Roky Erickson was rock music’s ambassador to inner space.
Throughout a career that spanned six decades, Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson — who died Friday at the age of 71 — wrote and sang songs that mystified and captivated the rock establishment. His band from the late ’60s, The 13th Floor Elevators, pioneered psychedelia whose dark, kaleidoscopic work was on par with Pink Floyd’s sonic experiments at the time. After a period in a psychiatric institution sparked by a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Erickson embarked on a sporadic solo career that culminated in accolades, sold-out concerts and collaborations with some of indie-rock’s most elite acts.
Erickson was born in Austin, Texas, and was forever associated with his home state. His high-school band The Spades showcased Erickson the young nonconformist: Shaggy, ragged, droning and gleefully primitive, the band’s 1965 song “We Sell Soul” is a haunting hint at the murkier corners of Erickson’s psyche. It was also a prime example of garage rock, the genre of mostly underground music made by distortion-worshipping teens in the mid-’60s with far more attitude than technical ability — an important precursor to ’70s punk rock. But even in the wilderness of garage rock, Erickson’s ferociousness made him stand out as an apex predator.
Erickson’s next band, The 13th Floor Elevators, cemented his immortality at the tender age of 19. The band released its debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, in 1966, and it contained the modest hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a reworking of a Spades song. Along with the rest of the album, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” solidified Erickson as more than just another juvenile-delinquent wailer in a garage band. As if swimming against the tide of sanity and reason, he navigated the unknown waters of psychedelia, redefining the nascent cultural movement even as he exemplified it. Throbbing reverb, seesawing riffs and howling glimpses into madness punctuated The 13th Floor Elevators’ music, even as the group’s subsequent albums in the ’60s veered more toward Erickson’s slightly more conventional — or at least less chaotic — singer-songwriter tendencies, trippy as they were.
Things fell apart for Erickson in the late ’60s. He began speaking in tongues onstage and exhibiting other symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He pleaded insanity in 1969 to avoid a prison sentence for drug possession, and landed in a psychiatric institution. He eventually ended up at Texas’ Rusk State Hospital, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy and retreated deeper into a world of his own making. “Most of the time Roky would have a yellow legal pad, and he’d be sitting in the hallway somewhere, writing music, real weak and slumped down like that,” remembered one of Rusk’s psychiatrists in a scene from You’re Gonna Miss Me. “He wanted to write his music, and he wanted to play his music, and that’s all. At least it took his mind off where he was.”
Erickson was released from Rusk in the early ’70s, but it took a few years for him to get his career back on track, and in a wildly different form. A pair of albums he released in 1980 and 1981, Roky Erickson And The Aliens and The Evil One, reflected the shifting musical landscape that had come to pass in the wake of punk. With spiky songs and a propulsive rhythm section, Erickson indulged his love of horror movies, science fiction and paranormal phenomena while violently grafting psychedelia to punk. It was and remains a bracing concoction, a wizard’s brew of terrifying imagery, raging paranoia, fractured song craft and flashes of tender beauty. Each three-minute song is a break from reality; each strum is an attempt to summon beings from beyond the veil. Even when he laid down the psychedelic sizzle on solo albums like 1986’s Don’t Slander Me, he did so with a host of shadows looming at his back.
After a long break fraught with more mental illness, Erickson again returned to the stage and studio in the new century. It was nothing less than a personal renaissance. His life, struggles and staggering creativity were captured in the acclaimed 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. He was booked at Coachella, All Tomorrow’s Parties and London’s Royal Festival Hall. Some of the best young bands on the indie scene, including Mogwai, Black Angels and Okkervil River, sought him out to collaborate. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff wound up producing Erickson’s 2010 solo album True Love Cast Out All Evil, a sumptuous and heart-rending record on which Sheff’s band — fellow Austinites — hoist their hero on their shoulders for a victory lap. And in 2015, The 13th Floor Elevators reunited for a triumphant concert at the Austin’s music festival Levitation, bringing Erickson’s erratic life and career full circle.
One of Erickson’s contemporaries from the Texas rock scene, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, told The Guardian, of his fallen friend: “It’s almost unfathomable to contemplate a world without Roky Erickson. He created his own musical galaxy and early on was a true inspiration.” That musical galaxy lives on not only in Erickson’s stunningly original body of work, but in the way he inspired and continues to inspire thousands. His music is a celebration of idiosyncrasy, courage, integrity, perseverance and personal expression at the risk of commercial estrangement. But more than the heroism of his oeuvre, it’s his music itself — a sui generis document of demons and delights both earthy and otherworldly — that will endure and continue to spark visions.
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