The guitarist Roky Erickson fronted one of the first bands to call its music “psychedelic.”
Roky Erickson, a guitarist and singer in the 13th Floor Elevators, a foundational psych-rock group from Texas, died on Friday. The cause of death was not immediately announced, but Erickson had a long history of health troubles. In 1968, when he was just twenty-one, he was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia, and he received electroconvulsive therapy after he began speaking gibberish while onstage at the World’s Fair, in San Antonio. The following year, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and plead not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to Austin State Hospital and, later, to Rusk State Hospital, where he was held until 1972. Erickson kept writing and recording music, even after the 13th Floor Elevators disbanded and throughout his various health-related furloughs.
Per rock-and-roll lore, the Elevators, which formed in Austin, in 1965, were one of the first bands to use the word “psychedelic” to characterize their music (the descriptor even appeared on the band’s business card, in 1966). The goal was to make heavy, roiling rock music that mimicked—or perhaps enhanced—the heady experience of using psychotropic drugs like LSD. Michael Hicks, the author of “Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions,” suggests that the best way to define psych rock is first to isolate the three primary effects of LSD use—depersonalization (the bending of identity), dechronicization (the bending of time), and dynamization (when fixed, ordinary objects dissolve into “moving, dancing structures,” per the psychedelic-drug advocate Timothy Leary)—and see whether a song might be able to engender the same results.
Psych-rock bands like the Elevators often worked to induce a kind of hallucinatory state by playing at deafening volumes and with high reverberation (Hicks notes that this can make music sound “both closer and farther away at the same time”), slowing or lengthening their songs, or making significant structural and temporal changes mid-composition. If it works, it should make a listener feel as if she has briefly snipped the cables that once bound her to Earth.
In 1966, the same year that Ken Kesey began hosting his “Acid Test” parties in and around San Francisco, the 13th Floor Elevators—Erickson, Tommy Hall, and Stacy Sutherland—had a moderate chart hit with their début single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” It is puzzling, now, to think that music like this once dominated the pop scene. 1966 was a banner year for crackling and esoteric guitar jams, anything fuzzy and surreal enough to complement the national condition: the Rolling Stones’s “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the Beatles’s “Yellow Submarine,” the Troggs’s “Wild Thing,” the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” The guitarist Lenny Kaye later compiled more obscure and dizzying iterations of early psych rock, including music by the 13th Floor Elevators, in a mind-melting multi-disk compilation called “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968.” This is how many listeners of my era first discovered Erickson’s playing.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a breakup song. Like all of Erickson’s deepest work, it’s heartbroken. Erickson knows that his ex is going to regret not having him around anymore, and that one day she’ll have to reckon with her mistake. “You’re gonna wake up wonderin’ / Find yourself all alone / But what’s gonna stop me, baby? / I’m not comin’ home,” he sings. The chorus is an admonition: “You didn’t realize.” His voice is elastic, ablaze with the rage and confusion of the freshly jilted. When he squeals, it sounds as if a person has just placed a boot heel to his neck.
Erickson is often lauded for his guitar playing, but his lyrics are beautiful, too. He didn’t always tell a clear or familiar story. In “Slip Inside This House,” from the band’s second album, “Easter Everywhere,” he strings together a series of odd and disparate images:
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
State within the heaven shower
From disciples the unending
Subtleties of river power
They slip inside this house as they pass by
Sometimes, a person writes with a kind of wild innocence. It’s as if they haven’t yet internalized all the rules and tricks of traditional narrative, and therefore manage to eschew predictability and clichés. What a curious gift, to work from such a pure place! It’s a pleasure to behold his phrases, free, as they are, from the constraints of the last several hundred years of literature and song. As a writer, Erickson often occupied strange air.
I interviewed Erickson once, in 2010. He had just released a new record—“True Love Cast Out All Evil,” his first in fourteen years—with the Austin indie-rock band Okkervil River. He was in his early sixties, wore a sizable beard, and was usually grinning. Okkervil River’s frontman, Will Sheff, was also on the call; he coached Erickson through the conversation in a way that wasn’t overbearing but merely kind. Erickson was mostly uninterested in quantifying or parsing his own legacy. I remember asking him some overcomplicated question about the particulars of his guitar style. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “Keep relaxing and waxing at it!”
Erickson’s mother helped him come up with the title for the song “True Love Cast Out All Evil.” It’s a powerful line, imbued with hope. The language comes from the Bible, 1 John 4:18, which says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love.” “She thought it would be nice if I’d write something about that,” he told me. Of course, in a way, that was all Erickson ever wrote about—even his most abstract and nonsensical songs suggest a belief in the redemptive power of love. He was a dude who knew something about how to save himself—how to find a way to keep going, moving further into the good and true parts of life. We are lucky that we had him for this long.