While the history of rock music is filled with tales of tragic figures, Roky Erickson belongs to a specific variety – the acid casualty. As the lead singer and principal songwriter of the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson was one of the original psychedelic rockers –the band even had “psychedelic rock” printed on their business cards. Formed in Austin, Texas in late 1965, the band intended their music to promote the experience of psychedelic drugs, something the members were deeply immersed in.
Along with Tommy Hall’s electric jug playing, Roky’s shrieking vocals put their acid-soaked sound over the top, his urgency in even the slower numbers threatening to take the music off on a trip at any moment. By the time they began playing gigs in the psychedelic epicentre of San Francisco, even peers such as the Grateful Dead were in awe of them.
However, between the constant LSD intake, the exhaustion of the band’s workload and any pre-existing mental conditions, Roky soon began to show troubling signs, sometimes going blank or speaking gibberish onstage. Attempting to avoid the draft in 1966, Erickson deliberately played up his erratic behaviour, and around this time he was admitted to a mental hospital in San Francisco until Tommy Hall helped him escape, something the pair would repeat in Texas in 1968. In 1969, after an arrest for marijuana possession, Roky’s lawyer advised him to plead insanity in order to avoid jail, resulting instead in an indefinite detention in the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, although at least one assessing psychologist believed he was faking it.
By the time he was released in 1972, having suffered three years of electroshock therapy and drug treatment, there was no doubt that Erickson’s troubles were very real. Where in the past he’d been wild, now he was dishevelled. His music of the 1970s and early ‘80s showed an obsession with science-fiction and horror movies, and at times Roky claimed to be an alien. The voice retained its strength but attempts at live performance were sporadic, and by the ‘90s it seemed like Roky might be lost for good. In 2007, having returned to health under the guardianship of his younger brother Sumner, Erickson made a welcome return as a cult figure. When Erickson died earlier this year at the age of 71, tributes from generations of artists showed the depth of his legacy.
* See Paul Drummond’s excellent and thorough biography Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound (Process Media, 2007).