The Austin Chronicle

Biography of Spooky Rocker Roky Erickson Gets Inside the Myth and Madness

New oral history explores the head and mysteries of Austin's psych pioneer

Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, December 3, 2021, Arts

Oral histories generally denote an amorphous "story" its gleaners failed to delineate properly. Not True Love Cast Out All Evil's retelling of Roky Erickson's life. Brian T. Atkinson dominoes his ripping garage rocker through dozens of prodigious sources pulsing a psychedelic tall tale in waves of sound and vision like someone huffing on an amplified kerosene jug.

Beginning at the forewords (Billy Gibbons, Henry Rollins) and loping over his preface, acknowledgments, and a brief timeline of its subject's revolutionary band the 13th Floor Elevators, the ATX music historiographer trampolines off the singer in the prologue – "She needed to get her own name more than [as] a member of the Elevators. She had to be Janis Joplin. I had to be Roky Erickson." – and deposits us in the Fifties living room of the Erickson clan of South Austin. Let that dissolve on your tongue for a moment. Linear rather than elliptical, the sleek yet meaty tome tracing The Songwriting Legacy of Roky Erickson allows most of its respondents a single entry only as it sings through a half-century of groundbreaking history.

"His parents were way bohemian," reveals opener Mike Pankratz, still-gigging father of local drummer extraordinaire Lisa Pankratz. "Their house was wacky. ... Calling them liberal would be an understatement."

"We grew up in a two-bedroom home in Austin," follows up Mikel Erickson, second of three initial brothers. "The house was built in 1947, while my parents were still living in Dallas, which is where Roky was born in July of that year."

"Part I: The Psychedelic Sounds" of the 13th Floor Elevators gives the purest trip, a heady, always dizzying levitation through the local cauldron that brewed up a group credited with coining its genre. Group muse, lyricist, and band name producer Clementine Hall incants contemporarily, as do early collaborator Powell St. John and 'Vators beat master John Ike Walton. Together with a tightly culled elemental cast, they populate the legend of a howler perhaps equal to Little Richard himself, a sonic spirit guide whose rock & roll lightning rod reverberated across the psychic stratosphere when struck by the third-eye visions of band doctrinist Tommy Hall.

"Part II: The Interpreter" stacks more than 50 respondents in erecting an anti-Tower of Babel documenting a singular language: Buddy Holly-lined spook rock. One too many run-ins with Johnny Law over pot collides with tragic legal advice to land Erickson in the bughouse at the mercy of electroshock therapists straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As demons both real and imagined consume him, the sanguine Austinite arcs across Eighties shock rock, Nineties psychogenic dilapidation, and finally a new millennial transcendence as captured by Will Sheff and Okkervil River via the collaborative LP that titles this equally dear document.

Note, too: The literal elevator image of "unknown" origin in the photos section appeared on the cover of The Austin Chronicle on March 14, 2008, as captured by Todd V. Wolfson at the Driskill Hotel. Erickson ferries Gary Clark Jr., Brannen Temple, and Black Joe Lewis to the 13th Floor.

True Love Cast Out All Evil: The Songwriting Legacy of Roky Erickson by Brian T. Atkinson, Texas A&M University Press, 240 pp., $28

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