A tribute to Roky Erickson, the face of the 13th Floor Elevators

The passage of Roky Erickson in May 2019 brings the conclusion of what has been perhaps the most rock and roll of all rock and roll stories. The story of the musical genius who fronted a band that quite literally created an entire genre of rock is filled with tragedy, drugs, innovative music, mental institutions, electroshock therapy, mystery, mysticism, redemption, and an untouchable voice, the exemplary voice for all rock music that preceded and followed. Here is a tribute to the frontman for the 13th Floor Elevators.
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 Houston - 1967: Roky Erickson of the "13th Floor Elavators" performs on the Larry Kane Show in 1967, in Houston Texas. (Photo by Guy Clark/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Houston - 1967: Roky Erickson of the "13th Floor Elavators" performs on the Larry Kane Show in 1967, in Houston Texas. (Photo by Guy Clark/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By Rush Evans

The passage of Roky Erickson in May 2019 brings the conclusion of what has been perhaps the most rock and roll of all rock and roll stories. The story of the musical genius who fronted a band that quite literally created an entire genre of rock is filled with tragedy, drugs, innovative music, mental institutions, electroshock therapy, mystery, mysticism, redemption, and an untouchable voice, the exemplary voice for all rock music that preceded and followed.

You can hear it in the first seconds of the first album by The 13th Floor Elevators. It starts with a raw riff on electric guitar, quickly joined by drums and a whirling, windy sound effect that turned out to be a Texas hippie blowing into a jug. Then just nine seconds in, the voice breaks out with a terrifying scream, “Aahhhhhhh yeah!!!!,” in falsetto wail. Then came the words.

You’re gonna wake up one morning

As the sun greets the dawn

You’re gonna wake up one morning

As the sun greets the dawn

You’re gonna look around in your

mind, girl

You’re gonna find that I’m gone

You didn’t realize

You didn’t realize

You didn’t realize

You didn’t realize

You didn’t realize

Awwwwwww, YOU’RE GONNA

MISS ME, BABY!!!

That’s how and when and where psychedelic rock music was born, given a name right there in the album’s title: The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

From “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the roller coaster ride begins. In fact, “Roller Coaster” is the next song, a dark and murky ride in which “you gotta open up your mind and let everything come through.”

The entire album’s ride lasts a wild thirty-four minutes, sounding like nothing that had come before. It was produced by Lelan Rogers, whose brother Kenny would become famous singing a wholly different kind of music. The record came out in October of 1966, five weeks before The Beatles would even begin the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the usual benchmark for psychedelic innovation.

I submit for your review a quick summary of the life of Roky Erickson. Roger Kynard Erickson (going by Roky, pronounced “rocky”) was born in 1947 in Dallas, Texas, the first of five brothers. The family moved to Austin, where Roky would drop out of Travis High School a month before graduating. He wasn’t going to cut his long hair just because administrators wanted him to. He fell in love with rock and roll, particularly that of his musical hero, fellow Texan Buddy Holly. He had already written “You’re Gonna Miss Me” as a teenager, and he started forming bands, one of which, The Spades, recorded his other song, one with an ominous title that would be the first of many representing the darker side of life: “We Sell Soul.” He would soon cross paths with a University of Texas philosophy student named Tommy Hall and his wife Clementine, with whom he would form The 13th Floor Elevators, which would be fueled by Hall’s favorite recreation, the usage of LSD. Hall wasn’t really a musician, more of a philosopher hippie, but he quickly became a musician by blowing into a jug, creating the band’s trademark sound.

When they cut a single of “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the band became a hit in several cities, where they would perform and Roky would be swarmed on stage and off by adoring female fans.

Back home in Austin, the band would be arrested for drugs, where probation would prevent several members from playing in clubs. So the Elevators moved to California, where they would connect with their old Austin friend Janis Joplin and then appear on both of Dick Clark’s television shows, Where the Action Is and American Bandstand.

