Roky Erickson — lead vocalist and principal songwriter for the psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators and one of the leading lights of Texas rock — died Friday in Austin. He was 71.
Erickson’s death was confirmed by his brother Mikel to Bill Bentley, who produced the all-star 1990 Erickson tribute album “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye,” which included performances by R.E.M., ZZ Top, Doug Sahm and other stars.
“Roky lived in so many worlds, you couldn’t keep up with him,” Bentley told Variety. “He lived so much, and not always on this planet.”
Erickson specialized in a stormy, nightmarish brand of rock. His otherworldly original songs were often inspired by his favorite horror movies (a collection of his lyrics was published in 1995 by Henry Rollins’ book company 2.13.61). His intense, piercing yowl was the focal point of the Elevators’ seething 1966 single “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” A magnum opus of garage rock, it was featured on Lenny Kaye’s influential 1972 compilation “Nuggets.”
The band released four albums of churning psychedelia for Lelan Rogers’ independent label International Artists between 1966 and 1969; its first two collections, “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” and “Easter Everywhere,” are acknowledged classics of psych-rock.
After the band folded — due in no small measure due to Erickson’s drug habits and escalating mental illness — the singer embarked on a lengthy solo career that was interrupted by periods of institutionalization.
He released a scathing series of singles flashing horror and sci-fi imagery — “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” “The Interpreter,” “Starry Eyes,” “Bermuda,” “Don’t Slander Me” — during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and issued several solo albums, one of which, “Roky Erickson and the Aliens,” was issued by CBS.
While best known for his snarling garage-rockers, some of Erickson’s most memorable songs were haunting ballads like “You Don’t Love Me Yet” and “I Have Always Been Here Before,” whose heart-wrenching melodies belied the torment hinted in the lyrics.
Erickson’s battle with mental illness was chronicled in the affecting 2007 documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
In later years, he toured regularly, backed by such acts as the Black Angels, and could often be found performing on his favorite holiday, Halloween.
Born Roger Kynard Erickson in Austin, Texas, on July 15, 1947, Erickson was a high school dropout who formed his first group, the Spades, at 18. The group scored a local hit with the single “We Sell Soul,” and cut the original version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
The 13th Floor Elevators teamed Erickson with the aggressive guitarist Stacy Sutherland and Tommy Hall, who played an ululating, amplified jug. Their debut “Psychedelic Sounds” LP included their signature hit and “Fire Engine,” which became a signature tune in the early repertoire of the New York punk band Television.
The Elevators were a popular Austin act but fell apart thanks to Erickson’s instability, brought on by literally dozens of LSD trips. He was committed to psychiatric hospitals in Austin and Houston, undergoing involuntary electroshock therapy.
He groped his way back to performing in the ‘70s, and some of his best recordings of the period were produced by his Austin contemporary Sahm and Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook. He toured backed by the Austin bands the Explosives and the Aliens (which featured another jug player, Bill Miller).
The ‘80s proved fallow for Erickson, who was sidetracked for a time by charges, later dropped, that he had stolen mail from his neighbors. He lived for several years with his mother in near destitution.
But projects like the Sire/Warner Bros. tribute album and the ardent fandom of younger rock musicians kept him in the public eye; a strong 1995 album, “All That May Do My Rhyme,” was released by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey. He appeared at the ACL festival in Austin that year for his first live date in 20 years.
After slowly weaning himself off medication employed to control his schizophrenia, Erickson worked U.S. stages regularly. He became a semi-regular at the South By Southwest Music Festival, and in 2015 he reunited with surviving members of the 13th Floor Elevators at Austin’s Levitation Festival, which was named after an Elevators song.
His survivors include another brother, Sumner, and son Jegar.