Austin, Texas. 1966. Eighteen-year-old Roky Erickson drops out of high school to form the Spades, and writes what, to our mind, is one of the best rock 'n' roll songs of all time: "You're Gonna Miss Me." Erickson's signature howl, influenced by the likes of Little Richard and James Brown, seals the deal on the four-chord banger. (Janis Joplin's vocal style is said to have been greatly influenced by Roky.) He was soon recruited to form a new band called the 13th Floor Elevators, who were the first band to describe their music as psychedelic rock. And they practiced what they preached: The band literally dropped acid before every show. The band's lyricist Tommy Hall, who also played an amplified jug, insisted upon it.
Needless to say, life with the Elevators was a pretty wild ride. Imagine being on acid for two years. They quickly developed a following in Texas and in San Francisco, and released two groundbreaking albums, 1966's Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and 1967's Easter Everywhere. Due to their frequent use and very vocal advocacy of psychedelic drugs, they often had problems with authorities. This culminated with Erickson's arrest in 1969 for possession of a single joint. To avoid jail, he pleaded insanity, and was sent to a state psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and received electroconvulsive therapy, as well as a variety of medications including Thorazine. He remained in custody until 1972 and wrote many songs during his time there.
After his release from the Rusk State Hospital, Erickson found his fanbase had grown significantly after "You're Gonna Miss Me" was included on the seminal Nuggets compilation. He formed a new group with some Elevators fans who had a group called Cold Sun. They called it Bleib Alien, which became Roky Erickson & the Aliens, and released a number of records in the '70s and '80s, including the albums The Evil One and Don't Slander Me. The new material was harder rock than the Elevators, and the lyrics invoked demons and monsters with songs like "Two Headed Dog," "Night of the Vampire," and "I Walked With A Zombie."
Over the years, Erickson has had some health problems and periods of inactivity, but in the past decade he has been steadily playing and touring more than ever before. A documentary about him called You're Gonna Miss Me was released in 2005. His solo records have finally gotten the attention they deserve, thanks to being reissued on Light in the Attic. In 2010, he released his first album in 14 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil, a collaboration with Okkervil River.
Many people focus on the personal tragedies Erickson has endured. But it's not an exaggeration to say he's one of our greatest songwriters of the past 50 years, and that's how he should be honored and remembered. Those seeing his show this week can expect to hear songs from throughout his career. The timing of his El Club performance seems fortuitous: The 13th Floor Elevators' debut album turned 50 last week, and the Halloween weekend is a perfect time to enjoy the B-movie monsters that haunt Erickson's solo work.
Roky Erickson performs on Friday, Oct. 28 at El Club, 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door.