ROKY ERICKSON, RIP
Roky live in Brooklyn, September 2017, photo by Jason Gross
by Alan Crandall
At 17, I gave up on mainstream rock, and began to pursue two currents – the "underground" of the time, and the history of rock going back to its origins. Since there was no Spotify, no YouTube, no Amazon – and no internet – my roadmap was limited to rock books and magazines. One of the main roadmaps was The Rolling Stone Record Guide, second edition, 1982. The blue one.
I remember shelling out my hard-earned allowance money for a copy, taking it home and, for the next week or so, poring over it, entry-by-entry, line-by-line, with a notepad and a pen handy, jotting down artists and albums I needed to hear. And in the course of all that, I came across this fateful entry:
ROKY ERICKSON AND THE ALIENS
Two four-starred albums (four stars meant "Excellent," for the uninitiated), released 1980, 1981. Erickson, it seemed, was a former leader of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators (of whom I knew next to nothing except I'd heard part of "You're Gonna Miss Me" on the radio once), a band who I lumped in my mind with the rest of the Nuggets crew (not that that was a bad thing – it's just that categorizing the Elevators as a mere one-hit-wonder garage band is about as accurate as thinking of The Kinks as just another typical post-Beatles British Invasion act ala Gerry and the Pacemakers) and he claimed to be a Martian. That was all interesting. This entry, by David Schulps, was even more interesting:
"[Erickson] writes songs about all manner of occult and demonic beings. Such titles as "Two-Headed Dog," "Creature With the Atom Brain" and "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" might be just silly if they weren't backed up by some tremendously hard-hitting rock and roll."
Now, something you must know about the teenaged me is that, whatever parts of my addled adolescent brain that were not completely occupied with sex and rock and roll – and I'm not sure which one took up more space – was completely occupied with all things horror. A childhood diet of Vincent Price/Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi, Hammer films, Godzilla movies, Kolchak the Night Stalker, Dark Shadows and a megaton of 70's horror comix had left me, by my high school years, obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft and his ilk, and the early novels of Stephen King.
So ... occult and demonic beings ... hard-hitting rock and roll? SIGN ME UP. Roky Erickson and the Aliens were on the list.
It took a couple years to come across the Roky albums. They were out of print by then, though not especially rare. I finally found The Evil One at the used record store down the street from my first job. I think it was less than a year before I came across the other one in the same shop. Neither of them cost more than $5. Now, I'm not going to exaggerate here and say those albums changed my life. Not at all. But they were good. Very good.
The music? I would describe the music as basic, very traditional, rockabilly-based rock and roll, but with a heavy, punk-ish guitar attack. Over it all, Roky shouted in a harsh, raw-sounding voice. And the lyrics, well, aside from the horror-movie subject matter, they were seriously weird. The phrases didn't exactly make a lot of sense: what in the hell did the Kremlin have to do with a two-headed dog? What was "fat kings and queens all eating their grapes/Blood and blaspheme not upon the door drapes/Scream out for murder, scream out for hate/If you click your fingers applauding the play" supposed to mean? Even assuming the lyrics could be understood; the usual problem of deciphering rock lyrics was exacerbated by the fact that Erickson's phraseology was so completely bizarre. At the same time, in the great tradition of rock and roll, a phrase would leap out of the mix and catch your ear good and hard. I'm not sure to this day what "her body just blows messiah" is supposed to mean, but damn, it sounds good.
What was more important was the fact that Erickson screamed these words with absolute, complete conviction and passion that put, say, Joe Strummer, to shame. Whatever it was he was trying to communicate here, he damn well meant it.
Unfortunately, for all their now-classic status among aficionados, the Aliens albums are also marred by flat, thin sound and constricted performances. The common "new wave" production styles of the time – former Creedence bass player Stu Cook, who produced, should've known better - that rob the tracks of some of their power. I liked them, a lot. But I didn't love them.
However, I was not done with Roky Erickson. Not by a long shot.
May of 1986. Our local college station, KFJC, one of the best and most eclectic non-commercial stations in the land, announced as part of its annual May special programming, a three-hour special on Roky and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Amen!
