The Strange And Powerful World of Roky Erickson

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 11.07.13 in Spotlights

“Sing this song all together! Tap your toe and see what happens!” That’s Roky Erickson admonishing his audience halfway through a live performance of “Before in the Beginning.” The year is 1977, and Erickson is playing the Keystone in Berkeley with his backing band the Aliens. That pronouncement leads directly into a stirring, albeit conceptually knotted chorus: “Once you sing this song, they won’t know what you’re talking about.”

It’s a chorus with a lifetime’s worth of coded meanings. It’s a catchy hook for a rarity in Erickson’s catalog, a knowing nod to Berkeley’s countercultural past, and it’s both an invitation and warning: The legendary Texan, who had spent three years in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed as schizophrenic, is initiating his fans into his strange world while also cautioning them against the dangers they’ll face there. It’s a world filled with monsters and conspirators, gremlins and slanderers, where anxiety and paranoia reign. It’s not an especially welcoming place, but it is arguably where Erickson spent most of his time.

“Before in the Beginning” is carefully and smartly crafted: As the guitars shake and shimmy, Erickson shifts the lyrics and melodies to create a new chorus after each verse, sparking a quick flicker of déjà vu. The song makes clear that music was one of the few footholds for sanity in Erickson’s world, and it’s the centerpiece of his 1986 catchall album Gremlins Have Pictures, a rough round-up of live cuts, alternate takes, and unreleased material dating back more than a decade. The album — the third in a loose trilogy getting the full reissue treatment from Light in the Attic Records — shows what a dynamic and singular performer Erickson could be, even when suffering a near-debilitating mental illness: He made great art — original, provocative, durable, insightful — despite his schizophrenia, not because of it.

Erickson’s tale is both tragic and triumphal. It’s the story of a man woefully maltreated by the very institutions charged with caring for him somehow managing to craft something meaningful out of the experience. As with most cult artists, the particulars of Roger Kynard’s life have long ago passed into rock-and-roll lore, accruing a curious kind of mythology among fans and cratediggers. In the late 1960s, as frontman for Houston’s Thirteenth Floor Elevators, he was a fierce and furious vocalist with a style that could toggle from war cry to spiritual inquiry in a single breath. Songs like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “I’ve Got Levitation” possess a proto-punk aggression, while “Slip Inside This House” and, in fact, most of the band’s 1967 album Easter Everywhere sound like postcards from the edges of consciousness. It should, in other words, come as no shock that the band advocated heavy drug use as both a means of enlightenment and escape, an ethos that helped them define a new sound: psychedelic rock.

That was not a widely popular ethos in America during the 1960s, especially in Texas, and in 1969 Erickson was busted for possession of a single joint. Rather than face a hefty prison sentence for a repeat offense, he pleaded insanity, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and spent three years at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Due to a heavy Thorazine regimen and brutal electric shock therapy, Erickson emerged in 1974 with deep psychological scars.

Nevertheless, Erickson returned to making music almost immediately upon release; his post-Rusk live debut was at a screening for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which considering his lyrical subject matter seems appropriate. While the next two decades would prove incredibly difficult for him as well as for those who felt responsibility for him, this period proved surprisingly productive: These three reissued albums (along with a handful of other, barely classifiable releases) today stand as cult totems, incredibly singular pieces of music that dispatch Erickson’s signature howl in service of jumpy psych-rock songs about werewolves, vampires, creatures with atom brains, and even Lucifer himself. For many listeners, the tragedies and trials of his life lend his music legitimacy and power, as though mental illness unshackled him from society’s restrictiveness and allowed him to create more freely.

This attitude — whether applied to Erickson or to Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, or Francisco Goya — seems antiquated and naïve in the twenty-first century, ignoring the hard realities of mental illness and dulling the outrage over the mistreatment of patients. Furthermore, it evacuates the art, essentially removing the artist from his own creative process and assigning every decision to his affliction. These three solo albums are good enough that they don’t need any mental illness to justify or explain them, and eccentric enough that they don’t need a tragic backstory to distinguish them.

Still, their very existence is a small miracle. When Erickson emerged from Rusk, he had become something of a regional hero in Texas, thanks to the popularity of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and the explosion of psych rock. He worked with Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet and was backed by ZZ Top guitar player Billy Gibbons. And he was offered drugs by every fan who saw a free joint or hit of acid as a means to gain access to their hero. That recreational intake, coupled with his own self-doubt and paranoia, made recording his debut, The Evil One, very difficult. He had a crack backing band behind him, the Aliens, who specialized in jittery riffs that split the difference between psych rock and post-punk. He also had a sympathetic manager in Craig Luckin and a prominent producer in Stu Cook, famous as the bass player for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Erickson claimed to have written hundreds of songs while at Rusk, but many proved to be only fragments. Once in the studio he frequently forgot lyrics, flubbed takes, or simply disappeared for long stretches of time, which left Luckin and Cook to piece these songs together from stray scraps.

