The Essential Roky Erickson

By Art Levy. Photo by Eddie Gaspar/KUTX.

Roky Erickson, Austin icon and founding father of psychedelic music, has passed away at 71. From his time fronting the 13th Floor Elevators to his decades-long solo career, Roky came to embody the “weirdness” of Austin music–and he did that by simply being himself, without compromise. That included a lengthy bout with mental illness, chronicled in the moving 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.

His inner demons were readily apparent in his work, but there’s also a transcedent quality that reverberates through the darkness. The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, Roky’s 1966 debut with the Elevators, is a foundational text for the late ’60s sound and feel, and it was quickly copied and co-opted into the counter-culture zeitgeist. But throughout Roky’s life, psychedelic music was much more than just goofy sound effects and gaudy clothes. It was a spiritual practice, an escape into something bigger. There’s a cosmic poetry to a lot of Roky’s songs and albums: “Kingdom Of Heaven,” “Postures (Leave Your Body Behind),” “I Have Always Been Here Before,” Easter Everywhere. You can also hear that in his voice, aching to be heard above the psychedelic hurricane.

Below are ten songs showcasing the many sides to Roky’s artistic brilliance. Consider these just a jumping-off point, where the pyramid meets the eye.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me” (The Psychedelic Sounds Of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, 1966)

The Psychedelic Big Bang. While San Francisco, L.A., and London soon came to embody the sound, it was this plucky single from Austin that set the scene. The song still sounds distinctly Texan, like it emerged from some Hill Country cave after thousands of years, covered in dust. Part of that feel comes from the very lo-fi production, the band straining against the technological limits of the day. Credit also goes to Tommy Hall, whose electric jug playing adds a spooky resonance, tying ancient folk music with the coming electronic revolution. And there’s Roky at the center of it all, singing a love song that’s frightening in its defiance. (Also: check out the Elevators weirding out Dick Clark on American Bandstand)

“Reverberation” (The Psychedelic Sounds Of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, 1966)

Reverberation, simply put, is a persistence of sound after the sound is produced. Humanity’s obsession with it probably stretches back to our cave days, when the natural effect was used to dramatize religious ceremonies and make our small voices sound big–and make ourselves feel big in a universe that says we are impossibly small. Reverb was harnessed in the early days of studio recording, and by the ’60s, the effect was everywhere: surf music, doo-wop, torch songs, and honky-tonk ballads all used reverb to varying degrees. But the Elevators–whether by accident or not–built a home and an identity in reverb’s hall of mirrors. “Reverberation” is a statement of intent and an invitation inside the band’s dark universe,  channeling those ancient rites of our cave-bound ancestors. The persistence of sound after sound is produced–in other words, reverberation is a ghost.

“Slip Inside This House” (Easter Everywhere, 1967)

On Easter Everywhere, Roky takes the psychedelic template and blows it up to epic proportions. Even the album title hints at the Elevators’ collective state of mind: music is a means for rebirth, “the idea of rising from the dead all over, everywhere,” as Tommy Hall puts it. The album starts with the gigantic “Slip Inside This House,” which is as ghostly as it suggests. The music is a simmering hypnosis, with Roky intoning verse after verse after verse. It fades out arbitrarily at the eight minute mark, but there’s another universe where it just goes on forever.

“(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue” (Easter Everywhere, 1967)

“Slip Inside This House” and other Elevators songs hinted at Roky’s devotion to Bob Dylan, but here he makes the influence in his own image. The original is one of Dylan’s saddest songs; he sounds resigned to his fate. Roky, though, fights a losing fight throughout the entire song. It’s like he’s trying to change the ending even as he’s conjuring it. The band swirls around him, turning a romantic ballad into a song of cosmic longing.

“May The Circle Remain Unbroken” (Bull Of The Woods, 1969)

The ’60s were crashing, taking the Elevators down too. Drug busts and a general heaviness within the band made Bull Of The Woods the group’s last album, and it sounds like it. At a time when the present and future looked increasingly grim, Roky dug deep into the past and recorded a version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”, a Christian hymn passed down through the ages and popularized by the luminous Carter Family version in 1927. Roky doesn’t even bother with most of the original words; he simply repeats the title over and over while an organ moans like a funeral. Roky is a broken record, spinning endlessly. He also sounds at peace.

“Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” (The Evil One, 1981)

“TWO HEADED DOG! TWO HEADED DOG! I’VE BEEN WORKING IN THE KREMLIN WITH A TWO HEADED DOG!” It is pure horror movie nonsense. It is also the only thing that makes sense after you’ve been locked in a mental hospital for a half-decade to avoid prison for drug offenses, subjected to electro-shock treatment and Thorazine. You get the sense that after this experience, the music has to come out. It is volcanic, terrifying, and darkly funny, all at the same time. It is heavy metal from the great beyond.

“Starry Eyes” (Don’t Slander Me, 1986)

Somehow, in the face of existential and institutional terror, Roky retained the sweetness at his core. “Starry Eyes” sounds like Buddy Holly raised on punk rock. “Stars will fall on me/Starry eyes,” he cries. “Won’t you listen?/That I’m here being.”

“Anthem (I Promise)” (Gremlins Have Pictures, 1986)

Roky’s later work was metallic and hard, even when played on acoustic guitar. On “Anthem,” God and Lucifer battle for Roky’s very soul. There’s talk of numerology, gremlins, and “the square root of zero,” the words bubbling out like cryptic runes. “I promise, I promise,” Roky cries repeatedly, and you never know if it’s God or Lucifer he’s promising himself to.

“I Have Always Been Here Before” (Gremlins Have Pictures, 1986)

You get the sense that Roky is telling the truth, if only everyone would listen. For him, deja vu is a hint that he’s been reincarnated across the eons. His guitar rings like a bell, his voice another reverberation.

“Goodbye Sweet Dreams” (True Love Cast Out All Evil, 2010)

Roky’s swan song was recorded with Okkervil River, and it’s just as two-headed as anything in his career: deeply sad, proudly defiant. His voice is thicker, the Texan drawl more pronounced, and the band sounds suitably apocalyptic. But there’s Roky  subverting the darkness once again: “Love has been said / It should come and go.”

He’d reunite with the Elevators in 2015 at the music festival named for one of his songs, playing to a devoted audience of fans and musicians who largely weren’t even born when he first exploded out of Austin. But new generations have been seduced by his promise of psychedelic music and burrowed deeper.

The persistence of sound after sound is produced–in other words, Roky is reverberation.

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