Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the lo-fi acoustic recordings of Roky Erickson, a rare glimpse at his stark and transcendent songwriting.
The 13th Floor Elevators viewed their music as a healing force. If you weren’t consuming vast quantities of LSD, as the pioneering Texas band frequently did, their hallucinatory rock’n’roll, and Roky Erickson’s masterful performances still conspired to take the listener to a higher plane. A kind of spirituality existed in their music—escapist but communal. “We were known as the first psychedelic band, the first one to be able to play music that would make you see things if you wanted to, and then lay back and envision things like Dylan does,” Erickson said in 1975. “We were responsible for loosening up a lot of people.” His remarks were offered in one of the most lucid interviews of his lifetime, the first after his release from the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane (since renamed Rusk State Hospital) in East Texas.
In 1969, near the end of the band’s brief but monumental run, Erickson was arrested atop Mount Bonnell in Austin for felony possession of a marijuana joint. To avoid 10 years in prison under Texas’ draconian drug laws, Erickson would later say he had feigned insanity. He was institutionalized for three years. “There’s injustice in justice,” Erickson said of his time in Rusk Hospital. “By the end of one day, you’ve already thought up ages of thinking. You’ve thought everything you could think in a million years.”
In his Elevators years, Erickson believed dropping acid was an art, a way to surround yourself with positivity. At Rusk, he was embedded in a world of the negative, given electroshock therapy and heavy sedatives. His fellow patients included convicted murderers; he started a band, the Missing Links, with some of them, and tried to overcome the daily nightmare of his situation. “Most of the time, Roky would have a yellow legal pad, and he’d be sitting in the hallway somewhere writing music, real weak and slumped down,” Rusk psychiatrist Bob Priest remembers in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.
Erickson’s wife Dana brought him cigarettes, a television, and a 12-string guitar. At Rusk, he later reckoned, he’d written close to a hundred new songs. “It seems like I’ve broken through that,” he said when asked whether it was possible to surpass the Elevators in their prime. “I have 85 songs written, and as I write, I find out that I’m getting better instead of just writing something.” His mother, Evelyn, a talented singer who’d given her oldest son his first guitar lessons, pressed play on the recorder. Sitting across from her, he played her quiet, hymnlike compositions and some of the starkest, purest love songs he’d ever written, songs that would for the most part go unheard for nearly 30 more years, until the 1999 release of a lesser-known collection, called Never Say Goodbye, resurrected from these tapes and other home recordings from 1971 to 1985.
For Erickson, whose diagnosis of schizophrenia and early affinity for psychedelics too often overshadows readings of his songs, the question of where his music comes from tends to shortchange what it is. Dwell instead on what his art can do—the Elevators offered escapism, at Rusk music offered survival, and in the mid-’70s through the mid-’80s, it would be a catharsis. But in periods when music was not at the center of Erickson’s daily living, and when his schizophrenia went untreated, particularly during the late-’80s and ’90s, it became painfully clear to close friends and family that his well-being was in trouble. Over the course of his lifetime, which ended May 31 at the age of 71, the songs he wrote summoned equal parts deliverance and salvation, something he enacted in his music, perhaps more so for his listeners than he did for himself.
After Rusk, Doug Sahm got Erickson into the studio to record a single, “Starry Eyes,” a perfect jangling love song where Roky’s “you-hoo-hoo-hoo” echoes Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue-ooh-ooh.” “The very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly,” Erickson once said of his songs. “The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.”
Sahm’s recording injected renewed vitality into Erickson’s career with his band the Aliens, with whom he recorded The Evil One in 1981, and two solo albums Don’t Slander Me, and Gremlins Have Pictures, both released in 1986. He called it his “horror rock” era—the period that yielded his great rockers of monsters and ghosts—“Night of the Vampires,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Creature with the Atom Brain.” Throughout the ’80s, he continued to write other new songs whose only recordings remained on the cassettes he made at home to remember them.
