RIP Roky Erickson — in the week since his death, there have been articles and tributes aplenty to the pioneer of psychedelic music who came screaming out of Texas in the 60s with the 13th Floor Elevators.
If that was all he ever did, he’d still hold rank in the pantheon of rock music for his immense influence on so many later musicians. But the Elevators were just the first of many chapters in Roky’s life. Arrested for marijuana in 1969, he copped a plea of insanity that forced him into years of abusive “treatment” at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. If he went in fried, he came out seared. After electroshock treatments and massive doses of Thorazine, he emerged with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a penchant for horror film imagery he grafted onto his music for a harrowing blend of horror rock. The rest of his life he would slip in and out of the shadows, always around, even in his years of obscurity before re-emerging these last several years as the powerhouse performer we’d known a half-century before. And now he’s gone.
They say Americans never have a second act. Roky not only had a second act, he had a third act as well despite the lengthy intermission. And he’ll have an eternal encore thanks to the music he left us, the influence he wielded, and the wellspring of fans still discovering his amazing music.
Me, I was just a bystander but I remember Roky well, even from before I knew him. My initial discovery phase started with their first release, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators — on mono records back then! I remember the pride and amazement that this incredible band was from Texas. Of course, that record entered my life via the influence of my older brother and his musical explorations. Pretty soon, he and his friends had rolled the early Elevators’ hits, “You Gonna Miss Me” and “Splash One,” into their garage bands’ repertoires.
Phase 2 of my Roky remembrance comes post-Rusk incarceration and meeting him through Nothing Strikes Back, the world’s only black-light ice cream parlor. Both Larry and Cooper were huge fans of the Elevators and when Roky reappeared in Austin in the mid-70’s, he made his way to our little “euphoria parlor.” They even got Roky to come out to play at Larry & Nancy’s wedding in the Texas hill country, where we were treated to a solo acoustic version of “Dust.”
Roky’s old friend, Doug Sahm, produced Roky’s first post-Rusk release, pairing the harrowing “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” with the achingly beautiful ”Starry Eyes.” I remember seeing Roky play these new tunes at Soap Creek Saloon with Doug in the band, with Doug grinning fro ear to ear to be sharing the stage with his recovering old friend.
Roky & the Explosives played a bunch of shows at Raul’s in the late 70s, and we nearly always hit them, hanging with Roky in the parking lot before his set. Between Roky’s horror-show screamer anthems and the raucous, rocking Explosives, these shows showcased Roky’s intensity, further amplified by the close-in walls of the small club — definitely my favorite phase of Roky’s performing years.
During this time, he often talked of how he was sure he either was an alien or was planted here by aliens. We shrugged these comments off, but looking back, these were symptoms of a creeping return of his struggle with schizophrenia. It became apparent there was more than just drug hallucination going on for the guy, at least post-Rusk.
Some time later, I spotted him in a south Austin grocery store, and believe me as a veteran psychiatric worker, he looked every bit the part of a functioning schizophrenic. His clothes were a chaotic clash of outrageous patterns, ill-fitting and loud, his hair streaming out in various directions, beard similarly askew, eyes wide and darting as he looked around. “Hi, Roky,” I said, and he looked at me and quickly asked, “Do you know where (I cannot remember what he wanted) is?” I ventured a guess and he scurried off to check it out. Like I said, by then, I’d been working in mental health for close to 10 years — and I could tell ‘crazy’ when I saw crazy.
But then he got help, thanks to the intervention of Casey Monahan and Roky’s brother, Sumner. I heard about these efforts to help Roky and hoped he could respond to treatment. My memory jumps forward a bit to seeing Roky in another grocery store some time later: clean-shaven, hair long but well-groomed, reasonably attired, waiting patiently in the check-out line, every bit as sane-looking as anyone else there — and calmer, quieter than most.
Roky did return to performing but I never saw him play live again. I enjoyed the videos of his shows and marveled at the strength of his performances. A half-century after bursting onto the scene, he looked almost as if he just picked it back up effortlessly, basking in the adoration and the rock festival receptions.
To quote the song, “Now I’m home — to stay.”
There will continue to be a steady stream of articles and shared memories from those who knew him and those who only knew him through the impact his music had on their lives. Though I never saw Roky again after that second grocery store sighting, I do have have one last memory to share, though this one comes second-hand, courtesy of another Austin icon, Jim Franklin.
I had the chance to have a short chat with Jim last time I was in Austin, and he mentioned an idea he had for a statue of Roky. He described once driving down a street in south Austin and seeing Roky walking the other way on the sidewalk across the street — with a grackle dangling from his finger. Jim u-turned and hopped out to talk to Roky who was quite intent on the bird somehow hanging from his finger. As Jim approached, Roky said, “Don’t worry—he’s only sedated!’
I would love to see that statue.
“You think you can’t, you wish you could —
I know you can, I wish you would…”
Farewell, friend — we will not see the likes of you again.