Roky Erickson

by E. Ryan Ellis

I’m a Demon and I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll
You look up, everything’s black and white. The strum of an electric guitar seems unhinged, it’s on the low end, and it has a twang. The newspaper says October, 1966, and you’ve only listened to The Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, and the Beatles—your parents barely allow the latter. In the next year you’ll smoke pot for the first time and hear the term “psychedelic” as it relates to a feeling, a mood, and music. But right now all you care about is the young man before you, surrounded by his band, The 13th Floor Elevators, howling lovelorn incantations of a broken bluesman; his voice is sharp, it almost stings. Your dad turns the television off; this is the last you’ll see of this man, at least in his current form. 

By 1969 the man on the television, Roky Erickson, is institutionalized in a Texas prison. It’s reputed he has dropped LSD 300 times. In prison he begins receiving electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine injections. The garage music he’s defined is a distant memory.

His mythic story grows while he’s locked away. He is often misaligned with the likes of Syd Barrett as it relates to his fall from musicianship, a crazed spiral of drugs and schizophrenia; except Barrett nearly gave up on music by 1972, and for Erickson, this was not the case. That same year Erickson is released from Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane. Though his mental instability continues—among other things, an obsession with outer space and the occult—this is the beginning of a period of musical prosperity. The voice continues. He records and releases three albums over the next 15 years, hidden gems that never find the ears of the many. The Evil One may be the most cohesive release of his career; it showcases Erickson’s lyrics regarding low-budget horror, fast guitars (although it’s been said many of his songs were originally written with ‘Lord’ or ‘God,’ and eventually replaced with ‘alien’ or ‘zombie’ amongst other beings). Don’t Slander Me is a highly produced continuation and perhaps even an abrasive outlier in the middle-aged comeback trends of the mid-’80s. Erickson’s blood-curdling yowl is as strong as it’s ever been and perhaps at its apogee. The last is Gremlins Have Pictures, smattered with various recordings following his release from Rusk until the sessions for Don’t Slander Me; it is certainly the most sentimental of the three.

Following his proficient period, Erickson falls off the map, becomes indigent for periods, and suffers from severe, and untreated, psychological disorders. But all ends well. Through the help of family and friends and the incredibly thankful Austin music scene, Erickson is treated and begins recording again. At 66, Roky Erickson is independent, recording music again and is able to drop these witty gems in a phone conversation with Flaunt.

On religion: “Well I sure like it a lot. I study a lot about it and right now I’m working on a game. It’s called Philosophy Game; in other words, if you get religion then it’s bound to be a Philosophy.”

On the weather: “Not hot but warm, but you would say it would be a little cooler than warm.”