But by the early ’90s, when Casey Monahan—who later directed the Texas Music Office, a state-run agency to promote the industry—found his way into Roky’s orbit, Erickson was in poor health and bad financial straits. Through a series of raw deals typical of the recording industry for musicians of his generation, he was earning little to no money from his music. Monahan chanced to photograph Erickson in 1987 for The Austin-American Statesman in one of his last performances for some time. “My first encounter with him was oblique,” he emphasized to me recently. Sometime after, he became one of a series of people who helped resuscitate Erickson financially and spiritually, and became a key figure in the making of Never Say Goodbye.
By the mid-’90s, Roky was living on disability checks doled out in $20 increments by Evelyn and taking up residence in a partially subsidized apartment 10 miles south of Austin among a dozen radios and TVs tuned to various and conflicting stations and channels set to piercing volume. It was as if he’d recreated the cacophony of Rusk, minus the salve of music at its core. Covering the floor were more electronics and impulse purchases from home-shopping channels. The stillest point in the midst of this storm of noise was Roky.
One day, driving around town, Monahan asked Erickson if he might like to go back in the studio again. Roky was game. “Sure!” Erickson said genuinely, in what Monahan describes as a “high-pitched, nasally, not-yet-a-scream-yet-still-heard-three-aisles-over voice.” “Long as it’s fun!” Monahan gathered musicians Speedy Sparks, Paul Leary, Lou Ann Barton, and Charlie Sexton for the stellar 1995 album All That May Do My Rhyme, released by King Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label, which also put out another acoustic Erickson demo, the B-side “Please Judge.” “He was why I was even in this position in the first place,” Coffey, longtime drummer of the Butthole Surfers, wrote on Facebook, the night of Erickson’s death. “He invented Texas punk.”
In another effort to help restore Roky’s songwriting credits, Monahan gathered dozens of tapes and handwritten pages that had accumulated over Roky’s career, transcribing all of his lyrics for a collection eventually published, by Henry Rollins, as Openers II. Evelyn Erickson delivered some 40 songs, including her own recordings of her eldest son at Rusk.
For Monahan, these were a revelation, and they inspired the making of Never Say Goodbye. “I had a little cassette recorder with pitch control, and I hit play and I stopped, and played it again, and again, slowing it down, listening,” Monahan told me. He played the cassettes for Coffey’s longtime partner, now husband, Craig Stewart, who ran the label Emperor Jones. It was Stewart who heard an album in Roky’s rough cuts and lo-fi, deteriorating tapes. These artifacts were scattered over Stewart’s kitchen table for months, and with the help of Monahan, he pored over the music and assembled a collection of 14 songs recorded in the years 1971 to 1985—just Erickson and a guitar in a room, quiet and stirring and haunting and deceptively plain constructions.
What emerges as Never Say Goodbye feels like the record of a vast and deep wandering, a pilgrim embarking on a meandering search for connection. Erickson repeats and wrangles emotion out of the simplest lyrics (“I’ve never known this till now”) and turns out extraordinary phrases—a desire for “unforced peace,” what a concept. “The crescent silver moon is mine,” he sings on the title song, playing so tenderly you hear the guitar as rippling dark water. All his songs harbor gnomic, vivid truths, but “Be and Bring Me Home” is the album’s apex, with lyrics both enigmatic (“Her jewelry drops all its grime”) and weirdly astute (“I won’t jump on you though we are all rubber”) organized around a heartbreaking plea:
Suddenly my fireplace is friendly
Bringing me home
Suddenly I may control
Take little things meaning big so’s I’m not alone
Suddenly I’m not sick
Won’t you be and bring me home
“Someone is missing love,” Erickson sings, “and now that someone is going home.”
