Roky Erickson’s reputation as a mad musical genius is both well documented and well deserved. Beginning with his stint fronting psychedelic pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators in the late Sixties, all the way through his post-mental institution, sci-fi-themed solo albums of the Eighties, Erickson created a body of work that’s as inscrutable as it is brilliant.
But a new collection of previously unreleased rehearsal recordings, Don’t Knock the Rok!, helps shed light on the troubled Texan’s bizarre career. The demos were made in 1978 while Erickson and his band the Aliens were preparing to record The Evil One with Credence Clearwater bassist Stu Cook. The new twenty-three-song set, culled from the archives of Roky’s one-time manager and producer Craig Luckin, features a spate of early rock and doo-wop covers from the 1950s — from Bobby Vee and Dion and the Belmonts to Buddy Holly and Elvis — as well as a smattering of tuneful-but-twisted originals in the same vein as the material Erickson eventually laid down on The Evil One.
The demos were made by Luckin, who always had tape rolling while Roky and the band — guitarist Duane Aslaksen, electric autoharpist Billy Miller, bassist Steven Morgan Burgess (now deceased) and drummer John “Fuzzy Furioso” Oxendine — rehearsed at Cosmo’s Factory in Berkley, California. Never intended for release, the recordings were originally made to help in the development of new material. And the oldies covers were simply something the band did at the beginning of practices to set the tone for the rest of the session. “It was Roky’s idea to use the oldies as a warm-up thing,” explains Luckin. “They didn’t do it every day — it tended to be once a week he wanted to do oldies as a way to get everybody warmed up and in a good mood.”
Judging by the performances, Erickson was generally the only one who really knew the songs, leading the stumbling Aliens through a host of tunes that were clearly dear to him. His bluesy howl is frequently all that’s in the proper key, faltering only when he struggles to remember a lyric or work out a chord progression. Behind him, the rest of the band just muddles through.
“These were one-time-only performances of songs we never played before,” explains Miller, the former Alien who today goes by the name Billy Angel and plays in the Roky-influenced Blood Drained Cows with former Angry Samoans vocalist/guitarist Gregg Turner. “These were done for recreation with no intention of ever playing them again, much less recording them for release.”
The seven original tracks included on Don’t Knock the Rok! are also quite rough, but some, in more polished form, have previously been issued on other releases, most of which are currently out of print. “You Drive Me Crazy” and “Can’t Bring Me Down” appeared on the group’s second album, Don’t Slander Me (1986). According to Luckin, that set will soon be re-released by Ryko.
Of the originals, only “Heartstrings” and “Untitled,” which are more like ideas for songs than actual songs, have not been issued elsewhere.
The process of assembling Don’t Knock the Rok! began three years ago when Luckin and producer Karl Derfler patched together a five-song demo to send around to labels, and a copy found its way to Norton Records’ Billy Miller (no relation to the Aliens’ autoharpist of the same name). A huge fan of the oldies that Erickson was covering on the tape, Miller agreed release a selection of the rehearsal tracks if enough could be put together for a full-length album. Miller, along with his mastering engineer, Howard Rappaport, even ended up doing some of the editing and patching together of different tapes. “His vision was what made this come to be,” says Luckin of Miller. “It wasn’t something that I ever marketed.”
Luckin has more material in his archives that he hopes will soon see the light of day. He’s recently been discussing with Roky and his brother (and legal guardian) Sumner Erickson the possibility of releasing acoustic material Roky recorded with onetime Sir Douglas Quintet guitarist John Reed in the Seventies. Luckin also says that a best-of collection by Roky Erickson and the Explosives (Roky’s Austin-based post-Aliens group) will be out sometime in 2004.
More information about Roky Erickson is available at rokyerickson.net.The Don’t Knock the Rok! track listing:
A Teenager in Love
You Drive Me Crazy
Stand By Me
What to Do
You’re the One
One Last Kiss
Take Good Care of My Baby
Things That Go Bump in the Night
Wake Up to Rock and Roll
Can’t Be Brought Down
You’re the One
Love Is Strange
True Love Ways
You’re the One
Our First Kiss
Bumble Bee Zombie