roky erickson
[Photo via Spotify]

“In the night, I am real,” Ghost‘s anti-pope, Papa Emeritus II, intones over a slick-if-funereal rock backing on the title track to the Dave Grohl-produced 2013 covers EP, If You Have Ghost. “The moon to the left of me is a part of my thoughts…” 

Sure, there’s a reference to the protagonist’s desire to have concise fangs, and much more gothic imagery decorates the song. Papa claimed the song is about loneliness to a moderator at the r/Ghostbc online forum. But ultimately, the song’s core message is that of the freedom allowed in the ectoplasmic realm: “You can say anything you want/And you can do anything you want…”

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Though some may claim the Swedish metal ghouls may own this track, they did not write it. Fans of its proper author, recently deceased psych/punk warlord Roky Erickson, may even fight you over how definitive Ghost’s version may be.

Prior to his death of undisclosed causes May 31, Roger Kynard Erickson, born in Texas July 15, 1947, was enjoying a 14-year-long creative renaissance. Having shaken a lifelong battle with paranoid schizophrenia, for which he’d been (mis)treated with electroshock therapy while sentenced to Rusk State Mental Hospital on a pot charge in the late ’60s/early ’70s, he’d released the brilliant comeback album True Love Cast Out All Evil with Austin indie band Okkervil River. He’d also toured with an assortment of bands ranging from late ’70s Austin punks the Explosives to millennial Austin psychedelicists the Black Angels. He’d even played a sublime one-night reunion with the ’60s garage-psych immortals who’d forged his legend, the 13th Floor Elevators, at the 2015 edition of the Black Angels’ Levitation festival. He’d settled gracefully into his role as an elder statesman of psychedelia.

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But the Elevators transcended psych. They were, at core, ’60s garage punk, with the fuzz stoked by heroic doses of windowpane acid. The ’70s punk scene fully acknowledged their inspirational debt to Erickson and the Elevators. New York’s Television covered “Fire Engine” off the Elevators’ first LP. The Clash twisted “You’re Gonna Miss Me”’s introductory quartet of down-stroked power chords into “Clash City Rockers.” The original “Miss Me” 45 from Erickson’s first teen combo, the Spades, was featured on the jukebox in SEX, the boutique of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his clothing designer wife, Vivienne Westwood. Australia’s Radio Birdman revved up the song for their debut LP, Radios Appear

After the Elevators’ dissolution and Erickson’s turn in the mental hospital, he was one of the few ’60s figures able to successfully transition to punk without a hiccup. He was both an influence (of the new sound and aesthetic) the way the New York Dolls‘ Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan were able to triumphantly launch the Heartbreakers within weeks of the former band’s breakup. Erickson accomplished this by wedding power rock to lyrics using horror movie and comic book tropes as a balm for the nightmares in his head. Fans of Ghost or even Misfits would do well to check out his work. Here’s five key Erickson works you should own.

1. 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds Of…

“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,” amplified moonshine jug player Tommy Hall’s hilariously academic liner notes state at one point, “and thus alter his point of view…” Hall was a philosophy major at the University Of Texas who’d discovered LSD and Bob Dylan at the same time and decided rock ‘n’ roll was a proper medium to spread his message. He’d poached guitarist Stacy Sutherland, bassist Benny Thurman and drummer John Ike Walton from one teen combo, the Lingsmen, and 18-year-old Erickson from the Spades, then indoctrinated them to his new vision through heroic doses of acid, encouraging them to “play the acid” during their live sets.

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But really, these guys wanted to, as Erickson put it, “jump up and down on top of our amps, screamin’ feedback like the Yardbirds!” Leading to the dichotomy at the band’s heart (best evidenced by Hall’s summary of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”), he saw it as an explanation of “the difference between persons using the old and the new reasoning.” Really? Sounds to everyone else like a classic screaming rocker about some mean, mistreatin’ woman of blues myth about to discover her evil ways have cost her her man.

As a single, “Miss Me” charted high enough to earn the Elevators a slot on American Bandstand on Halloween 1966. Watch host Dick Clark completely miss Hall’s intentions as he inquires who “the head man of the group” is.

2. 13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere

The second Elevators record was preceded by a rockin’ piece of lysergic R&B titled “Levitation” which suggested some members may have preferred the Rolling Stones to a higher consciousness. This gets verified by Walton and second bassist Ronnie Leatherman’s exit as LP sessions began (in Walton’s case because he didn’t want to “play the acid” any longer). Replaced by two Dannys—Thomas on drums, Galindo on bass—the new Elevators went on a longer, stranger trip via Hall’s mystical lyricism overshadowing Erickson’s earthier concerns. Still, the dynamic tension between the band’s granite-tough rock ‘n’ roll and Hall’s loftier ideals on tracks such as “Levitation” has made Easter Everywhere a stone-cold classic. As with the first record, Erickson’s ability to scream in pitch brings things to a redline peak. So profound was his talent, Janis Joplin reportedly asked him to teach her how to scream.

3. Roky Erickson And Bleib Alien – “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)”

Erickson got out of his pot possession sentence at Rusk State Mental hospital in 1972. After a brief attempt at reviving the 13th Floor Elevators with a new lineup featuring Walton, he began working on new songs with former Cold Sun leader Bill Miller, who ran an electric autoharp through a fuzztone to unleash sheets of pure screech. The songs wed granite-hard rock riffs with lyrics that used ’50s B-grade horror films and imagery straight out of bloody, precode EC Comics to make sense of the terrors Erickson experienced inside his head. 

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Doug Sahm, another ’60s Texas rock ‘n’ roll refugee from the garage era, caught wind of the noise Erickson and new band Bleib (a remix of “Bible”) Alien were unleashing and decided it needed to go on tape. The result of likely one of the most chaotic recording sessions in history, the A-side goes down in history as Austin’s first ’70s punk single, two years before Texas’ state capital had an actual punk scene. Sahm’s rhythm guitar churns through an overdriven phase shifter, Miller’s autoharp screams harsh melodicism and Erickson howls like a man truly possessed: “Two-headed dog! Two-headed dog! I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog!”

4. Roky Erickson And The Aliens – The Evil One

As the Mars Records 45 gathered acclaim alongside other early U.S. indie-punk singles such as Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory,” Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” and Pere Ubu’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” Erickson relocated to California’s Bay Area, soon followed by Miller and his fuzz autoharp. A new, more standard hard-rock band was built around them and Erickson’s horror rock songs, the Aliens. Featuring a lead guitarist with a tone like breaking glass, Duane Aslaksen, this lineup resembled a really aggressive Blue Oyster Cult. Eventually recording an LP with former Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook, The Evil One is a work of great power and grace, Erickson’s tuneful howl and Grand Guignol lyricism (alongside Miller’s screaming autoharp) elevating this well-beyond boring AOR. Best track: “Bloody Hammer.”

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5. Roky Erickson – Never Say Goodbye

During the spell Erickson was being minded by former Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan, his mother Evelyn handed over a sheath of his lyrics and tapes. A series of recordings emerged from his early ’70s stay in Rusk, recorded by Evelyn on a cheap battery-powered mono cassette deck. Composed of acoustic performances of the reportedly 100 songs Erickson had written while serving his sentence, Emperor Jones head Craig Stewart agreed these cassettes could make a powerful album. Tunes such as “Save Me”—fragile, delicate, vulnerable, stark—proved as strong in their naked simplicity as any of his rockers. Sometimes, you can display more power with a Martin D-28 than an overamplified Fender.