As lead singer of Texas’ infamous 13th Floor Elevators — one of rock’s earliest, strangest and greatest psychedelic bands — Roky Erickson explored the far reaches of musical and personal extremes. The Elevators’ first two albums (Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Easter Everywhere, released, respectively, in 1966 and ’67) are essential classics whose far-reaching influence transcends genre boundaries. Following a nightmarish ’70s mental-hospital stint that reportedly had a devastating long-term effect on his mental health, Erickson’s subsequent work revealed a singularly brilliant songwriter and performer whose talent was no less impressive for the fact that he was singing about zombies, vampires and aliens. Indeed, the demons that abound in Roky’s songs are all-too-real reflections of his own troubled psyche, and the combination of the artist’s oddly poetic lyrical constructions and his bracing banshee wail makes it clear, as it wasn’t always, that he’s not kidding.
The Elevators fell apart in the late ’60s, when Erickson began a three-year stretch in a state mental institution to avoid criminal prosecution on a drug charge. He didn’t return to recording until the second half of the ’70s, with a string of one-off singles and the four-song Sponge-label EP (reissued in 1988 as Two Headed Dog). Three of the EP’s numbers were re-recorded for the 1980 CBS UK LP (the title of which is actually five unpronounceable ideograms). Roky Erickson and the Aliens is an excellent manifestation of his post-Elevators persona, expressing dark dilemmas through creepy horror-movie imagery. Roky sings such offbeat gems as “I Walked with a Zombie” and “Creature With the Atom Brain” in a tremulous voice that insists he’s telling the truth — or at least believes he is. Former Creedence Clearwater bassist Stu Cook turned in an excellent production job, bringing the hard electric guitars (and Bill Miller’s electric autoharp) into a sharp focus that underscores Roky’s excitable state. Erickson and band seem less unstable than the drug-crazed Elevators (best remembered for “You’re Gonna Miss Me”), but just barely.
Ditto for The Evil One, which takes five tracks from the UK release (overlooking the awesome “Two-Headed Dog”) and adds five more, including the ghastly (that’s good) “Bloody Hammer.” Which LP is better? They’re both wonderfully ominous and frightening — splatter-film soundtracks done with real rock’n’roll conviction. The best bet, however, is the Pink Dust CD, which collects the contents of both albums. I Think of Demons, created as an expanded reissue of the first LP, is another fine choice, as it contains a dozen of the CD’s fifteen songs.
Don’t Slander Me — cut with a quintet that includes assorted ex-Aliens (electric autoharpist Miller among them) and ex-Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady — was recorded for (but rejected by) British CBS in the early ’80s and not released until 1986. Though not quite up to its predecessor’s standards, and with half of its songs appearing in different versions on earlier releases (including three on Clear Night), it’s typically gripping. The inclusion of two Holly-inspired pop tunes makes for a bizarre contrast to “Burn the Flames,” a number originally done for the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack. In addition, the album contains versions of three bona fide classics: “Bermuda,” the Buddy Hollyesque “Starry Eyes” and the savage title track.
“Bermuda” and “Starry Eyes” were rerecorded in Austin with a rudimentary quartet for the five-song Clear Night for Love, which preceded a decade-long recording hiatus. The disc begins on a note of relative restraint. “You Don’t Love Me Yet” is acoustic folk; the title track recalls Creedence’s rag-tag balladry. Side Two is a bit wilder, culminating in “Don’t Slander Me,” an angrily defensive accusatory diatribe.
With Erickson adding nothing to his catalogue, a steady stream of releases — of varying levels of quality — persisted. Gremlins Have Pictures is an interesting if erratic hodgepodge of tracks ranging from 1975 to 1982, solo and with three different groups (the Explosives, the Aliens and Blieb Alien): some thrilling, some shoddy, all loony. (The CD adds previously released 1980-vintage bonus tracks.) Casting the Runes mates Roky’s twisted worldview with a hard, crunching band. Recorded on various Texas stages circa ’79, it unleashes menacing renditions of such grisly Erickson classics as “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” and “Bloody Hammer,” plus a weird version of the mush-pop oldie “I Love How You Love Me.” Highly recommended, especially to fans of The Evil One. Reverend of Karmic Youth is an interesting artifact: six acoustic solo tunes from 1985, plus six live band tracks from Casting the Runes.
