[9 May 2005]
In a manner more tragic than just about any other musician, Roky Erickson’s musical career can be divided into two eras: before and after institutionalization. The first disc of I Have Always Been Here Before, his first career-spanning compilation, covers the highlights of Erickson’s career with the fondly remembered Texas psychedelic tricksters the 13th Floor Elevators. With Erickson at the helm, the Elevators turned out some of the most lysergically tinged, jug-laced garage rock around. Yeah, that’s right: Jug-laced. The burbling, blooping sound of an amplified jug, sounding almost like a primitive sequencer, blurs the edges of these psych-punk masterpieces.
While they may have been at their best as psychedelic ravers, the Elevators also had a gentle, folky side that Erickson would revisit throughout his career. Songs like “Dust” and “I Had to tell You” drift by on a mix of homegrown wisdom and warm guitars. The music of the Elevators showed a commitment to the promise of the psychedelic experience that so much of that era’s music lacked. When you listen to Erickson’s singing and the band’s playing, there is none of the sense of opportunism or dilettantism that plagued so many superficially similar bands.
But all good trips must end, and the heyday of the Elevators was cut short in 1969 when, to avoid possible jail time for marijuana possession, Erickson entered a state hospital for the criminally insane. He was there for three and half years, and had his diagnosis of schizophrenia “treated” with electroshock therapy and Thorazine.
1975’s “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)”, the first post-institution track on the album, speaks volumes about the effect the experience must have had on Erickson. Altogether more savage and unhinged than anything that came before it, the song also signals a shift of subject matter from starry-eyed mysticism to B-Movie imagery full of horrific demons and monsters.
Erickson’s status as a cult legend is based in large part on the aforementioned sci-fi rockers, but to dismiss this portion of his music as lunatic kitsch would be a grave error. Unlike, say, the Misfits, Erickson’s use of this subject matter has no trace of kitsch or camp. For a man with an already tenuous grip on what we think of as reality, and confined to an institution where strangers in labcoats did funny things to his brain, the idea of sinister forces on the prowl was more fact than fiction. A song like “Bloody Hammer”, in which Erickson rails like a man possessed about refusing to have his mind hammered out, takes on a disturbing meaning in the light of his experiences. While it is tempting to think of the stuff Erickson is singing about as escapist fantasy, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that it was all too real to him. That fact is what gives this aspect of his music its frightening intensity and demands that it be heard as something other than the aural equivalent of a freak show.
But all was not dark in Erickson’s world. His softer songs took on an even more immediate presence after his confinement. It’s as if he became a frayed nerve, feeling higher highs and lower lows. These songs are proof that even in the face of evil, Erickson had the gumption to hold on to the belief encapsulated in the title of perhaps the album’s most moving song: “True Love Cast Out All Evil”.
With both the darker, fierier material, and the lighter, more reflective songs, the structure and performances of the music is always unique and committed. It’s impossible to know how much input they had into the music, but a word of praise must go out to the musicians backing Erickson on all 43 cuts. They play with a commitment and imagination far beyond your typical garage rock.
The music Erickson made with the Elevators allows a wimp like me to get a glimpse of the kind of conviction needed to stretch your mind as far as it’ll go—where the possibility of floating away is real. The music he made afterwards allows those luckier than him to get some tiny sense of what it’s like when your mind is under attack and what it takes to fight back. It’s a selfish and shameful thing to say, but if it took Erickson going through what he did for this music to come into being, I’m glad it happened.
If his latest music is any sign, the angels seem to have driven the devils from Erickson’s mind. According to his official website, which, like the album, was put together by people who care, Erickson is “doin’ great”. Let’s see to it that he stays that way. Buy this album.