Three-Eyed Man: Remembering Psychedelic Seer Roky Erickson

I saw Roky Erickson in performance for the last time on September 5th, 2017, at Rough Trade Records in Brooklyn. It turned out to be the best of the many Erickson shows I saw over almost three decades. I was not in the right space/time quadrant to see His Enduring Psychedelic Highness in his original habitat and blow-up years: Texas and San Francisco between 1966 and 1967, with Austin-born seers the 13th Floor Elevators when that band was on the perpetual edge of trouble and discovery with a frantic union of pop-song nerve, white-blues frenzy and acid-travel zealotry.

But that night, in the back of a record store in New York — a city where the Elevators never played — Erickson brought that history and vertigo forward with a transcendent, eerily focused vengeance. Backed by a brawny trio with the right garage-hardened bones, the singer — who had recently turned 70, a sweet achievement in a life consumed for so long by legal nightmares, mental illness and poverty — played only songs from the Elevators’ greatest albums: the 1966 debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, and 1967’s Easter Everywhere. Perched on a stool and cradling his guitar more like a talisman than a tool, Erickson was a perfectly still, graying Buddha as he ripped right into the pealing urgency of “Fire Engine” and the dark gallop of “Roller Coaster,” both from that first album.

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The arrangements at Rough Trade were inevitably raw and basic, lacking the Elevators’ surreal innovation in their brief prime: Tommy Hall’s trademark, telegraphic whoop on an electrified ceramic jug; the angular sting of Stacy Sutherland’s guitar; the firm R&B certainty of the group’s changing rhythm sections as their LSD crusade, police harassment and a chronic lack of bread took their toll. But on this night, Erickson was in astonishingly virile, unchanged vocal form — a bleating force with a sudden gift for tenderness in the ballad “Splash 1” and the spiritual certainty of “Kingdom of Heaven.” (It is, Erickson promised, “within you.”)

The most amazing moment came only four songs in: Erickson’s reading of the complete lysergic dreamwalk “Slip Inside This House,” more than eight minutes of dire warning and tripping that opened Easter Everywhere. “Every day’s another dawning/Give the morning winds a chance/Always catch your thunder yawning/Lift your mind into the dance,” Erickson sang, staring straight ahead ­and nailing every line as if he was scanning the words on the back of his eyeballs.

That house is now a little more empty with Erickson’s death on May 31st at 71. But, as he sang at the end of that song at Rough Trade, “Three-eyed men are not complaining/They can yo-yo where they will.”

His third eye is still open.

The first time I met Roky Erickson he seemed perfectly normal. That impression didn’t last.

It was late 1979 in Austin, and I was walking around the football field on the University of Texas campus with a fellow writer, Dave DiMartino, then of Creem, covering the filming of a concert sequence for the rock & roll comedy Roadie. The band onstage, playing itself in the scene, was Blondie. Somehow, strolling among the extras in the audience, DiMartino and I encountered Erickson, who was friendly, cogent and happy to accept our compliments about his records, including the lyrically harrowing, physically searing solo singles “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” — produced in 1975 by Doug Sahm, a fan and friend — and “Bermuda” (as in the Triangle), unleashed by the nascent Rhino label in 1977.

That night, we scribes went to Raul’s, the local counterpart to CBGB, where Erickson was a house celebrity — often performing with a power trio, the Explosives — and in attendance. That conversation didn’t go so well. Erickson talked about an impending trip to Mars and asked if we had our tickets. The legend of Erickson’s unraveling since the end of the Elevators in 1969 caught up with us.

Born Roger Kynard Erickson in Dallas in 1947, the singer was already on the wrong side of convention in 1965. In Austin, where he went to high school, he dropped out one month before graduating rather than agree to cut his hair. That November, Erickson recorded the first version of his Nuggets-era classic, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” with a group called the Spades. His precociously feral vocal style, marked by a soaring, rippled sustain, suggested an alpine Howlin’ Wolf. But there was also a gentler command at slower tempos. The droning-hymn flip of that Spades 45, also written by Erickson, was prophetically called “We Sell Soul.”

Released in 1966, the Elevators’ immortal take on “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was the group’s only release with national action, actually getting the group on American Bandstand. When Dick Clark innocently asked Hall, “Who’s the head man of the group here?” the jugmaster quickly answered, “We’re all heads.” It proved a dangerous distinction. The Elevators migrated between Texas and the West Coast, in big part to escape police attention for their heavy use of marijuana and psychedelics. The band was already unravelling — the 1969 album, Bull of the Woods, was mostly completed by Sutherland — when Erickson was arrested in Austin that year for possession. His decision to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, to avoid a Texas-minimum sentence of 10 years, was fateful. At Rusk State hospital, Erickson was treated with electroshock therapy until his release in 1972.

Erickson’s psychological decline was long and deep. He was fixated on horror movies, and many of the songs on his thrilling 1980 import comeback, Roky Erickson and the Aliens — produced by Stu Cook, bassist for Creedence Clearwater Revival (and resequenced for the U.S. in 1981 as The Evil One) — came straight from Erickson’s personal B-movie hell: “Bloody Hammer,” “I Think of Demons,” “If You Have Ghosts” (followed by the assurance, “You have everything”).

But Erickson always made his own kind of sense, even through heavy darkness.

