Head tripping: Psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson gets his due

By Mark Guarino

Of all the factors that have derailed promising music careers — alcohol, drugs, bad business contracts, evil managers, murder, a ham sandwich lodged in the throat — none have contributed to a band’s mythology more than mental illness induced by bad acid trips.

Skip Spence of Moby Grape, Arthur Lee of Love, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators all took their music to a certain point, then fell off the cliff. After bouts in mental hospitals, prison or both, they spent the rest of their lives trying to recover. Some simply never came back.

It’s no coincidence they all came of age during the psychedelic era of the mid to late ‘60s, a period when LSD was rampant and the mind-altering drug was considered a tool to unlock the conscious state and reconnect with and explore the unconscious. Because of LSD experimentation during this time, rock lyrics became darker, its imagery more sophisticated, and the rhythms harder, more repetitive and trance inducing. Musicians began to see connection between Western music and its roots in Africa and as far as India. Because enjoying the music meant interpreting it at your own will, a new kind of playfulness was created that was coy about the answers, but encouraged neverending questions. Freedom was the foundation of psychedelic rock and it left no boundaries standing once it passed through.

Erickson, 57, is one of the era’s survivors and, almost 40 years after being tossed into a mental institution where shock therapy and psychiatric medication altered his mind forever, he is finally being recognized as one of psychedelic rock’s most original and strangest characters. Earlier this month, “I Have Always Been Here Before” (Shout! Factory), a two-disc anthology of his music, arrived in stores, prompting a new look at Erickson’s life and times. Yesterday at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, he participated in an afternoon panel discussion on the musical impact of the 13th Floor Elevators. At the same conference, he is rumored to perform later this weekend at a tribute to his music.

Born in Dallas as Roger Kynard Erickson (the first two names formed his nickname Roky), Erickson became a part of what is now Austin’s long tradition of musical eccentrics, from Doug Sahm to Daniel Johnston. With their 1966 debut album, “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators,” the 13th Floor Elevators — a band that included of all things, an electrified jug — became the first group to embrace the term “psychedelic.” They defined it. On their only hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Erickson played guitar and wailed the song’s message: “how can you say you miss my loving/when you never even needed it?” The song could be Them’s “Gloria” or the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” except for its sinister feel. The staccato jug intonations of Tommy Hall sounded like fluttering bugs atop the prowling guitars of Stacy Sutherland while the clatter of percussion, harmonica and Erickson’s howls that ended the song indicated things would be resolved for the worst.

The success of that song gave the band a career. They shuttled between Austin and, at the time, the headquarters of all things psychedelic, San Francisco. Their live shows earned them a reputation and soon after, they released a second album, “Easter Everywhere,” the title itself a gesture at rebirth, an end goal at the time. Today, both albums are considered hallmarks of the psychedelic rock era. The songs called for an inner journey — “leave your body behind” was the rallying cry of “Postures.” Traditional song structures were largely tossed aside; instead it was the energy of the playing and the truth of the message that mattered. “Slip Inside This House,” one of the band’s best songs, promoted a utopian dream of the inner journey, “Fire Engine” gave that message its urgency, and “She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)” was a portrayal of life without fear or desire, sung with a collage of guitars and voices melting behind. Erickson became a tremendous singer who had both the clarity of Buddy Holly in his voice but could also deliver the banshee wails of Janis Joplin or Little Richard. Forty years later, this remains the perfect music of teenage escapism.

No surprise the Texas law came down hard. Not only was rock music still considered a freak show for longhairs (Erickson was kicked out of high school for growing his hair like the Rolling Stones), but also the introduction of drugs raised further alarm. Erickson was soon arrested for the possession of a small amount of pot and was given a choice to either plead guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. Thinking he could get off easier with the latter, he chose insanity. The decision altered the rest of his life. In the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Tex., Erickson underwent electroshock therapy and powerful medications for three years that would leave him forever changed.

In the decades that followed, Erickson’s personal life became more erratic but he continued to make music that had its quirks, but was no less exciting. In 1975, Doug Sahm, himself a fan, arranged for Erickson to record two singles upon his release. The two songs revealed the conflict raging inside him. “Starry Eyes” was uptempo country pop with Erickson’s voicing never sounding so earnest and pleasant. The flipside, “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” was pure terror. Guitar distortion opens the song, which sounds like it was recorded in a coalmine. “Two headed dog! Two headed dog! I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two headed dog!,” Erickson screams. The punk explosion may have been two years off, but Erickson arrived at it early and hard. The song was profoundly influential.

Friends, fans and associates took care of Erickson and helped him get his music recorded and released over the years, if only irregularly and overseas. His obsession with aliens and b-movie monsters began filtering into songs with titles like “Creature with the Atom Brain,” “If You Have Ghosts” and “Bloody Hammer.” They were fantasy to some, but, taken as metaphors, they illustrated a very frightening world Erickson lived inside. By the time the late ‘80s arrived, he was behind bars again, arrested for mail theft while living in an Austin housing project. Neighbors were not getting their mail because Erickson was stealing it to tape to his wall.

What prevented Erickson from slipping further into obscurity was a 1990 tribute album that raised money for his legal fund, long-term care and helped raise his profile. On “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson” (Sire), bands like R.E.M., ZZ Top and the Jesus & Mary Chain paid their dues to Erickson’s wildly inventive back catalog of songs. The newfound attention helped him write songs again, release his first album in ten years and even get his lyrics turned into a book through fan Henry Rollins who published them on his book imprint.

In recent years Erickson’s voice remains intact and his songwriting is fully opened to his tender side. Among the almost childlike songs is “Please Judge.” Atop pleasant folk pop guitars, he pleads to an imaginary court on behalf of a teenager he knows will be ruined if thrown behind bars.

“Please judge/please don’t give him time/please don’t confine,” he sings. “Give freedom to that child/it sure would make him smile.”

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