Getting this column last year was in many ways, without sounding really extra, a lifelong dream of mine, to have a platform of my own where I could share my thoughts and excitement about music, and the weird and wonderful world around it. No editors and no rules, with the exception of keeping the ‘F’ word to a minimum. This month, I’ve decided to let someone else ramble on for a bit, as I wanted to share in whole this piece Peter Hughes of Sons of Huns and formerly of Danava wrote about the late, great, Roky Erickson. I asked for a few word about his favourite record, and the finished result was more than anything I could have hoped for; a heartfelt ode to one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock. Thank you Peter, and thank you Roky. – Ella Stormark
Roky Erickson was a Texas-born rock ’n’ roll howler best known for his early years with The 13th Floor Elevators, whose lysergic reverb-soaked hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was written by Roky at the tender age of 15 and would endure as his highest charting song and the definitive composition of his career. The 13th Floor Elevators are credited as the first Psychedelic Rock group and their first two albums, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators & Easter Everywhere are the most notable. The Elevators LSD-steeped sound rippled across Texas west to San Francisco and clearly influenced the sonic palette of a number of bands that went on to enjoy larger commercial success, the heavyweight of the bunch being boogie behemoths & fellow Texas natives ZZ Top. Guitar hero Billy Gibbons first found his footing on the Texas club circuit with his band The Moving Sidewalks (an obvious nod to the Elevators, as Gibbons himself freely admits) who later toured as the opening act for Hendrix before going on to form ZZ Top. Even Janis Joplin considered contributing her soulful blues-tinged vocals to the 13th Floor Elevators before deciding to head to San Francisco instead.
Roky’s psychedelic period was cut short after a series of drug arrests, culminating in his apprehension onstage in Austin August of 1969 for marijuana possession, which resulted in two Police cruisers being destroyed by fans in the ensuing riot. Unfortunately, Roky was subsequently committed to Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane after pleading insanity when faced with the narcotics charges. He would spend the following 3 years in Rusk during which Roky was involuntarily subjected to electroshock therapy and forcefully dosed with Thorazine after being diagnosed as schizophrenic, though this would not be his first or last stay in such a facility. One too many LSD bad trip freak-outs combined with underlying mental health issues in the ‘60s were then compounded by the traumatic environment of the psychiatric hospital and the cruel abuses he suffered in the stead of effective medical treatment during his stay there. These hardships proved to have no small influence on the sound and subject matter of Roky’s music, who had begun to believe that a Martian inhabited his body. This is reflected in the first iteration of Roky’s new group named ‘Bleib Alien’ that first appeared in 1975. This was eventually changed to a more radio-friendly version ‘Roky Erickson & the Aliens’ in 1977 when the group started working on demos for a new album with Creedence Clear Water Revival bassist Stu Cook. The 15 songs recorded during the sessions with Cook from 1977-79 would form the Horror Hard Rock body of work from which a number of alternately titled albums were released (Self/Titled-1980, also called Runes or Five Symbols due to the ambiguous cover art, & The Evil One-1981) and would serve as the songbook from which Roky would base the majority of his live sets during this period and when he resurfaced in the 2000s.
Roky’s return to performing live deserves considerable credit to the aid of his younger brother Sumner Erickson, without whom he likely may not have overcome the odds. After Sumner gained legal guardianship of Roky, he sought the long needed medical treatment for his older brother as well as legal aid to help Roky reclaim licensing rights to his back catalogue, much of which he was cheated out of by greedy labels & others. Austin Texas studio engineer Doug Sahm once traded Roky a smoothie for three of his most timeless songs “Two-Headed Dog”, the love song “Starry Eyes”, and “Don’t Slander Me” once after a session. The must-see documentary released in 2005 titled “You’re Gonna Miss Me” after the hit from his Elevators days also played a large role in exposing his music and life to a whole new audience.
“Two-Headed Dog” kicks off the album with the harsh cries of Bill Miller’s electric autoharp, which adds a signature flavor of psychedelic sound to the group, a bright twang somewhat reminiscent of the familiar electric guitar strum and similar in function to the electric jug playing of Tommy Hall in 13th Floor Elevators, but with s strange otherworldly timbre all of it’s own. This is my favourite track on the album and Roky’s distinctive rock ’n’ roll tenor snarl screams and wails with confidence “Two-headed dog, two-headed dog, I been workin’ in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog!” In addition to Roky’s tortured yelps the other element that gets me every time is the killer lead guitar playing of Duane ‘Bird’ Aslaksen, with his hottest licks heard flying over Roky & the rhythm section pounding away on “Cold Night for Alligators.” The last standout tracks are the two slow-burners “Night of the Vampire” and “Stand for the Fire Demon”, the end of the A & B-side respectively. In “Night of the Vampire” Roky warns, “The moon may be full, the moon may be white, All I know is you’ll feel his bite Tonight… is the Night of the Vampire” before the whole band joined now by eerie overdubbed organ leans into a macabre minor-key melody that would be at home as a foundational basso continuo progression in a Baroque Fantasia. The closing track in the 10 song first release of Roky Erickson & The Aliens’ 1980 self-titled album summons listeners to “Stand for the Fire Demon.” This final performance covers the widest range of dynamics, from subdued backup singers alternating ‘oh-ohs’ with Erickson’s lines delivered with the most controlled restraint,
“Stand for the fire demon
Spirits say ‘boo’ and the paper
bursts into fire,
Stand for the fire demon
wilder, wilder, wilder, wilder,”
through to full-on pounding electric bass & drums with waves of dual overdrive-saturated guitars crashing on top and Roky’s haunting screams riding above all as he commands,
“Stand for the fire demon
Stand for the demon of fire
Stand for the demon of fiiiiire!”
It is worthwhile to note that after numerous different versions were released over the years, in 2013 Light in the Attic Records released an edition of’ The Evil One’ with 2xLPs containing all 15 songs recorded by Roky & the Aliens during the 1977-79 sessions with Stu Cook and is worth obtaining if for no other reason than the inclusion of Roky’s chilling song “Bloody Hammer.” Roky died last May 2019 aged 71, his music as relevant now in these uncertain times as ever as we face a global pandemic that threatens to usher in untold evils, not to mention stands to spoil Record Store Day leaving vinyl stores empty with most folks fearfully self-quarantined at home. Looking back on the entirety of Roky’s life, his hardships and struggles in the end are unequivocally outweighed by his triumphs in music, early on with psychedelic rock and later Horror Rock and ultimately with his output finding renewed acceptance and culminating in Roky enjoying the most widespread success of his career with a commendable final effort he finished strong with performances at festivals and on tour both throughout the US and abroad.
‘Rest In Peace Roky ’Starry-Eyed’ Forever.
By Peter Hughes