Songs detailed with the everlasting charm of two-headed dogs, aliens and demons in love are simply to be respected. Roky Erickson, with his thick tufts of matted hair and increasingly rotund build, is currently living a life nothing short of a blessing to his former self. The proclaimed pioneer of psychedelic rock, with his wildly influential first band The 13th Floor Elevators, was always a man lost in a mainstream pop culture too mild for his tastes. Tumultuous years of manic drug consumption left Roky bruised and bloodied to the extent his songs often depict. But as Roky currently performs at 65 and tours the world, when 35 once looked like his peak, his indelible mark on rock now extends well into his golden years.
Born in Texas, Roky exemplified the acid era of the ‘60s with the 13th Floor Elevators, championing a raspy and transcendent voice for a group that left numerous treasures for the rock world, including the classic song “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” With wailing vocals and intense, personal lyrics, the songs Roky delivered felt like nothing else, rightfully earning his recognition in the psychedelic rock genre.
A born eccentric, Roky’s mental stability progressively came into question, exasperated by an abundant consumption of marijuana and LSD, and was soon diagnosed as a schizophrenic. By 1969, a single joint became the elusive beginning to a seemingly endless bout with struggles for Roky. Faced with a decade-long sentence resulting from the marijuana charge, Roky pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity to avoid prison. He spent several years in the state’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane and endured involuntary shock treatment. The mishandling and useless damage done to Roky resulting from this was tragic at best. His life would later spiral into madness, with endless stretches of seclusion entombed by ruthless poverty.
Released from the hospital in 1974, Roky continued to make music for a time with his backing band the Aliens and forged deeper into the macabre with lyrics delving into monsters and demonic figures, often layering his songs with deep political and social issues—many were simply the incantations of a man put through shock-treatment. This blend of horror-rock is often the most admired of his entire musical repertoire. Songs like “Two-Headed Dog” and “Creature with the Atom Brain” perfectly capture Roky’s voice howling about terrifying monsters backed by crunchy guitars. By the ‘80s, seclusion and instability became deeply entrenched in his life. Roky rarely produced music, never toured, and utilized the static from television sets to sleep and cope with his descending mental stability. In 1982, Roky declared publicly his assertion that a Martian had inhabited his body, officially cementing his tenure with madness.
Largely absent from public view through the ‘90s, the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me reintroduced Roky to a new generation. It chronicled his life, focusing on his attempts of rebuilding a fractured life and salvaging lost dreams, strongly assisted by the help of family and friends. By 2007, Roky began touring again, and in 2010 released a new album for the first time in close to more than 20 years. With the help of Okkervil River as his backing band, Goodbye Sweet Dreams may be Roky’s most intimate portrait of his life and family, with songs focusing on faded dreams and coping with insurmountable hardships. During a period in his life that it was difficult to believe he doesn’t treasure every moment of, Roky’s voice, and the incredibly influential mark he’s made on rock, resonates deeper and stronger with every passing day. Roky Erickson will be performing Thursday, Nov. 1 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Five Roky Erickson songs for Halloween Night:
I Walked with a Zombie
Mine Mine Mind
I Think Up Demons
Don’t Shake Me Lucifer