The extraterrestrial life of Roky Erickson

The psychedelic pioneer and 13th Floor Elevators frontman, who died last Friday, led a troubled life. He also left behind an otherworldly body of work.

June 03, 2019
The extraterrestrial life of Roky Erickson Photo: Jim Dyson / Getty Images  

It’s no matter of mere coincidence that a week after naval pilots confirmed the existence of UFOs, Roky Erickson, the greatest alien left stranded in our midst, returned home to the celestial unknown. The frontman of Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, who defined the nascent genre of psychedelic rock in the mid-'60s, who briefly discovered infinity though the raw power of distortion and enough LSD to melt 100 minds, has embarked on his final ascension at the age of 71.

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If the Aquarian age expanded the boundaries of cognitive perception and psychic consciousness, the era’s thrust towards the outer limits left behind a wake of tragedies. There were the 27 club casualties, of course, long deified on littoral murals and dorm room walls: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, etc. But just below that trinity existed an equally innovative stratum of lysergic cult heroes who inspired them and vanished to the shadow realm: Arthur Lee of Love, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, and Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators.

If the latter name rings unfamiliar, you’ve inevitably heard Erickson’s influence refracted in the sounds of those who absorbed his third-eye visions and intra-dimensional yawp: Joplin. Mazzy Star, The Butthole Surfers, and R.E.M., whose Peter Buck once joked that the band’s acronym really stood for “Roky Erickson’s music.” Henry Rollins paid it forward by purchasing a wayward Erickson a set of false teeth and rightfully claiming that “some artists are able to cut right through everything and get you: Brian Wilson, Sam Cooke, Roky Erickson.” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons said that Erickson’s voice was “the mystery factor that no one could touch, to this day he stands alone… revered.”

It’s tough to find a group branded as “psychedelic” who don’t owe some ancestral debt to Roky and the Elevators, from The Flaming Lips to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, White Denim, Spiritualized, and the Secret Machines. The 13th Floor Elevators are the ur-acid band, the first to describe themselves as psychedelic rock, who absorbed the rave-up bounce of The Yardbirds and The Who, paired it with the satori quest of The Beatles and the guttural Texas blues, and topped it off with divine transmissions conjured by Owsley Stanley’s LSD, imported from dayglo California.

You can start to understand from this 1966 appearance of the Elevators on American Bandstand, performing “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” their lone hit to ever crack the Billboard charts (reaching #55). Forget that they’re lip-syncing. It doesn’t matter. Shudder at that primordial scream from Erickson, barely 19 years old but possessed by a lost wail that had people beckoning for an exorcism. The guitars and vocals are slathered in reverb, a wall of walloping, gnarled beauty, accentuated by the unsettling thumps of an amplified jug.

There is young Roky, vaguely clean cut and handsome as a young Elvis, but transforming the voodoo blues into something more ethereal — yet still slightly demonic and aglow from the proper amounts of poison and mystery. There is a faraway look in his eyes that can’t be faked. The million-mile-high visions of someone experiencing epiphanies that they can’t grasp, irreducible to words or even a color spectrum, a ceiling-collapsing symphony of light and death, until they snap back to reality and eventually realize they’re on a television soundstage (or some stained couch that smells like rancid bongwater).

Listen to that hook, where the howl between syllables rings out from some monstrous, atavistic void. It’s no wonder that Erickson later gravitated to horror themes in his music; before he turned 20, he was already a sorceror, a hexed alchemy of Screaming Jay Hawkins and that Hound Dog guy (had he been supplied with the sharpest-fanged hallucinogens ever created). For the finale, Roky busts out a harmonica riff that hits harder than a brain hemorrhage. He wrote the song at 15 for his original band, The Spades.

Fifteen.

At the end of the set, Dick Clark asks the boys which one is the “head man of the group”; the band’s co-leader, Tommy Hall slyly quips, “we’re all heads.”

