Words by Andrew R Fetter
Andrew Fetter has been writing about music for over the last decade and playing in bands for even longer. His latest endeavor is the radio hour, The Noise Kaleidoscope which airs Tuesdays from 4:30-5:30pm ET on 99.1FM WQRT in Indianapolis. On it he covers his personal collection and influences of psych rock from over the last half century, starting with early influences and reaching to it’s modern incarnations. Past episodes are archived online.
A legend has passed on. Or, has “merged with the infinite,” to borrow a phrase from a friend. Roky Erickson, founder of psychedelic pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators, passed away last week at the age of 71. I think it’s safe to say he was, is and always will be one of the biggest influences on garage and psych rock music. He was 18 when he formed The 13th Floor Elevators and was 19 years old when their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, was released. The album contained songs written for Erickson’s previous band The Spades, including their debut single and most well known song “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. The 13th Floor Elevators were the first band to actually refer to their music as psychedelic rock (it was even on their business cards). “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, with Erickson’s trademark wild screams and distorted harmonica riffs, coupled with Tommy Hall’s use of the electric jug (yes, jug) tells you everything you need to know about the mark that they left.
As is the case for most music legends, Erickson had a rebellious streak his whole life. He dropped of high school out of one month before graduating. The reason: so he wouldn’t have to cut his hair in order to follow his school’s dress code. When he faced a possible 10 year sentence for possessing a single marijuana joint, he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. This led to being committed to a state hospital where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (which he had previously experienced after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia). His mental health issues continued to plague him later into his life. He was at one point charged with mail theft. This was due to him stealing mail from neighbors who had moved away, attributed to his obsession with the postal service. In the early 2000s, after receiving much needed effective medical care, he was able to live as close to a “normal” life as can be expected.
His recovery led to renewed involvement in the music world, as well as interest in his work from other prominent musicians and artists. Henry Rollins released a complete collection of his lyrics through his publishing company 2.13.61. He contributed to an EP by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, performed live with indie-folk band Okkervil River. In 2008, modern psych rock band The Black Angels served as Erickson’s backing band, after performing a set of their own music. He continued to perform and record his own music as well. In 2010, he released his first album of new material in 14 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil, with Okkervil River as the studio backing band. 2015 saw a reunion of the original lineup of The 13th Floor Elevators performing at Levitation, an Austin based psychedelic music festival named for one of their second single released in 1967.
Erickson’s contribution to the music world, even beyond psychedlic music, cannot be overstated. The 1990 tribute album to The 13th Floor Elevators, Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye features contributions from the likes of ZZ Top, John Wesley Harding, Television, T Bone Burnett and the Jesus and Mary Chain. One of his post Elevators bands was Bleib Alien (translated from German to “Remain Alone”). Instead of psychedelic music, Erickson took to writing hard rock music with lyrical themes taken from sci-fi and horror films. Where does that sound familiar? Even try to imagine the opening of the film High Fidelity without “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” No other song would be able to capture the mood and feel of that breakup scene.