Rock music has always idolized and iconicized those seen to be casualties. If you sing and/or play, premature death and/or mental illness always seems to add to the luster of flickering creative flames. Conversely, good health and a productive work ethic is sometimes demonized, until old age brings about a respectability to earlier derided middle-aged output. Roky Erickson fell firmly into the former category, a wide-eyed and vibrant presence in the 1960s, knocked down by the all too familiar cocktail of which came first, drugs or mental instability. The answer, as always, and as with Syd Barrett, Peter Green and Brian Wilson: probably a bit of both.
Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators burst onto the Austin, TX, scene in 1965, their embellished proto garage band stomp the first to be labelled, by Erickson himself, as psychedelic. Their debut single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was only a minor hit, but is seen now a classic within the genre it spawned. Two albums into the band’s career, Erickson was becoming increasingly, as they say, troubled. A diagnosis of schizophrenia was made, and it was never sure whether he would be well enough to turn up and play, adding to the mystique.
However, the discovery of a single doobie then lead to his long term incarceration in a state mental institution, having been goaded into a plea of insanity around his charge for possession. This enforced stay, harsher than any criminal conviction, came at the same time as any treatments for schizophrenia were in their relative infancy, centered around electro-shock treatment and mind-numbing drugs such as Thorazine. It was three long years, 1969 – 72, before Erickson was released, his mental state, if anything, still more fragile than before.
Remaining a shadowy figure on the Texas circuit, with occasional forays into live performance, his mythology was beginning to build. A couple of well-received ’80s albums, one centered around his possibly unhealthy infatuation with horror films, lifted his reputation, and the 1990 tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye cemented his appeal as a cult artist. With a 2005 documentary examining his life and legacy in some greater depth, he was probably considered finished, but Erickson surprised many with one final recording, in cahoots with Okkervil River as his backing band, the well-received True Love Cast Out All Evil. He died in 2019.
This posthumous tribute was the brainchild of producer Bill Bentley, who served as an executive producer for Pyramid as well. It brings together contemporaries such as Billy Gibbons (a struggling musician in the same 1960s Texas), tribute album mainstay Lucinda Williams, and other, younger, and more surprising artists like Margo Price. A mix of simpatico recreations and righteous reenvisionings, overall I feel it hangs together better than that first tribute album.
Gibbons kicks off proceedings with a ragged, no-frills romp through “(I’ve Got) Levitation.” ZZ Top had opened Pyramid, so this feels a worthy act of continuity. With the original, bizarrely, sounding not unlike the Monkees, Gibbons is more channeling Lemmy in this version, closer to the later live performances that Erickson was giving of this song, right up to the end of his performing career. It is then up to the combination of Alison Mosshart and Charlie Sexton, as Mosshart Sexton, to weird things out, with a lysergically lovingly “Starry Eyes,” transplanting a slowed down version of the 2013 song into the patchouli-scented, lava-lamped vibe of 1967 downtown San Fran. So far and we’re flying.
In truth Jeff Tweedy can do little with “For You,” beyond wreaking a little more pathos into one of the slighter songs here. The same, surprisingly, holds true for Mark Lanegan, here partnered with Lynn Castle. Lanegan and Castle croon the song “Clear Night For Love” into how it may have sounded in Erickson’s head, but the desperation of the original is lost a little. It’s good and pleasant, but a bit of Lanegan bleak would have done no harm.
(Quick tangent: Castle has an intriguing back story. She was a contemporary of both Phil Spector, her high school boyfriend, and Lee Hazlewood, who encouraged her nascent musical endeavors, before she became a celebrated hair-stylist to the stars. She may have even cut Roky’s hair back in the day, but she would probably deny any part in his later chosen coiffure, closer to the school of “pulled through a hedge backwards.”)
“Don’t Fall Down” stems from the Elevators’ 1966 debut, and is prime for its time, admirably demonstrating the style embraced by the genre that Erickson near-invented, with backwards effects and phasing. So who better to cover than fellow Austin band, self-assigned new-psychedelicists, the Black Angels, who were also responsible for the Austin Psych Festival. These days it is entitled, in no small tribute I am sure, “Levitation.” Unsurprisingly, they max up the stoned ambience and it is a highpoint.