It was Hall's idea to form the Elevators. A half-decade older than Erickson, Hall was a recent psychology graduate from the University of Austin, operating as a Lone Star Timothy Leary and looking to test out his religious belief in the artistic potential unleashed by peyote and LSD. Erickson’s reputation as a vocalist preceded him, and Hall paired him with a garage rock outfit called The Lingsmen. Hall’s wife Clementine Hall helped out with lyrics, Erickson wrote most of the music, and Hall picked up the jug and kept them constantly fed with high powered blotter acid.

Erickson immediately became the focal point. The eldest of five sons from of an aloof, hard-drinking architect and civil engineer father and a religious, yoga-practicing, mural painting, ex-opera singer mother, Erickson quickly attracted attention for being a prodigy. Buddy Holly became his first musical lodestar, soon followed by Little Richard, James Brown, Dylan, and The Beatles. He was reportedly kicked out of high school about a month before graduation for attempting to grow his hair long like the Fab Four.

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Soon after, he met Hall, who kickstarted them all on a delirious saga of self-exploration. Or as Erickson himself defined their mission: “If you want to get to the 13th floor, ride our elevator.” From the jump, there was a lamb-like dreaminess about the singer. It was said that they didn’t look at Erickson as a leader, but as a jewel.

Within months, they were attracting hundreds of fans to the Jade Room, the locus of the Austin scene. By early 1966, a tiny Houston label named Contact contracted them to record a new version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which they then sold to International Artists, a Houston label who helped springboard them into minor national acclaim. While their Texas peers wrote post-“Louie Louie” riffs about girls and cars, the Elevators wrote shambolic anthems of spiritual liberation, which naturally attracted the obsession of the then-small-town Austin Police. A weed bust soon followed, which they miraculously escaped due to a judge’s error. In the summer of ’66, they blew into San Francisco at the zenith of the Haight, wowing the local bands with their ability to shred after taking amounts of psychedelics that could incapacitate anyone short of the Dead. It was said that Tommy Hall insisted that they had to be tripping every time they picked up their instruments.

Summoned back to Texas by International Artists, they reportedly laid down their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, in eight hours. Released that fall, the record remains a singular touchstone of ‘60s psychedelic rock. In the half-century since, thousands of bands have attempted to recapture the supernatural, through-the-rabbit-hole tear it ripped into the universe. Erickson’s vocals curl violently like smoke rings being blown out by Satan; the guitars rumble through dark corridors of mind as though they’re being picked with a Kodachrome switchblade; the drums beat with a neo-Pagan thrash.

On the back of the album, Hall penned a rambling and grimly ironic address that matched the wild psychedelia of the cover: “Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state… he then can restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.” Erickson veers from the sweet neon nostalgia of “Splash 1” to the witch doctor reverie of “Monkey Island.” There is a dislocating sense of danger and mystery; a technicolor funhouse about to collapse, a collective spell that could just as easily become utopian or Mansonian.

It sold 140,000 copies and earned them a deal for a sophomore album. 1967’s Easter Everywhere was a second masterpiece, a semi-concept album about acid (what else) that crash landed with the nearly eight-minute burner, “Slip Inside This House.” It reads like the Book of Revelation as incanted by a bizarre tumbleweed prophet, doped to the gills and suffused with the burning bush glow of eternal youth.

It is perfect, the soundtrack to the best acid trip you’ve ever had (save for maybe Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda), complete with the mythic visions and gypsy prophecies that blur the line between gibberish and genius. You could argue that it rivals Led Zeppelin as the best one-two, out-the-gate combination of any ‘60s band. And as transcendent as Erickson is as an orphic bluesman, the elegiac sadness of his vocals on his “(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue” cover reveal why it’s not hyperbole to consider him one of the greatest vocalists of the last half-century. Until he wasn’t any longer.

