© Sumet Sound Studios
Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art. Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.
Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with. By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him. Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls. Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.
No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music. It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist. Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)
Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators. That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged. Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs. But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out. Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet. It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug. The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.
Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven. Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.
You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989). “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards. “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.” And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019). It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.
The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems. Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.
And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.
Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage. Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation. (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.) And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.
Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news. Rest in peace Roky.” Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.