Roky Erickson’s music is, “refracted invariably through the prism of legend,” ventured Spin reviewer Jason Cohen. “As with kindred spirits Skip Spence and Syd Barrett, Erickson’s notoriety combines equal parts misunderstood genius and acid-fried loon.” Like Spence and Barrett—the most adventurous members of the psychedelically inspired 1960s incarnations of Moby Grape and Pink Floyd, respectively—Erickson helped forge the mind-bending sound of the era but was also a casualty of its excess. Periodically imprisoned and institutionalized and usually dependent on his mother and a handful of friends, he has lost the rights to his trailblazing material and has expressed a feeling of disconnection from songwriting generally; even so, he has continued to release records periodically and in 1995 emerged with a new album.
With the Texas-based group the 13th Floor Elevators and as a solo artist, Erickson served as a decided influence on the development of punk and alternative rock. As Peter Buck, guitarist for rock superstars R.E.M., told Richard Leiby of the Washington Post, Erickson’s songs “hold up better than any other music from that period” and “are concise and terrifying in their power.”
Roger Kynard Erickson—”Roky” came from the first two letters of his first and middle names—was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1947; his family moved to Austin when he was quite young. At age two, his mother recollected in the interview with Leiby, Roky learned to sing the Christmas novelty song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and he was studying piano “when he was 5, before he could really read.” A few years later he picked up the guitar; he began writing songs and playing in bands as a teenager.
A model early-60s rebel, Erickson grew his hair over his ears, which led to his expulsion before he could complete his senior year at Travis High School. He recorded a single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”—an edgy, pumped-up rock song that Leiby described as “a prototypical punk record”—with his group the Spades. The fledgling artist’s songwriting skills and vocal range so impressed a University of Texas anthropology student named Tary Owens that Owens decided to introduce him to his neighbor, Tommy Hall. Hall had little musical experienee, but he had vision, charisma, and access to psychotropic drugs. Soon he and Erickson had cofounded a band, which they called the 13th Floor Elevators; the name referred to the floor skipped by superstitious building planners and thus implied that only the band’s music could take the listener to such a place. Erickson played guitar and sang—with ferocious
For the Record…
Born Roger Kynard Erickson, 1947, in Dallas, TX; son of an architect father and a singer-artist mother; married Dana Morris, c. 1970s (divorced c. early 1980s); married Holly Patton, c. 1986 (divorced same year); children: three.
Performing and recording artist, 1966—Cofounded group the 13th Floor Elevators and released debut The Psychedelic Sounds of: The 13th Floor Elevators on International Artist, 1966; group disbanded after Erickson’s incarceration in a Texas mental hospital, 1969; book Openers published under name Rev. Roger Roky Kynard Erickson, 1972; fronted group Bleib Alien, c. early 1970s; released single “Starry Eyes” “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” 1977; fronted various groups, including the Bizarros and the Aliens, and landed deal with CBS Records in U.K., releasing an album in 1980; revised version of album released domestically by 415 as The Evil One, 1981; EP Clear Night for Love released in France by New Rose, 1985; jailed and institutionalized briefly, 1989; Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, an Erickson tribute album featuring versions of his songs by R.E.M., ZZ Top, and others, released by Sire, 1990; signed with Trance Syndicate and released album All That May Do My Rhyme, 1995; book Openers II: The Lyrics of Roky Erickson put out by 2.13.61 Publications, 1995.
Addresses: Home —Austin, TX. Record company —Trance Syndicate, P.O. Box 49771, Austin, TX 78765.
energy—while Hall played an amplified jug, producing a sound variously described as “psychedelic” and “irritating.”
The band’s entire sensibility, it seemed, was founded on LSD and other hallucinogenic substances. What’s more, as Owens himself averred in an interview John Morth-land of the L.A. Weekly, “Tommy was the first person I ever saw use acid to manipulate people. He did that to Roky and all the band.” At Hall’s urging, band members dropped LSD on a daily basis; while such intensive mood alteration no doubt inspired material such as “Reverberation (Doubt)” and “Roller Coaster,” it also took a profound toll.
Yet the band’s distinctive sound landed them a deal with International Artist Records, which released their debut album The Psychedelic Sounds of: The 13th Floor Elevators in 1966. According to Billy Gibbons of Texas hitmakers ZZ Top, the album was enormously influential. Indeed, it “revealed something far deeper than a frantic version of rock-and-roll, “he explained to Leiby. “Here we had some intellectual sensibilities that suggested some real serious thinking. That it came out of this little Texas town was truly amazing.” By most accounts, the group would have preferred to stay in their littleTexas town; their manager, Lelan Rogers, said they declined high-profile tours. Even so, they played regularly in San Francisco and gained a rabid following in the burgeoning hippie culture with their intense, wigged-out live performances.
