Roky Erickson, psychedelic rock pioneer with 13th Floor Elevators, dies at 71
To fully appreciate the way in which psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, who died Friday at 71, treated musical creativity at the beginning of his career, one need only reference his band the 13th Floor Elevators’ 1966 debut album.
“Recently, it has been possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view,” read the liner notes for “The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators,” referencing use of the not-yet-outlawed hallucinogenic drug LSD.
Erickson’s creative output was forever altered, for better and worse, by the explosive cocktail of music and acid. With a feral yowl that telegraphed mania, the singer and songwriter led the 13th Floor Elevators through a series of hard, tripped-out late 1960s psychedelic anthems, including “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Slip Inside This House” and “She Lives in a Time of Her Own.”
Erickson’s death was announced by his brother, Mikel Erickson, on Facebook. “My brother Roky passed away peaceably today. Please allow us time. Music and laughter forever.”
The cause of death was not revealed.
Across a trio of Elevators albums and a dozen solo albums, Erickson’s eerie, oft-gothic lyricism illuminated a darkened world filled with gremlins, vampires, zombies, bloody hammers and two-headed dogs. “Don’t shake me Lucifer,” he sang on his Halloween-recorded 1987 live album “Evil One,” “I been up all night / and no suicide clock works.”
As if the words weren’t spooky enough, Erickson’s distinctive, soaring voice sealed the deal. Jumping octaves in ways that predicted heavy-metal belters such as Ronnie James Dio and Axl Rose, he sang as if dangling from a 13th-floor window.
The 13th Floor Elevators’ work received a post-breakup boost when the writer and guitarist Lenny Kaye included “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on his seminal 1972 collection, “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968.” Set alongside proto-punk songs by the Seeds, the Standells and the Count Five, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” became a secret handshake among fans of hard, weird rock music.
Erickson, who was born Roger Kynard Erickson in Austin, Tex., was revered by artists including R.E.M., T Bone Burnett, ZZ Top, Doug Sahm and the Jesus and Mary Chain, all of whom covered his work on the 1990 tribute album, “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.” Erickson, however, never broke into the mainstream.
Not that he had much of a chance. By the end of the 1960s he’d been arrested multiple times for drug possession and admitted to the Rusk State Hospital, a mental facility in East Texas. He’d reportedly consumed hundreds of tabs of acid by then, and over the years his attendants have suggested that the drug consumption affected Erickson’s already delicate mental well-being.
“Roky lived in so many worlds, you couldn’t keep up with him,” his longtime friend Bill Bentley told Variety. “He lived so much, and not always on this planet.”
Despite Erickson’s mental struggles, his voice could hardly be contained, and after retreating from the music scene for much of the 1970s, he returned to recording and continued to create work and tour as a solo artist throughout the rest of his life.
His reemergence was greeted with enthusiasm in the budding indie-rock world, most notably with his 1986 album “Don’t Slander Me.” A 2005 documentary, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” received ample attention, even as it revealed the limits of Erickson’s capacities. In 2010, he teamed with Austin roots rock band Okkervil River for “True Love Cast Out All Evil.” True to its title, the work found Erickson on more solid ground, and less worried about monsters, than he once was.
Some of his most crucial solo work was recently resurrected for reissue by the acclaimed Light in the Attic imprint, inviting yet another generation to trace the artist’s long, meandering trip.
Erickson continued to tour, and became a beloved figure in his Austin birthplace. During an outdoor set in the ‘00s as part of the city’s annual South by Southwest music conference, his stage presence was as endearing as it was curious.
He dotted his concise between-song banter — “Thank you!” — with gleeful giggles. At times he seemed surprised that people were there watching him. At others, he tapped into the music, howled and reconnected with the present.
He leaned into “You’re Gonna Miss Me” as if making his case for the first time. “I gave you the warning — but you never heeded it,” he sang. “How can you say you miss my loving — when you never needed it?”
After another pleading verse, Erickson moved into the chorus with a gleeful sense of vindication: “You didn’t realize,” he sang, rubbing it in through repetition. “You’re gonna miss me.” By the time the song faded out, few doubters remained.
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(Shepler, Lori / Los Angeles Times)
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