“Don’t Slander Me,” originally issued as a 45 in 1984, was a Little Richard stomp with the staccato-vocal defiance of the Who’s “My Generation” (“Don’t slander me/Just just/For you/Me and a-I, I”), Erickson warding off rumor and the weight of his darkening reputation with a defensive fury. “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer,” from the Stu Cook sessions, was a survivor’s anthem in breakneck swing, like the mid-Seventies Rolling Stones written in blood. “Don’t shake me Lucifer/I’ve had enough of it,” Erickson sang, giving his Dark Lord the brushoff. “I’ve been up all night, and no suicide clock the works.” This was one third eye that planned to stick around.

There was a wicked humor inside the torment. During a colorfully incoherent 1978 interview on KSAN-FM in San Francisco, Erickson introduced himself as “the Lone Ranger’s friend, Billy Jack” and “the drunk werewolf of Woodstock.” When one of the DJs invited listeners to phone in, Erickson politely asked, “When you call up, don’t shoot me through the phone.” Then someone asked him to name his favorite Sex Pistols song. Erickson swiftly replied, “Hot Cars.” Given that the Sex Pistols usually sounded like burning rubber, he wasn’t far off.

And Erickson always carried the virtues of early rock & roll with him, through every storm. Like his fellow Texan Buddy Holly, Erickson wrote of his trials and dreams in simple melodies with uplifting choruses, often expressing a desperate faith in true love and the impulse to comfort: “Starry Eyes,” the glowing B side antidote to “Red Temple Prayer”; the fragile challenge in “You Don’t Love Me Yet”; the certainty inside the fractured syntax of “True Love Cast Out All Evil”.

“It’s very easy to sing those songs — and a lot of fun,” Erickson said of his blood-and-monsters repertoire with a big smile when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone on the occasion of his first-ever New York show in April 2007. But Erickson also noted that he still had new songs coming. When I pressed him on what he wanted to write about now — after more than three decades in the wilderness, finally coming into light — he answered, “Probably horror.” There was a moment’s pause. “And love songs.”

For the historic details on Erickson’s nightmare and resurrection, go to Keven McAlester’s 2005 feature documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, a striking visual ride through a whirlwind life. Required listening includes those first two Elevators albums; The Evil One, a 2013 package (Light in the Attic) that compiles the full Stu Cook–period recordings; and I Have Always Been Here Before, a 2005 anthology (Shout Factory) that bounds the Elevators’ prime and the best of his solo work up to the mid-Nineties onto two dynamic, coherent CDs.

The reverberations from that work were affirmed in 1991 on a tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, featuring peers and descendants such as ZZ Top, the Butthole Surfers and the post–Led Zeppelin Robert Plant covering songs from the Erickson gospel. Extended study should take in the scant but essential evidence of the Elevators’ live powers in 1966 and ’67, officially compiled in the definitive 2009 megabox Sign of the 3 Eyed Men (International Artists); and Erickson’s last official solo release, True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti), a return to songs he wrote at lowest ebb in the Seventies, rendered in new poignant detail with the Austin alternative–country-soul band Okkervill River.

I also mark my passage with Erickson — as a writer and believer — in the encounters, onstage and off, that came after that night at Raul’s. There was the eerie night in 1993, at the Austin Music Awards, when Erickson seemed lost in plain sight. He wandered around the stage through his brief set as if beamed into this dimension without his permission, until muscle memory kicked in and he flew into “You’re Gonna Miss Me” as if direct from an Elevators’ gig in 1966 at the Vulcan Gas Company, Austin’s hallowed psychedelic dancehall.

But I got to mark Erickson’s gradual return to health and his idea of clarity across the Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Socials, a series of afternoon benefit shows at SXSW — anchored by local and visiting bands honoring Erickson’s sound and catalog — that turned a corner when he made his first performing appearance there in 2005. In 2008, Erickson’s old running buddy through Texas psychedelia — ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, whose old band the Moving Sidewalks once shared a house with the Elevators — joined the noise, tearing through “Two Headed Dog” alongside the singer.

I couldn’t be on the same part of the planet when Erickson reunited with other, surviving members of the Elevators — Hall, bassist Ronnie Leatherman and drummer John Ike Walton — in May 2015 at the Levitation festival in Austin. But I did see Erickson with the closest thing to a young Elevators when he toured with the Austin acid-rock band Black Angels, and I got to review the May 2010 show in New York where Erickson recreated his collaboration with Okkervill River. “The record is hell and high water at the same time,” I wrote for Rolling Stone, summing up that project’s extremes in color and pain. “At Webster Hall, Erickson sounded strongest telling those stories and passing on the hard lessons.”

I also noted the vintage fire in the cover of Little Richard’s “Ooh My Soul” — Erickson was a teenage-R&B hellion at heart — and suggested it unlikely that he would ever revisit the Elevators’ “Slip Inside This House” in this lifetime. (I would be proven wrong at Rough Trade.) But I did get the Elevators’ “Reverberation” that night, a song from the first album that is “really about prison,” I pointed out, “the ones we build for ourselves out of fear. With Okkervill River building a black swirl of fuzz around him, Erickson barked and bleated through the drone like a proud, free man — someone who had been there and come back, for good.”

It was, right to the end, a rock & roll life unlike any other. But it has not ended with Erickson’s death. Think of it instead as a passing — his next trip to another plane.

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