Neko Case may seem an odd choice here, but her plaintive and near unaccompanied voice (bar a disturbing background drone) is nothing short of astonishing. She takes “Be and Bring Me Home” back to imagined prairies of Erickson’s childhood, real or otherwise, and the song now feels a lucid flashback from the more muddled agitation of the 1974 original. One might expect more of the same from Margo Price, who follows Case here. And one would be wrong; her “Red Temple Prayer,” a.k.a. “Two-Headed Dog,” shows an altogether cross-contextual version of Ms. Price. She wails convincingly through a fairly faithful roister, getting progressively drawn into the lyric, begging a reprise of this direction for her future releases.
Bluesman Gary Clark Jr., another Austin alumnus, roughs up “Roller Coaster” into a rougher and readier version even than that by the Elevators. It’s a flat-out joy, especially the guitar solo, reeking of mid last century. He is paired here by Eve Monsees, a fellow blues guitarist, who may even be responsible for that solo, the two developing their love for music whilst attending the same school together. But if you want rough, nobody does that better than Ty Segall’s “Night of the Vampire,” who turns everything up to eleven. The whole thing sounds more like it was recorded in a cave than a garage, and that’s a compliment. Where the syndrums came from, who knows, but they are a nice touch.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the nearest thing to a hit for the Elevators, actually predates that band; its origins can be found in Erickson’s first band, the Spades, where it was a fairly rudimentary R&B Stonesy strut, all mouth harp and trebly guitar. The Elevators version is more like the early Kinks or Pretty Things, so territory not too far removed. Lucinda Williams, enlivened by her lockdown covers series, plays it straight, her drawl elongated into a snarl. I think she means it, the threat implicit. One of her best tributes, and she has done a lot. Less so Chelsea Wolfe, whose background is that hinterland betwixt folk and goth, where black is the predominant color. Of joint Norwegian/German stock, if brought up in California, she imbues this version of “If You Have Ghosts” with a delicious Scandi-noir that is way scarier than the template left by its author.
We close with the title track. I have always felt “May the Circle Remain Unbroken” has to be a response to the old country staple; the mood of the song, if not the lyric, harkens back to times past, and is an especially haunting song as performed by Erickson and band. Brogan Bentley is a Bay Area electronic artist, and his evocation here is exquisite, with loops of pedal steel weaving around his ethereal vocal. He is also the son of producer and compiler, Bill Bentley. A fitting and beautiful end to this thoughtful compendium of styles and stances, altogether a compelling tribute to this man and his mind.
Included with the Circle CD (at least in its original Record Store Day release) is a lavish essay from Bill Bentley, in the form of a letter to Roky, from his “water brother” Bill, describing, amongst other things, how he and Bentley had attended a latter-day concert together, and a flexi-disc of an otherwise unobtainable Erickson original “Love Hieroglyphics.”
May the Circle Remain Unbroken Tracklisting:
1. Billy F. Gibbons – (I’ve Got) Levitation (13th Floor Elevators cover)
2. Mosshart Sexton – Starry Eyes (Roky Erickson cover)
3. Jeff Tweedy – For You (I’d Do Anything) (Roky Erickson cover)
4. Lynn Castle & Mark Lanegan – Clear Night For Love (Roky Erickson cover)
5. The Black Angels – Don’t Fall Down (13th Floor Elevators cover)
6. Neko Case – Be And Bring Me Home (Roky Erickson cover)
B1. Margo Price – Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog) (Roky Erickson cover)
2. Gary Clark Jr. & Eve Monsees – Roller Coaster (13th Floor Elevators cover)
3. Ty Segall – Night Of The Vampire (Roky Erickson cover)
4. Lucinda Williams – You’re Gonna Miss Me (Spades cover)
5. Chelsea Wolfe – If You Have Ghosts (Roky Erickson cover)
6. Brogan Bentley – May The Circle Remain Unbroken (Roky Erickson cover)