BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When Roky Erickson was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in the early ‘70s, Texan music fans rejoiced. Though little more than a forgotten psychedelic relic to most of the world, in his home state he and his ‘60s band the 13th Floor Elevators were revered. With new management, a new band (variously known as Bleib Alien and the Aliens and featuring electric autoharpist Bill Miller and lead guitarist Duane Aslaksen) and the patronage of Doug Sahm, among others, the singer/songwriter/guitarist shifted his new tunes and old demons back and forth between California and the Lone Star State, polishing his live prowess and building the repertoire for which he would become (in)famous. By the time he hit the studio with Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook as producer, Erickson was ready to put his Elevators days behind him and create his own legend.
Originally released in 1981 and newly reissued by Light In The Attic on CD and as a 3-sided/etched LP (see product note at end), The Evil One—Roky Erickson and the Aliens, a/k/a Five Symbols, for the 1980 British release—sets the standard what was to come. Erickson conveys fanciful, disturbing visions of demons, monsters and aliens of uncertain intent to driving rock & roll, powered by his raging howl and frosted with Miller’s otherworldly autoharp noise. The album is riddled with Roky classics like “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “The Wind and More,” the Chuck Berry-on-Satan “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” and the awesome “Two Headed Dog,” which would cause fallen angels to play air guitar and feature ferocious vocal performances. But in the rush to fistpump, don’t overlook this record’s hidden gems, like the melodic, folk-rocking “If You Have Ghosts,” the enigmatic “Click Your Fingers Applauding the Play” or the downright feral “Sputnik.” The Evil One is Roky Erickson in a nutshell.
Recorded in 1983 but released in 1986, Don’t Slander Me tweaks the musical formula a little and the lyrical stance a lot. Taking over as producer, Aslaksen pushes Miller’s autoharp to the side and his own flamboyant guitar to the front, practically engaging in call and response with the headliner, whose voice is still at the center of the sound. Erickson, who had grown more troubled in the years between this and The Evil One, mostly downplays his horror flick fixation for more straightforward concerns. Fans of his Hammer Films lyrical acumen may face disappointment (unfairly) with songs like “You Drive Me Crazy” and the bonus track “Realize You’re Mine,” but the tracks rock too hard to support much carping. The boogieing “Haunt,” the blastabilly “Crazy Crazy Mama,” the defiant “Can’t Be Brought Down,” the pissed-off “The Damn Thing” and the raging title track take no prisoners, even they’re missing ghouls and space aliens. Erickson also proves himself adept at pop tunes, as the startlingly melodic and accessible “Nothing in Return,” the bonus cut “Hasn’t Anyone Told You” and “Starry Eyes” (which reiterates the influence Buddy Holly had on pretty much every Texas rocker) demonstrate. Erickson hasn’t completely abandoned his haunted visions – the blazing “Bermuda” recommends a vacation in the Devil’s Triangle, while the descent into madness that is “Burn the Flames” goes abruptly goes from understatedly creepy to full-on disturbing once Erickson casually unleashes a ghastly, morbid laugh that would do Vincent Price proud. Often dismissed in relation to The Evil One, Don’t Slander Me is in reality just as strong as its more celebrated predecessor.
Erickson began another downward spiral after that, which led to the release of Gremlins Have Pictures as a way to fill in what turned out to be a very wide gap. Collecting various singles, demos and live cuts from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the record ranges all over the map. “I’m a Demon” (more a fragment than a full song), the menacing “The Beast” and the odd but classic “Cold Night For Alligators” display his nascent occult fetish, while “The Interpreter” (his first single), “Before in the Beginning” and the poppy “Sweet Honey Pie” don’t fall far from the Elevators’ tree. Dementia soaks the ethereal “I Am”, as Erickson strums an acoustic guitar and croons “Satan’s all perfect love” atop Jack Johnson’s psychedelic slide guitar. More acoustic cuts emphasize Erickson’s way with melody – both the wistful “I Have Always Been Here Before” and the dramatic “Anthem (I Promise)” are reminders that there’s much more to the troubled Texan than a tenuous grasp on reality. Perhaps the most surprising facet of this phase of Erickson’s talent is a turn toward sociopolitical commentary; while the rocking “John Lawman,” “Song to Abe Lincoln” and folky “Warning (Social & Political Injustices)” won’t win any Nobel Prizes, they definitely expand the horizons of what fans think Erickson capable. The LP also includes a few repeats from previous LPs (a live “Night of the Vampire,” an extra fuzzy “Bermuda,” a strangely plaintive “Burn the Flames”) and a faithful cover (!) of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Overall, Gremlins Have Pictures is a hodgepodge of sounds and experiences, but Erickson’s undiminished talent keeps the quality high. (The vinyl reissue includes a bonus 7” single.)
Various official and semi-authorized odds ‘n’ sods collections kept Erickson’s name alive during what turned out to be his final deterioration. Fans already know he’s since made a near-full recovery from his mental illness, gigging regularly and even releasing a strong LP of new music (True Love Cast Out All Evil). But the songs on these records remain at the heart of his repertoire, and he still performs them with fire and ferocity.
DOWNLOAD: “Two Headed Dog,” “If You Have Ghosts,” “The Wind and More,” “Don’t Slander Me,” “Nothing in Return,” “Starry Eyes,” “The Interpreter,” “Anthem (I Promise),” “I Have Always Been Here Before”