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May The Circle Remain Unbroken: A Tribute to Roky Erickson

08-12-2021 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 117

Roger Kynard "Roky" Erickson was, if nothing else, a Texas original. As founder of Austin's Thirteenth Floor Elevators, he was on the cutting edge of the first wave of psychedelia when the band's most noteworthy song, "You're Gonna Miss Me" ascended from a regional hit to crack the national charts in early 1966. One month prior to his presumed high school graduation, he refused to cut his long hair, rather than conform to the school's rigid graduation dress code. Choosing to instead form the band that would blow the minds of many-a-hippie, if only for a relatively brief period in the spotlight. It's widely rumored that Janis Joplin toyed with joining the Thirteenth Floor Elevators before departing for the more fertile regions of Haight Ashbury.

Erickson had played in bands throughout his teens; his first serious group, the Spades, had a fairly big regional hit with the Erickson penned "We Sell Soul" not long after his fifteenth birthday. The Elevators' debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, is considered one of the most influential psychedelic albums of all time; Erickson's primal scream vocals and wailing harmonica work helped make him a garage band legend in the decades following its release. The manic and unstable lifestyle of Erickson and the Elevators—which included ingesting near-legendary amounts of LSD—got them very quickly in both mental and legal trouble. 

Especially Erickson; near the end of the Elevators brief three-year existence, he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and in 1968 was treated with electro-shock therapy. Soon afterwards, he was arrested for marijuana possession—he had in his possession a single joint! To avoid prison, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and spent the next three years in several Texas mental institutions, where he was reportedly given extensive applications of Thorazine and electro-shock therapy. Unsurprisingly, he didn't respond well to his incarceration, although he continued to write both poetry and songs while in the Texas Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Following his release, Roky Erickson underwent intermittent periods of intense musical activity, which were usually followed by extended periods where his creativity and any musical endeavors seemed to decline significantly. Still, over the years, he collaborated and played with the likes of Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet founder), Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Austin bands the Explosives (featuring Billy Gibbons) and the Skunks, and King Coffey (Butthole Surfers). He guested on an album by Scottish band Mogwai, and in the 2000s, returned to stages in Coachella, New York, Europe (Finland's Ruisrock Festival), sold out performances at the Royal Albert Hall, and performances backed by Okkervil River at Austin's SXSW. And even participated in a 2015 Austin reunion of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators that included most of the original members. Roky Erickson eventually and over time created a substantial body of work, which is all the more remarkable, especially considering the many trials he endured along the way. Roky Erickson died in Austin of unspecified causes on May 31, 2019.

May The Circle Remain Unbroken

Light In The Attic Records and producer Bill Bentley have assembled an all-star cast for this tribute album, featuring Lucinda Williams, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Austin counterculture sensations The Black Angels, Margo Price, Mosshart Sexton (aka Alison Mosshart [The Kills] & Charlie Sexton), Neko Case, Mark Lanegan & Lynn Castle, Jeff Tweedy, Gary Clark Jr. & Eve Monsees, Ty Segall, Chelsea Wolfe, and Brogan Bentley (son of producer Bill Bentley). May The Circle Remain Unbroken is an album filled with eclectic and multifarious performances of a widely-scattered cross section of the music of Roky Erickson; my only serious criticism is that some of the realizations aren't quite as unrestrained as perhaps Roky Erickson might have originally envisioned them. It's a tribute album, and everything is fair game for individual interpretation; be as that may, I'm generally one who looks for cover songs that bring something very new and perhaps enlightening to the table. More often than not, that's the case on this excellent new album.

