Remembering Roky Erickson

Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and more pay homage to psychedelic rock visionary on new tribute album.

San Francisco’s rich psychedelic tradition is familiar to plenty of casual music fans. Flip through an archival Rolling Stone or tune into any classic rock radio station, and you’re sure to come across Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. In the early 2010s, as Pitchfork and Bandcamp raised The Fresh and Onlys, Oh Sees, and Ty Segall to national prominence, the Bay Area once again became a mecca for lovers of fuzzy, blissed-out, guitar-driven garage bands.

But while Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Jerry Garcia regularly anchored the cover of Jann Wenner’s trailblazing magazine in its early years — and although the indie blogosphere has spilled plenty of digital ink in praise of John Dwyer and his compatriots — there is another, comparatively overlooked figure who many of the most vaunted practitioners of psych rock have long kept in heavy rotation, even if he never made it in front of Annie Leibovitz’s lens for an official Rolling Stone shoot.

His name was Roky Erickson.

A new tribute album, May the Circle Remain Unbroken, which drops July 17, Record Store Day, touts an impressive roster of artists who claim Erickson as an influence. The collection, which features Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, and Neko Case, among others, pays homage to the late singer, songwriter, and guitarist who passed away in 2019 — and further cements his place in the pantheon of pioneering psychedelic musicians.

Local Legacy

Erickson was a Texan, born and raised. But over the course of his lifetime, he earned an honorary San Francisco citizenship. At key points along his musical journey — near the beginning, at his creative peak, and near the end of his time on Earth — he was here, each time drawing inspiration from the city’s musical legacy while influencing and inspiring other music makers.

In 1966, with its overt and outspoken celebration of LSD, his band, The 13th Floor Elevators, was relentlessly dogged by law enforcement; the Elevators’ run of dates at San Francisco’s iconic Avalon Ballroom in August of that year has been described as a respite, “their little bit of heaven.”

In 1979, after an extended creative dry spell, Erickson rallied in the late ’70s, writing a fistful of new songs about monsters, demons, and aliens. He returned to San Francisco for live performances and — working with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Stu Cook — Erickson recorded The Evil One. The collection, which some consider the best work of his career, was released on San Francisco’s 415 Records in 1981.

As his health problems threatened to overtake him in 2019, Erickson returned to the Bay Area one last time for a special live performance of a classic Elevators album, 1967’s Easter Everywhere. It was this show, held at The Chapel, which inspired an audience member, Bill Bentley, to put together an all-star album in tribute to Erickson’s life and music. Erickson would leave his body behind less than a month after that concert.

Broader Influence

Erickon’s influence extends beyond the confines of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene. In the years before launching ZZ Top, guitarist Billy F Gibbons led a Texas band called The Moving Sidewalks. That group’s signature tune was “99th Floor.” It’s both a garage rock classic and a clear homage to Erickson and the Elevators. “Roky stands as a pioneer who discovered and brought new sonic vistas,” Gibbons says, insisting that there’s a “continued existential benefit from both his visibility and, in a sense, his invisibility.” Gibbons covers Erickson’s “(I’ve Got) Levitation” on the new album.

Neko Case’s music encompasses multiple genres — country, punk and power pop, to name a few — but at her creative core she’s a powerful and articulate singer-songwriter. And Erickson’s music moves her. “I remember being very teary and very floored the first time I ever heard ‘Be and Bring Me Home,’” she says. “I found it so touching. And I love the stream-of-consciousness lyrics; they don’t necessarily all make sense to you at the time, but you get the feeling from them anyway. There’s some sort of superpower.” Case’s reading of the song — written by Erickson during one of his stays in Texas’ Rusk Mental Hospital — is a highlight of the new tribute record.

The musical connection between Erickson’s music and that of Austin psychedelic rock band The Black Angels was readily apparent even before the group toured with Erickson in 2014. Bassist Alex Maas fondly recalls Erickson as “this sweet, gentle, bear that was kind of floating in the cosmos and the ether.” For their contribution to May the Circle Remain Unbroken, The Black Angels cover “Don’t Fall Down.”

“That song just spoke to me, personally, in my life,” says Maas. “I feel so connected to the relationship aspect of it: ‘Don’t fall off the path.’ So when I started singing, I didn’t even try any other songs [for the album]. There’s a global message there that can be applied to everything, in terms of being accountable and dependable.”

