Halfway through his April 15th concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, Roky Erickson — the feral voice of the Sixties’ original psychedelic rangers, the 13th Floor Elevators — sang a song of returning: “Splash 1,” a folk-rock ballad co-written by Erickson more than forty years ago and drenched in thick, trippy echo on the Austin, Texas band’s debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. Erickson is no longer the teenage space captain — equal parts Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Buck Rogers — who originally rendered the opening lines like a call to acid mass: “I have seen your face before/I’ve known you all my life.” In the decades since, he has been through a legendary nightmare of drugs, incarceration and mental illness that, as recently as the late ’90s, seemed like it would never end.
But it did. Erickson is alive, well and in the midst of an astonishing resurrection, touring outside Texas and California — the Elevators’ second home in ’66 and ’67 — for the first time ever. (The Bowery show and a date two nights earlier at Southpaw in Brooklyn marked Erickson’s live New York-area debut). Playing meaty rhythm guitar and armed with the gnarly power-trio muscle of veteran Austin band the Explosives, Erickson sang the chorus of “Splash 1” at the Bowery with the virile force of a man determined to never go back to darkness: “And now I’m home/To stay.” The packed crowd sang with him too, in adoring welcome. In return, after the show, he sat at a table in front of the stage for almost an hour, signing autographs for fans and thanking each one for coming to see him.
Erickson, who turns sixty this year, actually looks younger now — clean-shaven, bright-eyed — than he did in the sporadic and skittish live appearances I saw in Austin in the mid-Nineties. And his voice has lost none of its confrontational luster or growling-animal tremolo. Erickson sang the words “cold night” in “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators” with slow-motion tenacity and punctuated the Elevators’ garage-rock classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me” with rippling cries of triumph. When he performed his 1985 blues “The Beast” (“The beast is coming to your world”), Erickson sang with emphatic apocalypse, as if he’d just passed Mr. 666 on the way into the club.
t was also a revelation to hear songs that Erickson wrote in the mid- and late ’70s — after he was released from a Texas mental hospital, where he spent three years in lieu of stiff jail time on a 1968 marijuana bust — in a new, clear light. It wasn’t the weirdness — the horror-movie splatter and rank perfume of the devil’s footprints in “Bloody Hammer,” “Creature With the Atom Brain” and “The Wind and More” — that stood out, but the lyric invention and eccentric hook power of Erickson’s songwriting and storytelling: the odd melodic bent of “The Interpreter”; the threat of enveloping void in “Bermuda”; the ascending tension and totalitarian paranoia of “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)” (“I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog”).
What also came through was a common sense and stiff defiance that he rarely got credit for. Erickson would not deny that overwhelming evil walked among us. But even in the depths of his troubles, he refused to give in to it. “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” was a dynamic, Chuck Berry-style warning to who-else to back the hell off. And in “Starry Eyes,” a 1975 B-side, Erickson showed off how much love and Buddy Holly he always carried in him, even when nobody could see it. “Starry eyes forever shall be mine,” he sang like a man reborn, eager to see more of the world for the first time — and for others to see how far he’s come and how long he plans to stay.
(Roky Erickson appears at the Coachella Festival on April 28th and at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans on May 2nd. He is also touring Europe for the first time this summer. You’re Gonna Miss Me, the acclaimed 2005 documentary about Erickson’s life directed by Keven McAlester, will be released by Palm Pictures in theaters in June and on DVD in July.)