In 1990, Erickson was arrested in a bizarre mail-fraud mix-up and institutionalized once again. Through the efforts of a longtime fan at the label, this latest round of tribulations inspired the assembly of Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a benefit disc featuring nineteen covers (22 on the cassette) of assorted Roky compositions, by artists as diverse as ZZ Top, R.E.M., Doug Sahm, Bongwater, Julian Cope, T-Bone Burnett and the Jesus & Mary Chain. It’s a mixed bag but, overall, Pyramid is remarkably effective. The fact that such intensely personal material can stand up to such a wide variety of interpretations makes it clear that, whatever his personal problems, Erickson is an uncommonly gifted songwriter whose work deserves — but is not likely to find — a wider audience.
Though the tribute record helped raise the reclusive artist’s public profile, Erickson was in no condition to take advantage. Instead, his increased notoriety helped feed the steady stream of reissues, repackagings, bootlegs and “authorized” live recordings (with various backing combos) that had begun appearing in the mid-’80s. Gremlins Have Pictures is an odds-and-ends collection that contains plenty of fine moments, including an incendiary live rendition of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” Click Your Fingers Applauding the Play combines the contents of Two Headed Dog (itself a reissue of the four-song Mine Mine Mind, with early versions of “Red Temple Prayer” and “Mine Mine Mind”) and Clear Night for Love with the considerably less essential Holiday Inn Tapes (abysmal lo-fi stream-of-consciousness acoustic performances in a hotel room). You’re Gonna Miss Me offers a decent selection of tracks from The Evil One, Don’t Slander Me and Gremlins Have Pictures, along with a few minor rarities.
Mad Dog is an excellent collection of late-’70s demos and live tracks, including alternate versions of various Evil One and Don’t Slander Me numbers, many of which cut the “official” versions. Love to See You Bleed draws from the same pool of material, with less worthwhile music but more bizarre archival curios. Demon Angel offers a solid live acoustic performance, while Reverend of Karmic Youth mixes solo acoustic and live band tracks. As for the concert discs, Live Dallas 1979 has good sound quality, while Beauty and the Beast includes a couple of hard-to-find songs. Best of the lot, though, is Live at the Ritz 1987, which, despite its bootleggish fidelity, boasts a ferocious performance. This document of an Austin show, which begins with “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and runs through “Bloody Hammer,” has bracing guitar work by Will Sexton and is worth hearing, especially for the incidental stage remarks. The CD edition includes an absolutely incredible sixteen-minute radio interview that’s worth the price of admission on its own. The Evil Hook Wildlife E.T. album combines some savage mid-’80s live numbers with a pair of incendiary studio tracks and brief interview snippets.
After an extended period of inactivity, Roky was coaxed out of retirement to record five new, generally demon-free songs (and a version of “Starry Eyes” featuring blues-rock vocalist Lou Ann Barton), which were added to Clear Night for Love to construct All That May Do My Rhyme. The result is surprisingly cohesive, with the new material showing Erickson still capable of writing fetchingly elliptical pop tunes (“We Are Never Talking”) and reflecting compellingly on his own travails (“Please Judge”). Also included is an unlisted bonus track, the 1965 single “We Sell Soul,” by Erickson’s pre-Elevators band, the Spades. The album was released in conjunction with the publication of a handsome, illustrated book of Roky’s lyrics, Openers II.
Assembled with exceptional love and dedication by Bill Bentley and Gary Stewart, with first-hand growing-up-in-Texas liner notes by the former, I Have Always Been Here Before is the once-and-for-all compilation, the whole Erickson saga in 43 songs, starting all the way back with that same 1965 Spades track. Disc One provides a solid, savvy 10-track introduction to the 13th Floor Elevators as well as Roky’s early solo work. The other half of the collection starts with the Aliens’ albums and runs up through All That May Do My Rhyme. The booklet contains recent photos of Roky, which are as poignant as the music is potent.