Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Get PSYCHED on Roky Erickson: Then, Now, and Forever

Roky Erickson and his band The 13th Floor Elevators were truly one of the founders of psychedelic rock as we know it. Before they came on the scene and actually coined the term "psychedelic rock", there were only a handful of psych-surf and pre british invasion bands, avant garde early psych electronic composers, and the occasional free jazz session musician who weren't even grouped as psychedelic until much later. To give you an idea of how early this all occurred, Thirteen Floor Elevators considered themselves "Psychedelic Rock" before The Beatles released Revolver, before Pink Floyd did a single light show, before the Byrds released "Eight Miles High", before "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys was cut, before Blonde on Blonde by Dylan hit the stands, before Shadows of Knight got trippy with the release of Back Door Men, before Blues Magoos's "Psychedelic Lollipop" stole airwaves, before Electric Prunes had "Too Much To Dream" , and before the 3-Day Trips festival (that marked the start of the SF psych movement) even started. The boys were truly on to something. Unfortunately, after a stoned run-in with the police, Erickson landed himself in some trouble. He thought it would be a good idea to plead insanity to a marijuana possession charge and bought himself a ticket to hell - in the form of several years of hospitalization which included damaging experimental therapy for what they then thought was schizophrenia.

Above is one of my prized possessions. It's an original stereo copy of The Elevators's second album Easter Everywhere on the International Artists label. Although mono copies yield a higher return on the secondary market, the fact that experimental stereo tracking rock albums was young in the mid sixties makes this record remarkably interesting. One amazing example can be found with the lead guitar on the final verse of "Slip Inside This House". With the proper equipment and settings, the aforementioned riff sounds three-dimensional and huge.

"You're Gonna Miss Me" - 13th Floor Elevators [Live 1966]

A brief timeline of Roky's psychedelic life so far*

[07.15.47] Roger "Roky" Kynard Erickson is born in Austin Texas
[05.1964] quits high school and joins garage rock band The Spades
[1965] starts a band quickly named 13th Floor Elevators (drummer James Walton brainstormed idea "Elevators" and jug player/"manager" Tommy Hall's wife Clementine came up with the rest.
[01.66] "Psychedelic Rock" is written on members of the Elevators's business cards. This is the first known use of the term.
[02.10.66] The Austin Statesman local Texas newspaper reviews an Elevators gig: Unique Elevators shine as "Psychedelic Rock" This is the first documented public mention of the term "Psychedelic Rock" 11/30/66 Psychedelic Sounds of 13th Floor Elevators is released
[02.22.69] Roky is arrested for possession of a "marijuana cigarette" this ends the Elevators.
[03.12.69] Roky is court ordered to Austin State Hospital for examination
[03.13.69] Dr. Erwin Toboada diagnosis Roky: "Schizophrenia acute, undifferentiated"
[05.23.69] Roky outwits personnel at Austin State Hospital and escapes.
[07.15.69] Roky is arrested in Austin and returned to Austin State Hospital
[07.29.69] Austin State Hospital discharges and transfers Roky to Rusk State Hospital.
[10.08.69] Roky is ruled "insane" by the 147th Judicial District, court of Travis County Texas.
[11.28.69] Austin District Court rules Roky sane and he is released from Rusk State hospital. At some point shortly thereafter Roky is readmitted to the same hospital where he undergoes years of electroconvulsive therapy and treatment with Thorazine - a drug that causes a "chemical lobotomy" and has turned cases of permanent brain damage.
[07.07.72] J. Grady Baskin M.D. of Rusk State Hospital states: "Recommended dismissal from hospital" but Dr. J.A. Hunter states: "Patient was thought to be floridly psychotic at the time of his admission here - psychosis on a toxic basis, due to multiple drug abuse. After admission he had a number of frequent visitors, including his mother , his attorney, and his girlfriend, along with members of his musical group. Following these visits his psychosis became much worse and we began to suspect his visitors were smuggling drugs to him... Erickson is legally sane , but I feel he still requires hospitalization for the welfare and protection of himself and others".
[03.1975] Roky claims he is a notarized alien from Mars and that his songs are ESP transmissions from his home planet. He starts a band called "Bleib Alien"
[1979] "Bleib Alein" is renamed "Roky Erickson and the Aliens"

People who were close with Roky claim that he was never the same after his hospitalizations, and although many blamed his drug abuse on his damaged mental condition, there is speculation surrounding what really happened to the genius behind the music. He has continued to make was he calls "Horror Rock", another genre that still exists today that he helped popularize.

Above is a hand silk screened poster for the Roky events. This is an edition of 110.

I was lucky enough to snag tickets for Roky's show at Southpaw in Park Slope Brooklyn on New Years Day (01.01.10) and his show the next night (01.02.10) in Hoboken at Maxwell's...

