Roky Erickson: Rocky road to redemption

By Graham Reid

Roky Erickson plays in Auckland next week. Photo / File
Roky Erickson plays in Auckland next week. Photo / File

Graham Reid speaks to legendary psychedelic rock survivor Roky Erickson

Compared to Roky Erickson, the late Syd Barrett - who checked out of Pink Floyd and reality at the end of the 60s - had it easy. Where Barrett took enormous amounts of LSD, spun out and mostly stayed in the house for four decades, Erickson did the hard time.

He enjoyed the first wave of success with 13th Floor Elevators when their classic garage band single You're Gonna Miss Me - which he wrote when barely in his teens - became a hit in his hometown of Austin, Texas then spread to California, Miami and Detroit. Then he gobbled LSD, spiralled out into paranoid and delusional behaviour, and believed he had been possessed by demons.

Things got worse when he was busted for possession of one marijuana joint... for which he faced a 10-year prison term. He pleaded insanity and was placed in the Austin State Hospital and, after a few escape attempts, was moved to Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where his companions were murderers and mad men. He underwent electric shock therapy and was doped up to the eyeballs.

In Rusk he wrote songs and poems constantly; on release in '72 (he was still only 25) he began a life of strange music (he invented horror rock with songs like I Walked with a Zombie) and even more strange behaviour. But at 64, by God's grace he says, he is still here, increasingly coherent and stable... and coming to Auckland to play. That's something no one would have predicted just five years ago.

However Erickson - back with his wife Dana, reconciled with his son Jegar whom he barely saw for 20 years, and emotionally stable thanks to the care of his brother Sumner - isn't the easiest person to speak to. He is enthusiastic ("I like interviews, they're helpful and constructive") and happy to talk, but sometimes he answers a question before I have finished asking it, and often disparate ideas flow through him which get verbalised. As in this exchange.

"If you look back on your life is there anything you would have changed?"

"Not that I can think of. We have Time Warner cable television and we watch that a lot. That always helps me decide how I'm going to live my life and everything. But would you have taken LSD if you knew what effect it was going to have on you?"

"I don't think I would, no."

"Because of the damage it did?"

"I just wouldn't do it. I haven't read too much about it but that's a good thought. I don't know that much about it."

Erickson's life may be interesting, but his music - from raw rock'n'roll through pioneering psychedelic trip-rock, horror comic pop-rock and his most recent, reflective work peppered with religious references - is worth mentioning too. His was, and remains, one of the rare voices in rock.

He grew up in a religious family ("We would sing hymns and we went to St David's Church. I sure do have a faith in God") and formed a band to play a show at Travis High School, his first public concert.

"I was supposed to do something constructive for some kind of entertainment get-together. I played You're Gonna Miss Me, We Sell Soul [which became a smalltime regional hit with his first band, the Spades] and a song by Bo Diddley, If I Could Live My Life All Over Again."

Inspired by the young Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and other British acts he'd heard on local radio, You're Gonna Miss Me - as recorded with 13th Floor Elevators - opens with an astonishing scream and sounds like one take from a band desperate to give their all. "It wasn't really about somebody in particular, it was just a thought I had. I was trying to write some suspicious and mysterious song, a fearful song like, 'You're gonna find out that I was thinking about that someone'."'

Persuaded to quit the Spades and join the Elevators by LSD advocate and philosophy student Tommy Hall (who played jug in the Elevators), Erickson and the band became notorious for their drug intake as much as their music. Hall insisted they take LSD before playing and it led Erickson to Rusk Hospital.

Despite the company he kept there, he says he didn't feel in any danger. He wrote and recorded on a cheap tape machine, fragments of that time turning up on the exceptional 2010 album True Love Cast Out All Evil helmed by Will Sheff of the Austin-based band Okkervil River.

On the album, Erickson's voice is as strong and as expressive as ever, there are heartbreaking pieces from the Rusk period like Please Judge ("don't send or keep that boy away"), many with autobiographical elements (Goodbye Sweet Dreams) and some steeped in religion (Devotional Number One, the title song, God is Everywhere).

Today, the amiable Erickson is happy in a new house where he has two organs in a music room and cartoon channels on his television. But frequently something happens between the question asked and the answer coming back.

He is confused when I mention True Love Cast Out All Evil (only to later tell me he has done an album with Okkervil River) and when I suggest too many people know the Roky story and not enough know the music, things warp.

"That could be a constructive idea and that's a very helpful thing to say. I can see how a very good friend would suggest that, and that would be a very constructive thing to hear about and understand."

Make what you will of that, over time the tragic Roky Erickson story will distill down to a few, mostly inaccurate, paragraphs.

But his songs - from the timeless, youthful enthusiasm of You're Gonna Miss Me to that extraordinary music on True Love Cast Out All Evil - will become more and more important.

Roky Erickson, formerly of psychedelic cult band 13th Floor Elevators

Where: Powerstation, March 7 with his band

Essential albums: The Psychedelic Sounds of 13th Floor Elevators (1966), Easter Everywhere, (1967) and 7th Heaven; The Complete Singles Collection (2010) by 13th Floor Elevators (2010); True Love Cast Out All Evil, Roky Erickson with Okkervil River (2010)

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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