Roger Kynard "Roky" Erickson was both an American original and an American tragedy. He is most well known now as the American Syd Barrett, but with a somewhat happier ending. The body of work Erickson put together over the course of nearly six decades in the music industry (sans a decade or two when he gave up music) has proven to be enormously influential. A host of acts ranging from ZZ Top, Echo & the Bunnymen, Julian Cope, the Butthole Surfers, R.E.M., Primal Scream, and legions of modern neo-psych bands claim him as an influence. When Erickson passed away on May 31, he was several decades into a remarkable career resurgence that would have seemed impossible in the 1980s.
|Janis Joplin and Chet Helms|
There was Whitley Strieber, the famed horror novelist turned UFO abductee and New Age guru. And then there was the infamous Charles Whitman. At one time a student at the Austin branch of the University of Texas during the early 1960s, the former Marine would return there on August 1, 1966, and embark upon a shooting spree that earned him the nickname the "Texas Tower Sniper." Whitman used the university tower as a sniper's nest, using multiple firearms to pick off students indiscriminately. When all was said and done, fourteen people were dead with an additional 31 wounded. At the time, the Elevators had just been subjected to the first of many drugs busts days before hand.
|Strieber (top) and Whitman (bottom), who were both students at the UT Austin during the early 1960s along with several future Elevators|
As both the entertainment and tech industries are closely related to the intelligence sector, it should come as little surprise that at least one major private intelligence company calls Austin home. That would be Stratfor, which Barron's once referred to as "the shadow CIA." Unsurprisingly, famed conspiracy theorists (and CIA asset) Alex Jones also calls Austin home.
That member, electric jug player and chief lyricist Tommy Hall (who had previously displayed far right views), made no bones about his agenda for the band: namely, to use it as venue to promote his acid-fried spiritual vision that adopted a host of occultic and esoteric concepts. Indeed, Hall had a far more profound notion of occult doctrine that practically any other rock 'n roller circa 1965. While the Beatles were just beginning to dip their toes in, Hall had already catapulted into the deep end. Hell, they even adopted Great Pyramid and All Seeing Eye as their logo! The band had all but walked out of the Illuminatus! Trilogy.
But things are not always as they seem. Unlike their LA and San Francisco counterparts, the Elevators were crack musicians (at least until they toured San Fran and embraced the habit of not practicing) who wrote the bulk of their own material. In other words, they were not a studio creation like so many LA and San Fran bands of the era (see The Wrecking Crew). Further, rather than achieving stardom, the Elevators were confined to cult status thanks to the inexplicable ineptitude of their label, the infamous International Artists (IA). With little promotion, the Elevators had achieved a hit single in "You're Gonna Miss Me." This, combined with the musical/songwriting prowess of the band and Erickson's movie star good looks, all but ensured they could have been huge. If you thought the occult influence of the Beatles and the Stones on America's youth during this era was a problem, be thankful that Tommy Hall never got such a platform.
|the enigmatic Tommy Hall|
At the forefront was Roky Erickson. In 1969, after a minor drug bust, he was admitted to Rusk State Hospital in 1969. There, he was subjected to electroshock "therapy" while rubbing elbows with the criminally insane that comprised the bulk of Rusk's population. Former bandmates and family members largely insist that Roky's time in Rusk is what fueled his later mental health problems rather than the LSD, as is commonly claimed. While the acid no doubt contributed on some level, there's no question that the three years he spent in Rusk profoundly changed Roky. It especially evident in Erickson's post-Elevators solo work.
"Meanwhile Roky survived hell at Rusk. His resurrection was simple – Horror Rock. The whole point of good horror is that the audience is meant to suffer and, in turn, horror could be viewed as a subtle form of revenge for what had happened to him. One of Roky's biggest problems was countering his sense of the mundane, and horror offered a highly theatrical cast of monsters and gremlins to express himself. Although he prefers not to elaborate on the background of his songs, it's not hard to spot the adaptation of horror titles from his youth into autobiographical metaphors: 1943's 'I Walked With a Zombie' for the 'Thorazine shuffle' and 1957's 'Night of the Demon' for Rusk and 1955's 'Creature With the Atom Brain' for electric shock treatment. Screamin' Jay Hawkins employed voodoo and the macabre in his songs and Roky's hero Joe Meek used extraterrestrials. In 1975 Roky lost all his manuscripts in a huge fire and set about a marathon typing session assisted by Billy Miller in which he recalled all of his songs. What's intriguing was that Roky had become absorbed in the twin motion of acceptance and rejection and typed many of the songs with the lyrics 'God' and 'Jesus,' which were then crossed through with red pen and then replaced with 'Lucifer' and 'Satan.' "
(Eye Mind, Paul Drummond, pg. 380)While I've always preferred Roky's work with the Elevators, there's no denying the power of his "Horror Rock" stage. While look to both 1950s horror and rock 'n roll for inspiration, Roky offered up a truly demented attempt to make sense of his experiences at Rusk. In addition to "Creature with the Atom Brain," there's no question that songs such as "Bloody Hammer" were also attempts to make sense of the electroshock "therapy" he was subjected too. An effort was made by Creedence Clearwater Revival's Stu Cook to record many of these songs during the late 1970s. Eventually, they were collected together during the early 1980s for the classic The Evil One.
But despite the creativity Roky was still capable of in the 1970s, there's no question his mental state had seen better days. In 1975, he had an attorney draw up an official document declaring that he was not human, but rather a Martian. Erickson's mental state would only get worse. By the 1980s, he had largely given up on music all together, as well as basic hygiene. Erickson had claimed to have heard voices since the late 1960s, but by the 80s the situation had become dire. Erickson, by now a recluse, spent much of his time holed up in his house with countless TVs and radios, all tuned to different stations, blaring at once. He allegedly used the white noise from these devices to drawn out the voices in his head. This would remain his preferred form of medication until the 1990s.
While Erickson seemed destined to fade away into obscurity, the Herculean efforts of his brother, Sumner, during the early 00s spurred a remarkable transformation in Roky. After wresting away custody from their mother in 2001, Roky was finally able to get effective psychiatric treatment. By the end of the decade, he was once gain touring and even recording.
After spending much of the 1980s and early 1990s in a special kind of hell, Roky's striking career resurgence was a fitting coup de grace for one of the most enigmatic figures in rock 'n roll. After years of obscurity, Roky finally possessed a fitting cult following of a respectable scale. And the poor bastard finally made some money, after years of being exploited by family members and assorted hanger-ons. As such, Roky had about the closet thing to happy ending as this type of saga is likely to produce.
Before signing off, I would like to note that the reverberations continued even with Erickson's death. As was noted above, he died on May 31. Reverse the numbers in 31 and one is left with a 13. And it just so happens, Roky's death is not the only tragedy that unfolded on May 31, 2019 related to 13. That date also witnessed a mass shooting, the Virginia Beach shooting, to be precise. Twelve individuals were gunned down by the perpetrator, who was later was killed by police. This resulted in a total of 13 deaths.
Powerful forces, indeed. And with that, I shall sign off. Until next time dear readers, stay tuned.