I still have my tapes of it. The first 90 minutes was largely devoted to the Elevators, and gave me my first real exposure to the Texas acidheads. About half of the first two albums were featured, a few bits from the official live album, and the four Roky tracks from the final Elevators album, Bull of the Woods (the last of these, the eerie, wistful "May the Circle Remain Unbroken," closed the special and is my favorite Elevators track), as well as a bit of the Elevators obscure, and tangled, history.
The revelation came in the second half, as the hosts dove into Roky's early solo releases – the original "Two-Headed Dog" (aka "Red Temple Prayer") from 1975, a screaming, out-of-control rocker – the 1977 EP on Sponge, which really was "tremendously hard-hitting rock and roll," featuring yet another take of "Two-Headed Dog," two more tracks later remade on the Aliens albums, and a surprising Dylanesque acoustic number called "I Have Always Been Here Before" which I think is about reincarnation and is quite lovely, both musically and lyrically ("That that snuck up on you in the night/That that you remember in an early child's delight/That that was supposed to have frightened you/But somehow you never took to fright...") and is my second-favorite Roky track, and the 1977 single "Bermuda" b/w "The Interpreter." These are Roky's best solo recordings and show what the Aliens could really do when let off the leash. Someone should compile them into an EP.
The rest of `86 was a banner year for Roky and me, records-wise. His Clear Night for Love EP, recorded in Texas with the Speedy Sparks band, turned up in the stores. Something of a departure from the Aliens recordings, this set featured three charming Buddy Holly-ish country rockers (Holly was apparently a major touchstone for Roky – which is fine by me cuz Holly's one of my all-time faves as well), a straight rockabilly rumbler called "Don't Slander Me" which stands in the top echelon of any rockabilly cut in the 80's, and finally, a storming Bo Dilley-meets-Black Sabbath rocker called "The Haunt," which outpunches anything Roky'd done since the Sponge EP, and is my top favorite Roky track.
This was followed not long after by two more albums – a collection of outtakes (Gremlins Have Pictures) and an actual new album (Don't Slander Me had actually been recorded a few years prior), recorded with members of the Aliens, et al (including Jefferson Airplane/SVT bassist Jack Casady).
The new album was a bit of disappointment. Overproduced with a bombastic mid-80's pop/metal sheen and awash in Fairlights, and and brought further down by sub-standard material, including versions of "Don't Slander Me" and "The Haunt" vastly inferior to the Speedy Sparks versions. There were highlights though: the Phantom Of The Opera riff "Burn the Flames," "Nothing In Return," another Holly pastiche, and a surging Aliens-style rocker called "The Damn Thing."
Gremlins was, like all outtakes albums, a mixed bag of alternate takes, live tracks, and rare songs. The alts were all fine but not revelatory; the rarities all good – and, I should note, really rare – several of them do not appear anywhere else in any form – and, too, there were a couple of real gems: "Before in the Beginning," a rambling psych workout that sounds more like the Elevators than any other solo Roky track, and a potent, rocked-up cover of the Velvets' "Heroin."
With all this activity, I was hoping I'd get a chance to see a live Roky soon. It was not to be. I never did.
Instead, we got an endless stream of quasi-legal discs; repackages, rehearsals, demos. It would be 5 years or more before we got the pleasant but inconsequential All That May Do My Rhyme. And then silence again, until Roky's celebrated early 00's resurrection.
Now, I wrote this because I wanted to say something about Roky. I didn't want to talk about his life or career, which have been covered elsewhere far more effectively than I could. I wanted to write about his music, or, perhaps more accurately, my experience of it.
Part of that is that Roky's catalog is vast, and still needs a lot of sorting out (though a fair job has been done). Part of that is that Roky's music, and his records, are usually an afterthought when anyone writes about Roky. And if you're a fan, you know what I mean.
