To hell and back with Roky Erickson
In the spring of 1969, hot on the heels of a bust that would earn Timothy Leary a 20-year prison sentence for the possession of two marijuana roaches, Texas authorities brought the hammer down on another prominent psychedelic drug advocate: 22-year-old Roky Erickson, vocalist for the first group ever to bill itself as a psychedelic rock band. For the possession of a single joint, the 13th Floor Elevators frontman faced a potential 10 years of incarceration. After pleading insanity to escape this sentence, Erickson was sent to Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he lived among people who had committed some of the most mind-boggling atrocities imaginable.
Despite the lasting effects of the involuntary electroconvulsive therapy he received during his three and a half years at Rusk, Erickson doesn’t appear bitter about his hospitalization. “I seem like I’m doing pretty good after that. I didn’t take it too bad,” the singer offers, his calm drawl far removed from the untamed howl that made Elevators tunes like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” soar. “I’ve just been takin’ it easy and everything. I got me a new wristwatch yesterday. Casio.” He adds that he and his wife Dana have a nice house in Austin. “It has stairs!” he laughs, presumably contrasting this with the Section 8 housing he occupied up until a couple of years ago.
Several songs on Erickson’s most recent release, 2010’s True Love Cast Out All Evil—a joint effort with the Austin-based indie rock band Okkervil River—were written during the singer’s days at Rusk. One such song, the touchingly straightforward “Please, Judge” (“Please, Judge, don’t send that boy away/In society I wish you’d let him stay”), juxtaposes Erickson’s plaintive vocals with various found sounds, some of them recorded at Rusk itself. This sound collage recalls the period in the 1990s when the musician would blast radios and TV sets at maximum volume in an attempt to drown out the voices in his head.
On True Love’s second track, “Ain’t Blues Too Sad,” Erickson poetically describes the ravages of electroconvulsive therapy: “Electricity hammered me through my head/Till nothing at all was backwards instead.” This evocative line recalls “Bloody Hammer,” one of the most memorable cuts from the singer’s 1981 release, The Evil One. That song took its inspiration from a story Erickson once read about a man suspected of murdering his wife. “He was found upstairs, pounding the attic floor with a bloody hammer,” he explains.
In light of the above-mentioned line from “Ain’t Blues Too Sad,” it’s tempting to interpret the attic in “Bloody Hammer” as a symbol for Erickson’s head, with the hammer representing electricity. “Yeah! That could be it, too,” the musician acknowledges. Though he doesn’t say if this was his original intent, his tone suggests that this idea has crossed his mind before.
Erickson created “Bloody Hammer” during his comeback period in the ’80s, which saw the father of psychedelic rock pioneering another genre: horror rock. Cryptic, ominous and blistering, Erickson’s work from this era proved that The Man hadn’t pounded away his ability to create powerful music. Whereas much latter-day horror rock is little more than B-movie schlock set to music, the creepy critters that populated Erickson’s work from this era—aliens, demons, two-headed dogs and even old Lucifer himself—came off as doppelgängers of real-life monsters and demons, particularly those he had encountered at Rusk. Though the songwriter admits that this is the case, he keeps things light when discussing the inspiration for such ditties. “I liked those Hammer films, you know, the vampire films?” he offers. “They were very scary, in bloodletting color and everything like that, you know?”
While early solo albums like The Evil One gave the distinct impression that the diabolical forces were winning the battle for Erickson’s consciousness, True Love Cast Out All Evil comes off as a happy ending to this horrific tale. With his demons behind him, he plays selections from that album, as well as various musical tales from the crypt and songs from his psychedelic days, at Don Quixote’s this Wednesday.
oky Erickson plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $30/adv, $33/door. For more information, call 603-2294.