Monday 17 June 2019

Obituary: Roky Erickson

Psychedelic rocker whose career was derailed by struggle with mental illness

Icon: Roky Erickson
Icon: Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson, the Texan psychedelic rocker who has died aged 71, is best remembered for his driving 1960s classic You're Gonna Miss Me and as the singer in the ground-breaking acid rock outfit, the 13th Floor Elevators.

When the British music journalist Tom Hibbert visited Erickson in the mid-1990s in the singer's hometown of Austin, Texas, he encountered a shack-dwelling, somnolent individual living on welfare with "top front teeth worn down to fangs of minimalism, hair matted and trousers that hardly fit at all" - who was nevertheless still capable of "conjuring beguiling music from the clutter of his mind".

Erickson was a performer whose exposure to drugs in the 1960s expanded the horizons of rock but came at a serious cost to his mental health, exacerbated by brutal treatment by the authorities.

Arrested for possession of marijuana not long after the release of the Elevators' now-lauded second LP, Easter Everywhere, Erickson was diagnosed as schizophrenic and sent to the Austin State Asylum. He went on the run, and was committed to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where electric-shock therapy and hefty doses of chlorpromazine shattered his already fragile mind.

Released into the care of family members, Erickson blossomed again with a new band and a series of fractured classics including Two Headed Dog and I Walked With A Zombie. Although Erickson lived in reduced circumstances and spent more time in a variety of institutions, a cult following steadily grew on both sides of the Atlantic over the ensuing decades.

New York group Television covered the Elevators' track Fire Engine, the title of which was appropriated by Edinburgh's premier post-punk outfit, the Fire Engines, while Primal Scream's acid-house version of Slip Inside This House became a key component of their era-defining, Mercury Prize-winning album Screamadelica. This had resulted from the group's participation in a tribute compilation in which other Erickson songs were covered by REM, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Julian Cope and ZZ Top.

The inclusion of You're Gonna Miss Me in the 2000 cinema version of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity coincided with a career resuscitation chronicled in a 2005 documentary. The film shows how Erickson's brother, Sumner, rescued the singer-songwriter from the religious zealotry of their mother, who believed that the answer to his ills lay in prayer. Sumner - who became a tuba player with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - helped wean Erickson off anti-psychotic medication and set his life on a more stable path.

In 2007, the Pulp singer and broadcaster Jarvis Cocker included the now-transformed Erickson in the line-up for the Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank, where one critic described him as being "in fine fettle".

Roger Kynard Erickson was born on July 15, 1947 in Dallas, the oldest of five brothers, to Roger Erickson, an architect, and Evelyn, an amateur singer who encouraged the young Roky - which came from a contraction of his first names - in his early musical development. Erickson dropped out of high school just before graduation to join the local beat group the Spades, for whom he wrote and performed an early version of the raucous You're Gonna Miss Me.

Erickson was soon spotted by the University Of Texas student and LSD proselytiser, Tommy Hall, who recruited him to the 13th Floor Elevators as frontman and rhythm guitarist. The group's sound swiftly graduated from the garage R'n'B of their 1966 debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, to full-blown acid-rock with the release the following year of Easter Everywhere.

He collaborated with the Scottish band Mogwai on their Batcat EP, released in 2008, the same year that he was presented with a lifetime achievement gong at the Austin Music Awards by his friend, the ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons.

Roky Erickson married, first, Dana Gaines; they divorced, and he married Holly Patton. That marriage also ended in divorce, and he was later reunited with Dana (by then Dana Morris), who survives him along with three children.

Roky Erickson died on May 31, 2019.

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