Thursday, August 30, 2007

Petri Dish 101: Roky Erickson, Psychedelic Pioneer

In the great opening credits sequence of the John Cusack music-nerd vehicle High Fidelity, we see a good old-fashioned LP player, its needle dropped purposefully on a record. Underneath the homey crackle and pop of the ancient vinyl, the garage rock classic "You're Gonna Miss Me," by the 13th Floor Elevators, begins.

Three guitar chords pound through. Then, on cue, the drums and a bizarre alien hum (actually an electrified jug) kick in. After a few bars comes the vocal, a snarling, soaring, utterly out-of-control wail that suggests a bobcat on mescaline fighting for its life. The antiquity of that sputtering vinyl only intensifies the feeling that the voice you're hearing emanates from somewhere gloriously, chillingly not of this earth.

It's the kind of tooth-rattling rock and roll howl from which cult worship is born, and the possessor of that magnificent instrument, Roky Erickson, is playing Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival on Labor Day. Such an announcement means way more than just another sixties rocker hitting the comeback/revival trail: It's nothing short of a bloody miracle.

Erickson's rise, fall, and rebirth have been the stuff of rock and roll legend. Erickson and his fellow musical explorers in The 13th Floor Elevators burst onto the mid-60's rock scene with a sound that infused straightahead rock with a heady dose of lysergic anarchy. Erickson's unhinged singing style and wild charisma shone a heavy influence on fellow rock and roll hellion Janis Joplin, and the Elevators' visceral sound goosed the Haight-Ashbury scene. It's likely no coincidence that erstwhile folkies like the Jefferson Airplane begin cranking up their guitars and diving into uncharted psychedelic waters after the Texas-spawned Elevators rolled through California for the first time.

Such trailblazing came at a heavy cost, particulary for Roky Erickson. Drugs--LSD in particular--were key ingredients in the Elevators' psychedelic stew, and Erickson himself purportedly dropped some 300 hits of acid during those heady years. The band's active endorsement of said drugs put local authorities on the warpath. Then in 1969 the singer/guitarist was busted for possession of a single marijuana joint, and rather than face the Draconian prison time exacted for a criminal charge, Erickson's attorney copped an insanity plea. It was a decision that would wreak havoc on an already-fragile psyche. Erickson was committed to Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, subjected to daily shock treatments and Thorazine doses, and housed in a nightmarish environment alongside child rapists and murderers. After his discharge in 1973, he was never the same.

A diagnosed schizophrenic, Roky Erickson spent the next two decades in a state of abject psychosis, in and out of mental institutions and eventually living in abject poverty in a tiny hovel of an apartment in Austin, Texas. His mother Evelyn became his de facto guardian, and her (not-entirely-unfounded, given Roky's sad past) extreme phobia over psychiatrists, drugs, or chemical treatment of any kind put an indefinite hold on any sort of therapy for her eldest son. Happily, Roky's youngest brother Sumner (a principal tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) fought for--and won--guardianship of his older brother, and a carefully-controlled regimen of drug-and-psychiatric therapy has done wonders.

Today, the atomic fireball frontman of the 13th Floor Elevators is on the road again with a new band, The Explosives, and he's reputedly in fine form. His coming Bumber-gig on Monday September 3 promises to be a treat, and one more step towards Roky Erickson's redemption. If you give a damn about rock and roll and live within a hundred-mile radius, you best be in attendance.

Essential Recordings:

In addition to his work with the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson sporadically recorded as a solo artist, and as frontman for Roky Erickson and the Aliens in the late seventies and early eighties before discarding music outright for many years.

Several of his solo releases came when he was at his most unstable, and many of the labels who put out those records effectively took advantage of Erickson's mental state and stiffed him out of any royalty money. As such, the quality of a lot of his solo catalog is pretty erratic. It's helpful to have some guidance navigating through the morass of half-baked outtakes and cynical repackagings to get to the man's finest musical moments.

You're Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson (Restless Records, 1991) and I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (Shout Factory, 2005) provide the best shared starting points. The latter, a two-disc set, is the more exhaustive, including almost a dozen 13th Floor Elevators tracks as well as copious selections from his finer solo efforts (plus, most importantly, Roky gets royalties from the proceeds). The former, older collection, however, provides a more consistent sampling of his solo work, favoring stronger recordings of some of his best songs with the Aliens and alone: The haunting acoustic take of "I Have Always Been Here Before" on You're Gonna Miss Me, for one, totally blows the version on the 2005 Anthology away (and captures the song's ruminations on memory and deja vu with greater fidelity).

The 13th Floor Elevators, Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (Collectables, 1966) and Easter Everywhere (Collectables, 1967): The Elevators' first two albums still rock like hell and swirl like the opening credits of a Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe flick. Roky declaims surreal lyrics like the most compellingly zealous of preachers, and puts the wildman's snarl to work on more straightahead garage rockers like the immortal "You're Gonna Miss Me" and "Tried to Hide". Stacy Sutherland's and Erickson's guitars, meantime, lay down the kind of trippy sonic cacophony that'd be explored with more virtuosity (if not impact) by Jimi Hendrix and others. Cosmic yet direct, these two albums impacted everything from the psychedelic revival of the eighties to grunge rock (Kurt Cobain was an avowed Elevators fan) to current keepers of the rock flame The White Stripes (Jack White's whine owes the family farm to Roky).

The Evil One Plus One (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1980/2002): Erickson's post-Rusk output is obsessed with horror-movie and demonic lyrical imagery, but this is no mainstream career rocker name-dropping old chillers a la Rob Zombie or Glenn Danzig: Roky sings songs like "If You Have Ghosts" and "Creature with the Atom Brain" with the manic authority of someone for whom such demons are all too real. The ferocious commitment of his delivery, the feral power of his voice, and the solid playing of his backup band, The Aliens, makes this his strongest rock effort outside of his work with the Elevators. Bauhaus, Black Sabbath, and Marilyn Manson all sound like foppish dilettantes in comparison.

Never Say Goodbye (Emperor Jones Records, 1974/1999): While he languished in Rusk and other mental institutions in the early seventies, Roky Erickson continued to write and play music: Several times, his mom Evelyn snuck in a tape recorder and committed these spare acoustic tracks to cassette. You'd think that the results would be the worst kind of slipshod barrel-scraping, but Never Say Goodbye contains several astonishing, brilliant pop and folk songs. The opener, "Unforced Peace," reaches for universal tranquility with quiet resolve and total lucidity to rival John Lennon at his finest, and you will never hear a love song more luminously beautiful and stirringly honest than "I Love the Living You." That all of the wonderful, moving songs contained here were recorded while Roky endured abject imprisonment in some of the nastiest mental facilities in Texas is alternately heart-breaking and unspeakably inspiring. Hard to find (it's out of print, and will set you back about $40 on Amazon), but infinitely worth seeking out.


The Hound of Love said...

Sweet post man. I was listening to "I love the living you" and stumbled upon your site. It's a nice little synopsis of Roky's life you got here. Am I the only one who loves "Stand for the fire demon"?

René Vis said...

When Felicia and I got married in 2001, we had Roky's "I Love The Living You" playing during the ceremony in church. Thought some guests would come to us afterwards to ask who that was. But no one did.

Tony Kay said...

I woulda, Rene. I woulda.