Absent on Never Say Goodbye is Erickson’s incandescent wolverine scream, the one he perfected on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the Elevators’ lone entry onto the pop charts. You could imagine a scream emerging on another version of say, his song “Birds’d Crashed,” in its driving and resolute affirmation: “We’re here, I’m here,” but it’s a gift to hear these in their original expression. The songs on Never Say Goodbye possess a faraway sound that feels deliberately metaphoric, as if they were issued from deep inside a tunnel, amplifying the loner quality of the seeker at the heart of it all. When tape hiss enters it feels like a welcome presence too, perhaps a validation of one of Erickson’s other indelible lyrics: “When you have ghosts, you have everything.”
On Scott Newton’s cover photograph of Erickson, he’s winsome and scruffy, wearing a corduroy jacket with a dog wandering at his heels and a guitar in hand. But the Roky Erickson who recorded most of these songs at Rusk was newly shorn and lost: “They cut my hair completely bald, just as mean as they could, and they put me in khakis,” he recalled after his release. “When I got there it was like, ‘Here comes this guy with long hair and a top hat.’ And they said, ‘Oh, boy. We got him. If I had been wearing a tuxedo it would have been just as bad.’” Listening, you envision a person not just piecing himself back together again, but shoring himself up against the world that would always tend to view his lyrics as outlandish. He knew he was an alien.
Never Say Goodbye’s impact was felt in tiny waves, reviewed by a handful of writers, including a much younger me, writing for a tiny zine in North Carolina, where a core of friends replayed “Pushing and Pulling” and “You’re an Unidentified Flying Object” and “Be and Bring Me Home” incessantly. When I moved to Austin not long after its release, it still felt to me like a city small enough where you might encounter your heroes. Idly, I paged through the phone book, looking up names. To my surprise, Roky Erickson was listed. Now I wish I’d torn out the page. I drove past the address, curious but too shy to call or to attempt to knock on the door.
The album itself is a survivor of strange and remarkable accidents. “The fact that he could make art like this—these beautiful, vulnerable love songs—when he’s inside a psychiatric hospital, to me that’s incredible,” Coffey told me recently. The fact the songs were recorded at all is a feat, too; that they were saved for years and salvaged and made known at all makes it even more impossible and rare. The fact that the youthfulness and the fragility of Roky’s voice is preserved here is astonishing. “Ten years later, when he had more management and was thinking about recording again, I don’t know if a record like this would have happened,” Coffey said. “At the time it was released, we thought he might never record again.”
For at least a decade, Erickson steadfastly refused to see a doctor or dentist. Eventually, in 2001, his youngest brother Sumner, managed to intervene and get him into medical care for the first time in at least a decade. Henry Rollins paid for Erickson’s new teeth. In the decade of Erickson’s final renaissance, he recorded an album with Okkervil River, including new versions of “Be and Bring Me Home,” “Think Of As One,” and “Birds’d Crash” from Never Say Goodbye.
“He was a pioneer,” Monahan told me, as if dictating an epitaph over the phone. “He stayed true to his music. He never compromised. He survived.” More importantly, he emphasized, Erickson was far more self-aware than people realized. “People projected their insanity onto him. A lot of people lived through Roky. They could feel a little less crazy because Roky was there.” And they could, one surmises, draw calmness from the visionary music of a person who wandered the edges of the world they didn’t dare explore themselves.
People close to Erickson do speak of how hard it was to help him when he was at his most troubled, but mainly of the innate goodheartedness he transmitted. “He occasionally seemed psychic, attuned to some dimension of the present that the rest of us weren’t seeing,” Will Sheff of Okkervil River wrote recently. Perhaps that is the condition of being truly psychedelic. “Special and magical music,” Erickson sings on “Be and Bring Me Home,” “these are feelings from one to another.”
In the ’90s, Monahan and other friends were part of a de-facto Roky Erickson supper club, taking him out to eat twice a week. One evening, when Monahan showed up, Erickson waved him away. “He was cheerful about it,” Monahan said. “He told us, ‘You know what, I’m not gonna go today, you guys go on without me. I’ll just be here relaxing for you!’ I mean, right? What a sweetheart, Roky. ‘I’ll be relaxing for you.’”
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