Turn it Down! Loud dispatches from Lansing’s music scene

Halloween with Roky Erickson

From the 13th Floor down to hell, “The Evil One” is a demon-ridden journey

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It’s October, and while Halloween is still weeks away, many enthusiasts use the entire month to celebrate. Some watch one horror movie a day, some dress up in extravagant costumes—some (music nerds) make new Halloween-themed mixes each year. Obvious picks are spooky cuts by The Cramps and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but also classics like “The Monster Mash.”

But, if you’re short on time, and don’t have time to dig, you can do it in a simple, yet amazing, way. Just throw on Roky Erickson’s “Evil One” LP. Released in 1981, as Roky Erickson & The Aliens, it’s the debut solo album from the late 13th Floor Elevators front man. Erickson, who died in 2019 at age 71, is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking mind-altering work with the Elevators. After all, his 1996 song “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is arguably the blueprint for psychedelic rock.

But as the ’60s wound down, the 13th Floor Elevators dissolved as Erickson battled serious mental health issues. In 1968, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was sent to a Houston psychiatric hospital. There, he involuntarily received electroconvulsive therapy. He was arrested on drug charges the following year, and was on a downward spiral. Through 1974, the pioneering songwriter remained institutionalized. After some heavy periods of musical inactivity, Erickson would pop up with new music occasionally during the 1970s and ’80s — and “The Evil One” is one of his best (along with 1995’s “All That May Do My Rhyme” LP, which includes another dreamy classic of his: “Starry Eyes”.) 

Whereas the Elevators were sonically trippy and atmospheric, Erickson’s new chapter in music was much fierier and more aggressive. It was tense, and filled with blood, demons, monsters and zombies. At times, the anxious tunes bordered on quirky and theatrical, but he knew how to tap dance on that line and keep things tasteful and smart. What could have been bone-headed hard rock novelty tracks somehow, when written and performed by Erickson, seem deep and genuine.  Each composition on this record is a brilliant slice of his long, strange career. An interesting side note is that Stu Cook, formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival, produced the tracks over the course of two years (1977-1979) — though these cuts do not echo “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” that’s for sure.

Some of this ghostly era of Erickson’s life was documented on film for Swedish television, which aired “Demon Angel: A Day and Night With Roky Erickson.” The 1984 documentary showed Erickson performing in an underground creek beneath the Congress Street Bridge in his hometown of Austin, Texas, on, of course, Halloween. It’s a must see. His oddball, heavy rock songs are performed acoustically and sound just as powerful without the distortion and explosive rhythm section. Part of that is due to his powerful, signature voice — one of the best voices to ever sing a rock ’n roll song. 

On “Evil One,” this persona is in top form. The must play tracks are “Don't Shake Me Lucifer,” “If You Have Ghosts,” “Two-Headed Dog,” “Night of the Vampire,” “I Think of Demons,” “Stand for the Fire Demon,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “Bloody Hammer.” Other songs, like “Creature with the Atom Brain” give an obvious nod to his love of 1950s B-horror flicks, while “Cold Night for Alligators” is just flat out bizarre.   

If you’re worn out on the usual Halloween tracks, perhaps this year you can dedicate the holiday to Mr. Erickson — who lived the life he sang about in his songs. Light in the Attic Records issued a deluxe two-LP version of the album not too long ago. It’s worth the extra coin for the 20-page book and additional songs. An essential cult classic. 

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