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Roky Erickson - An obituary

Roky Erickson, singer, musician, song-writer

Born July 15 1947; died May 31 2019

Roky Erikson, who has died aged 71, was a psychedelic rock pioneer. His tenure fronting Texas-sired 1960s punk-brats The 13th Floor Elevators saw him embrace the era’s pioneering aesthetic in a way that would strip rock and roll down to its raw basics before reimagining it into new stratospheres. This Erickson did with a nervy urgency that announced itself with the manic break-up anthem of his band’s debut single, You’re Gonna Miss Me, released in 1966. Over four albums with The 13th Floor Elevators followed by many years in the musical wilderness and an erratic but still charged set of solo records, for those in search of rock music’s holy grail, Erickson became a cult figure several times over.     

When You’re Gonna Miss Me appeared on Nuggets, the Lenny Kaye-compiled double album of original psych-garage obscurities originally released in 1972, heard alongside contributions from contemporaries such as The Electric Prunes and The Seeds, the song’s unhinged drive helped set the template for a new generation of garage-punks to come.

By that time, however, Erickson had been incarcerated several times, once following a possibly drug induced onstage meltdown, the second after a crackdown on narcotics by the authorities, and his musical career appeared to be over. While Erickson was affected by mental health issues the rest of his life, he continued to write and record from the mid-1970s until the last years of his life, while his influence continued to leave its mark.

Roger Kynard Erickson was born in Dallas, Texas, the eldest of five brothers born to his mother Evelyn and his father, also called Roger. Encouraged by his mother, Erickson was playing piano by the time he was five, and took up the guitar aged ten. After dropping out of high school a week before graduation, horrified at the idea of having to cut his hair to fit in with the school dress code, the teenage Erickson joined his first band, The Spades, who recorded an early version of You’re Gonna Miss Miss Me.

On leaving The Spades, aged eighteen Erickson co-founded The 13th Floor Elevators with Tommy Hall, Stacy Sutherland, Benny Thurman and John Ike Walton, and scored a hit with the initial release of You’re Gonna Miss Me on the Contact label. The band signed to International Artists, the record label co-run by Lelan Rogers, brother of Country singer Kenny Rogers, who re-released the single, which also featured on their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

Another song on the album, Fire Engine, was later covered by both Television and Patti Smith, while its title was the inspiration behind the name of Edinburgh post-punk band Fire Engines. The slower but infinitely trippier Splash 1 provided the name for Glasgow’s seminal mid-1980s Sunday night club, where early incarnations of 1960s inspired bands such as Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain created their own trip.

A second album, 1967’s Easter Everywhere, featured Slip Inside This House, later covered by Primal Scream, with their rave-soaked version appearing on a 1990 tribute album to Erikson, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, as well as Primal Scream’s seminal 1991 record, Screamadelica. Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye also featured a contribution from The Jesus and Mary Chain, as well as from Julian Cope, REM and ZZ Top.

Tempting fate from the start with a name that referenced the superstition of buildings skipping the unlucky number thirteen and going straight from the twelfth to the fourteenth floors, despite releasing two other albums before they collapsed, The 13th Floor Elevators arguably became victims of the counter-culture that sired them. Having embraced the use of LSD, during a 1969 performance Erickson started speaking gibberish to the crowd. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he was given involuntary electroconvulsive therapy.

A year later, as the establishment began to crack-down on what by now had become illegal drug use in order to quell the tide of youthful rebellion, Erickson was busted for carrying a solitary marijuana joint. Given the choice of a prison sentence or pleading insanity, while his band members either accepted a prison sentence, lived in a cave with an LSD cult or took the draft to fight in Vietnam, Erickson took the latter choice. In echoes of Ken Kesey’s anti-hero Randle McMurphy in his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Erickson spent three years in Rusk State Hospital in Texas, during which time he wrote and self-published a book of poems, Openers.

Once released, Erickson formed a new band, initially called the anagrammatically inclined Bleib Alien, before eventually settling on Roky Erickson and the Aliens, releasing two albums under that name. In 1982, Erickson claimed that his body had been inhabited by a Martian, and around this time developed an obsession with junk mail. With several live archive releases appearing, Erickson found himself looked after by more of the generation he inspired. His 1995 album, All That May Do My Rhyme, was released on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label, while a collection of lyrics, Openers II, was published by Henry Rollins, who also paid for a full set of dentures for Erickson.

In 2001, Erickson’s brother Sumner was granted legal guardianship of his sibling, which aided the mists of assorted legal and medical wranglings to clear. Keven McAlester’s candid 2005 documentary film, You’re Gonna Miss Me, charted Erickson’s colourful life, and was screened at the South By South West festival in Texas, where Erickson played his first full-length concert in twenty years, backed by his band, the Explosives. More shows followed in New York and as part of Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

In 2008, Erickson collaborated with Mogwai, providing a fragile vocal on the song Devil Rides that appeared on the band’s Batcat EP. A final album of his first new material for fourteen years, True Love Cast out All Evil, appeared in 2010, with Texas band Okkervil River backing Erickson on a record released in Europe on the Glasgow-based Chemikal Underground label.

Live appearances over the last decade saw Erickson play at South by South West in Austin, Texas, and in 2016 at the final All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Prestatyn, North Wales. The 13th Floor Elevators had reunited a year earlier for their first live appearance since their messy break-up almost half a century earlier. What might have become of Erickson and the band if they hadn’t crashed and burned so early is anybody’s guess, but it appeared that Erickson had come full circle. As the song that ushered him into the psychedelic firmament prophesied, everyone there could finally see what they’d been missing.

Erickson is survived by his brothers Mikel and Sumner and his son Jegar.

The Herald, June 20th 2019


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