Rock 'N Roll Case Study: Roky Erickson
By Sean Koepenick
Here I sitWhen I first heard these words on the "Return Of The Living Dead" soundtrack back in the early 1990's I was immediately intrigued. Sandwiched between songs from The Damned and T.S.O.L (among others), this strange tune with its haunting vocals and off kilter piano certainly stood out from the crowd. Since I had no idea who Roky was, I set out to find out more about this underground artist. This goal was sidetracked until just last year I received the 4 CD "Nuggets" compilation of 1960's garage rock bands as a gift. Only then did I stumble upon the classic "You're Gonna Miss Me" By Roky's second band (and most popular) The 13th Floor Elevators. With Roky's tortured howls and the wacky background noises supplied by electric jug (yes-electric jug) player Tommy Hall, I knew that I had to find out the origins of where this truly amazing psychedelic rock came from since the pull was too strong to resist.
Here then, is a brief history of Roky Erickson, a truly underappreciated artist whose music continues to win over new converts to this day. Upon finding out about all the trials and tribulations that Roky had to go through in his life just to try and bring us his music, it makes hearing his music even more of a revelation.
First off, just to make things easier, let's start with his name. "Roky" is pronounced like "Rocky" (the movie). The unique spelling comes from a combination of his first and middle names-Roger Kynard. Rocky without the C, if that makes things easier for you. Roky was born in Dallas, Texas on July 15, 1947. He was the child of an architect and a would-be opera singer. He began playing piano at age 5 and started on guitar at age 12. Roky soon realized that music was his true calling and dropped out of high school. January 1965 saw the release of his first 45 "You're Gonna Miss Me b/w Tried To Hide with a band called The Spades. But by December of that same year the band had broken up. However, another band on the Austin music scene called The Lingsmen had just added another member named Tommy Hall. Tommy came up with the idea to "amplify" his jug playing by placing it next to a microphone. He was a song lyricist as well. Since he was openly using LSD at the time (and other band members-including Roky would soon follow down this path) the words were often of a "trippy" variety. Tommy had seen Roky play with The Spades, and he asked Roky to join their group. Roky agreed and The 13th Floor Elevators played their first gig in the Texas area in December 1965.
You're gonna wake up one morning as the sun greets the dawnRechristened The 13th Floor Elevators by Tommy's girlfriend, the name had two not so hidden meanings. The 13th was added because in most high rise apartments at the time the number 13 was skipped due to silly superstition. The second reason was that the 13th letter in the alphabet was "M" which of course stood for marijuana. This wild abandon when it came to promoting their rebel image and frequent drug use would later come back to haunt the band. At this point, the band also consisted of Stacy Sutherland on lead guitar, Benny Thurman on bass and John Ike Walton on drums.
The Elevators quickly generated a buzz and were signed by Houston's International Artists which was run by Leland Rogers (brother of Kenny Rogers, the country singer). The Elevators were one of the first groups of that era to expressly call their music psychedelic. "The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators" record was released in August 1966. The first single, "You're Gonna Miss Me" took off, eventually reaching #56 on the pop charts. The Elevators were playing across the country to rabid fans and critical acclaim. Among their fans was fellow Texan Janis Joplin, who sang with the band at a few shows, and even considered joining the group. But her manager talked her out of it and convinced her to go back to San Francisco and hook up with Big Brother & The Holding Company. The rest is history and an altogether different story.
The Elevators were riding the wave of popularity, opening for big name acts like The Byrds and appearing on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. When Dick asked who was the head of the band Roky replied "We're all heads". But The Elevators picked the wrong state to mess with when it came to openly flaunting their drug experimentation. The penalty for possessing one joint in Texas was up to 20 years in jail. At the beginning of 1966, the band was busted for pot possession, but the judge misunderstood the evidence and they got off on a technicality. While other bands of the time like The Seeds and The Amboy Dukes (featuring a young Ted Nugent) seemed to avoid serious scrapes with the law, The Elevators would not prove to be so lucky.
These internal band problems were starting to cause dissension. Both John Ike Walton and Benny Thurman left the group in late 1966. Bennie's replacement on bass (Ronnie Leatherman) did not make it to the sessions for album #2. He was replaced on bass by Danny Galindo. But September 1967 saw the release of "Easter Everywhere", which some critics say surpassed their debut. Highlights included an eight minute track called "Slip Inside This House" (later covered by British rockers Primal Scream) and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Baby Blue". Despite beating the dreaded sophomore slump, troubles were still looming for The Elevators.