The pressures of fame and the need to live up to being the psychedelic king mutant started to reveal cracks in his psyche. A latent schizophrenia was spurred by the unholy quantities of drugs he was ingesting. Paranoia crept in. By the end of the Summer of Love, he was afraid to walk onstage at a Houston show, lest the audience see the third eye in the middle of his forehead. Meanwhile, the label was egregiously ripping them off, reportedly paying band members just $50 a week with no royalties. A third record was cut, but Erickson featured sparingly. The breaking point arrived at a San Antonio show in 1968, where he lost it, disappeared, and wound up back at his mother’s house in Austin. It was 3 a.m., he was practically speaking in tongues, and he was covered in sores.

From there, the story devolves into a real-life One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was put on anti-psychotic meds, then taken off of them. There was a stint in a mental hospital in Houston, but Hall snuck in, took the door off the hinges, and they both hitchhiked to California. Things only got worse; voices roared in his head telling him to do terrible things. He acquired a heroin habit and hepatitis. When he finally wound up back in Austin, the vice squad targeted him, eventually threatening a decade in jail for possession of a matchbox full of weed. He pled insanity and was eventually sentenced to potential life imprisonment in the Rusk Mental Hospital — where he formed a band with the sadistic rapists and murderers that comprised most of that concentration camp for the dangerously unhinged. Electroconvulsive therapy continued to knock loose what was already ajar. The state deemed him “a vegetable.” He was just 22 years old.

In retrospect, it’s incredible that he managed to write anything at all after his family procured his release in 1972. For the ensuing decade, he became obsessed with horror and the occult, fixating upon himself as the devil. There were marriages and divorces. Constant struggles with drug abuse and sanity. Nonetheless, a small clutch of excellent hard rock songs emerged including “Sputnik,” “Creature with the Atom Brain,” “Starry Eyes,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” which heard together almost sound like the blueprint for Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (if Axl had been really into Vincent Price). When asked about his songwriting process, Erickson confessed, “the very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly. The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.”

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In an early-‘80s documentary, he described himself as having gone through three stages: “I thought I was a Christian, then I signed my soul to the devil. [The third stage] was the one where I know who I am. I feel like I’m a monster…a demon, a gremlin, a goblin, a vampire, a ghost, and an alien.” So yes, if you’re keeping score, he essentially wrote JAY-Z’s verse on “Monster,” a quarter-century before.

By 1984, things had deteriorated. He was telling Texas reporters that true punk was on SCTV; he was shouting out his new song “I Love the Sound of a Severed Head When It’s Bouncing Down the Staircase.” In 1987, a disastrous Austin show led him to largely retreat to his mother’s house for the next decade and a half. This period is bleakly captured in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, which chronicled an overweight and chain-smoking Erickson living in squalor, surrounded by a grim, white noise chorus of televisions, radios, and police scanners, which he played at all hours of day and night to block out the voices in his head.

His younger brother went to court to become his legal conservator, a brutal battle between son and mother that lasted for years. Eventually, his brother won, taking Erickson with him to Pittsburgh, where a heavy regimen of therapy and medication furnished him with a modicum of psychological stability. By 2005, he was gigging again in Austin. In 2007, he played New York, London, and Coachella. I saw him in the desert, heavier and glazed but capable. A triumph in and of itself. He managed to recover enough to record a 2010 solo album with Okkervil River. And in the happiest ending possible for what is essentially a tragedy, the 13th Floor Elevators even reunited in 2015 to play the Levitation Festival, the former Austin Psych Fest rechristened in honor of a song from Easter Everywhere.

There’s nothing more fragile than genius. It’s an incandescent vein of lightning that can’t be understood by chemical or conventional explanations. It’s spastic and irrational and always fleeting. But in that evanescent sliver of time, before his synapses became permanently seared and the voices became too loud, Roky Erickson found a multi-colored patch of Elysian ground, earthbound but otherworldly, creating a body of work that will live as long as there are those looking to leave their body behind, to find that last possible exit before everything starts to slip away. He was the furthest one out, our resident extraterrestrial, who vibrated at immeasurable frequencies that could never be replicated, destined to remain forever missed.

The extraterrestrial life of Roky Erickson