I am guilty, I, and other Roky fans I've known, of something I now deeply regret. And that is that, we (by which I mean me and all the other Roky fans I've known personally – almost all) liked the fact that Roky was, well, pretty weird. I don't mean that we liked it for him, mind you. We just thought it was cool. After all, all the other rock and roll horror freaks (Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne ... you can trace it back at least as far as Screamin' Jay Hawkins) were, in the end, an act. And mostly, they let you in on it. They were no more crazy than you or I. But Roky – well he was the real deal, man. That was cool. Or so we thought. And we laughed at the poor guy's nutty interviews and occasional antics. Not derisively. It's just... it was funny, right?
Some of that was immaturity (I mean, we were equally amused by Shane MacGowan's alcoholism, and Johnny Thunders' heroin habit as well, for the same reasons), and some of it was insensitivity borne of immaturity. And some of it was just plain stupidity. All I can say is, watching the documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, which chronicles the depths of Roky's illness, and his reformation, I felt ashamed of myself.
More importantly, there is not a single Roky Erickson article I've read, ever, that didn't focus as much if not more on his struggles, then his music. And that is unacceptable.
Back in `86, when Gremlins Have Pictures had just come out, I asked this friend who worked at a used record shop I frequented if he'd heard it yet. He wasn't a Roky fan. "I mean, he's a great psycho and all.." he said. Well, Steve's entitled to his opinion even if I obviously don't agree, but the point is, the one thing I wanted to get across is that I hope, pray, that in the long run, if Roky Erickson is remembered, it will be not as "a great psycho," but as what he really was – a great rocker.
There is one other thing I wanted to say. There's a small mountain of Erickson/Elevators product out there. Here's my attempt to sort it out for you (and yes I have pretty much investigated it all):
For the Elevators – all three studio albums and the live album are readily available nowadays. Probably your best bet is the Albums Collection Clambox, which contains all of the above with pretty good sound and is quite affordable. The vinyl stereo mixes can be found online, and seem to be the best to these ears. There are many bootleg sets out there, mostly redundant, but I can recommend Elevator Tracks and Fire In My Bones, which contain strong live tracks far superior to the official live album, and some real rarities ("Fire In My Bones," "Make That Girl Your Own" and a raging "She Lives" with members of fellow Texas psych-scene Conqueroo joining in).
For Roky - the Erickson family has tried to get his catalog together, and done a pretty fine job. I Have Always Been Here Before is a pretty comprehensive set that includes the "Two Headed Dog" single (both sides), most of the Sponge EP (minus the second version of "Two Headed Dog"), "Bermuda" and "The Interpreter," several good rarities ("The Beast" – a tough blues) and most of the best tracks from the Aliens LP's and Don't Slander Me. Unfortunately, it's also missing some essentials – "The Haunt" is not here, "Don't Slander Me" is the inferior album version, and the best parts from Gremlins Have Pictures ("Heroin," "Before in the Beginning") are missing. Fortunately, all of the Speedy Sparks EP is on All That May Do My Rhyme, Roky's ‘90's comeback. As much as I respect the Erickson clan's discouragement of bootleg or bootleg-ish releases, honesty compels me to recommend Gremlins Have Pictures, and also Casting the Runes and Halloween, live sets with the Explosives that feature almost all the tracks from the Aliens LPs, with much tougher performances – this stuff rocks! (or is that "Roks"?).
And if you're wondering why I haven't mentioned Roky's final album with Okkervil River, it's cause I didn't care for it a bit. I'm afraid I also don't have much good to say about the Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye tribute album. Only T-Bone Burnett and The Jesus Mary Chain don't embarrass themselves. If you want good Elevators covers, check out Radio Birdman's 90 MPH "You're Gonna Miss Me," The Lazy Cowgirls meltdown take on same, and Television's stunning "Fire Engine" from The Blow Up.
Finally, I can't recommend enough Paul Drummond's superb bio Eye Mind, a sprawling, fascinating history of the Elevators, encompassing not only the band but the whole Texas rock scene of the ‘60's, and the Castaneda-ish cult that grew around the Elevators (or that the Elevators grew out). It's out of print and now fetching collector's prices alas, but maybe you can score if you have a good local library.
Also see our Roky timeline article
and our Roky & Doug Sahm article
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