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Flashback: Roky Erickson Serenades Demons and Zombies on ‘The Evil One’

Late singer-guitarist’s brilliant 1980 album paired triumphant rock with eerily vivid occult themes

In an early-Eighties documentary on Roky Erickson, an interviewer asked the late singer-guitarist about his religious background.

“Well, I’ve gone through three changes,” Erickson responds. “I thought I was a Christian, then I was with the devil … and then the third one where I know who I am; I feel like I’m a monster. I feel like I know I’m the robe of many colors spoke of in the Bible: in other words, a demon, a gremlin, a goblin, a vampire, a ghost and an alien with a brain about this big.” He then holds his hands out beside his head to indicate the size he means.

It’s become a cliché to refer to artists with “personal demons,” but in Roky Erickson’s case, the term took on a more literal meaning. Even on his early recordings with the 13th Floor Elevators, a band best remembered for proto-psych garage-rock classics like “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the songwriter was addressing esoteric topics like levitation and the transcendence of the body. Once he reemerged in the Seventies following several traumatic years in state hospitals after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, his work took a darker thematic turn. Nearly every one of the songs on The Evil One, an outstanding 1980 LP produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook and later reissued in expanded form by Light in the Attic, deals with some sort of supernatural theme.

“I think his material, his topics, have changed quite a bit from ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ and the earlier three or four Elevators albums,” Cook told Richie Unterberger, reflecting on his work with Erickson. “The particular set of material that he presented to me is more along the lines of a comic book nightmare in subject matter.”

“He’s very concerned about aliens and things like that, other life forms, interplanetary invasion and stuff like that,” Cook continued. “His darkest psychosis — there’s that fear, and all that concern about that. ‘Creature With the Atom Brain,’ ‘Night of the Vampire,’ ‘Two-Headed Dog.’ One of my favorite songs by him, and I think I consider it a love song, is ‘I Think of Demons.'”

There’s no way to pinpoint Erickson’s precise intent, but from the sound of “I Think of Demons,” Cook may have a point. Like much of The Evil One, the track is an exhilarating slice of upbeat, fist-pumping rock, brimming with a sense of triumphant abandon — conveyed by Erickson’s vulnerable, remarkably expressive shout — paired with eerily vivid occult-oriented lyrics. In “I Think of Demons,” Erickson describes a “red demon with horns with black tips” and “fangs in the dazed moonlight,” and eventually addresses one of the entities by name: “Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer, who’s been waiting on you?” Later, he seems to welcome the devil’s arrival, singing, “Wait until you come through / To be our leader / We’ve been waiting on you.”

What’s so impressive about the song, and about The Evil One as a whole, is how at home Erickson seems with his subject matter, how soulful and assured. Whether he’s addressing Lucifer himself, recalling how he “walked with a zombie last night” or proclaiming tonight to be “the night of the vampire,” he sounds as comfortable as his heroes Little Richard or the Stones did when they sang about undisguised lust.

Somehow, these monsters were real to Erickson. Was all this, as Cook suggested, about the purging of Erickson’s “darkest psychosis”? Or were these, on some level, love songs? Judging by The Evil One itself, an album that often sounds as tender as it does fearful, maybe it was a little of both.

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