I came to Roky Erickson in a roundabout way. A local punk band I liked, Lugosi’s Morphine, had recorded a cover of “Night of the Vampire,” and it quickly became my favorite song of theirs… even though I had no idea it wasn’t actually “theirs.” It was probably a year, maybe more, before I realized that this track I dug so much had been recorded for a Roky Erickson tribute album. “Who the hell is Roky Erickson?” I wondered. And that was when I fell down the rabbit hole. Or, if you prefer, the elevator shaft.
Before then, I didn’t know how much of so many things I loved owed a huge chunk of their origins to Erickson. In the ‘60s, his group The 13th Floor Elevators was the first to ever refer to itself as “psychedelic rock,” and the band’s raw, snotty, proto-punk sound likewise embodied a style that would come to be known as garage rock. In the ‘70s, Erickson’s second group The Aliens prefigured the horror-punk of The Misfits and the psychobilly of The Meteors with its harder-edged music, b-movie lyrics, and song titles like “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Stand for the Fire Demon,” and “Creature with the Atom Brain.”
It was not just Erickson’s lyrics that were haunted, however. In 1968, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and for years drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where his “treatment” included forced electroconvulsive therapy (AKA shock treatment). At one point, he was even arrested and subsequently committed for the crime of possessing one single joint. In the ‘80s, Erickson announced that he was possessed by the spirit of a Martian and that, as an extraterrestrial anomaly, he was subject to constant psychic assault from the rest of humanity. Later he began hoarding junk mail and taping it to the walls of his home, to the point where he was eventually arrested on charges of postal theft.
Perhaps worst of all, throughout his career Erickson was taken advantage of time and time again by predatory record contracts that dwindled his royalty payments to almost nothing.
In that way, as great as Erickson’s impact has been on music, his iconic status goes far beyond that. More than just a rock ‘n’ roll innovator, Erickson was, is, and will continue to be a poster child for every underappreciated outsider and persecuted weirdo in the world, for anyone and everyone who has ever felt like a space alien locked away in some great, big, planet-sized insane asylum.
Artists as varied as ZZ Top, Henry Rollins, the Butthole Surfers, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., and Mogwai have all paid tribute to Roky Erickson over the years, acknowledging his influence. Despite efforts by mainstream society, and perhaps even his own mind, to hold him back, he was a traveler, an earthbound astronaut who blazed burning trails through hallucinogenic starfields, showing us all the glories of that magic place where, as he put it, “the pyramid meets the eye.”
Just like he sang on the 13th Floor Elevators’ biggest hit, I’m gonna miss him.