ROKY ERICKSON I Have Always Been Here Before The Roky Erickson Anthology (Shout Factory)
This lavish double CD retrospective its no great surprise to learn that the folks at Shout Factory are former Rhino employees claims to cover Roky Ericksons entire 40 year career, and, allowing for periods of inactivity and incarceration, it does exactly that. Theres luxurious double digipak packaging and a chunky booklet to chew over as well, the latter filled with an informative essay by one Bill Bentley, co-author of an imminent 13th Floor Elevators biography, as well as a handwritten note from the subject himself. Unlike some previous Erickson product, I Have Always Been Here Before is approved by the TrustRoky foundation, which should ensure that the man gets paid in full for the use of his work.
And what a body of work it is. Beginning in 1965 with his pre-Elevators band The Seeds, on We Sell Soul Ericksons voice is raw but already utterly distinctive, tearing from out of the minor key proto-goth backing. There follows an intelligently selected précis of the two 13th Floor Elevators that bore his stamp Roky was largely absent from the third, Bull Of The Woods and the crackling, acid-fried electric jug band psychedelia they contained. Youre Gonna Miss Me is resplendent in all its slashing, snotty garage band majesty; Reverberation (Doubt) displays the hallmark thuggish rumble of a chemically altered Stooges. Slip Inside This House is a totally different beast to Primal Screams truncated, Balearic cover on Screamadelica; maybe Bobby Gillespies crew were already too refreshed to contemplate mind-expanding lyrics such as Find yourself a caravan like Noah must have led. Perhaps psychedelias Close To The Edge, Rokys original is eight unfurling minutes of psychic exploration. Haunting and mysterious, Splash 1 is about as close as the Elevators travelled towards a love song they rarely stopped off at the floor of normality. Right Track Now, an outtake from second album Easter Everywhere, is oddly prescient, Erickson warbling Im writing you this letter/To tell you I feel better, all folky feel and strident, Dylanesque harmonica.
An intermission of at least half a decade followed. The facts are these: facing a prison sentence for possessing marijuana, Erickson pleaded insanity and was committed to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Texas. Released in the early 70s, and reportedly a shadow of his former self, it took the sterling efforts of fellow Texan Doug Sahm, of The Sir Douglas Quintet, to coax Erickson into recording and performing again. And, like the Syd Barrett who came back, his first post-incarceration material was, if anything, even more feral than that which had gone before.
Recorded with short-lived backing band Bleib Alien in the year before punk rock broke, all that separates Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog) from the Sex Pistols is the moon madness lyrics, some over-elaborate percussion and the clarity of the production. On the singles flip, Starry Eyes was the kind of song Buddy Holly would have written had he lived to reach the mid-1970s, right down to the hiccupping. Edgy, insistent and billed to Erickson alone, Bermuda updated the Elevators sound for a rather less flower-powered decade, Roky yelling like a man possessed, which maybe he was. Now backed by The Aliens, The Interpreter was Sweet Jane in outer space. Rock history seems to have forgotten, or maybe never bothered to remember in the first place, the potency of Rokys early solo output. As collected here, it burns with an intensity undimmed, or maybe even fuelled by, his years inside. Julian Cope covered I Have Always Been Here Before in fine electronic style on the Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye tribute disc, but Rokys original a ragged, acoustic rendition shades it, eloquently shoehorning strangeness into an ear-friendly verse-chorus-verse structure even as tempos lurch and words fumble. Click Your Fingers Applauding The Play is corrosive, acid genius and, like everything discussed here, is, in Rokys phrase, commercial as ants. But the people bought Ozzy albums instead, which is no tiny tragedy, as the artists have rather more in common than a cursory investigation might suggest drilled down to its lowest level, both played hard rock with mystical, fatalistic lyrics.
Over on the second disc, Creature With The Atom Brain is more sci-fi than psych, complete with a Living For The City-style playlet between verses. Bloody Hammer rips, tears and gouges it up, rabidly alive. Yet, on the other side of the coin, If You Have Ghosts is singalong pop fun. Sorta. Then come some heartfelt but slightly cumbersome attempts at Dylanesque protest Anthem (I Promise), Warning (Social And Social-Political Injustices) before yet another stylistic about turn finds Roky playing gentle folk-rock You Dont Love Me Yet is just crying out for a Yo La Tengo cover and 50s/60s pop pastiche (Clear Night For Love, Nothing In Return). Declaiming like a hellfire preacher, Burn The Flames goes a bit Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, piling horror movie image upon horror movie image into a huge, sulphurous pyre. Please Judge shackles Love Is Strange to lyrics pleading for penal reform, whilst the closing We Are Never Talking and Im Gonna Free Her proffer a kind of altered Byrdsian jangle.
Theres so much to enjoy here, all wrapped up in some cherishable, carefully assembled packaging. If you know nothing of Roky but have an interest in psychedelia a genre that he, as much as anybody, can stake a claim to the invention of hop on board. If you adore your 13th Floor Elevators albums but worry that the solo material that forms the bulk of this compilation couldnt possibly stand up, fret no more. I Have Always Been Here Before The Roky Erickson Anthology is a consistently astonishing box of delights documenting the work of a musician who couldnt be more deserving of your attention.
The 13th Floor Elevators