Roky Erickson spent his rock ‘n roll career facing down dualities: reality and disorientation, lovers and monsters, the sacred and profane. “God is a thing that you like,” he told Vicein 2010. “You think good thoughts, and then you perceive that someone is going to tell you about God.” He quickly changed his tune. “Satan is the same way. Satan is God and Jesus Christ.”
He had certainly stared both in the face. In the 1960s, Erickson staked his name as the singer for the 13th Floor Elevators, a Texan psychedelic band that preached gnostic mysticism, entheogenic voyages and the Kingdom of God. In 1969, when he was wrongfully sent to Austin State Mental Hospital for possession of a single joint, tragedy became his lot. On his 1981 album The Evil One, he channeled his anguish into songs about vampires, demons and creatures of the night.
Today, we mourn an artist who never flinched from the light nor the dark. On Friday (May 31), Erickson passed away, as confirmed by his brother Mikel Erickson. He was 71.
Despite mental, chemical and legal issues that plagued his life and career, Erickson stayed creative, vital and relevant well into the 21st century, making great music with protegees like Mogwai, the Black Angels and Okkervil River. Just last month, he performed the 13th Floor Elevators’ 1967 classic Easter Everywhere in full in San Francisco.
“[His music] led to a new role of what rock could be,” his manager, Darren Hill, told Billboard. “His courage always led him on to new musical adventures, [which] he continued without compromise his entire life.”
Over a half-century career, Erickson made his mark as a psychedelic explorer and a hard rock provocateur -- and fans of both genres revere him as a quirky trailblazer. To celebrate the life and career of the Evil One himself, here are his 10 most essential tracks.
The 13th Floor Elevators, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (The 13th Floor Elevators, 1966)
The Elevators’ debut track is a quintessential jolt of garage punk, a snotty, four-chord juggernaut made wobbly and transcendental by electric jug player Tommy Hall. Like many of his ‘60s peers, Erickson was spurred on by rock pioneers Little Richard and Buddy Holly. On this classic, he plays his influences straight. It proves a far more crucial point than any drugs, drama or legal hot water: at his core, he was simply a great rock singer.
The 13th Floor Elevators, “Roller Coaster” (The 13th Floor Elevators, 1966)
In 1966, a spiritually-woke Beatles asked their audience to turn off their minds, relax and float downstream on "Tomorrow Never Knows." The Elevators begged to differ. “Roller Coaster,” a menacing jam riding on a Dick Dale-like riff, casts spiritual enlightenment as an invitation to a knife fight. The song speeds, slows and grinds at his own edges, mirroring an LSD tripper’s revelations.
The 13th Floor Elevators, “Slip Inside This House” (Easter Everywhere, 1967)
The band matured from their drug-pushing MO on Easter Everywhere, in which they dug deeper into molten, mystical topics. It leads off with the eight-minute “Slip Inside This House,” a majestic, vamping jam that invokes three-eyed men, birds of Maya and the Noachian Flood. You don’t need to be able to follow this enigmatic canticle to slip inside its vibe.
The 13th Floor Elevators, “(I’ve Got) Levitation” (Easter Everywhere, 1967)
This Easter Everywhere jam is a highly persuasive instruction to trip out. “The wave of higher bodies soon dazzling in my ears/Will center my vibrations with the music of the spheres,” Erickson sings like a proselytizing madman. The song was written by Hall, who instilled a band rule to drop acid any time a member picked up an instrument. As a mission statement for the Elevators, “(I’ve Got) Levitation” will do in a pinch.
Roky Erickson and the Aliens, “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” (The Evil One, 1981)
In 1972, the Elevators were dust, and Erickson had been released from Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane. His wife, Dana, remembered him crossing out the name “Jesus” in his religious poems and replacing it with “Satan.” Soon after, he began playing with a backing band called the Aliens, in which he set B-movie imagery to goofy, innocent hard rock. “Two Headed Dog” is a classic example, in which Erickson yowls about Kremlin misdoings and crucified children to a fist-pumping riff.
Roky Erickson and the Aliens, “I Think of Demons” (The Evil One, 1981)
From “I Walked With a Zombie” to “Night of the Vampire,” The Evil One brims over with propulsive bangers about harrowing visions. “I Think of Demons” is the scariest and hookiest of all. Every moment slams with a galvanic precision, with Erickson ramping up the stakes: “Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer/He’s been waiting on you.” He’s using Biblical imagery to illustrate his mental struggles, and the Morning Star sounds like he’s breathing down your neck.
Roky Erickson, “Bermuda” (Don’t Slander Me, 1986)
Erickson attempted to embrace the punk era with Don’t Slander Me, which set his goofiest lyrics to blazing Texas rock. “Bermuda,” an invitation to “the innocent Devil’s triangle,” is the album’s idiosyncratic peak. So many moments delight, from Erickson’s weird repetition (“Would you go there/If you could, now-now?”) to his novel approach to simile (“The devil is innocent like mirror”). Still, the tune hangs together so well, it’ll put the fear of Bermuda in your heart.
Roky Erickson, “Starry Eyes” (Don’t Slander Me, 1986)
For all the silliness of Don’t Slander Me, the album included a first for Erickson: top-shelf, no-BS love songs. “Starry Eyes” is his best in that lane, a heartfelt jangler worthy of the Byrds. It proved Erickson’s music stretched far beyond horror-show tomfoolery: like his hero Buddy Holly, he was a consummate melodic master, and he could write ballads with the best of them.
Roky Erickson, “I Have Always Been Here Before” (Gremlins Have Pictures, 1986)
Where The Evil One and Don’t Slander Me hang together as their own albums, Gremlins Have Pictures is a grab-bag of acid rockers, acoustic ballads and assorted oddities. “I Have Always Been Here Before” more than stands out from the bunch; it may be the most gorgeous, primeval ballad he ever wrote.
Roky Erickson & Okkervil River, “Be and Bring Me Home” (True Love Cast Out All Evil, 2010)
For Erickson’s final record, True Love Cast Out All Evil, he collaborated with Austin indie rockers Okkervil River, who brought his old demos into a modern context. It’s a moving effort, bringing to light some of his deep cuts about hope, recovery and his loving brood. “I don’t care what they think/I’ll love my family always,” he sings, plain as day. Suddenly, he wasn’t yowling about drug trips or fearsome monsters. After a lifetime of struggles, Erickson was finally home.