Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Aug 14th 2009 5:00PM by James Sullivan
The 13th Floor Elevators were formed by University of Texas student Tommy Hall, who played an electrified jug and promoted heavy mind alteration. Hall invited members of a local Austin group called the Spades to join his new band, and they promptly rerecorded their 'You're Gonna Miss Me,' a minor sensation written by the Spades' lead singer, Roky Erickson. The song, featured on the Elevators' 1966 debut, 'The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators,' reached No. 56 on the national pop chart and would go on to have a long shelf life as one of the key tracks on the original 'Nuggets' collection of garage-rock classics.
With their cosmic lyrics, droning guitars and Hall's eccentric jug-blowing, which made the band's music sound like it was submerged in a mad scientist's observation tank, the band drew plenty of attention. Some of it was unwanted: Given the band's open advocacy of drug use, the musicians became targets of Texas law enforcement. When Erickson was busted for possession of a joint in 1969, the band was forced to rely on guitarist Stacy Sutherland to write most of its third album.
To avoid jail time, Erickson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Assigned to Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, the singer was diagnosed with schizophrenia. For the next several years, he would undergo heavy medication and electroshock therapy.
His fragile state was apparent when he returned to the music world in the late 1970s. Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook, one of many '60s rockers who felt Erickson's talent was underappreciated (fellow Texan Janis Joplin once considered joining the Elevators), brought Erickson into the studio, and the resulting songs revealed a man obsessed with B-movies, comic books and other pulp culture: 'I Walked with a Zombie,' 'Creature With the Atom Brain,' 'Don't Shake Me Lucifer.'
His obsessions weren't confined to his song titles. He professed a belief that his body had been invaded by aliens, and in 1990 he was accused of stealing his neighbor's junk mail and pinning it to his walls. Rallying to the cause, admiring bands such as R.E.M., the Jesus and Mary Chain and ZZ Top recorded songs for an Erickson tribute album called 'Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.'
The singer made another of his periodic comebacks with a 1993 appearance at the Austin Music Awards. Two years later, in a Rolling Stone profile, he was described living in a small home behind a porno store, flooding his senses with electronic input -- monster movies on TV, acid rock and gospel music blaring simultaneously, a police scanner squawking.
Erickson's brother, Sumner, a classical musician, eventually stepped in to help his troubled sibling, arranging proper treatment and improved living conditions. In recent years Erickson has performed at Coachella and in London, and he was featured in the well-received documentary 'You're Gonna Miss Me.' Now there's a brand-new, limited-edition 10-disc box commemorating his band.
Liner notes on the 13th Floor Elevators' debut album included the band's claim that hallucinatory drugs were the gateway to true understanding. "It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album," they wrote. For the lead singer, the quest never ends.