Roky Erickson: True Love Cast Out All Evil
By: Brian T. Atkinson (Author), Billy Gibbons (Foreword), Henry Rollins (Foreword) - Texas A&M University Press, $28.00
Description: “Roky was one of Texas’ most original and unique singer-songwriters,” author Brian T. Atkinson says. “His short time fronting the psychedelic rock pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators in the ’60s made him a cult legend, but his 50-year solo career that followed was barely noticed. Hopefully, this book will shine a light on that important and influential time in Texas music.”
Verdict: “Transcendence came with a price,” Brian T. Atkinson writes in his introduction to this collection of reflections by and about pioneer psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson (1947–2019).
The singer and songwriter who fronted the 13th Floor Elevators burst onto the Texas music scene in 1966 with the release of “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the band’s only charting single, which featured Erickson’s primal vocal stylings.
Indeed, Erickson’s 1960s band have been called the originators of psychedelic music and they were certainly the first to apply the word to disorientating, acid-warped rock, influencing the likes of the Grateful Dead, and later were covered by REM, Primal Scream, the Jesus and Mary Chain and even ZZ Top (whose roots also lie in Texas psychedelia).
Furthermore, you might even recognize the Elevators’ incendiary first single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” from the opening scene of the beloved film High Fidelity.
The 13th Floor Elevators attracted considerable regional attention, including interest from a young Janis Joplin, who considered joining the group before opting to go to San Francisco instead.
As with his previous books on Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Mickey Newbury, Atkinson has recorded hours of interviews with veteran and upcoming musicians who were impacted by Roky Erickson.
Through his interviews with those who were there and presentation of Erickson’s own words, and are inclusive of more than 70 friends such as Henry Rollins, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Stu Cook and Butthole Surfers’ King Coffey, as well as disciples such as the Meat Puppets’ Cris Kirkwood, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, the Black Angels’ Alex Maas and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, et al., Atkinson chronicles how Erickson was haunted for most of his life by mental illness, likely compounded by his liberal usage of hallucinogenic and other drugs.
But despite all that seemingly went against him, self-induced for the most part, his influence on Texas musicians of various genres is vast. As Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top attests in his foreword, “He stands alone to this day and is revered as an artist because he had the gift of a wonderful voice.”
Butthole Surfers’ King Coffey says it perfectly when he says: “Roky’s voice was undeniable. He screamed and yelled like great Texas blues singers — freaky, rocking, weird. Roky was a visionary singer and songwriter.”
And legendary outlaw country singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard backs that up when he says: “Roky Erickson opened the door and he showed the way. Bands today still strive for what he brought.”
Along with the insights of long-time music journalists like Joe Nick Patoski and the bittersweet recollections of friends and family members like Mikel Erickson, brother of the singer, this work includes poetry and lyrics written by Erickson during his confinement at Rusk State Hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
More than his music, though, what Erickson became famous for was losing his mind. In 1969, he pleaded insanity over a drugs charge and spent three years in a Texas mental institution, from which he emerged somewhere south of normal.
A famous interview with the NME’s Nick Kent in 1980 fixed him in the mind of rock fans as a befuddled wreck, burbling about aliens and demons. “The devil, see, he’s my friend,” he informed a bewildered Kent.
Thus the picture that emerges is that of a brilliant, yet eagerly troubled mind and an artist whose influence extended far beyond the period of his greatest notoriety, continuing even beyond his death in 2019.
But, and in conclusion and as we garner from within this prevalent and wholly informative new book from Atkinson, is that as much as the counter-culture in San Francisco embraced the Elevators, and as much as he was becoming increasingly unwell due to that fact, adding heroin to the pharmaceutical mix of his everyday life, and as much as there were most definitely three decades that were chaotic and very unproductive, Roky Erickson was then, and is still today, an heroic icon of modern rock & roll and one of the best friends music ever had.
About the Author: BRIAN T. ATKINSON is the author of I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wiley Hubbard, and Looks Like Rain: The Songwriting Legacy of Mickey Newbury and coauthor of Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy behind Cheatham Street Warehouse. He lives in Austin.
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