All words: Alan Pyke
All photos: Ryan Kelly
“Burn out or fade away?” is an eternal puzzler. Roky Erickson decided to do both—but “decided” is probably the wrong word.
However conscious his choices, Erickson would be justified to feel like the four decades between breaking out with the 13th Floor Elevators and Monday night’s show at the Rock & Roll Hotel have taken much longer to go by. In those years, Erickson’s gone from rock messiah to drug war PR target to case study in the need for better public mental health resources to recluse to documentary subject, before ending up back at a happier label: working musician. Standing in the crossfire of reverential gazes from his young six-piece band, the 65-year-old Texan played about an hour of blues-rooted hard rock for a half-full room out on H St.
The set mixed in bits from just about every period in Erickson’s career, including a trio of 13th Floor Elevators tunes towards the end, several tunes from his 2010 record “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” and snippets from the dozen or so studio albums he made solo in the decades after his release from Rusk State Hospital’s maximum security ward. out of place among the violent criminals at Rusk, and only slightly more at home in the world at large, Erickson looked to be exactly where he belongs behind the microphone.
He’s a bear of a man, the big beard and glittering dark eyes perched atop a sort of docile bulk. He moves slowly, not stiff or ginger with age so much as unhurried and tentative. Whether mounting the steps to the stage or equivocating between stepping to the microphone and drifting back towards his drummer, there was an inertia to his physical presence. I think I would have found it stressful to watch if I hadn’t been distracted by the music. A lot of what Erickson played sounded like the product of one of those bands that take their names from a mechanical engineering textbook— rhythmically square songs that were all stomping distortion and growling darkness.
You can still hear the raw material of about a dozen sub-genres of rock in Erickson’s vocals. The lilting top end of his range, where he made his money with the Elevators, isn’t all the way gone, but he spent far more time down in the gutty, rubble-strewn zones of his voice, the bits that James Hetfield would envy. That contents-under-pressure edge was there from the beginning of his career, packing menace and threat into the melodic drugged-out R&B stuff that made him famous. Now it’s moved in from the edge, taken up residence right in the middle of his cavernous chest, and his voice sounds like distant explosions filtered through a layer of ground-up glass and crusted-over heartache. For all the gruffness and sorrow and performative distance, though, it was impossible to miss how content he was to be playing music for enthusiastic strangers.
Thanks to the 2007 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, the main events of Erickson’s improbable, melancholy life are widely known by rock fans. They included massive amounts of psychedelics and hard narcotics, a laughably small pot bust that resulted in a five-year stint in a maximum-security state mental hospital, and decades of just skidding by in the benignly neglectful social cocoon his mother built him. There’s a joke somewhere in there about the Just Say No horror story about the kid who takes acid and turns into a glass of orange juice and never regains his sanity, but Erickson’s schizophrenia went untreated or undertreated for a long, long time, and it’s hard to laugh at somebody who retained so much warmth and talent while losing so much else to mental illness.
Watching You’re Gonna Miss Me, it seemed like Erickson might be the sex, drugs, and rock&roll equivalent of one of those animals the Soviets launched into space—a pioneer who was never coming back to Earth’s gravity. But seeing him Monday night, ripping happily through Elevators classics like “Rollercoaster” and “Reverberation” alongside solo stuff like “Don’t Slander Me Mama” and “Goodbye Sweet Dreams,” it seems like things took a happier turn. When he launched the trio of 13th Floor Elevators cuts with “Splash 1,” that hook felt like half a prayer—”Now I’m home, to stay.”