In Australia, when a friend or colleague does something good, we say something like, “hey, you’re an absolute legend!”
But singer-songwriter Roky Erickson, who passed away a few weeks ago, was this, completely. Even though no Twitter trending hashtag came up with this news, Roky was one of the true great American musicians; he embodied the teenage garage band – and even taught Janis Joplin how to sing.
I discovered Roky back in the 90s, via the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack, which I used to play on a radio show with a friend. I absolutely loved his song Burn the Flames, which grew on me through repeated plays, and is an astoundingly creative song, on so many levels. It has a clever play on the Night before Christmas poem – but it is just a winning song overall.
Although musically, Roky was best known for the psychedelic rock of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, with their breakout 1966 hit ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ – he also had a long solo career, playing with many bands after the psychedelic era, and was kind of like a Doctor Who, eternally being regenerated by new musicians admiring his earlier work and status as rock’n’roll royalty in Austin, Texas, where he lived.
I was quite amazed to go back and listen to a lot of his solo stuff, and I remember thinking that some of it was like a proto-heavy metal, particularly songs like ‘Bloody Hammer’ and ‘Two Headed Dog’. But that’s how I realized that it was the new band members who were bringing this contemporary sound (at that time) to his already way-out lyrics.
I know that Roky had a lot of struggles with mental ill-health, and this was a major component of his solo career — part of the reason he was writing music with a horror-influenced edge.
However, I also think that Roky had a genuine feel for horror. He had grown up enjoying horror movies, and had celebrated Halloween; so he naturally channeled a lot of his creative energy into this area, giving his songs titles like ‘Night of the Vampire’ and ‘The Creature with the Atom Brain’.
For the last five years, I have been playing him as part of a Halloween radio show, that streams online — and to me, Roky is the musical embodiment of Halloween. He is everything that is good about this particularly American celebration (with its roots in Europe).
He also wrote many non-horror songs, like ‘Unforced Peace’, which was on the soundtrack to Keven McAlester’s 2005 documentary about Roky, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me, and the beautiful ‘You Don’t Love me Yet’.
I was lucky enough to go and see him play in Sydney, with a friend, back in 2012. His son had brought him out with his band, and it was great to see such a legend up on stage, and hear his songs, his voice still as strong as ever. I remember my friend being really impressed, but also saying that he really had something, spiritually, that was shining through in his voice.
He was a genuine musical talent, who persisted despite changing times, and personal challenges. He never let his demons destroy his music and creative spirit — and this is what makes Roky an ‘absolute legend’.
Header image of Roky with guitar from Factory Theatre gig in Marrickville, Sydney 2012 / Copyright FOTW Audio.