Erickson first established his place in rock history in 1966 when his second band, Austin-based The 13th Floor Elevators, released its debut, Psychedelic Sounds. Featuring the single “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the LP is widely acknowledged as one of music’s first-ever psychedelic rock albums. Released on the tiny International Artists label, the LP would reverberate throughout the music scene, exerting a cult-like influence rather than a mainstream one. In addition to the long shadow he casts in the psych rock world, Erickson often is identified as a trailblazer in the psychobilly genre.

‘Better Than The Beatles’

The 13th Floor Elevators were ahead of their time. The band was making whacked-out, poetic music flavored with ingredients nobody had combined before. The songs were about (or at least heavily influenced by) LSD. Tommy Hall blew into an amplified jug. And out in front of the group, guitarist Erickson howled his lead vocals on aggressive rockers like “Roller Coaster” and “Fire Engine.”

Bill Miller would eventually play amplified autoharp in Erickson’s late ’70s band, The Aliens, but by that time he had been a fan for years. He says Erickson was always unpredictable. “One thing about working with Roky: any day might be the last day,” he says. “Back in the days of The Elevators, the big draw was, ‘You better go see him, because this is definitely it. This’ll probably be the last time.’” He laughs and adds, “They were on their last legs at their very first gig! So, that’s a pretty compelling draw, you know? ‘You don’t want to miss this no matter what.’”

Bentley, the man behind the forthcoming tribute album, grew up in Houston; he was a fan right from the start. “When The Elevators first started playing in Houston, it was at a club called La Maison in January of ’66,” he says. “I became a maniacal, completely over-the-top fan of The 13th Floor Elevators.” Noting that he has seen nearly every rock band of note, Bentley remains convinced the Elevators “were the best band I ever saw live. Better than the Beatles, better than the Stones.”

Bentley says Erickson’s band “had this other-worldly power, because they were writing about all kinds of spiritual, metaphysical, psychological things.” Much of the inspiration for the music, he notes, came from a notable source: “It was LSD!”

The Elevators were volatile; drug busts and their wild reputation made regular touring a challenge. By the time the band released its third album, 1969’s Bull of the Woods, the group already had disintegrated. That same year, Erickson was arrested for possession of one joint; to avoid Texas’ extreme punishment for such an offense, he pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. Admitted to a series of state-run mental hospitals, he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and pumped full of Thorazine. Already fragile, Erickson — who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — would never fully recover.

Concerned friends and associates did what they could to help Erickson continue to make music; he recorded tracks with fellow inmates, including a convicted multiple murderer. Judged sane in 1972, Erickson was released from the mental hospital, though he would return again many times. Save for a pair of 1977 singles, Erickson didn’t release any music during ’70s. But as that decade headed to a close, he traveled to California with The Aliens.

Out of this World

While in the Bay Area, The Aliens would make what would become The Evil One. Producing those sessions was Cook, best known not as a behind-the-console figure but instead as the bassist of one of America’s best-loved bands, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Craig Luckin had been Erickson’s manager for some time; he knew Cook on a casual basis, and approached him about working with his mercurial client. A longtime fan, Cook was eager to take on the project. But Erickson was going through one of his more challenging times, Cook says. “He could sing and write and keep it together to do a live show, but he was too agitated to spend a lot of time in the recording environment. Sometimes he’d be incredibly coherent and focused and enthusiastic; other times, he’d be totally distracted or worried.”

Recording commenced in San Anselmo and Oakland, where Erickson and his team tracked all of the album’s instrumental parts. He then left California, returning to his native Texas under circumstances that — like much of his life — remain shrouded in a haze of confusion and vagueness. He was re-institutionalized, but there was still the matter of completing the vocals on the album. “I had to get Roky out of Rusk State Mental Hospital in Texas to do the lead vocals on some tracks,” Cook says. Luckin and Cook would check out Erickson on a daily basis.

Erickson’s songs of that period displayed a fascination with horror movies, the occult, and other esoterica. The song titles help tell the story: “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Creature With the Atom Brain,” “Night of the Vampire,” “I Think of Demons” and “If You Have Ghosts” are representative samples. Cook eventually would assemble 15 songs from the sessions.

When the record was finished, Luckin turned to the task of finding a way to release it. Ten songs were released in the UK as Roky Erickson and the Aliens (though it’s sometimes considered an untitled album). The terms of Luckin’s agreement with CBS stipulated that Erickson’s manager retained the rights to make a separate deal for releasing the recordings in the United States.

