Record Store Day Unearths a Roky Erickson Rarity
Reanimating one of the great Austin tributes
Life sometimes offers the best surprises. Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, the Roky Erickson tribute album I produced in 1990, is being reissued this year on Record Store Day. A limited vinyl pressing will include all 22 tracks for the first time after a trio of songs were axed from the original CD release because of time restrictions.
In 1988, during the second annual South by Southwest, original Austin beatnik Tary Owens (1942–2003) informed me Erickson had hit a rough patch. The capital's homegrown psych pioneer liked gathering his neighbor's mail and taping it to his wall, almost like a security blanket. Unfortunately, postal authorities considered it mail theft, which landed Erickson in a federal mental health facility in Missouri.
He needed help, and in the late Eighties tribute albums proved all the rage, even if they never really sold. Before anyone could say "You're gonna miss me," over 20 artists offered contributions. As Warner Bros. Records PR, I got a green light on the project from sister label Sire, whose GM Howie Klein had put out seminal Erickson solo album The Evil One a decade earlier on his 415 Records. Austin third eye Jim Franklin signed on to create the cover, and Guy Clark, Joel Aparicio, and Casey Monahan each offered a photo for the artwork.
When I'd see the 13th Floor Elevators in Houston as a high schooler, Erickson, Tommy Hall, and the rest of the mid-Sixties sonic adventurers became my guiding light. The band's mind-bending fusion of otherworldly lyricism and lysergic blues-rock grounds me still. Those nights at La Maison remind me of their line, "Only love matters."
1) "Reverberation (Doubt)," ZZ Top
As teenagers in Houston, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and I worshipped the 13th Floor Elevators. When I approached the guitarist about a contribution to the album, ZZ Top immediately recorded "Reverberation." My mistake was not going through manager Bill Ham, who then wouldn't give me the tape (revisit "Bill Ham Had My Back," June 24, 2016). I still didn't have it an hour before mastering the final album. That's when he walked into the office, gave me a bit of the evil eye, and said, "I have one word for you, son: 'consistency.'" With that, he took the DAT out of his fancy sports jacket and tossed it to me. Then he turned and walked out.
2) "If You Have Ghosts," John Wesley Harding & the Good Liars
Gathering two of Elvis Costello's Attractions for his session, this UK pop and folk singer threw one of Erickson's signature songs into overdrive. Later covered by the band Ghost (naturally), Harding's version still gets singled out all these years later.
3) "I Had to Tell You," Poi Dog Pondering
My goal for the album was to enlist as many Austin acts as possible. That proved harder than it looked, but this gentle plea for sanity rides bassist and Saxon Pub mainstay Bruce Hughes' gorgeously timeless vocal.
4) "She Lives (in a Time of Her Own)," the Judybats
There was also pressure to include bands on Sire Records – even if they weren't longtime Roky fans. In this case it made sense. The Knoxville-based Judybats threw themselves into one of the Elevators' most powerful songs.
5) "Slip Inside This House," Primal Scream
This Elevators song has been my holy grail for 50 years, so when I listened to Primal Scream's tape for the first time I almost fainted. They'd mixed the words up so it barely made sense. Singer Bobby Gillespie had called during the session looking for the lyrics, but hadn't written them down. Lord knows what was going on in the London studio that night. Then they asked if they could change the name to "Trip Inside This House." Publisher Lelan Rogers said over his dead body. When the Scots included the song on their album Screamadelica, it generated more publishing royalties than the entire tribute album's sales.
6) "You Don't Love Me Yet," Bongwater
I must have gone to 20 record stores in New York one afternoon looking for this single so I could include it on the album. Pre-internet, footwork was the only way to find things. My last resort was the tiny CBGB store next to the club, and there it was, sitting on the counter by the cash register. There's a YouTube clip of Bongwater singer Ann Magnuson performing a madcap version of the song live, but it's labeled as a tribute to Robert Plant.
7) "I Have Always Been Here Before," Julian Cope
Fellow psychedelic explorer Julian Cope sent the tape from England to his label Island Records' office in New York. Donna Ranieri, who once worked there, got into their mail room and spent hours searching for the lost tape, finally finding Cope's beat-up package sitting in a corner. Cope ventured to SXSW the year after its release, and hid in a car instead of doing the interviews we'd set up.
8) "You're Gonna Miss Me," Doug Sahm & Sons
Sir Doug and the 13th Floor Elevators both escaped Texas in 1966 for San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, running from the Lone Star State's oppressive law enforcement. Sahm stayed a few years, while the Elevators came home and paid the price. For his version of the Elevators' only hit, Sahm gathered sons Shawn and Shandon along with bassist Speedy Sparks and set the song on fire. As only he could, the paterfamilias imitated Tommy Hall's psychedelic jug-playing with his mouth. Cosmic.
9) "It's a Cold Night (for Alligators)," Southern Pacific
Not many listeners understood why a country band would do this song, but their bassist Stu Cook not only helped found Creedence Clearwater Revival, he also produced the aforementioned The Evil One. Makes perfect sense.
10) "Fire Engine," Richard Lloyd
Charter member of Television, Lloyd used to perform this song in the band's New York heyday. When the guitarist finished this take in a Hoboken studio, a police motorcycle rushing outside the studio with its siren blaring got captured on the track for posterity.
11) "Bermuda," Vibrating Egg
On a busman's holiday, Vibrating Egg cut a single of an early Erickson classic and released it on Dog Gone Records. Not many had heard of the band, and even fewer knew it was actually R.E.M. with their manager Jefferson Holt, aka Raoul Duplott, on vocals.