Then came the LP masterpiece, a commercial failure despite that single’s early promise, as there was no promotional support. The next few years consisted of a return to Austin, the release of several more albums (the second of which was another masterpiece, Easter Everywhere), a continual collective acid trip (an estimated 300 times for Roky), usage of a bandage by Roky on his forehead (an attempt to cover up his third eye), and the call of the military draft for bass player Ronnie Leatherman, soon sent to Vietnam. Lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland moved from acid to heroin, Roky stopped showing up for gigs, and the band’s label International Artists hired a Roky imposter to front a fake version of the band for live performances. You couldn’t get the real band out there.

When Roky’s mother found him speaking nonsensically in her Austin backyard, she took him in for psychological evaluation, where a doctor would declare him a “vegetable.” He was soon committed to a mental hospital, where he received electro shock treatments, then busted out by Tommy Hall, with whom he would go underground to Houston, then San Francisco, then back home to Austin, where he was arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. This effort to avoid prison landed him at the Austin State Hospital, which he escaped several times before being sent to Rusk State Hospital in Rusk, Texas, where he received more electroconvulsive therapy and was surrounded by murderers and rapists.

The Elevators were over by this time, and it was 1969. And that could have been the end of the Roky Erickson story. But it was just beginning. Roky was a musician to his core, and he kept making music, enlisting those murderers and rapists to serve as his band members for the many songs he was writing about Christ and redemption. By the time of his declaration of sanity and release in 1972, his music had shifted into what he called “horror rock,” and words like God and Jesus were replaced by Satan and Lucifer.

He got married, had a child, hired a lawyer, and had a legal declaration drawn up that said the following and was filed in Travis County, Texas: “To Whom It May Concern: I, Roger (Roky) Erickson, do hereby declare that I am not a member of the human race (not an earthling) and am in fact an alien from a planet other than earth. I hope that this will prove to the person who is putting electrical shocks to my head that I am an alien. I am declaring this so that I am not in violation of any world or international laws of the earth as I am showing by this admission that I am in fact an alien. Roger Roky Erickson.”

The songs began pouring out of him, singing of walking with zombies, two-headed dogs, fire demons, bloody hammers, and the important message that, “if you have ghosts, then you have everything.”

A string of Roky comebacks would follow, always sandwiched between Roky tragedies and an undercurrent of mental health issues. And yet, behind the dark imagery, dark past, dark hospitalization, dark times, and the darkness of drug abuse, one important quality in Roky remained, one that had been there all along and would remain for the rest of his life: Roky Erickson was a nice person. He was agreeable, kind, good to his mother, and friendly to talk with.

By 1979, he was backed by a power pop Austin band called The Explosives. Explosive Freddie Krc recalls those days with nothing but fondness for his friend. “When The Explosives and Roky played Houston, we stayed at my parents’ house,” remembers Krc. “I told my mother, ‘This is that guy that was in 13th Floor Elevators, remember that band that I loved? He may sing about demons and outer space, but he’s not a devil worshiper, it’s just stuff that he kinda likes to talk about.’ So we came down to the supper table that night, and mom had made Roky deviled eggs. He got it and loved it! He was a beautiful and sweet guy.”

It was in the summer of 1981 that I would be working at a drive-in movie theater in Austin, where I would sell popcorn and soda every week to a guy with long hair and the same 7-11 employee smock on every week. He and his mother came for our weekly triple horror feature. It was finally pointed out to me by a co-worker that the nice guy was Roky Erickson. I already knew his music, and here was the guy hanging out at the drive-in. Not long after that summer, Roky came out with his album, The Evil One, filled with songs that sounded like those horror movies had looked.

Roky spent years living with his mother, then some years living in subsidized housing, during which time he would be arrested for mail theft. He’d been taking his neighbors’ mail and tacking it up on his walls. Mail had become his obsession. The charges were ultimately dropped.

