Roky Erickson, founding member of The 13th Floor Elevators and a pioneer of the psychedelic rock genre, has died. He was 71.
“The world lost a huge light and an incredible soul,” Sumner Erickson, Roky’s brother, confirmed to Austin 360 on Friday. “It wasn’t the easiest life, but he’s free of all that now.”
Born Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson on July 15, 1947, Erickson grew up in Austin, Texas with a hunger for music. He began playing the piano at age five and took up the guitar five years later. He dropped out of Travis High School in 1965, only a month before graduation, after the school’s dress code required him to cut his trademark long hair.
Instead, Erickson went on to found The 13th Floor Elevators alongside bandmate Tommy Hall. Within a year, they released their debut album, 1966’s The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, which spawned their iconic hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
In 1968, Erickson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, prompting a visit to a Houston psychiatric hospital, where he involuntarily received electroconvulsive therapy. Given the band’s vocal support for psychedelics, they often drew heat from law enforcement agencies, and in 1969, Erickson was arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint.
To avoid a potential (and preposterous) 10-year incarceration, Erickson pleaded not guilty to the charges by reason of insanity. He was then sent to the Austin State Hospital, and later sent to Rusk State Hospital following multiple escapes. At Risk, he was subjected to torturous electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment until released in 1972.
Upon his release, Erickson would swap the psychedelics for the hard rock horror sounds of the Aliens, who would go on to record two albums that would later be released in the ’80s. During this time, he would also perform with the Reversible Cords, the Nervebreakers, and the Explosives. Needless to say, his work was quite prolific, and he amassed several singles, albums, and live efforts.
The ’80s were a reclusive time for Erickson. In 1982, he insisted a Martian inhabited his body, a claim he walked back on when his friend enlisted a Notary Public to notarize his statement. He also became obsessed with the mail, writing letters to solicitors and taping his neighbors’ letters to his walls, a hobby that came to an end in 1989 when he was arrested for mail theft. The charges were dropped.
Interest in Erickson began to increase, however, when Sire and Warner Bros. released their 1990 tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. The collection featured a bounty of covers by The Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., ZZ Top, Poi Dog Pondering, Julian Cope, Butthole Surfers, Primal Scream, and other essential artists of the era.
Five years later, Erickson returned to the fold with All That May Do My Rhyme, which was released through Butthole Surfers drummer King Cofffey’s own label, Trance Syndicate Records. The release was paired with the publication of Openers II, a collection of his lyrics that Henry Rollins issued through his own 2.13.61Publications with help from Erickson’s youngest brother, Sumner.
In 2001, Erickson established a legal trust to his brother, Sumner, who was granted legal custody of his older sibling and ensured he received affective medical aid. In addition to controlling his schizophrenia with the right medication, Erickson also saw his finances and contracts sorted out. It was the beginning of what would lead to a very fruitful era for Erickson.
One that truly began in 2005 with the release of Keven McAlester’s documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me. That same year, Erickson would return to the stage at Austin City Limits with The Explosives, where he performed his first full-length concert in 20 years. He followed the performance up with 11 more gigs in Austin that year and even obtained a driver’s license for his newly purchased Volvo.
From there, Erickson enjoyed an incredible resurgence, performing his first-ever gigs in New York City, a slot at Coachella, and a European tour that kicked off with a sold-out performance overseas at London’s Royal Festival Hall. He also began working with younger talent, from Mogwai to Okkervil River to fellow Austinites The Black Angels who would go on and serve as his backing band.
In 2010, Erickson released what is currently his last album, True Love Cast Out All Evil, which he recorded alongside Okkervil River. He would continue to tour, even making his way to Down Under for the first time, before eventually reuniting with The 13th Floor Elevators at 2015’s Levitation Festival. The lineup included Hall, John Ike Walton, and Ronnie Leatherman.
Erickson is survived by his brother Sumner … and an archive of material that feels truly infinite.
We are shocked and saddened to hear about the passing of Roky Erickson. Truly one of a kind. Thank you for the music and memories. Our deepest condolences to his family and friends, and everyone out there who was touched by his music. pic.twitter.com/eLQjU0hoo7
— LEVITATION (@LEVITATION) May 31, 2019
those first two 13th Floor Elevators albums really shook up my ideas around the way sound/voice/lyric can collide, but especially side two of Easter Everywhere. Postures is one of the best closing tracks any album has ever had, in my opinion.
— Hanif Abdurraqib (@NifMuhammad) May 31, 2019
Inarguably one of the progenitors of creating the psychedelic rock music genre, Roky Erickson’s spirit now flies free…
Texan. Father. Brother. Husband. Poet. Guitarist. Legend.
— Texas Music Office (@txmusicoffice) May 31, 2019