Considering this piecemeal and slapdash origin, The Evil One sounds shockingly cohesive — the sound of one man putting forth a highly creative and ambitious personal statement. The songs never go in the expected directions or take predictable shapes, but neither do they sound unfocused or uncertain. The guitars coil tightly into distressed grooves, the rhythm section whips everything into a frenzy, and Erickson sounds like a fire-and-brimstone preacher lost in a comic book. On “Stand for the Fire Demon,” he alerts his congregation about Satan’s minions rising from the pit and walking the earth. On the psych-doo wop “I Walked With a Zombie,” he repeats that title phrase in a blues progression, slurring the words with each occurrence to give the impression of a man becoming undead himself.

Erickson’s imagery on The Evil One is borrowed from low-budget creature-features from drive-ins and late-night television, old Universal horror movies and ’50s alien invasion flicks. It’s cartoonish, yet he sings with such urgency that the specters in his songs take on serious life. It’s less a matter of a man losing his ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy than a means of slyly assigning new menace to old monsters. What makes The Evil One so harrowing is how thoroughly Erickson reshuffles familiar genre movie metaphors so that they become unrecognizable and unexplainable.

“I Walked with a Zombie” sheds the sexual undertones of its cinematic source material — namely, the 1943 film of the same title, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by the great Val Lewton — in order to convey a more nebulous threat of transformation and induction. Likewise, “Creatures with the Atom Brain” ratchets up the anxiety as Erickson re-enacts scenes from Edward L. Cahn’s 1995 flick, complete with getaway cars and gunshots. He’s changing what these monsters mean, so he’s changing the way they scare us. In the world of these songs, evil is a nebulous and perfectly natural (as opposed to supernatural) presence, as inescapable as the heat in Texas or the smog in L.A.

Stripped of the familiar subtext of the movies, this imagery only grows more intense and alien, which might explain why The Evil One sounds so distinctive and disquieting even thirty years later. It is, essentially, unrepeatable. Erickson’s follow-up, Don’t Slander Me, largely quells the supernatural subject matter in favor of more direct accusations (the title track) and run-of-the-mill rock-and-roll complaints (“Crazy Crazy Mama”). Produced by Aliens guitarist Duane Aslaksen, it sounds much more professional and much less weird, as though consciously courting a larger audience. It’s also more confidently diverse, roaring through rockabilly, Texas redneck rock, and a blistering take on Buddy Holly with impressive dexterity. Vocally, Erickson never misses a beat as he navigates these various subgenres, yet there’s as much Aslaksen here as Erickson.

And yet, there are moments of considerable grief and regret on Don’t Slander Me, as Erickson addresses his audience candidly. “I call your name in the midnight, but you don’t hear me at all,” he sings on the devastating “Nothing in Return.” “I love you so dearly and nearly, but you don’t love me at all.” It’s tempting to connect this sentiment to Erickson’s divorce, yet that sounds too limiting and tidy; at times the song — and the album — sound like he’s bemoaning his disconnection from his fans, as though he knows they will never grasp the severity of the situation.

Erickson’s third album — and the unofficial third act in this solo trilogy — is not a proper studio album, but a post-Rusk retrospective that collects live performances, alternate takes, and unreleased material. The catchall quality may signal a slightness of material, yet Gremlins Have Pictures is in fact a crucial document that shows the performer in his truest setting: the stage. Of the sixteen tracks, more than half are live cuts, a few performed solo but most with either the Aliens or the short-lived Explosives. His cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” — a darkly ironic choice — is absolutely transformative, trading Lou Reed’s measured stoicism for a barking hysteria. Erickson proves a fierce stage presence, channeling his aggression toward his audience as well as his imagined antagonists. Songs like “Night of the Vampire” and “Cold Night for Alligators” sound more vivid in this context, while the Don’t Slander Me tracks achieve a sense of momentum missing in their studio versions.

Even so, it’s the acoustic songs on here that show a new and compelling side of Erickson. Despite his well-earned reputation as a wild man, he was capable of subtlety, nuance, even tenderness, which all came through whether he was backed by a full electric rock band or a simple acoustic guitar. Against the ragged strum of “Anthem (I Promise),” he delivers one of his most affecting hooks and strongest declarations of devotion: “I promise, I promise my green and blue eyes to you.” It’s so emotionally open that it takes a few listens for the song’s true subject — Satan’s arrival on Earth, pinpointed to the day — to come through.

“Warning (Social & Political Injustices)” puts almost too fine a point on Erickson’s paranoia: The monsters he sings about are “the ones who slander peace and liberty / they are the brainwashers, the propaganda starters.” With the outrage of a protest song and tangled allegorical system of a Dylan tune, it sounds like it’s from an earlier, more hopeful time both in American pop culture and in Erickson’s personal life. It certainly doesn’t sound like 1975, and yet it may prove the key that unlocks his coded imagery. Even in the ’70s and ’80s, Erickson remained a product of the ’60s, which means he understands paranoia to be another form of enlightenment. By making his demons real and earthly, he works to develop a new psychedelic language across these three albums, one that rebukes the optimism of tuning in, turning on and dropping out by conveying the very real horrors of the comedown.