In December 1968, after leaving temporarily to California to avoid police pressure, the band came back to Texas. While on a state university campus, Roky was busted for drugs again. This time the authorities were playing hardball. Roky's lawyer decided that Roky should plead insanity to avoid a long prison term. Roky later commented that it was easy to fool the psychologists. "I was such a good actor man. I had them all fooled; saying there were spots running up and down the walls, beasts with big fangs everywhere-well they believed me!" A little too well actually- Roky was sentenced to 5 years in Rusk State Hospital in Austin where he served 3 and 1/2 years. This is where the story turns tragic. Because of this misguided step by his attorneys and because Texas is obviously not big on "rehabilitation" of drug users Roky truly suffered while at Rusk. He was diagnosed as a schizo- phrenic and given extensive electroshock therapy, Thorazine and other psycho active treatments. All this because of taking LSD and using pot. I guess Roky was lucky the doctors didn't suggest a lobotomy to deal with this serious problem.
This effectively put an end to The Elevators ride to the top. A patchwork record of outtakes featuring guitarist Stacy Sutherland songs on most tracks was put out in December 1968 called "Bull Of The Woods". Their shameless record manager Leland even put out a shoddy Live record which had fake audience sounds dubbed in. The Elevators were particularly bitter about their deal with International Artists. Roky later stated in an interview that Leland Rogers (owner of their record label) never gave the band one royalty check for any record sales. They were only paid for live gigs. And you thought Kenny Rogers' duets with Dolly Parton were bad-Leland seems to have no shame.
The Elevators tried to re-group when Roky was released from the hospital, but it was not to be. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland also had to spend some time in jail, and Tommy and Roky could not resolve their differences. When Stacy was killed in 1978 during a domestic dispute, the chances of an Elevators reunion vanished.
I love you
Roky tried to get his life back in order after his release from the hospital, but kept a lower profile as a solo artist. Roky had continued to write songs while at Rusk. They were acoustic songs that had a completely different feel from his work with The Elevators. They dealt with love, both human and spiritual. The stark emotion on these songs were accompanied in most cases only by Roky's acoustic guitar. Although the recording's sound was not exactly high quality (Roky's mother Evelyn recorded most of the tracks on a cheap tape recorder), the songwriting and the heartfelt yearning on these tunes is inescapable. You can almost feel Roky's desire to break free from society's restraints and let his creative spirits fly. Inspiring but also painful to listen to when you know the story behind the recordings, this is still essential Roky. However Roky fans had to wait until 1998 for an official release. Emperor Jones Records put out "Never Say Goodbye" and it was the first time Roky owned the rights to his own songs. Proceeds from the CD are going to his trust fund established by his brother Sumner and his lawyer. "I've Never Known This Till Now" and "Be and Bring Me Home" are standout tracks on this endearing CD.
But back in 1975 Roky was still working to get his musical career back on board. He formed a new supporting band called Blieb Alien and released a single called "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)" that dealt with Roky's new obsessions: aliens, monsters and horror films. The single only enjoyed modest success. In 1978 he formed a new backing band called The Aliens. They were able to secure a deal with CBS in the UK. Stu Cook- bassist of Creedence Clearwater Revival was brought in to produce the sessions. The sessions were difficult at best but did produce some quality music.
As Stu remembered-"I finally figured out, the way to do it is to just get him in the studio and just keep coming at him. Don't let him have a chance to start talking about his apartment or dinner. Just keep him flooded with musical paths." But some of Roky's most disturbing songs came from these sessions as well. Stu commented that "his darkest psychosis-there's that fear and all that concern about that. 'Creature With The Atom Brain', 'Night Of The Vampire', 'Two-Headed Dog'. One of my favorite songs by him, and I think I consider it a love song, is 'I Think Of Demons'. 'I think of demons-for you' is the tag line. Two albums were released from these sessions: "Roky Erickson & The Aliens" in 1980 and "The Evil One" in 1981. The first record got an extremely positive review in Rolling Stone but problems still seemed to follow Roky. These two albums have been recently re-issued by a label called Sympathy For The Record Industry as The Evil One (Plus One) which is a great Roky record for new fans as well.
