the possibilities that went unfulfilled. When he sings, “Now these dreams have grown so cold,” somehow he makes it sound poignant, even wise, rather than bitter or fatalistic.

13. 13th Floor Elevators – “I Had to Tell You”

I’m breaking up the chronology to close with what may be my own personal favorite Roky Erickson song, one that’s uncharacteristic in his catalog but only resonates more clearly for sounding so gentle. He co-wrote “I Had to Tell You” with Clementine Hall, and it’s less a psych-rock ramble and more a dusty country amble. It sounds a lot like the outlaw country just being hammered out in Texas. (In fact, Guy Clark, a mainstay on that scene, smoked his first joint at an Elevators show and did photography for Easter Everywhere.) It’s the rare duet, with Hall harmonizing loosely with Erickson and — more crucially — giving him someone to sing to. “I can feel your strength reinforcing mine,” he tells his friend, and who knows? Maybe he’s telling all of us. Maybe he found some balance, some stability, some peace in his art and in his audiences, whether they were cheering in Texas or in San Francisco or in Oslo. “Everything is quiet,” he sings, “but the song that keeps me sane.”