The group released a follow-up album in 1967 and replaced its original rhythm section; Tommy and Roky continued using vast quantities of acid. Leiby quoted Erickson’s 1960s declaration that he found tripping on the drug “so beautiful because it’s an art. It’s like being an artist.” Yet such “artistic” behavior interfered with such fundamentals as remembering song lyrics. Erickson spent a year in San Francisco with Dana Morris, whom he would later marry, and returned to Texas in a state of physical and emotional disrepair. His mother sent him to a psychiatrist, who tried to cure him with legal drugs, and then to another doctor, who attempted to undo the damage done by the first. Ironically, Erickson was later arrested for marijuana possession—apparently for a single joint.
Fearing a jail term, Erickson feigned insanity and earned a stay at a hospital prior to his hearing; he fled with Morris a short time later and was arrested when he resurfaced at an Elevators gig. Erickson’s flight from justice and a diagnosis of schizophrenia landed him in the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Texas his three-year tenure there inspired, among other things, his song “I Walked with a Zombie. “He also wrote a book of poems called Openers under the moniker “the Rev. Roger Roky Kynard Erickson.”
After his release, Erickson tried to assemble a new incarnation of the Elevators; when this failed, he moved on and led a band called Bleib Alien—”Bleib” being an anagram for “Bible.” In 1977 he put outthe single “Starry Eyes,” backed with “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog).” Rolling Stone praised the latter song as the kind of radical departure that could save rock from choking on its own mediocrity. Later, Erickson fronted a pick-up group calling itself the Bizarros and featuring, among others, Sterling Morrison (a founding member of New York’s avant-rocktrailblazers the Velvet Underground). By the late 1970s, Erickson had joined the Aliens, found management, and landed a U.K. record deal with CBS. He released an album in 1980, a revised version of which appeared domestically as The Evil One. Erick-son’s songs, reported Morthland of the L.A. Weekly, “are startling, bone-crushing rock & roll with satanic and monster-movie themes.”
Erickson’s marriage to Morris ended in the early 1980s. His second album was turned down by CBS but ultimately came out in 1986 on the Enigma label. He continued playing with various bands but was clearly impaired by the medication that kept him relatively lucid. In 1989 Erickson was arrested for mail theft—he apparently thought that he should still be collecting the mail for a neighbor who’d long since departed from his housing complex—and sent to an institution in Missouri and then back to the Hays County Correctional Institute near Austin for 60 days.
In the meantime, some of Erickson’s admirers decided to raise money to help him and settled on the idea of a tribute album. Enlisting musician fans like R.E.M., ZZ Top, and John Wesley Harding, among many others, to record versions of his songs, they assembled Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which was released in 1990. Proceeds went to Erickson’s trust fund. Unfortunately, the record didn’t sell tremendously well; the seminal singer-songwriter still depended on welfare and the ministrations of his mother and friends to survive. It did, however, increase interest in Erickson’s work.
Ultimately, King Coffey—drummer for Texas underground rockers and Pyramid participants the Butthole Surfers—signed Erickson to his Trance Syndicate label and put together some older tracks with some new ones for the 1995 release All That May Do My Rhyme. “This is sincerely the most excited thing I’ve ever been associated with,” Coffey exclaimed in the Austin American-Statesman. “I”m honored and I’m humbled. This guy is a hero of mine, and he’s turned from someone I’ve worshipped from afar into a friend.” Rolling Stonepraised the new album as “a brilliant trip through a variety of pop-music genres, “while Spin deemed it “a poignant, even tasteful work befitting a sweet, sensitive man a few years shy of 50.” The track “We Are Never Talking” was named “Single of the Week” by the British publication Melody Maker upon its U.K. release. Meanwhile, rocker-writer Henry Rollins announced the publication of a book of Erickson’s lyrics called Openers II.
Roky Erickson’s reputation as an influence on the development of psychedelia and punk rock is assured. Unfortunately, he has yet to see much financial reward from his work, and his mental instability has cast a dark shadow over most of his adult life. Yet he has returned from the abyss several times before, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and now has the opportunity to reach a new generations of listeners hungry for musical thrills.
With the 13th Floor Elevators
The Psychedelic Sounds of: The 13th Floor Elevators (includes “You’re Gonna Miss Me, “Reverberation (Doubt), “and “Roller Coaster”), International Artist, 1966.
Easter Everywhere, International Artist, 1967.
Bull of the Woods, 1969.
“Starry Eyes“/”Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog), “1977.
The Evil One, 415, 1981.
Clear Night for Love (EP), New Rose (France), 1985.
Don’t Slander Me, Enigma, 1986.
All That May Do My Rhyme (includes “We Are Never Talking”), Trance Syndicate, 1995.
Various artists, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye (tribute album), Sire, 1990.
Openers II: The Lyrics of Roky Erickson, 2.13.61 Publications, 1995.
Austin American-Statesman, July 21, 1992; August 11, 1994.
Austin Chronicle, July 22, 1994.
Billboard, August 27, 1994.
Daily Texan, February 20, 1987.
L.A. Weekly, November 16, 1990.
Rolling Stone, May 18, 1995.
Spin, April 1995.
Third Coast, November 1984.
Village Voice, June 19, 1990; January 6, 1994.
Washington Post, June 23, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Trance Syndicate publicity materials, 1995.
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