But Roky was still having problems getting by on a day to day basis. Although he had a more stable home life with a wife and kids, sometimes he would forget to take his medication. Then he would be picked up by the authorities for what were described as "minor disturbances". Once 5 or 6 of these piled up, a short stay in a Texas hospital would be prescribed usually to the detriment of Roky's well being.
Throughout the 1980's various record companies and unethical "management" types would prey on Roky's fragile mindset and the result would be a number of unauthorized recordings that Roky did not see any royalties. In 1982 he signed an affidavit stating that a Martian had taken residence in his body. Although there would be various records released they were mostly live recordings with pick-up supporting bands such as The Explosives, The Resurrectionists and The Nervebreakers among others. However there were a few more musical highlights for Roky: June 1984 saw a brief Elevators reunion and in October 1985 Roky met Peter Buck of REM for the first time who became an ardent supporter of Roky and his music. 1987 saw his last full concert in Austin with Evil Hook Wildlife ET. By the end of the 1980's Roky was keeping mainly to himself and was fed up with the music business, having seen so many records come out that he did not authorize. He was trying to get by on a $200 Social Security check and was briefly re-institutionalized after being arrested for mail fraud. Friends say it was just a misunderstanding: he had been delivering mail to some people in a local apartment building. When they moved out, he stopped delivering it and taped the unopened mail pieces to his wall. But by 1990, Roky was trying to avoid the limelight at all costs.
But in 1990, a group of Roky supporters organized to record a tribute album for Roky's music. Entitled "Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye", it features artists such as R.E.M., The Jesus & Mary Chain and even ZZ Top recording Roky's songs. Although not a blockbuster, it did bring new fans that were unfamiliar with Roky's music into the fold. Building on this momentum, King Coffey-drummer for The Butthole Surfers and a fellow Austin resident was able to coax Roky back into the studio. They were able to complete six songs in 1994 and finish a few others from an earlier session in 1984.
Coffey's record label-Trance Syndicate was a small operation, but one of Roky's fans generously dipped into his life savings to help finance the sessions. King notes that he was the first person to give Roky a royalty check for a record. Considering how many releases had been put out there before 1995, this was truly a shock. King states it was "kinda bittersweet,-it's a drag that I had to be the first. I value Roky's friendship immeasurably and from time to time he'll pick up the guitar and start strumming it and he's got so much soul when he sings-he's got the Texas blues in his voice and it just blows me away."
Starry eyes will fall on me"All That May Do My Rhyme" was a triumphant return to form for Roky. From the Buddy Holly-esqe "Starry Eyes" to the semi-autobiographical "Please Judge" (about his early drug busts) it is a solid CD. The musicians involved seem to really understand Roky and it feels like he feeds off this energy. "Don't Slander Me" is full on rave up that burns like a Elevators track, while "Clear Night For Love" is probably one of his better love songs to date.
Released in 1995, All... received widespread critical acclaim. In addition, in March 1995 Henry Rollins's 2/13/61 publications put out a book of Roky's lyrics called "Openers II". A sequel to a book put out in 1972, it was painstakingly compiled by Roky's producer/friend Casey Monahan with the assistance of Roky's brother Sumner. Roky was very excited about the book's release, but as Casey noted, music seemed to be drifting away from Roky's capabilities again. "Roky doesn't seem particularly interested in music these days. I don't think he's written a song since 1986. Although he has performed in public eight times since July 1992, his sets are limited to the same four songs." Obviously new musical output from Roky would be a surprise but hopefully not impossible. With a group of supporters now stronger than ever-Henry Rollins, Peter Buck, Casey Monahan, King Coffey, and Sumner Erickson just to name a few, I guess never say never to another comeback. Every time Roky has been counted out, he has always seemed to bounce back from extreme adversity. Here's hoping he can do it again and continue to release new music for all his fans out there throughout the world.
Although there are currently no plans for Roky to put out a new CD, next year will see the scheduled CD re-release of Roky's work with his first "solo" band Blieb Alien, on Emperor Jones Records. Below is a selected discography of mainly authorized recordings that will benefit Roky and his trust fund if purchased. Of course there are many bootlegs out there, but Roky receives little or no money from these CD's. So search these out and find out for yourself the fractured genius of Roky Erickson and his captivating music. I'm sure you will not regret it.