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How Roky Erickson and his 13th Floor Elevators expanded an adolescent punk rocker's mind

Rok of Ages



Even in a decade-and-a-half of shitty jobs, that first one had to be the shittiest. It was like some cosmic punishment for crimes I had yet to commit — the universe yelling, "Hey, schmuck! You shouldn't have waited until the day before Thanksgiving to look for a Christmas job," and then backhanding me with all the weight of a billion galaxies. It was like Slave-Wage Misery 101: a big-box craft store that employed only the most miserable adults on earth, two nerdy, crochet-loving girls — back before crochet got its hipster makeover and became a cool pursuit — and me, a teenage punk rocker. The place reeked of lavender and slow, creeping death, packed full of glittery baubles, fake trees and old women armed with coupons and infuriated by lack of knowledge regarding hot glue guns and sequins. Each shift was pure, unmitigated torture, with endless loops of Muzak'd Christmas tunes and streams of cranky, crafty customers barking their dying wishes for a bigger discount at me.

But there was an upside! I shoplifted the shit out of the cutout bin CDs they left on every counter. Yes, kiddos, the impetus to steal music was around long before broadband, Wi-Fi or social networking — it was just the sort of crime that you could actually get caught and punished for. And since the threat of punishment was very much real, you couldn't just grab things willy-nilly. You really had to think and plan and weigh consequences against rewards — there was more to it than a couple clicks of the mouse, and thus it was imperative to pick and choose carefully. One of those choices — the best, maybe most important bad decision I ever made — was deciding that yes, this shoddily packaged, poorly notated 13th Floor Elevators live CD was going home in my pocket.

Now mind you, I had no real idea who 13th Floor Elevators were, their place as pioneers of psychedelic music, or who their enigmatic leader Roky Erickson was. This was a decade before the heartbreaking and beautiful documentary on Erickson's life and struggles with mental illness, You're Gonna Miss Me, before the Elevators had become the soundtrack for hip cinematic affairs like High Fidelity and Boys Don't Cry, before the classic Nuggets garage-rock compilation made it to CD. I did, however, know that the bootleggers, tape traders and record collectors who ran classified ads in the back of Goldmine, Maximum Rocknroll and other fanzines loved Roky and the Elevators — those fans were asking top dollar for just about any shred of proof that the Elevators ever existed. I knew that they were name-dropped left and right as the most primo of proto-punk outfits, but tracking down one of their albums in my small corner of suburbia was nearly impossible. I had to know what this band was all about, and if that meant I had to wander into shady territory under the noses of my corporate overlords, so be it.

When I got home with my clandestine acquisition, opened up the case and put that shiny disc in the tray, it was pretty clear that this was unlike any punk rock I had ever heard. There was a Buddy Holly cover, and it sorta sounded like the blues rock my dad loved, and there was this weird, weird noise ascending and descending through the mix that was both unnerving and hypnotic. (No thanks to Collectable Records' barely-above-a-bootleg liner notes, I would eventually discover that it was Tommy Hall's electric jug making my wig flip and lending the whole affair an otherworldly air.) This wasn't a band playing at breakneck speed or writing about how much they hate Ronald Reagan, but it was pretty clear that they were a band that was dangerous. It was, in the most classical sense, a psychedelic experience. My mind had expanded from one of a parochial pop-punker to one that was ready to see the world in greater resolution and stranger sounds. It also sent me into a lifetime of listening to Roky Erickson — in all the weirdness, darkness and joy that comes with those songs — which ain't a bad little benny for your first shitty job.

As far as Erickson's story ... well, we'll spare you the well-reported years of decline and ravaged health — thanks in part to the shock therapy and Thorazine Erickson had to endure — and skip to the happy ending: Over the past decade, under his brother's care, Roky's condition has dramatically improved, and he's performed on various projects with bands such as The Black Angels and Okkervil River. On this tour he's backed by The Hounds of Baskerville, led by his son Jegar, with Brooklyn trio Nude Beach opening; it's worth going just to see if songs like "Burn the Flames" still cast their psychotronic spell — and the reviews have been encouraging.


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