Things that should have happened after the May 31 death of one Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson, co-inventor of psychedelic music and one of the most powerful rock singers who ever lived:
• The Austin flag (if not also the Texas flag) should have been lowered to half-staff. Few have embodied the spirit of old Austin (for good or ill) more completely.
• We should not have been able to walk from 51st Street to the Drag to downtown to South Congress to Texas 71 without hearing “Reverberation” or “Fire Engine” or “Slip Inside This House” or “Two-Headed Dog” blasting from somewhere.
Things that still should happen:
• July 15, Roky’s birthday, should be declared "Roky Erickson Appreciation Day" from this day to the end of days.
• A street should be named after the man, perhaps a section of Rabb Road where he grew up, or the 900 block of East Fifth Street, once home to the music store where Evelyn Erickson got her son's guitars and amps, or all of Arthur Lane, where Roky was living during his life-changing marijuana bust in 1969.
• And for the love of all that is holy and psychedelic and wholly psychedelic, can we please get a statue of this man, possibly smiling that oddly beatific smile, possibly as if screaming with his unbelievable voice that turned a Texas blues-shout into a blast of inner and outer space, the voice that influenced everyone from Janis Joplin to Gibby Haynes to Michael Stipe.
His career was like no other. Attention must be paid.
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When Roky was just 19 years old, the 13th Floor Elevators song “You’re Gonna Miss Me” — a garage rock classic complete with lyricist Tommy Hall’s electrified jug providing a trippy beep that sounded like a small quasar — was a regional hit, first in Texas and then in California. A brief 1966 tour then exported psychedelic rock from its Texas home to San Francisco, where it took fierce and lasting root.
The rest of the story is well known to rock nerds: After the stunning “Easter Everywhere” — one of the best psychedelic rock albums ever made — found the Elevators in peak form and the somewhat slept-on “Bull of the Woods” found them in slightly less than peak form, the Elevators disintegrated in a haze of harder drugs and draconian busts.
Roky, all of 21, was arrested for weed possession in '69. He spent time in the Austin State Hospital, then briefly became a fugitive before being sent to hellish Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane for three years, where an already shaky Roky was subject to heavy medication and electroshock. He likely already was suffering from schizophrenia. This fellow, long venerated as an icon of Texas music, also knew the Lone Star State at its most vengeful and cruel.
Then something striking happened: Roky, who was taking an awful lot of drugs, most likely to self-medicate a fragmenting mind, started making new music.
Listen to Joe Gross and Peter Blackstock on the legacy of Roky Erickson on Austin360 Radio:
Songs such as “Bermuda” and “Two Headed Dog” anticipated the more acid-soaked end of punk rock. “Starry Eyes” and “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” the trippier, prettier side of what would become British post-punk. (Think Echo and the Bunnymen and Julian Cope, whose cover of/tribute to “I Have Always Been Here Before” is a perfect reflection of Roky’s whole deal while using only bits of the original’s melody and the chorus.) Like his secret sharer/fellow proto-punk icon Alex Chilton, Roky found a new, less-bluesy voice to sing with and, as critic Byron Coley put it in the crucial 2006 documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” almost nobody went from making amazing music in the ’60s to making amazing music in the ′70s, as Roky did.
On 1980s albums such as “The Evil One” and “Don’t Slander Me” and songs such as “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Creature with the Atom Brain,” Roky drew on the monster movies of his youth to reflect his inner chaos, as his reputation in various underground scenes began to build.
His mental health at a low, Roky played his last show for a long time in 1987, but it is impossible to imagine Texas bands such as Scratch Acid and the Butthole Surfers without Roky’s music, let alone bands like Sonic Youth and R.E.M.
Amid the monsters, he also revealed himself to be a songwriter of elegance and beauty. Roky never spent time on any sort of major label, so when record man Bill Bentley assembled the 1990 Roky tribute album “Where The Pyramid Meets the Eye” for Warner Bros. Records, it was the first time a lot of suburban kids had even heard of the guy. A sign of good songwriting is the extent to which a song’s essence can be preserved (or reflected upon) via a cover that isn’t necessarily a straight read on the tune.
>> RELATED: Austin music world remembers Roky Erickson: ‘I’ve never been so close to a genius’
On “Pyramid,” every artist proved up to the task, from ZZ Top and the Jesus and Mary Chain ripping through “Reverberation” to R.E.M.’s “... Zombie” to Poi Dog Pondering’s wistful “I Had to Tell You” and Bongwater’s all-time classic version “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” Roky’s songs proved shockingly sturdy. It remains the all-time greatest tribute album. And a new generation discovered the man’s music and still his reputation grew.
Unfortunately, the ’90s were not great to Roky, even as Henry Rollins’ imprint 2.13.61 published a book of his lyrics and labels such as Trance Syndicate and Emperor Jones put out his music.
By 1999, he was living in a house with TVs turned up to 11 and his mind clearly an under-treated mess. This is how filmmaker Keven McAlester found him when he started filming the aforementioned “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
“I was primarily interested in Roky as a musician for two reasons," McAlester said in 2005. "First, he was one of the best singers of the rock era. Second, he's one of rock's truly unique people. The fact that the same guy could be responsible for 'Slip Inside this House,' 'Two-Headed Dog' and 'You Don't Love Me Yet' is just amazing."
But by the time McAlester was done with his five years of filming and the movie was released in 2006, Roky was better than he had been in years — stable, correctly treated for his ailments, sporting new teeth. He began to play shows semi-regularly and, in 2010, cut “True Love Cast Out All Evil” with Okkervil River. It’s a gentle affair, more reflective than expansive. This felt fitting — the man was already one of the most important musicians of his generation, as vital to the notion of Texas music as blues or folk or country. That we got 71 years with him is a gift from the spheres.
Let’s get going on that statue.