Roky Erickson – The Evil One (Light In The Attic)
Light In The Attic are currently reissuing the Roky Erickson solo records of the 1980s: including arguably one of his best works ever The Evil One. Louder Than War’s Joe Whyte reviews.
There are few rock and roll stories that follow the trajectory of “burn out or fade away” much better than that of Texas native Roky Erickson and 13th Floor Elevators.
As leader of psych-rock pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson forged a path where many imitated but few dared to follow. The Elevators were one of a kind in the 60’s; hounded by the authorities over their none-too-subtle love of pharmacueticals and a disdain for the law that dogged their every move, they nonetheless produced a series of records which are as startling today as they are influential.
You’re Gonna Miss Me was their first single and stamped their indelible mark; feral harmonica, howling vocals and on-the-edge-of-collapse guitars, it’s a clarion call of garage rock that simply defies you to dislike it. It later appeared on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets set and the legend was set in stone. Their first, self-titled album was a classic in any era or genre. Building on the single’s success, its lysergic, frantic garage rock is utterly unmissable and if you don’t own it, simply put, you should.
Two further albums, Easter Everywhere (which includes later Screamadelica cover Slip Inside This House) and Bull Of The Woods, beloved of the indie-pop kids of 1986-7 were less commercially succesful if no less crucial.
Erickson, meanwhile, was courting trouble. Always fond (as were his bandmates) of the chemical lifestyle, his indulgence in LSD, DMT, Mescaline and dope had triggered symptoms that baffled his friends and family.
In many decades of psychiatry, the link between psychedelics and schizophrenia has long been debated; the old chicken-and-egg thing if you will. Was the illness there already and simply triggered by the drug use or did the drugs cause the illness? That’s one for another time, but suffice to say, Erickson’s behaviour and chaotic lifestyle were pulling the band apart.
In 1969, Erickson was busted with a single joint on his person. Texas in the late 60’s was an even less tolerant place than now, and facing a prison sentence, Roky pled insanity and ended up incarcerated in Austin State Hospital. Force-fed medication (which in those days would have been a side-effect-fest as well as causing virtual cognitive shut-down) and given several treatments of ECT, Erickson may well have wondered through the phenothiazined fog if jail might not have been a better option.
He remained here and in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane until 1972, despite several escapes.
Forming his new band The Aliens in 1979, Erickson released The Evil One as a kind of overlapping suite of songs with predeceser I Think Of Demons, produced and helmed by former Creedance man Stu Cook.
Roky was by this time extremely unwell; he believed an alien inhabited his body and had developed an obsession with the mail. He was writing to random people, alive and not, and was ultimately charged with stealing other peoples mail (which he claimed not to have opened, merely pinned to his wall).
The Evil One, remarkably given the circumstances, is a truly twisted, if nonetheless wonderful piece of work; Erickson’s wandering thought processes are openly on show. Mine Mine Mind is less garage rock than his previous work, being almost Stones-ey in it’s clever musical swerves and turns and lyrics of almost nightmarish, hallucinated insight.
Some of the album has musical roots in the punk and new wave that preceded it; Two Headed Dog is at turns a furious, choppy attack not unlike The Flamin’ Groovies with some slicing guitar at it’s core. I Walked With A Zombie shows Erickson’s then obsession with the sci-fi and horror genres but could equally be about his travails in institutional care. There’s a slightly off-the-wall doo wop section at the coda which takes sinister to a new level.
None of this, despite the Misfits-alike titles is in any way kitsch; produced over two years (presumably when Erickson was in turn liberated and mentally able) it’s horror in content rather than camp and naff. One can almost hear the desperation and delusion in the grooves. I Think Of Demons is ostensibly a love song but in that inimitable Erickson style. Softly stroked guitars disguise the paranoia within, as Erickson’s story of giving his all for a lover whilst greeting his inner demons unfolds.
Bloody Hammer is one of the few Erickson songs that deal with doctors and psychiatry head on (pun intended!) and his tale of violent retribution is only thinly veiled.
Despite the controlled riffing and downright rocking out, the album rarely strays into “good-time” territory. Despite this, it’s songs, taking the content to one side, are memorable, catchy and it’s aged remarkably well with none of the usual early 80’s polish and duff drum sounds.
Erickson, knowingly or not, sabotaged much of his early 80’s releases with bizarre interviews and pronouncements allied to chaotic live appearances. Unfortunately, much of his recorded output disappeared from view due to this.
Here’s hoping that this slew of re-releases addresses that as they have something of the lost classics about them. Well worth investigating.
All words by Joe Whyte. More writing by Joe on Louder Than War can be found at author’s archive.