I saw Roky Erickson at the El Rey Theater last night. For those who don’t know, Roky Erickson was the leader of the 13th Floor Elevators, the world’s first psychedelic rock band. The Elevators were from Austin, Texas, of all places. In Austin, Roky and the band faced constant harassment from the authorities who didn’t like their long hair and their anti-authoritarian message. Roky was busted for possession of a single joint. For this crime he was sent for three years to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where we was subjected to electro-shock treatments. Whether it was insanity or not that led him to smoke dope, by the time he came out of Rusk he wasn’t quite right anymore.
In the late Seventies he started releasing records again. But his lyrical themes had changed from starry eyed tales of spiritual exploration to dark examinations of the hidden horrors of the mind. Songs like Two Headed Dog, I Think of Demons and Creature With the Atom Brain found an audience among punk rock kids and Roky seemed on the verge of a major comeback. His song Bermuda (about the Bermuda Triangle) was a major inspiration to this young punk guitarist at the time. But bad management deals left him broke and by the early Nineties Roky was under the care of his mother who was ill equipped to deal with his deepening mental difficulties.
In 2001, his youngest brother Sumner gained guardianship over Roky and began to see that he got the professional treatment he needed. These days Roky is back and better than he ever was.
I’d never seen Roky live before, but the show I witnesses last night blew away any of the many recorded live shows I’ve heard. He was in amazing form. The years have made his voice even more abrasive, which only makes him sound better than before. Brian Wilson, whose story is similar to Roky’s in many ways, usually has a piano in front of him when he does live shows nowadays, though he rarely plays it and even when he does the instrument is not audible to the audience. But Roky played mean rhythm guitar throughout the show and even a few solos, all very much audible to everyone in the theater.
He was backed by a band he called Evil Hook Wildlife E.T., though the members looked too young to have been the original Evil Hook Wildlife E.T. who backed him in the Eighties. In addition to a firey lead guitarist, and rockin’ drums and bass, there was also a steel guitar player who added just the right touch of country to the sound.
I met Roky the day before at a book signing held at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in LA. He signed copies of his new biography Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, The Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound by Paul Drummond and presented the film Creature with the Atom Brain, the inspiration for his song of the same name. When I got up to the front of the line I asked him if he knew John Battles. John is a friend of mine from Chicago who kept a correspondence with Roky throughout the Eighties. Roky said he knew John, “He’s in Chicago,” he said, “He sends me lots of horror movie stuff!” I was impressed. With all he’s gone through it’s amazing he remembers his fans. “Thank you for bringing him up!” he said, smiling as he handed back my book.
Roky Erickson has always been kind of a hero of mine. Not for being crazy and taking drugs — which he hasn’t done for many years now anyway. But because of the way he sticks to what he does artistically in spite of everything. I’ve tried to approach my Zen teaching in the same way. Which is why you’re all cordially invited to bite me if you don’t like the way I do this stuff. Go find someone you do like and leave me the fuck alone, all right?
Anyway, for those that need to know, here’s the set Roky played:
1) Cold Night for Alligators 2) White Faces 3) Don’t Shake Me Lucifer 4) Mine, Mine, Mind 5) Two Headed Dog 6) Night of the Vampire 7) Bloody Hammer 8) Splash 1 9) The Beast is Coming 10) Creature With the Atom Brain 11) Starry Eyes 12) Before You Accuse Me 13) I Think of Demons 14) Bermuda 15) You’re Gonna Miss Me ENCORE: 1) The Interpreter 2) The Wind and More 3) I Walked With a Zombie
Got gigs in Ohio I should remind you about:
November 7th at 7PM I’ll be at the Akron Public Library downtown.
November 10th 0DFx plays at the Spitfire Saloon in Cleveland.