But Luckin “couldn’t find any commercial American label that wanted to put this guy out,” says Chris Knab, co-founder of San Francisco-based independent label 415 Records. Selecting songs from the UK release and adding five other tracks from the sessions, 415 released the music as The Evil One in 1980.

Erickson’s Wild Years

In the late ’70s, Barry Simons ran a popular North Beach nightclub, the Back Dor. And Simons — who considers The Evil One one of the greatest records of all time — says that he booked Erickson every chance he got. “I was basically cherry picking all the best bands from the Mabuhay Gardens and other places,” he says. “Roky was one of the really important ones. And I could get any of the best bands in town to support Roky, because they all wanted to be on the bill.”

Erickson would go on to make some additional recordings in the coming years; flashes of his brilliance showed up in the lyrics and the playing. But his mental health issues persisted, as did his run-ins with the law. He was arrested on mail theft charges.

“Roky did take his neighbor’s mail,” says Bentley, who had become friends with Erickson in the mid 1970s. “But he taped it to his wall unopened. He did not open their mail! He just liked getting mail. When he’d get cards — ‘Join this,’ ‘Join that’ — he would send them all in. I think it was his security blanket.”

By 1990 Bentley was a well-known and influential music industry figure; he organized an all-star tribute to Erickson, the album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. That set featured 19 contemporary artists — ZZ Top, Butthole Surfers, R.E.M., Julian Cope, former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and others — interpreting music from Erickson’s solo and Elevators days. Proceeds went toward helping defray Erickson’s legal costs.

Things got somewhat better for Erickson in the ’90s and beyond. His youngest brother Sumner was named as Erickson’s legal guardian; he helped get the musician’s affairs in order. In 2005, Erickson was the subject of a well-received documentary, Keven McAlester’s You’re Gonna Miss Me. That same year, Bentley was executive producer of a career-spanning compilation release, I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology. Erickson rallied and got back to playing live; a 2007 performance at the Ponderosa Stomp Festival in New Orleans was a high point. Erickson recorded a new album, 2010’s True Love Cast Out All Evil, with Okkervil River. And he toured to wide acclaim with acolytes The Black Angels in 2014.

Worship & Tribute

Bentley has plenty of experience putting together heartfelt tribute albums. He was the executive producer for a set honoring San Francisco’s own Skip Spence — 1999’s More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, and he oversaw similar projects in tribute to Doug Sahm, O.V. Wright, and others. As with those projects, the subjects of tributes may not have been household names, but they counted many revered artists among their most ardent fans.

And that meant that when Bentley put out the call for what would become May the Circle Remain Unbroken, he easily and quickly found willing contributors. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Ty Segall, Mark Lanegan and Margo Price celebrate Erickson’s music on the tribute album with their versions of songs from his catalog. Along with The Black Angels, fellow Texans paying tribute to Erickson on the new album include Charlie Sexton (with The Kills’ Alison Mosshart) and Gary Clark Jr. And the greater Bay Area is represented by recordings from Chelsea Wolfe and Brogan Bentley.

“There’s something going on with Roky’s legacy,” Bentley believes. “I was shown that by talking to young bands. In some ways, there’s more interest than the first [tribute album].” And those who weren’t able to participate sent their regrets. “There was interest from Metallica,” Bentley says. But for scheduling reasons, they weren’t able to take part. The 12 songs on the album — and the variety of participants — nonetheless demonstrate the breadth of Erickson’s influence.

Erickson’s physical health had been a long time concern. Bentley recalls seeing him onstage at The Chapel in 2019. “He was sitting down, kind of remembering most of the lyrics, but he was having trouble breathing between songs,” says Bentley. “This overwhelming spirit came over me, and it told me, ‘Roky’s leaving.’”

Bentley says that toward the end of that performance, when Erickson played “Postures (Leave Your Body Behind),” that feeling hit him even more forcefully. “I left that show that night with my oldest boy, and I said, ‘We have to do another tribute record for Roky, because I don’t think he’s going to be here much longer.”

One month later, Erickson was gone. Bentley kept working on the project — along with Matt Sullivan’s Light in the Attic Records — for a single-disc release on Record Store Day 2021. That label had reissued The Evil One in 2013. Bentley reflects on the legacy of Roky Erickson. “You know, for somebody who really did almost lose it all, he never quit trying,” he says. “I look at that life, and I think, ‘Man, it would’ve been so easy for him to just shut it all down and quit,’ But he never did, man. He always came back.”

Bill Kopp is a contributing writer for SF Weekly. Twitter @the_musoscribe

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