The night in Brooklyn was ridiculous. It was three great friends of mine and me along with a small crew of friends from New York who met up earlier and rolled up in time to catch all three bands. I can't make up my mind about the opening band, The Back C.C.'s. They were really tight surfy garage fuzz with lo-fi fuzz vocals. I thought they were talented, but boring. I heard reviews throughout the night from friends such as "sounded like one big song" and "would have been good fifty years ago but long forgotten now". They were decent, but nothing else really. The Fleshtones were a different story. I've never been a huge fan of theirs, but I thoroughly appreciate their unique sound and their ability to maintain their originality over the past thirty-three years. Any band of animated white men who claim to be garage rock yet get filed with the likes of James Brown and other soul/freakbeat acts is ok in my book. (Ironic that the band named themselves after the long discontinued Crayola Crayon color, huh?!) I mean it was weird to see dudes that are old enough to be childhood friends of my father 's parading around in loud, tight paisley silk shirts, but that was quickly forgotten once their antics kicked in. That along with my hysterical visions of these men taking their sweethearts to their Pocono Mountain retreats to show off some killer ski stunts that the 90's weren't ready for came to an end once their performance really kicked in. Let's just say that their band practices must be a spectacle and that this was the first human guitar solo pyramid I've seen carried out successfully by men over fifty...ok, I'll admit it was the first one I've ever seen. But it was unreal.

Roky playing 01.01.10 at Southpaw in Park Slope Brooklyn. Photo by Fran Mark.

After we all had a few minutes to recover from the Fleshtones, Roky took the stage slowly and was assisted by band members once he approached his mic. His over-sized work shirt, gnarly hair and beard spoke loudly yet he had not even said a word. Actually he would go on to not say a single word the entire set. People cheered and called out their favorite hits and he just turned his back nervously and nodded to his band. Once the drummer clicked off, Roky let out howling authentic vocals and stared out into the crowd. It didn't help that our friend Peter, the second tallest guy in the entire bar (which was packed with a sold out crowd) was standing next to me up front near stage right. We laughed at the fact that Roky appeared to make several rounds of eye contact with us, making the experience that much creepier.

Roky played out of a smaller amp that although seemingly achieved the best tone of all three string players, was turned down too low as a handicap to his slightly sloppy strumming. The lead guitarist was sensational, not only nailing the roots of all the songs, but even improving on the solos and really getting into the bends and hammer-ons of the more intense breakdowns. The lead guitarist's tone wasn't as good as Roky's, but I'm not complaining. The guy ripped. The drummer kept the beat and did his job but did little to impress me, and the bassist, oh the bassist. This guy was a clown. I felt bad for him at one point but then he was quickly demoted back into the "why did THAT GUY get to play with Roky" category. The dumb things he said on the mic embarrassed me for him and really took away from the show. Plus he looked like a misplaced late nineties Andy Dick impersonator and that really does nothing for me. His playing was sub-par and he didn't seem to remember a lot of the timing and counts on the back up vocals he attempted. In all fairness, I'd say Roky was stoked with the lead guitarist and drummer and just oblivious to the tool clowning the bass.

The guys played through over a dozen songs, including a version of 13th Floor Elevators "You're Gonna Miss Me" with Fleshtones Front man Peter Zaremba on harmonica. When I first saw him hop back on stage I was like... "oh man... not again..." but he impressed all with his amazing rendition on harmonica. The show was surreal to say the least and Roky belted out each line of lyrics like he really meant it.

The crowd cheered for an encore, but Southpaw closed the curtains and threw on their house system (which seemed to be blaring amazing garage and soul for a lot of the night).

The next night I rolled up to Maxwell's with my friend Matt and our respective girlfriends. The place packed in pretty tightly for the opening act "Love City" and then really tightly once "Love City" left the stage. They were decent, but again I'm gonna be real about this and just put it out there that beyond what seems to be some sort of quiet rock band/venue nepotism lies many-a-band dying to get on a bill with Roky. Just food for thought. Regardless, the crowd squeezed and released as if it were breathing huge, anxious breaths of air. Luckily my lady and I got a spot near some old Elevator fans and had the luxury of hearing about their personal wishes for the show they would see in the relatively short future on the stage just right in front of their faces.

The crowd erupted and parted for Roky (when he entered through the venue entrance and trudged through to the stage). Hipster dorks and overzealous hippies alike praised his entrance. The hippies knew his deal and gave him space. The hipsters flashed cameras in his face and reached out to touch him and annoy him, unbeknownst to and or disrespectful of his condition. It set me off right away but once he took the stage and started shredding with the guys I was happy again.

The lead guitarist rocked harder than he did in Brooklyn, the drummer hit a little harder than he did in Brooklyn, and the bassist annoyed me a little harder than he did in Brooklyn. Luckily the crowd noticed and heckled the bassist until he basically "zipped it". It was the fact that the bassist was talking about Roky the way my mom talks about my hearing-impaired grandfather - she acts like he's not there. It was insulting enough to the crowd that someone spoke up. I was thankful because if I had to hear him introduce Roky one more time, I was going to say something. It just got old and annoying. Not to mention he was worse on his back ups and bass lines, and made more stupid faces and comical contributions to an event that was supposed to be DEVOID OF HUMOR. Well, at least for the most part.

