Roky Erickson: Psychedelic-rock pioneer revered by countless musicians

Phil Shaw

Better to burn out, Neil Young famously sang, than to fade away. Roky Erickson pursued both paths with bewildering regularity in his role as a psychedelic pioneer. Yet he kept coming back, defying mental issues and drug problems to create some of the wildest, most imaginative rock music of the 1960s and beyond.

Erickson, who died in his adopted city of Austin, Texas at the age of 71, was born in Dallas but grew up in Austin where he dropped out of high school shortly before he was due to graduate rather than cut his long hair.

At 18, after gigging and recording with local group The Spades, he was recruited by Tommy Hall, a University of Texas student, to sing and play guitar with the newly formed 13th Floor Elevators. The band’s 1966 debut LP was titled The Psychedelic Sound of the 13th Floor Elevators, while the word “psychedelic” also appeared on their business card the following year.

Erickson’s unsettling compositions, his primal, octave-jumping vocals and spiky guitar sound were from the garage-rock end of the psych spectrum, far removed from the lighter, more expansive music emerging from the nascent hippie scenes in San Francisco and London.

An Erickson song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, was released as a single, selling well in Texas, reaching No 50 in the US chart in 1966 and influencing countless musicians down the decades. It remains arguably his best-known number, a status enhanced by its selection for the 1972 compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68 and use in the opening scene of the 2000 film High Fidelity.

A strong second album, Easter Everywhere, followed in 1967, led by “Slip Inside This House” which was later covered by Primal Scream. Ingesting LSD was commonplace, nay obligatory, before the Elevators’ shows. By 1968 he was displaying signs of paranoid schizophrenia and broke down, talking gibberish, on stage in San Antonio. Like another maverick front man, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Erickson became an acid casualty. The Elevators’ bassist, Ronnie Leatherman, later characterised him as “a vegetable”.

After his arrest or possession of single joint of marijuana in 1969, Erickson pleaded not guilty on grounds of insanity with the aim of avoiding a 10-year jail sentence. Having chosen to be held in a psychiatric unit, he was sent to a maximum-security hospital. During his three years of incarceration he underwent electric-shock therapy. The 13th Floor Elevators were no more, but he joined a band of fellow detainees, The Missing Links, who played 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and Rolling Stones covers. The rest of the group comprised two murderers and a rapist.

The musical landscape had changed by the time Erickson re-entered the fray. A solo set in 1977 and 1980’s Roky Erickson and The Aliens revealed a harder sound with fewer psychedelic trappings. He declared himself to be from another planet and talked of hearing voices in his head. His lyrical concerns tended to be aliens, zombies, devils and monsters.

As well as releasing 15 solo albums, Erickson was honoured by a 1990 tribute, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, featuring versions of his songs by admirers such as REM, Jesus and Mary Chain and ZZ Top. In 2007, backed by The Explosives, he made a belated British debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall. He went on to record with the American group Okkervil River and with Scotland’s Mogwai, also taking part in a 2015 reunion of the 13th Floor Elevators.

Erickson, whose unusual forename was a combination of his names his parents gave him, was married twice and had three children. In 2001 the youngest of his four brothers, Sumner, became his legal guardian for six years. On his death Sumner said: “The world has lost a huge light and an incredible soul.”

Roger Kynard ‘Roky’ Erickson, musician, born 15 July 1947, died 31 May 2019