Billy Gibbons kicks off Side One with a scorching interpretation of "(I've Got) Levitation," which features some insanely sick guitar work along with a screaming vocal incantation. Next up is Mosshart Sexton, with their goth-inspired, funereal dirge that is "Starry Eyes," which was actually one of Roky's more upbeat tunes. This is a jarring juxtaposition to the jangly guitars of the original, to say the very least! Jeff Tweedy steps up and gives a delicate, almost chamber-like rendition of "For You (I'd Do Anything)." Mark Lanegan & Lynn Castle offer up a stripped-down version of "Clear Night For Love;" while they hew pretty closely to Roky Erickson's original intent, the music probably would have been better served with a touch more anguish in their vocal delivery. Austin's own Black Angels (who toured with and backed up Erickson late in his career) offer a heavily phased and effects-laden version of "Don't Fall Down" that's much more psychogenic than the original. The side closes with Neko Case's interpretation of "Be And Bring Me Home," with a much more rueful vocal intonation than the Erickson original, plus there's this subterranean drone in the background of the song that will excite your subwoofers like nothing else. 

Side Two also kicks off in rockingly good form with a nifty guitar figure that prefaces Margo Price's delivery of "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)." Price proves here why she's one of the brightest lights on the Americana/Alt Country scene with an incendiary version of this Erickson classic that almost matches the ferocity of the Alien-era original. Next up is Gary Clark Jr & Eve Monsees' powerfully rocking variation of the Elevators' "Roller Coaster," where Gary Clark just wails on guitar and Eve Monsees offers a heavily processed vocal that very nearly matches the intensity of the original. LoFi/garage rocker Ty Segall screams out his reinterpretation of another Alien-era tune, "Night of the Vampire." Lucinda Williams, is, well, Lucinda Williams, and she gives a typically drenched in Lucinda-isms version of Erickson and the Elevators' most well known tune, "You're Gonna Miss Me." There's a really great guitar solo in the song's center that's alone worth the price of admission. Chelsea Wolfe's otherworldly, layered vocal on "If You Have Ghosts" is much more subdued than the original, but has an evocative, trancelike vibe. Brogan Bentley provides a heartfelt rendition of "May The Circle Remain Unbroken," with a particularly apropos steel guitar accompaniment. This was the very last song recorded by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and brings the album to a fitting conclusion. 

Listening Results

May The Circle Remain Unbroken arrived encased in a heavy, tip-on style, gatefold outer sleeve that's constructed like a double LP jacket. The gorgeous, translucent spattered purple 140 gram LP was placed in the first sleeve, and a really cool LP-sized, 16 page booklet with rare photos and liner notes from producer Bill Bentley was located in the second sleeve. Also included is a bonus RSD only flexi-disc single, featuring an unreleased Roky Erickson track, "Love Hieroglyphics," performed by Erickson sometime in the early 70s. It's a beautifully put-together package, and Erickson completists will no doubt find the inclusion of the flexi-disc of particular interest. 

My listening was done through my usual analog front end, which features a ProJect Classic turntable fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge, with the signal fed into a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp that's powered by a Michael Yee linear power supply. About the same time as the LP arrived, I had just gotten in review equipment from Wells Audio, the Commander line stage tube preamplifier and the Inamorata II power amplifier (review forthcoming on Positive Feedback). This new equipment played into my Magneplanar LRS loudspeakers with the usual pair of subs; May The Circle Remain Unbroken sounded superbly dynamic over this setup!


Roky Erickson's scope of influence definitely outpaced his commercial success over his career; project producer Bill Bentley says that the roster of artists who showed interest in participating in the album sessions was shockingly diverse. Apparently even Metallica originally signed on, but scheduling conflicts ultimately prevented them from participating! Originally designated as a Record Store Day release for the July 17th event, there were apparently some delays getting the LP into stores on time. In addition to your local indie record store, you can find this LP for purchase on LITA's website, so there's a very good chance you'll be able to pick up a copy of this excellent release. It's an outstanding tribute album filled with quirky and offbeat performances that would do Roky Erickson proud; May The Circle Remain Unbroken is a great album package that comes highly recommended.

May The Circle Remain Unbroken: A Tribute To Roky Erickson. 140 gram translucent vinyl with purple hi-melt spatter: $25 MSRP.

All images provided by Light In The Attic Records and Chummy Press