12) "I Walked With a Zombie," R.E.M.
Michael Stipe's singing sometimes sounds like Roky's. Something yearning unites their voices, but R.E.M. heard most songs had already been spoken for and declined to contribute. The band was informed we'd include anything they chose to record, but I could never figure out why they covered this song, which has only one lyric. Recently, I asked guitarist Peter Buck, who thought it was because Stipe knew he wouldn't have to learn many words.
13) "Earthquake," Butthole Surfers
Of 'Vators-influenced Austin acts in 1990, the Surfers held the mantle. Singer Gibby Haynes surely battled similar demons to Erickson, as this hallucinatory version of "Earthquake" demonstrates.
14) "Don't Slander Me," Lou Ann Barton
Ft. Worth singing sensation and first-generation Austin blues siren Lou Ann Barton had performed this song for years, imbuing it with ample rock & roll heebie-jeebies. Her former bandmate Stevie Ray Vaughan offered to play lead guitar on it, but couldn't make the schedule work. He also told me he wanted to record the Replacements' "Bastards of Young." What could have been.
15) "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)," Sister Double Happiness
Palestine, Texas, reared singer Gary Floyd relocated first-wave Austin punks the Dicks to mid-Eighties San Francisco, where he later spun off grunge-era group Sister Double Happiness. It took his from-the-mount boom to deliver all-time chorus "Two-headed dog, two-headed dog, I've been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog." Its author had recorded the song backed with "Starry Eyes" as his first 45 after release from the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Produced by Doug Sahm and sole output of his Mars Records, the single put Erickson back on the map, at least in Austin, in 1975. Nick Lowe agreed to do "Starry Eyes" for the tribute, but it never happened. Yet.
16) "Burn the Flames," Thin White Rope
Producer-keyboardist Bill Noland had been married to Warner Bros. exec Kathe Duba-Noland, but singer Guy Kyser made any nepotism moot with a perfect voice for its Halloween-esque lyrics. Roky once said it was his favorite song on the album.
17) "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)," Chris Thomas
Last song on the 13th Floor Elevators' 1967 masterpiece Easter Everywhere, it aligned with this then Austin-based bluesman singing about eternity after physical death. By then, Chris Thomas had gone Prince, electronic drums and ultra swagger still doing the song proud. His Baton Rouge-based father Tabby Thomas guested on the track, evoking "Hoodoo Party," his 1961 hit: "The higher you're living, the purer it burns." Burn, baby, burn.
18) "Nothing in Return," T Bone Burnett
The long, tall Ft. Worth Texan had been on the scene in the Sixties when the Elevators ran wild, and picked this song because he appreciated the challenge of "falling in love with a schizophrenic, who literally can't give anything back." The only Roky Erickson original to ever boast timpani.
19) "Splash 1," Mighty Lemon Drops
One of the most moving ballads of the Sixties, written by Erickson and Tommy Hall's wife Clementine, it starts with the line, "I've seen your face before I've known you all my life." Brits the Mighty Lemon Drops recorded it for an EP in 1987, so adding it to the album made perfect sense – even if they never forgave me for leaving it off the CD.
20) "We Sell Soul," Lyres
One of Boston's wildest bands, Lyres chose a song first done by Erickson's pre-Elevators band the Spades. Hardcore Rokyites, all right. Alas, another cassette- only track.
21) "White Faces," Angry Samoans
Guitarist Gregg Turner worked for Elevators producer Lelan Rogers, so he knew where all the bodies were buried. His Angry Samoans were thrilled to be included, but producer Bill Inglot still hasn't let me forget the song was relegated to the cassette. Its inclusion on the new double vinyl will hopefully mend that fence.
22) "Reverberation (Doubt)," the Jesus & Mary Chain
Another UK band legendary for aberrant behavior and feedback-driven sonics, J&MC turned in the same song done by ZZ Top, so we bookended the disc with it. Plus, they were the only act on Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye to sample the 13th Floor Elevators, using Stacy Sutherland's original lead guitar throughout, then adding fevered sounds from the start of "Fire Engine" to drive their new version all the way to, well, the 13th floor.
After the album was finished and artwork completed, a Warner Bros. attorney noticed the Vulcan Gas Co. poster in the package included Winnie the Pooh characters. He strongly explained that the Walt Disney Company owned the A.A. Milne creation and its likenesses, so we couldn't dare use them or we'd get sued and the album pulled from distribution. I explained the poster was from 1967 and Disney made their deal in 1969, and our fine legal mind bought my reasoning.
Somehow, somewhere I knew the pyramid and the eye were looking after our album.
We scheduled a Waterloo Records in-store for Oct. 30, 1990, the day before Roky's favorite holiday. A grand affair full of light and love for its celebrant, the release party netted Doug Sahm, Lou Ann Barton, Chris Thomas, and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. The only hitch came when a woman in the signing line asked Roky to autograph her arm.
"Sorry miss," he said with a big smile, "but I don't sign flesh."
We quickly got her a poster.
Beforehand, a few of us had dinner at La Zona Rosa. As we sat at our table, I glanced down and found an image of Roky Erickson set into the cement looking right back at me. Then as now, the circle and its supernatural vibrations remains unbroken.
Waterloo Records, End of an Ear, Antone’s Records, Encore Records, Breakaway Records, Groovers’ Paradise, Exploded Records, and Pirahna Records all stock exclusive RSD releases on Saturday, April 22.