March 11, 2005


Roky Erickson.jpg

Chronicling the bumpy career of a cult figure

The troubled mind of Roky Erickson is the stuff of legend.

Unfortunately, the Texas psychedelic troubadour had a discography that was in nearly as bad a shape, and that can partly be blamed for the lack of a wider audience and appreciation of Erickson's genius.

Erickson burst on the scene in 1966 as the man with the bone-chilling howl of the 13th Floor Elevators, best known for the garage thrash of "You're Gonna Miss Me" (featured many years later in the film High Fidelity). The Elevators reached such heights as appearing on American Bandstand. But the band fell apart in the late 1960s after releasing two albums when Erickson pleaded insanity to avoid a long prison sentence for a pot bust and was institutionalized.

Erickson emerged in worse shape after enduring electro-shock therapy and other abuses. Over the ensuing 25 years, Erickson showed flashes of brilliance in spurts of activity in the late 1970s, early 1980s and again in 1993.

The quality material he did record since the demise of the Elevators has been overshadowed by a flood of releases over the last 30 years of varying quality, some of dubious legal distinction, that are in and (mostly) out of print. While it's worth picking through even the garbage of an artist of Erickson's stature, finding a place to start can be intimidating and confusing.

The new two-disc set I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (Shout! Factory) rectifies that as the perfect place for neophytes to jump in. And for the Erickson converts out there, I Have Always Been Here Before gives a fresh perspective on Erickson's amazing career.

The songs are arranged chronologically, eliminating the long gaps of inactivity when Erickson was too busy battling his demons to do any recording.

The flow from a pre-Elevators 1965 recording with the Spades through 10 Elevators tracks up to the 1990s displays his strong writing in his various guises: There is the psychedelic Buddy Holly in poppy numbers like "Starry Eyes" and the frightening and ominous full-tilt rock you'd expect from a committed rocker ("Bloody Hammer," "Donít Shake Me Lucifer," "Don't Slander Me," etc.)

Throughout his career, Erickson has marked a return to action by re-recording some of his best material. While it's debatable which version of certain songs is definitive (Is there a bad version of "Don't Slander Me"? No!), the producers of this set included only one version of each of his very best originals among the 43 tracks, a move that also adds to the flow of this compilation.

That, however, meant not including the Spades' original version of "You're Gonna Miss Me." And the emphasis on originals means nothing from the essential 2003 release Don't Knock the Rok, influence-revealing rehearsal tapes featuring Erickson and the Aliens plowing through rock Ďní roll classics. But that is minor nitpicking, as there is more than enough quality here to keep listeners busy.

Limited to 10 Elevators tracks, it's hard to argue with the selections: "Fire Engine," "Reverberation," etc.). After the Elevators, Erickson's best period came circa 1980 with his backing band the Aliens on material produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook. Nine of the 15 Cook-produced tracks are included here. The original version of "Starry Eyes," produced and featuring lead guitar by Doug Sahm, also made the cut.

The set winds up with four tracks from Erickson's most recent work, 1995's All That May Do My Rhyme, produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. The best of these tracks is a fitting way to wrap up the story: The heart-wrenching, autobiographical "Please Judge," on which Erickson addresses his struggles ("Please judge, don't send that boy away/In society I wish you'd let him stay/All that may do my rhyme, is deny that there is a crime").

The what-if-only sentiments evoked by "Please Judge" can apply to correctional institutions at large, not just in Erickson's case.

What if, indeed.

-- By Joe Belock

* Roky Erickson is scheduled to participate in a panel titled Holy Fire: The 13th Floor Elevators' Quest for Enlightenment being held March 17 during the South by Southwest music festival and conference in Austin, Texas.

Posted by medleyville at March 11, 2005 09:14 PM