Roky Erickson’s legacy of weirdo trailblazing deserves some reassessment. Particularly his 1979 recorded The Evil One. It’s not the trailblazing, or weirdness that need reexamination. Far from the self-indulgent acid-trip, you may expect, it’s a record of brutal power and sharp-focused paranoid delusions, a rock cult classic.
Erickson lived a complicated life. His biography, and recent obituaries, chose to focus on his eccentricities. To many critics, Roky was a victim of chemical exploration much like Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnson, or Peter Green.
But, unlike those, Roky Erickson’s playing abilities suffered little following his infamous mental home check-in. The Evil One may shock first-time listeners. Yes, titles like I walked with a zombie and I think of demons may betray a frazzled mind. The songs, singing, and playing, however, are sharp and focused.
Roky Erickson’s calling-card was always his voice. On The Evil One it plays like an amalgamation of Steven Tyler howls and swamp-soaked voodoo. It’s a tone that would not be out of place on rock radio were it not for the reputation of this horror-rock artisan.
Commercial is a strange term to apply to a concept record about horror and gloomy delusions. But, it’s fitting. The fallout of the horror-punk genre focused itself on grizzly vocals and nasty guitars as part of its recipe.
Here, Erickson sings the details of these abominations with the stillness of a man whose bird-watching. The record is fun and campy, but never cheap. If anything, the over-abundance of guitar solos signals that producer Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival) was leaning towards a sound that approximated the qualities of the Southern-boogie to which he owed his career.
The legendary 13th Floor Elevators
Unlike Erickson’s solo endeavors, The 13th Floor Elevators were a more chaotic concoction musically. They were one of the premier psychedelic rock groups of the 1960s. Songs like You’re gonna miss me earned them national fame. Their reputation for mind-altering experimentation earned them acclaim in the rock world.
Rock Erickson, especially, was rewarded with cult-hero status. This was only amplified by bizarre stories of ill mental health, and a near retirement by 1969.
True or not, the gossip feels somewhat beside the point. By the time he had assembled a new backing band, the Aliens, Erickson’s singing and songwriting had improved monumentally. He balanced his newly unearthed abilities by writing solely about horror like phantasms. These were not inspired by personal visions as some stories suggest. Rather, the singer was exploring his admiration for horror movies.
Roky Erickson’s later career
The Evil One was recorded in 1979, but only released officially by 1981. Reviews were strong, and its reputation increased through the years. But, sales were not on par with the critical appreciation.
Erickson was not deterred, turning in a couple of similar-minded, strong efforts. Don’t slander me came out in 1986. It found Erickson easing into his role of Southern-rock maestro, by ways of garage-rock freakouts and Byrds-inspired tunes.
Erickson’s more off-beat works were highlighted on Gremlins have pictures, another 1986 release. Candid, humorous, and hallucinatory, the record functions as a collection of the singer’s largely unpublished 1970’s work.
The former 13th Floor Elevators singer then took some time out. Falling out and back in love with music, Erickson was receiving by the late 1990’s the praise he had been denied earlier into his career. Now a veteran musician, Erickson’s live performances were often riveting, and his trouble history powered numerous rock-columns.
Sadly, Roky Erickson passed away on May 31 2019. He lives a body of work well-worth the effort of exploration. Smart, funny, and kooky, Erickson’s songs stand up to as close scrutiny as any of his most famous contemporaries.
Two headed dog and other assorted classics
An album like this by any name would sound as sweet! Songs like Two-headed dogs, I walked with a vampire, or Night of the vampires are fleshed out and pulsating creatures.
There’s a level of ambition and proficiency in the playing here that cannot be denied. Why then is this not the classic-rock radio staple it should be? While he could have shared radio real estate with Van Halen and Boston, Erickson’s reputation may have preceded him.
For example, there’s an ongoing story of how the musician once claimed that his body had been taken over by a martian. Others suggest that these claims were made in a bid to avoid U.S. taxation laws.
Other stories, like one related by Nick Kent who interviewed Erickson, tell of an erratic character known to give false testimony to all questions. Still, this may have been the singer’s sense of humor acting out.
With that being said, interviews, whether from the 1970s, or 2000s, seem to showcase a sensitive soul, possessing relatively balanced opinions on the world. His persistent musical output also suggests that Erickson wasn’t without purpose or ambition.
He just liked writing about zombies, vampires, mutant dogs, ghosts and fire demons. And, he sang all of those songs straight, in a high-Southern twang, over a motorized, well-constructed soundscape. Few eccentric records are as good. That’s why The Evil One is a cult classic.
Quick FAQ about Roky Erikson
What happened Roky Erickson?
Roky Erickson fronted the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators. Upon the group’s demise it is often said that Erickson suffered from mental issues as well as trouble with the law. This did not stop him from making music for long. In fact, some of his best work was recorded during the 1970s and 1980s. The Evil One is among his best works.
Is Roky Erickson still alive?
Sadly, Roky Erickson passed away on May 31st, 2019. He was 71 years old.
Where should a new listener begin to discover Roky Erickson’s music?
While Roky Erickson has a large and varied body of work, Alt77 firmly recommends the compilations presenting the psych-rock group the 13th Floor Elevators, as well as Erickson’s solo album The Evil One.