By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com
“I’ve gone through three changes: first I thought I was a Christian, then I was the devil, and then a third one where I know who I am, and I feel like an alien.”
– Roky Erickson
Call him “The great lost vocalist of Rock ‘N Roll.” Call him “The Unknown hero of Rock ‘N Roll.” Around here, though, we call him the haunted howling wolf of psychedelia. These are just a few of the countless expressions of praise rightfully lavished upon underground legend Roky Erickson, the man responsible for the skull-cracking mayhem known as The 13th Floor Elevator back in the 1960s and, for a far less memorable minute, in the early 1970s after Roky was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Austin, Texas.
The band’s demise in 1973 was hardly surprising; they had hit a few minor snags along the way. A couple of members had to be booted for doing too much speed. Then their lead guitarist, Stacy Sutherland, became hooked on heroin and was subsequently murdered by his wife–that there’s a snag if I’ve ever heard one. If that seems like a harsh penalty for pumping the magic juice, though, you might want to keep reading.
The tragic B-movie horror flick that is the life of Roky Erickson, truly one of Rock ‘N Roll’s unsung pioneers whose influence has been explicitly noted by an array of bands that includes R.E.M., The White Stripes, Patti Smith, ZZ Top, The Butthole Surfers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and goth-rock Gods The Cramps, among many others, reads like a page torn out of the bible your grandpa keeps in a drawer by the bed with his gun. I’d say that it sounds like a movie, but rumors of a biopic about Roky were dashed when Jack Black literally called him to say that he “couldn’t handle the part.” No shit, jack. That’s why he’s Roky f-ing Erickson.
No one’s really sure exactly what turned Jack Black off to the role, but there are plenty of possibilities. Maybe it was the electro-shock treatment forced on Roky at Rusk. Maybe it was the mind-numbing doses of Thorazine they choked him with, or those beatings at the hands of assholes in uniform there. Black was a sensible choice for the role, though, given that Roky’s anthem, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was featured in the film that Black made his name in, the brilliant John Cusak flick Hi-Fidelity. If you think you’ve never heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” by the way, please kindly come out from under your rock and turn on the radio. Or watch this video (cheater).
So what foul offense did he commit to be beaten, electrocuted, drugged and caged, you ask? Simple: he took a single twist of weed on a drive through Mount Bonnell in Austin one day in 1969. Given the band’s aforementioned propensities for speed, heroin and murder, the cops, naturally, took an interest (can’t those bastards take a joke?), and then they took Roky in. Varying reports exist on exactly how many joints he’d packed that day, actually, but in a 2005 interview with Paul Drummond, Erickson insists the Cops’ story that he tossed a vial of pot out the window of his car was a load of horseshit and that they planted the evidence:
Erickson: Well it doesn’t seem right that I would through out a vial of grass into the weeds and a Policeman would stop and set his flashlight on it and get it .
Drummond: Are you saying he planted it?
Erickson: That sounds real good.
We’re sure it does, Roky. Real, real good. Just as it sounded good when he was busted loose from Rusk the night an “electric jug player” named Tommy Hall “took the door off the hinges with a screwdriver and snook me out of the hospital,” as Roky puts it (and all this time you thought “snook” was a fish!). And that’s where the nightmare began, really: the torture inflicted from the outside became the more inescapable torture within him: a prolonged bout with acute schizophrenia that left him to drown out “the awful noises” in his head by sitting at home amid a multitude of blasting televisions. Soon he was publicly announcing that a Martian inhabited his body, a claim that actually begins to make sense when you watch the documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which premiered at the 2005 SXSW Film festival, and listen to friends of his say things like “anyone who tried to have a conversation with him understood that he was not of this world.” Maybe Roky wasn’t kidding.
And neither are the legions of loyalists who shower him in thunderous ovations at his many recent live shows, particularly at the sizzling performances he’s been putting on with veteran garage rockers The Explosives. It’s clear that Erickson has no interest in cashing in on dated glories, as he rocks just as hard on signature tunes like the scorching metal rant “Two Headed Dog” or “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators” as he does on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” gems he produced despite the crippling onslaught of mental illness. For a guy who dropped out of high school rather than conform to code by cutting his hair, such willful defiance of a condition that has silenced so many great voices is characteristic of the kind of determination that enabled him to write hundreds of songs while cooped up at the State Home.
Not to be confined by any particular sound or label, Roky explores a range his hard-nosed rock reputation doesn’t always credit, as gorgeous ballads like “Starry Eyes” or “You Don’t Love Me Yet” elicit as many sing-alongs from crowds as anything else he’s done. With The Explosives, though, even the gentlest ballad is transformed into the most sneering rocker, as on this rendition of “Starry Eyes” from a gig in Stockholm last year. But it’s the banalities of Roky’s new life after schizophrenia and a disastrous deterioration under the care of his mother that might be the grandest miracle of all: he has a driver’s license for the first time in decades, owns a car, and even votes.
Much of his comeback–both on stage and off–is in thanks to his younger brother Sumner, who won legal guardianship of him in 2001 and reversed his mother’s support of Roky’s refusal to take prescriptions for his paranoid schizophrenia. His teeth had undergone severe decay and he was living in federally-subsidized housing, depending largely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get by (especially for those sweet cream ice cream malts he loves so dearly–he once traded the rights for several songs with Doug Sahm for nothing more than a milkshake, exactly the reason why his brother had to help him dig out of a tangle of grossly exploitative royalty deals that left him penniless). Then the cops came back to bust him on a bogus charge of mail fraud; yes, Rocky was taping neighbors’ mail to his walls, but furious.com reports that “He had been collecting and distributing mail for two neighbors, but when they moved away Roky continued to collect but no longer distribute. When police came to his home they found it all unopened and some of it taped to his walls.”
Only since Sumner’s lucky day in court has his brother Roky really taken back his life, keeping his mind in check with medication he should have been taking all along, delivering more public performances than he’d done in decades, and even recording new music. Now Roky’s got a web site and tour dates (a gig in new Orleans is coming up on April 30), and the web is abuzz with reports of the most unlikely rock ‘n roll resurrection since the last Jim Morrison sighting. Hell, you can even find the guy on MySpace. Chicago Public Radio reported last year that long time 13th Floor devotee Billy Gibbons, singer and guitarist of ZZ Top, is rumored to be doing an album with Roky that may see the light of day this year, further confirming that what would be the twilight of any other rocker’s career is actually Roky’s second dawn.