(Sevens, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song.)
Roky Erickson is among the most tortured of our pop ingénues. The Austin singer-songwriter, founding member of the 13th Floor Elevators, and arguable founder of psychedelic rock, is a casualty of the sixties’ oft-ignored fallout; Erickson reportedly took LSD over 300 times in the sixties, was arrested and booked for ten years for possession of a single joint in 1969, and pled insanity on the back of a schizophrenia diagnosis that landed him in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he endured shock treatment. Upon release, he attempted to tour, signed a legal affidavit wherein he swore himself to be an alien, and developed a habit of collecting junk mail. Unlike Brian Wilson, his legend and influence, though acknowledged often in some circles, has gone largely unnoticed. He has suffered things that human beings should not have to endure—both at his own hands and at the hands of the state. So when Roky Erickson can stand in the face of all of that and open an album with a gently sung paean to Jesus, it’s probably worth paying attention.
“Devotional Number One,” which was recorded on a reel-to-reel in Rusk and later embellished by the reverent hands of Okkervil River, opens True Love Cast Out All Evil, Erickson’s first album of new recordings since 1995’s Roky Erickson and Evilhook Wildlife. The tape crackles under the weight of Erickson’s strumming, and his guitar struggles to stay in tune. His fingers bump against the guitar’s body as he plays, and doors can be heard opening and closing in the background. But from somewhere in the static comes Erickson’s voice, piercing in its intimacy; it’s an almost too-private moment, broken only when Erickson reminds his listeners that “Jesus is not a hallucinogenic mushroom,” which could either mean that, for Erickson, transcendence is no longer found in psychedelics, or that Christ offers no distortion of reality, or it could be a simple reminder: drugs are not God. Maybe it’s the foreknowledge of Erickson’s history, but something in the vitality of the performance pushes it as far from Afternoon Special schmaltz as can be; Okkervil’s crescendos of strings, which rise behind and redeem the tape hiss, touch the spaces Erickson’s singing has exposed, and the whole group pushes into the present, transitioning into the loping acoustic duet “Ain’t Blues Too Sad.” Erickson’s voice—rough, sharp, and heavily accented—sounds worn but steady as he pleads his way towards reconciliation with his baby darlin’. He sings candidly here, almost as if he’s reflecting on the previous track when he sings, “Electricity hammered me through my head / Till nothing at all is backward, instead,” before releasing that darlin’ out to be with her own true love.
Together, the two songs form something of an opening suite, preparing the listener for the stark set to follow. And, at the risk of playing down the immensity of Erickson’s lyrical, musical, and personal achievement with True Love Cast Out All Evil, Okkervil River turn out to be true heroes themselves, backing Erickson with erudition on anything from country ballads to stomping noir. But it’s these two tracks—this opening double A-side—that stand up the proudest, elevating through blotters and tape hiss. words/ m garner
MP3: Roky Erickson :: Devotional Number One