Roky Erickson, Psych-Rock Pioneer: An Appreciation

Roky Erickson
(Photo by Guy Clark/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
– Roky Erickson
Roky Erickson of the “13th Floor Elavators” performs on the Larry Kane Show in 1967, in Houston Texas.

The title of his best-known song is now eerily prophetic.  “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

Roky Erickson, born Roger Kynard Erickson in 1947 in Austin, was a larger-than-life psychedelic cowboy whose legacy was propelled by his familiar, haunted, blood-curdling yowl, gnarled Texas blues and garage-rock fury that made his mid-60s punk prototype band 13th Floor Elevators a touchstone for so many artists and fans who followed in his lysergic-fueled wake. Erickson passed away on Friday (June 1) in his hometown at the age of 71, still performing shows on the road.

“Through visionary journeys and rock & roll aspirations, Roky Erickson took off for the music of the spheres as a high school teenager in Texas and never looked back,” said Bill Bentley, Roky’s longtime friend, music journalist, Neil Young archivist and A&R exec who put together the 1990 tribute album on Sire/Warner Bros., Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. “With the 13th Floor Elevators in the mid-‘60s, Erickson helped create a new psychedelic music. But that was only the beginning. He went on to the outer edges of his inner universe, seeking to find a world he could live in, and writing songs to describe what he found there. Roky Erickson discovered the keys to the kingdom, which also opened the doors of perception. A true American rock & roll original. There won’t be another.”

Tributes to Erickson dominated social media from a wide-swath of music fans and musicians. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, whose Austin band served as Roky’s back-up on his last release, the 2010 ANTI- Records solo album, True Love Cast Out All Evil, took to Instagram to post a photo of Roky with the group: “Roky Erickson was the most beautifully unique person I’ve ever known and perhaps the most brilliant. He changed my understanding of how both music and the world work and he rekindled my faith in both. The time I got to spend with him is one of the greatest gifts I got out of music. There’ll never be another like him and we’ll all miss him forever.”

Wrote ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, a longtime supporter and 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. Even now, Roky is a source of creative energy of the first order. It’s really a circumstance where he continues to provide the requisite ‘Reverberation.’ Something he predicted when he sang ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’…We certainly do know now that he’s at one with the universe.”.

Added Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, “Roky’s one of the reasons I began singing. A huge inspiration and giant in the history of rock. I used to call him every day in the ‘80s, he would actually pick up once every couple months and talk horror films with me.”

Cyberpunk author William Gibson, Amoeba Music, At the Drive-In’s Cedric Blixler-Zavala, rapper Biz Markie, Neko Case, Spoon, Dinosaur Jr., Optimo Espacio,  and Chuck Prophet were among the stunning variety of those who paid homage to Erickison on the Internet.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Be And Bring Me Home: Remembering Roky Erickson<a href=””></a><br><br>In 2010 Erickson released his first album in 14 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil, backed by fellow Texans Okkervil River. Here, Okkervil’s Will Sheff reflects on the iconoclast &amp; his time spent backing him <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; aquarium drunkard (@aquadrunkard) <a href=””>June 1, 2019</a></blockquote>
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Roky was a child prodigy who played piano from age 5, then took up guitar at 10, dropping out of high school one month before graduation rather than cut his hippie-length hair. His first group, The Spades, scored a regional hit with the self-penned “We Sell Soul,” before Roky co-founded the 13th Floor Elevators in late 1965 with jug band musician (and co-writer) Tommy Hall and guitar thrasher Stacy Sutherland. A young fellow Texas belter named Janis Joplin hung around the band and briefly considered joining until Family Dog’s Chet Helms convinced her to head to San Francisco instead.

The startling debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, came out in 1966 when Erickson was 19 (reissued in a 2005 deluxe edition by noted U.K. label Charly Records), and its title is purported to be the first-ever use of the word “psychedelic” to describe the music on the record.  “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the lead track, a taunting, accusatory breakup song, became a national hit (No. 55 on Billboard when re-released by Houston record label International Artists).

The song was included on Lenny Kaye’s influential 1972 garage compilation, Nuggets, while “Fire Engine” later became a staple of punk pioneers Television’s set and was covered by guitarist Richard Lloyd on the ’90 tribute album. Easter Everywhere, Roky and the band’s second album, peaked on the Billboard charts at #122 in November 1967, before Erickson’s escalating LSD habit and worsening schizophrenia eventually splintered the group.

Erickson pursued a solo career off and on for the rest of his life, with time off at various points for hospitalization or moving in with his mom.  He formed a band, Bleib Alien, in ’74, working a more hard-edged punk-rock sound featuring lyrics culled from old horror and sci-fi movies like “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” “I Walked with a Zombie” and “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer,” produced by fellow Texan Doug Sahm of Sir Douglas Quintet fame.  Roky Erickson and the Aliens came together in 1979 for a pair of albums produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival drummer Stu Cook, and spurred a revival of his reputation among punkabilly groups like The Cramps.

In the ‘90s, Erickson’s deteriorating mental condition resulted in a years-long obsession with the postal service — he’d spend hours poring over junk mail and writing missives to celebrities, dead and alive, which culminated in his 1989 arrest on charges of mail theft. 
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<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Much love to <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#RokyErickson</a> – one of the greats. <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; SPOON (@spoontheband) <a href=””>June 1, 2019</a></blockquo
The 1990 Sire/Warner Bros. tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, produced by Bentley, again showed the influence of his music on subsequent generations. Here, tribute was paid by several generations of bands, including ZZ Top, R.E.M., Doug Sahm, T. Bone Burnett, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Television’s Richard Lloyd.

A 2005 documentary on Erickson’s life, You’re Gonna Miss Me, screened at SXSW, jump-started Erickson’s career and was followed by Roky’s first full-length concert in two decades at the Austin City Limits Music Festival featuring his band The Explosives and special guest ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. He continued to wean himself off medication and played his first-ever gigs in New York City in 2007 in addition to a set at Coachella that same year.  

In May 2015, Erickson performed with a reunited 13th Floor Elevators at Austin’s Levitation Fest, named for the Elevators’ song of the same name. Erickson was joined by Tommy Hall, John Ike Walton and Ronnie Leatherman, as well as his son Jegar Erickson.

His last performance in New York City was, as was his tradition, on Halloween night, last October 31st at the 13th Annual NY Night Train Haunted Hop in Maspeth, Queens where he drew a crowd of 2,000 with a $50,000 gross, according to Pollstar Boxoffice.  Erickson, who often toured with The Black Angels, who worked as his backing band, had an average gross over the last 36 months of some $23,207, still an attraction for multiple generations of fans.

That Roky, five decades after the first 13th Floor Elevators broke, could still draw those kinds of numbers speaks to the power of his music and legacy.  A leading forerunner of garage-rock, heavy metal, psychedelic jams and hard-edged punk, Erickson, like similar space travelers such as Syd Barrett and Brian Jones before him, served simultaneously as a cautionary tale for the dangers of LSD and a delightful advertisement for its mind-bending possibilities. In the end, Roky carried on with his legacy, spanning the 20th and 21st centuries with a sound that not only blew minds but broke hearts, with some of his most memorable songs – “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “I Have Always Been Here Before” – haunting expressions of unrequited love.

In death, Roky Erickson’s bone-rattling sound remains a force of nature.