Roky Erickson - Biography
The legendary Texas psychedelic band The 13th Floor Elevators collapsed in 1970, due to poor management, increasing drug abuse of some members, and constant harassment by the Austin, TX police for their open advocacy of LSD. Faced with a lengthy jail sentence for marijuana possession, lead singer Roky Erickson chose to please not guilty by reason of insanity. The plea kept him out of jail, and instead plunged him into the hell of incarceration in Rusk State Mental Hospital, where he was subjected to three years of electro-shock therapy and Thorazine treatment. His incarceration precluded any immediate consideration of a solo career or an Elevators reunion. Finally adjudged sane and released from Rusk in 1975, Erickson and some of the other Elevators made a few ill-fated attempts at a band reunion, and managed to perform the occasional gig. However, the absence of jug player/psychedelic philosopher Tommy Hall, and lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland, left a fractured and uncertain band unable to reach the heights the original band had gained.
Through mutual friend Patrick McGarrigle, Erickson was introduced to Bill Miller, an electric autoharp player who led an Austin-area acid-prog rock band named Cold Sun. Erickson replaced Cold Sun guitarist Tom McGarrigle with himself, and renamed the band Bleib Alien. Besides Miller on electric autoharp, the band featured Hugh Patton on drums and Mike Ritchie on bass, with Erickson as the sole guitarist. The band performed several Austin area gigs, playing mostly Erickson originals penned during his stay in the mental hospital. A few songs from these performances first appeared on various bootlegs in the 80's and have since found official release on I have Always Been Here Before: the Roky Erickson Anthology, (2005 Shout Factory).
Erickson’s first post-Elevators recording were produced by Doug Sahm of Sir Douglas Quartet fame. “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” b/w “Starry Eyes” (1976 Mars) was a protean proto-punk classic, featuring Erickson’s enigmatic and horrific lyrics and his trademark scream. The disc is credited to Bleib Alien. These songs were soon re-recorded by Erickson and the Aliens, with Miller’s signature fuzz-toned autoharp intro — an anthemic riff to stand beside The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” — kicking off the performance in electrifying fashion. The song remains the signature song of Erickson’s solo career, performed at virtually every live performance.
Former Sahm road manager Craig Luckin became Erickson’s manager, and relocated him to the San Francisco Bay Area; taking only Miller with him from Bleib Alien. The remainder of the new band, now named The Aliens, was assembled in California. Duane Aslaksen was brought in on lead guitar, with Erickson returning to the rhythm guitarist role he had held in the Elevators. The rhythm section of “Fuzzy” Furioso on drums and Morgan Burgess, coupled with the distinctive guitar style of Aslaksen and Miller’s utterly unique approach to the autoharp, gave Erickson a backing band as recognizable and compelling as the Elevators.
“Bermuda” b/w “The Interpreter,” their first release, (1977 Rhino) featured Erickson screaming dire warnings about the Bermuda triangle, with the band rocking in stripped-down punk style. Miller’s muted autoharp strings provided a burbling effect that referenced Elevator Tommy Hall’s electric jug sound.
The band entered the studio with former Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook producing. The sessions extended over many months, with both Cook and Luckin struggling to keep Erickson focused and drug-free. The material recorded was released in the UK as Roky Erickson & the Aliens (1979 CBS), and as The Evil One in the US (1979 415 Records). The albums differed slightly, with some songs appearing on both albums, and some only on one or the other. Both albums featured covers that hinted at the material inside; The Evil One showed a blurry shadow (Aslaksen’s) reaching for a door opening into blackness, while the British release featured monsters literally emerging from Erickson’s split-in-two head. Musically the songs traded the elevator’s mystical reverb and electric jug for a punk/new wave-influenced sound, focusing on the hard rock side of Erickson’s oeuvre. Lyrically, the songs, all written by Erickson, traded the Elevator’s psychedelic proselytizing for an obsession with horror movies, two-headed dogs, fire demons and hybrid man-alligators.
With these two albums, Erickson and The Aliens had produced a body of material able to proudly stand beside Erickson’s best work with the Elevators. The songs remain the well from which Erickson draws the bulk of his live set lists up to the present. The band played frequently in San Francisco and other venues in Northern California, but never appeared in New York City, Boston, Chicago or any other common stops for a US tour. Erickson made a solo promotional visit to the UK, where the record was selling better, but his odd behavior and bewildering responses to simple interview questions led most critics to dismiss him as a stateside version of Syd Barrett, and a UK tour was not forthcoming. With Erickson’s fragile mental state and continuing drug abuse leading to his absence at many live shows, the band eventually ground to a halt in the early 80's.