Anyway, Roky tore it up again, but I noticed he was really, really nervous for this show. He wasn't committing to the final notes or chords on each song and would turn and face the drummer to hide his fear and insecurity during the end of each song. in his defense, the crowd was loud and demanding, the space was small, it was late and freezing outside, and they played a huge set. His vocals were dead on for most songs and his guitar playing overall was pretty good. They played some really amazing cover songs really well, and I was overall very pleased with the night. When they closed with "Don't Slander Me" and left the stage, I swear I saw tears in Roky's eyes. I really hope they were out of happiness because the man has really left a great mark on my soul, and I know I speak on many other's behalf.

Thanks Roky, for taking one for the team and doing things that directly and indirectly caused not only psych to live on in many forms, but for punk rock, grunge, and alternative to have an influential history that predates the rock of the seventies. You are one of the most important musicians of our time.

Roky Erickson - Maxwell's Hoboken, NJ 01.02.10 Set List
(all songs credited to Roky Erickson and The Aliens unless noted otherwise)

1) Cold Night For Alligators
2) Creature with the Atom Brain
3) The Wind and More
4) Bloody Hammer
5) The Beast (Roky Erickson & Evil Hook Wildlife E.T.)
6) Stand For the Fire Demon
7) Night of The Vampire
8) Don't Shake Me Lucifer
9) I Walked with a Zombie
10) Oh! My Soul (Little Richard cover!)
11) I'm a Gonna Love You Too (Buddy Holly cover!)
12) Splash 1 (13th Floor Elevators)
13) You're Gonna Miss Me (13th Floor Elevators)
14) Red Temple Prayer / Two Headed Dog (Roky Erickson & Bleib Alien)
15) Don't Slander Me (Roky Erickson)

Roky Erickson Interview and live Cold Night For Alligators by Roky Erickson and The Aliens.
Thanks to WhollyGhost for this edit. These are some clips from a VHS that was in circulation a few years back. It also includes other interested local access cable show clips, live Aliens clips, interviews and more. There is a currently a DVD compilation of much of this footage available on the secondary market.

*Please note that these facts and figures have been taken from various REAL printed resources including interviews with Roky and other band members, news paper clippings, and archived billboard charts. These are not heresy and some dates and facts vary from the entries and websites found online. I did my best to only post what I was confidant in being 100% correct regardless of what seems to be popularly believed online today.


Gnargusto said...

I also was at the Maxwells show. Really really happy i got to see the godfather of psych. The cover of "Ooo My Soul" was beyond incredible. And I agree, the bassist was a total clown that no where near deserved the opportunity to play along side Roky. He just made the performance feel like some sort of cryptic joke. On a side note, I missed out on getting one of those killer show posters. You wouldnt be willing to part with yours for a fee obviously would ya? I need that on my wall.

Jeffo said...

Hey glad you made it - it was a truly a blast. I agree with you on everything. That cover was ridiculous and rewarding, epsecially considering that long wait for him to take the stage. I can't part with my only copy of the poster, but if it's like the others they printed for past shows they should pop up on ebay shortly and go for a moderate price. Def get your hands on one if you can and thanks a ton for your feedback - keeps me movin' -Jeff

rawgarlic said...

I was lucky enough to get to the Southpaw show too, and I was going to go to the maxwells show the next night, but didn't. The Fleshtones are always good, I have seen them many times over the the last 25 years, including many shows in Wisconsin even. Roky was great at Southpaw, I like his own solo playing, but I was missing the Explosives. I too missed out on a poster, is there any chance you could post a slightly better photo of yours until I can also find one on Ebay??

Jeffo said...

As of right now I am completely sagging and have the crappiest digital camera of all time. As soon as I can get my hands on one I'll post 'er up.

So I was discussing the Fleshtones with a friend recently. The topic was that of their live antics. We were wondering a couple things. have they always had such an elaborate live show or has it developed over time or is it especially exaggerated now? And what reasons contribute to the band remaining at the level of popularity they have been at for most of their career and not really achieving more recognition?

rawgarlic said...

When I first saw The Fleshtones in the early 80's, they were different, but just as active on stage, more of a horn driven white-soul dance party thing. In the late 80's they were already more of 4 piece hyper garage act, similar to what the Woggles turned into. And another 20 years later at an all-ages show in Green Bay a couple of years ago, they still rocked the house down. Maybe it was the lack of a big hit on a big label, maybe their good looks( Roxy Music made it though?) There is a new doc film on them and a book, not sure if any answers there, just be glad they came out this decade mostly unscathed and still blowing away some newer acts.