I’m not coming home…

This is sad news indeed, although not entirely unexpected.

To be honest, given the absolute reckless abandon with which he lived his early years and the catastrophic price he paid for his crushing voyage, we were lucky to have as much Roky as we did. I consider myself to have been very, very fortunate to have seen the man step out onto a stage.

Roky Erickson has died.

I was going to write about Beak this evening, but I’ve spent most of the time I should’ve been looking through the SWX recordings listening to the Elevators’ first record, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. It’s… ah… intense.

There’ll be loads of better and more well-informed tributes to the man over the next few days, but, hell, a few more lines won’t go amiss.

With the first use of the word “psychedelic” in an album title, it’s the real thing – a strange, brittle journey into the furthest reaches, recorded in the summer of 1966 by a band whose own name refers to a place that sometimes doesn’t exist (in a tradition referred to in MR James’ famous ghost story, some buildings wouldn’t have a thirteenth room or floor). There are no fillers (although some songs are more successful than others), no covers and absolutely no let up.

The opener is Erikson’s own astonishing “You’re gonna miss me”, a staple in any garage punk compilation but still one of the top two or three songs of its kind, driven by his agricultural rhythm guitar and his astonishing vocal performance, and muddied up by the ever-present electric jug. It’s a classic in most senses of the word.

It’s the first track on the record and when you start into the rest of the songs, you realise it’s actually quite different, comparatively straight, albeit incendiary, garage fare. Erickson had already written it for his own band, The Spades, when psychedelic poet and jug player Tommy Hall invited him to join his band. The rest of the songs were largely written by Hall or fellow Texas folkie Powell St John, and are something of a different affair.

Songs like “Reverberation”, “Roller Coaster” and “Fire Engine” are crazily psychedelic, the very definition of a genre, Stacey Sutherland’s patient lead guitar forming and shaping melodies that break up and fade when you think you’ve got them, and Hall’s bizarre, babbling jug sound blistering each line as it arrives. Erickson’s vocal performance is pretty special, emerging from the discordance all around – harsh, urgent, desperate to be heard – and at times adding something unspeakable to the whole shebang, howling like the wolf. A voice up there with Beefheart and Mark E Smith for sheer idiosyncratic oomph.

I’m particularly keen on “Fire Engine”, surely the wildest song the decade produced, with all of the above and an extra layer of mania added by the wailing siren that runs all the way through it. What’s not to like?

A piercing bolt of neon red, explodes on fire inside your head…

A fiery flood engulfs your brain, and drowns your thoughts with scarlet rain

I like to imagine a frantically tripping Hall (people have pointed out the DMT / “the empty place” link), sat on the roadside as a fire engine flashes by – an acid legend is born…

To be honest, I hadn’t appreciated until quite recently that Erickson was not for the most part the main lyricist of the record. I gather he became more dominant as the second album was prepared, but at this point the leader of the band was Tommy Hall and it was his vision of a new future that was propelling their first record.

It’s actually a pretty discordant, harsh vision too – there are none of the fluffy images of later years:

Instilling values the sick define, that keeps the fabric that keeps you blind

And ties your hands and cloaks your mind, but on my stilts, I’m above the slime.

Roky’s eventual fate was tragically, eerily similar to some of the images Hall and St John brought to the songs. Within three years of the release of Psychedelic Sounds… and before the Sixties were out, he’d been arrested for a second time for possession and unwisely offered a plea of insanity to avoid a brutal prison sentence. His experiences in Texas state psychiatric wards were to prove in every sense a life sentence.

The seventies and eighties were pretty much lost, but we can be thankful at least that a shaky and fragile Roky Erickson slowly began to reappear thereafter. Amazingly, he started to tour again and I was very grateful to see him at Green Man in 2009.

The set he did there was in truth all a bit “Two Headed Dog”, with none of the crazy charm of the Elevators, but he did do an encore of this (for which I’m eternally grateful)

You’re Gonna Miss Me

Blam! The world breaks in.

“Zig Zag Wanderer” has just appeared on a car advert and the Champions League Final has just started – I’m going to go and pour myself a drink.

Time to trudge back to reality, whatever that might be. All the best, Roky…

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