In 1995, he released an extraordinary solo album, All That May Do My Rhyme, now incorporating sweet love songs and still sharing an amazing voice that captured this type of material just as effectively as it had the Elevators’.

In the 2000s, a complicated and painful period unfolded as Roky’s younger brother Sumner pursued and procured guardianship of his older brother so that he could be properly medicated. Their mother loved and cared for her son, but her personal disbelief in medication had allowed his mental illness to deepen. This period is covered by the 2005 documentary film, You’re Gonna Miss Me.

 Roky Erickson holding up a 13th Floor Elevators vinyl record. Photo by Rush Evans.

Roky Erickson holding up a 13th Floor Elevators vinyl record. Photo by Rush Evans.

Roky Erickson began to get better. He returned to a relationship with his previous wife Dana and their son Jegar. He returned to music in great form, and once again, the Explosives brought the rock. While listening in the car once to Krc’s album, Freddie Steady’s Wild Country, Roky wondered aloud to his friend, I wonder if the Explosives would want to work with me again? They did.

Gigs ensued. Festivals. Music. An Austin City Limits television show taping with Roky’s biggest fan, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on guitar. Good health. Roky Erickson had a new lease on life in the 21st century, and it was arguably the greatest comeback that rock music had ever seen. After Rusk, no one could have predicted such a comeback, no one except the man himself, who had something in him that always kept him moving forward, embracing life. One day, Roky got up and decided it was time to quit smoking cigarettes. So he just quit. Cold turkey, as they used to say before the days of cessation tools.

He was a happy man. In 2006, I interviewed him at Threadgill’s Restaurant for this magazine. His answers were short, mostly yeses and nos, except when I asked about the song “Bloody Hammer.” That’s when he became animated. “I’ve been into horror all my life, you know. At the movies, reading books. In school, I’d get passes to go to the library to read horror stories and books. They had a story called ‘Bloody Hammer.’ That’s where I got it, from Porter Junior High, you know. It was about these sorority and fraternity kids that went to this house, and dared each other to go up there because there had been this guy who had killed his wife. He’d hacked her up into little pieces and then hammered the attic floor with a bloody hammer because it was cursed by it, you know.”

I asked him about the drive-in movie theater, if those triple features were specifically designed to inspire the sound of the album he had been working on, and he confirmed for me. “I was researching for it,” he said.

When I apologized to him, as I do to all my interview subjects, for my tendency to bounce around from topic to topic without regard for transition, he just said, with his ever present grin, “You’re doing good!”

In 2010, he recorded a studio album with Austin band Okkervil River, his most psychedelic outing since the days of the 13th Floor Elevators. Some of the songs had been written back in the Rusk days, all of them pulling together the dark themes of his life’s work with the hopefulness that had characterized his extraordinary life, none more than the beautiful title track, “True Love Cast Out All Evil.”

In 2015, The 13th Floor Elevators reunited for the first time in over 40 years for a performance at a festival in Austin. There was Tommy Hall blowing into that jug, bass player Ronnie Leatherman, drummer John Ike Walton, and, of course, Roky Erickson out front. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland had been murdered by his wife in 1978, so two other guitarists were brought in, as was Roky’s son Jegar on vocals. Thanks to the aforementioned Freddie Krc, I was able to watch the outstanding and mystical performance from the side rear of the stage. Sitting near me was Powell St. John, songwriter of several important Elevators songs, including three of the eleven on that first album.

The Austin Chronicle’s review of the show by Tim Stegall concluded with a line that seemed to acknowledge the awesome task of the writer to put into words that which cannot be: “No one can believe what they just saw and heard, likely not even the 13th Floor Elevators.”

Roky Erickson died in Austin on May 31, 2019, having reconnected with himself and his family and his music against seemingly impossible odds. His music with the Elevators and many other bands is now readily available. The elevator ride continues to soar far beyond 13 floors.

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