“No bad places,” Roky Erickson sang. It came across as a plea or a promise, the opening line of “Sweet Honey Pie,” sung in 2010 with the decades-younger band Okkervil River reverently backing him up. I hadn’t even known he’d made that record, True Love Cast Out All Evil, until I saw something about it while I was reading the news he’d died, on May 31. I kept playing the recording, deep into the night and through the next morning. “No bad places / One has no uses / For abuses,” he sang, in a hoarse twang that sounded both worn down and indestructible, a fence rail bleached and hardened by the elements.
It took days to try to figure out what to say about him. It was a shock he’d made a record at all. He’d been for so long a legend and a sad story, over here the old records and over there the anecdotes about a lost mind and a lost life. If you wanted to keep it simple and miss the entire point, he was a bearded Texas weirdo, a creature of the ’60s, Roger Kynard Erickson, his given names mashed into something new, the man who maybe invented psychedelic rock and definitely took too much acid and ended up being judged clinically insane, institutionalized, hiding from the world and hoarding other people’s mail and watching multiple TVs tuned to static, while a smallish circle of knowing listeners marveled at the monumental music he’d left behind, canonical stuff, rock history.
Except he was alive, and the soul inside the music was a living soul and always had been. Maybe he did create psychedelia, singing skewed imagery over the hollow wailing of an electrified jug, with mystical titles and swirling colors on the album covers. But that was the most backward and inadequate credential to attach to his name. Psychedelic rock went down in history as bunch of people trying to tell each other, through consensus, what drugs ought to feel like; Roky Erickson wrote songs trying to express what it meant to be Roky Erickson, after he’d followed his own particular self out past its own boundaries into the windswept open plains beyond, and he couldn’t get back.
There was nothing to celebrate about the suffering he went through, and the myths that people like to make about art and madness are generally heartless things. “Electricity hammered me through my head,” he sang on that late-career album, “Till nothing at all is backward instead.” But he had seen those backward things, out there, and he’d sung them to where other people might see them too, and know them.
“If you have ghosts,” he sang, “then you have everything.” I don’t know if that was the first Roky Erickson song I ever heard, but it was the one that caught me, down in the basement at the college radio station, in a gust of joy and dread. It was the height of Erickson’s form, that clear and cryptic epigram chased by a frantic rattling of thoughts and syllables—“The moon to the left of me is a part of my thoughts, is a part of me, is me”—chased back around to another simple phrase of triumph or terror: “In the night / I am real / In the night / I am real.” Holding it all together was a trick so straightforward it was possible to miss; Erickson’s voice, an overdriven tenor, matched the pitch and blare of the lead guitar it was trading melodic lines with, so that the singer was inseparable from the whole of the music.
The stories and interviews made it easy to think of him as a naif, this man who once signed a statement swearing he was a space alien, but the songs were the work of a canny craftsman and a sly poet. He spoke the old language of rock and roll—”If I only knew / How to get to you”—fed through B-movies or scripture: “Sweet honey pie / And manna.” His recurring choice of pronoun was the formal, archaic “one,” solitary and universal. He could sharpen cliche into a heart-piercing incantation, or turn horror-flick images that should have been novelty-song material into fervent prophecy. He could deliver a stomping number declaring “I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog,” or could shakily beg “Please, judge / Don’t send or keep that boy away,” and either or both would sound like autobiography.
Deep in his damaged years, in a live recording, he did a cover of “Heroin,” the Velvet Underground’s museum-quality masterpiece about the existential storm of being on hard drugs. The Velvets’ elaborate composition came out shuffled and abridged, as it would have had to, under the circumstances. And then Erickson got to Lou Reed’s famous, college-brilliant lyric, “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son.”
“When I’m rushing on my rounds,” Erickson sang. “And I feel just like Jesus sounds.” It was a pin stuck into the cleverness and grandiosity of the original, so it all went whooshing out, leaving a cleaner, more mystical—a better—image. He was telling the listener how he believed it really did feel.
He was here to testify, across the distance. Years after I first heard Erickson, a friend who’d died walked into a dream I was having, and the friend and I both knew that outside the dream he was still dead. But there we were. If you have ghosts— I woke up and returned to myself remembering what the Texan had told me, and frozen me with, long before I’d understood him.