Don’t Slander Me (Pink Dust), a collection of material recorded in sessions ranging from 1981-1982 wasn't released until 1986, well after the band had already broken up. The Aliens rhythm section was replaced for these recordings by Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady and Paul Zahl on drums. The album contained several excellent new originals as well as re-recorded versions of “Bermuda” and “Starry Eyes.” Erickson had moved back to Austin, TX, by the time of this release, where he performed with a variety of local bands, most notably the Explosives, as well as The Nervebreakers and Evil Hook Wildlife ET. Numerous live recordings of widely varying quality were often bootlegged over the years, but no studio recordings were made. As Erickson’s mental state continued to deteriorate, he retreated into silence for several years, living in a small apartment in Austin, TX, and subsisting on a small monthly disability check.
Partly to bring Erickson's music to the attention of a new generation, and also to assist him financially, Warner Brothers executive Bill Bentley, a longtime fan, assembled and released a CD of Ericksons songs performed by a variety of current bands. The CD, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which featured Erickson’s songs interpreteed by the likes of ZZ Top and Sonic Youth received a good amount of media attention. However, any ability to capitalize on this publicity failed due to Erickson’s mental and physical condition. He was no longer in any shape to either record or perform.
Erickson did emerge briefly in 1995, to record the more acoustic-based record All That May Do My Rhyme, (1995 Trance Syndicate) produced by King Coffee of the Butthole Surfers. The last of only three legitimate releases by Erickson, this would be his last solo studio album to date. He played a handful of shows in Austin around this time, but unfortunately, such was his mental state at these shows that he would sometimes play the chords to one song while singing the lyrics to another. He appeared frightened and uncomfortable onstage, and soon ceased performing entirely. He moved back into his childhood home to live with his mother, where he would spend most of the next decade. He ceased taking his schizophrenia medications, and spent his days listening to multiple TVs and radios blaring at top volume. A sad and futile attempt at blockong out the voices in his head.
In 2001, Erickson’s youngest brother, Sumner Erickson, a professional tuba player with the Pittsburgh Symphony, went to court to gain legal custody of his brother. He moved Erickson into his home in Pittsburgh, PA, and got him much-needed physical, dental and psychological care. Finally back on anti-schizophrenia medication and physically healthy again, Roky returned to Austin after a year in Pittsburgh and began the process of resuscitating his career. He appeared with most of the surviving Elevators on a panel discussion at the 2005 South by Southwest Music Festival. He also played a brief but utterly compelling three-song set with the Explosives--his first live performance since the mid-90's. He reunited with longtime friend and Elevators lyricist Powell St. John, who was beginning his own career revival. Roky recorded a duet with St. John on the latter’s song “Right Track Now,” for the CD of the same name (Right Track Now, 2005 Dreams). The recording session was Erickson’s first in twelve years.
A documentary film, You’re Gonna Miss Me, focusing mainly on the inter-family court battle over Erickson and his subsequent year of recovery, was released in 2007. At times harrowing, the film delved into some of the sources of Erickson’s mental illness, which ranged from his upbringing, harassment of the Elevators by local authorities, the electro-shock and other treatments meted out during his numerous stays in mental institutions, and his anything-goes drug use of the late 70's and 80's.
Legal assistance helped Erickson to regain control over some of his songs, and he began to receive royalties. His best known song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” appeared in a Dell computer commercial. Sumner Erickson’s guardianship came to an end and Erickson was legally his own master again.
In 2007, Erickson and The Explosives began to tour the US, to rapturous audiences thrilled to see a happy, healthy legend in fine voice, his unearthly scream only slightly diminished from age and disuse. At their performance in San Francisco in October 2007 (his first California show since the early 80's), he was reunited with most of The Aliens, as well as his musical writing partners from the Elevators days, Tommy Hall and Clementine Hall. Erickson continues to tour with The Explosives as well as other backing bands, in both the US and Europe, where he has played to the largest audiences of his entire career. He is said to be working on a studio CD of new material with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. His comeback from his years in the wilderness of mental illness and drug abuse is one of the most improbable and moving stories of rock and roll resurrection.