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‘He was from another world’: The legacy of Texas rock musician Roky Erickson

 Roky Erickson & Justin Sherburn of Okkervil River perform at KUT Live, Austin City Limits Stage in 2010.
Sean Murphy
Roky Erickson & Justin Sherburn of Okkervil River perform at KUT Live, Austin City Limits Stage in 2010.

Dear Roky, 

This is the letter I’ve been waiting to write for over 50 years. It is one that is born out of the absolute love I have for your band, the 13th Floor Elevators, and how they gave me a life. That is not an exaggeration. When I saw the Elevators for the first time in early 1966, something happened inside me that had never happened before. …

Bill Bentley, a veteran music producer in Los Angeles who grew up in Texas, says his brush with the music of fellow Texan Roky Erickson altered the trajectory of his life. In fact, there are many longtime Texas musicians who have similar stories after having come across the music of Erickson and his influential band.

Erickson, who died in 2019 after years of declining health, would have celebrated his 75th birthday Friday. And though his music reverberates in ways celebrated by critics and fellow rock musicians, his name is largely unknown, even among fellow Texans. The excerpt above is from a posthumous letter Bentley wrote to Erickson that is featured in a recently released compilation of famous artists performing Erickson covers, “May the Circle Remain Unbroken.

“I’d been a rock ‘n’ roll fan a long time. And in my really early years in the 50s, I fell for Elvis Presley big time. And that excitement just always opened me up inside,” Bentley said. “But when I saw the Elevators, I could feel like this brain consciousness expanding, and it wasn’t drugs. I mean, I was completely straight at that time – I was, what, 15 years old? And I just knew that the band had secrets about how to move up the way we think.

“And that’s kind of a far out thing to say today. But I heard it in their songs. There is a power that no other rock ‘n’ roll band I had seen – or even seen since – had. And I’ve never forgotten it.”

Erickson’s partner in the Elevators, Tommy Hall – who actually formed the band and wrote many of their lyrics – moved from his hometown of Memphis to Austin in the early 60s to attend the University of Texas, where he studied psychology. He was a student of the earliest psychedelic experiments, Bentley said, and felt the best way to share the lessons of how to change consciousness to the better was with a rock ‘n’ roll band.

“He saw Roky and his former band in Austin, the Spades, and he could see sort of the just inert power Rocky had inside of him,” Bentley said. “Tommy had sort of almost like a prophet effect on Roky, and Roky followed him for the next four years. And they really did change what I feel is the essence of what rock ‘n’ roll could be, which was an expansion of the mind.”

One of the great songs, Bentley said, was “Roller Coaster” – “It starts like a roller coaster so real, it takes your breath away” – about the psychedelic trip on LSD. “Reverberation (Doubt)” was about letting the mind get hung up in a negative space from bad reverberations, then going beyond them to a positive space. And “Fire Engine” was about the feeling when taking LSD.

“Like, I saw early Grateful Dead and early Airplane. And as great as they were, it wasn’t even in the same genre as what the 13th Floor Elevators could accomplish,” Bentley said. “When they went to California, you know, they played a few shows and they were headlining over all the bands in the Bay Area. But once they came back to Texas at the end of ’66, it was never the same for them, because that’s when they really got kind of ground down to dust by the authorities in Texas who were fearful that young people would catch their message and revolt.”

Law enforcement including the Department of Public Safety and Austin and Houston police would follow the band to gigs, Bentley said. In 1969, Erickson was arrested for the possession of a single joint. To avoid prison, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to a state institution where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatments. After his release, he tried to relaunch his career as a solo artist, but the band was no more.

“What they could have been was not allowed to be,” Bentley said. “And in the later years, Roky didn’t have the Elevators, and it just wasn’t enough – his songs and recordings – to take him back to where he’d been with the Elevators and all those opportunities that he might have achieved.

“Roky was from another world; I really believe that. Some people are just born with this 3-D look at life and they can pass it on to the people they share it with. I’ve never met anybody like him. I was able to sit with him a minute like a month before he died – I went to San Francisco to see him – and it was still there.”

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5

David Brown
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."