Roky Erickson’s life has been an American nightmare. That he somehow managed to dig deep within himself (with the help of therapy, his brother Sumner and stabilizing meds) to emerge, more or less intact, from a past in which he literally lost control of his life, endured imprisonment in a mental institute and electro-shock therapy, is a tale of torture turned to bittersweet triumph. The fact that he survived, is alive, and making stunningly good music today is astonishing and inspiring.
Erickson’s life is well-documented in books and film. A victim of small-town justice, Erickson was given the choice of jail time or a stint in an institute for the criminally insane. His crime: being different, being a rock ‘n’ roller and possessing marijuana.
Like most kids in the Sixties, I first encountered Roky’s music with the 13th Floor Elevators. Later, my punk band covered one of his solo classics “Two-headed Dog,” which has one of the coolest choruses in the history of rock:
Two-headed dog, two-headed dog
I’ve been working in the Kremlin
With a two-headed dog
If Erickson was insane, so are most artists that go out on a limb for their art. Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, Sylvia Plath, Syd Barret…the list is so long I could spend the entire day compiling it. Some of these geniuses probably shouldn’t have taken mind-altering drugs, but whose business is it for me or anyone to pass judgment? Without the drugs, there are those on my theoretical list who may have burned out early but whose greatest creations were the result of a “derangement of the senses,” a term Rimbaud used to describe his efforts to enter a psychedelic state. All I know, is the work lives on and ultimately that’s all that matters in the here and now.
Erickson is a visionary and visionaries see things we don’t. Words are generally inadequate to the task of communicating the specifics of these visions, so the visionary turns to art and finds a method to articulate the indescribable in metaphor, myth and symbol. In describing his contact with aliens and demons, Roky may have used the only analogies he knew in order to describe his Muse (the voices in his head). He grew up with comic books and horror movies and they became his vernacular. As the poet Jack Spicer said in attempting to define the Muse (and I’m paraphrasing): “it’s the Martian that comes down and re-arranges the furniture in your head.” In Roky’s case the furniture was comprised of EC Comics, Mario Bava movies, The Outer Limits and whatever rustled through the woods on moonless Texas nights. Add a steady diet of LSD to the mix and that extraterrestrial Muse is moving furniture on several floors at the same time. No question that acid re-arranged Erickson’s senses for awhile, but what was it that made him fall over the edge into complete helplessness? My opinion: it was the cure that did it - a shock to the system that only a machine in co-operation with electrically-charged particles can induce. Take a man whose consciousness is malleable, zap his brain full of fire, and not only do the demons get burned, the angels do to.
In 1975, Erickson signed a notarized document in order to protect himself from continued attacks from Earthlings.
Fortunately, Roky Erickson never lost his connection to the meaningful voices in his head. He continues to walk with the zombies, sing with the spirits and dance with a two-headed dog. It could be surmised that the aliens weren’t the problem. It was the human beings that fucked Roky up.
Although he still sings about them, these days Erickson doesn’t talk about the aliens. Sharing such thoughts will bring you a shitload of problems. It’s best to keep quiet about where the songs come from. Better to be happy that they keep on coming.
The following video is two hours of clips compiled from Austin cable television and footage shot for Swedish TV. It includes some mesmerizing footage of Roky and musician/producer Mike Alvarez performing by an underground creek beneath the Congress Street bridge on Halloween night.