When I last wrote
about Roky Erickson in May 2005, I noted that the legendary Texas
musician had spent the last two decades trailing Pink Floyd founder
Syd Barrett and Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson atop the list of
rock's most tragic burnouts.
As the singer for
the first great psychedelic rock band, the 13th Floor Elevators, and
as a solo artist active through the punk and New Wave eras, the
Austin native influenced countless musicians who followed. R.E.M.,
Julian Cope, the Jesus and Mary Chain and ZZ Top are just a few of
the dozens who've covered his songs. But from the mid-'80s until
early in the new millennium, he lived in poverty as a virtual
recluse, shying away from the music world as he battled
schizophrenia under the dubious care of his mother, who disdained
modern psychiatric drugs.
turnaround began when his younger brother, Sumner, a world-class
symphonic tuba player, won an ugly court battle for legal custody
and patiently started nursing him back to health. By the spring of
2005, he was well on the road to recovery, and at age 57, he stood
at the center of a flurry of activity, including a brilliant
documentary, "You're Gonna Miss Me"; a new anthology of some of his
best songs, "I Have Always Been Here Before," and his first
tentative steps toward returning to the stage. He'd eventually play
10 shows before the end of 2005, but even the most optimistic fan
wouldn't have hoped at the time that he'd ever tour again.
Now, a year
further into what the Austin Chronicle has called a Lazarus-like
resurrection and the comeback to end all comebacks, Erickson is
preparing to perform outside his home state for the first time in 20
years, fronting a band called the Explosives (comprised of veteran
Texas musicians Fred Krc, Cam King and Chris Johnson) and preparing
to take the stage before a crowd of 15,000 or more at next week's
Intonation Music Festival in Union Park.
"I feel pretty
excited about it," Erickson told me last week in his typically
concise and understated manner.
And he's not the
pretty remarkable, but I absolutely feel like he's up to it," said
his manager, Darren Hill, who also oversees the careers of former
Replacement Paul Westerberg and the New York Dolls. (Hill obviously
specializes in "difficult" legends on the comeback trail.)
"The big tests
were the Austin City Limits Festival in 2005, which is the first
time Erickson played in front of a really big crowd again, and South
by Southwest this year, where he did three performances over the
course of three days, and all of them went great. This [Intonation
fest] is sort of testing the water, but he's really, really looking
forward to it, and I'm sure it's going to be a successful trip. Once
it is, I think it's going to boost his confidence to do more events
like that. That's the idea."
Erickson -- his first two names were truncated as "Roky," pronounced
"rocky" -- has always possessed one of the most distinctive voices
in rock, more frightening than the most powerful screaming by his
heroes Little Richard and James Brown, and as plaintively beautiful
as the most tender crooning by another Texas great, Buddy Holly.
He had already
written the anthemic hit "You're Gonna Miss Me" when he joined the
13th Floor Elevators as a teen in 1965. The whirlwind ride produced
several extraordinary albums proudly espousing the virtues of
transcending the ordinary via psychedelic drugs, with music whose
otherworldly power matched the heady message of the lyrics.
But there was a
price to pay for such proselytizing in the Texas of the '60s.
the release of the Elevators' second album, "Easter Everywhere"
(1967), Erickson was busted for possessing a small amount of
marijuana. His lawyers adopted an insanity defense, calling a
psychiatrist who testified that the singer had taken 300 LSD trips
that "messed up his mind." The ploy backfired when Erickson was
sentenced to an indefinite stay at Rusk State Mental Hospital, a
hellish institution where he was confined with mass murderers,
pedophiles and rapists.
surfaced in 1972 and resumed his musical career, recording insanely
catchy tunes full of horror-movie imagery -- "I Walked With a
Zombie" and "Creature With the Atom Brain" were typical titles --
and working with a series of bands and producers, among them
Creedence Clearwater Revival veteran Stu Cook. But Erickson was
never quite the same.
exacerbated the artist's existing mental problems -- "You're Gonna
Miss Me" makes the case that his schizophrenia was hereditary,
brought on and amplified by psychedelic drugs -- and by the
mid-'80s, he had slipped out of the spotlight to live a sad
existence surrounded by blaring televisions, scraping by on Social
Security and subject to occasional misadventures such as an arrest
for mail fraud. (He had been collecting his neighbors' junk mail and
taping it to the walls of his subsidized apartment.)
recent chat, Erickson didn't shed much light on his lost years -- or
on anything else. (Keven McAlester's film remains the definitive
journalistic portrait of his decline and recovery.) Interviewing him
is a lot like talking with Brian Wilson: Erickson tends to answer in
very short sentences, though he's certainly amiable, and he's
clearly happy to be the subject of renewed attention. He seemed most
excited about his new axe.
gave me a guitar -- an electric one -- and now they're making one to
my specification," he said. "It will have paisleys on it."
you remember what it was like touring in the '60s?
it was a lot of fun."
it ever grueling?
"Sometimes it was. One time, we had to play three times in one day.
It was in a big park, and then we went out in a big boat that
circled Alcatraz, and then we played at [the Fillmore Auditorium] in
What about the '80s?
went to England; that was just me, though. No band."
What kinds of songs are you playing now?
A. " 'The
Interpreter,' 'Starry Eyes' ... I can't think right now what the
other ones are, but people really seem to like them."
you doing any Elevators material?
doing 'Splash 1' and 'I Had to Tell You.' "
material in the works?
As with recent
tours by Wilson or the now-ailing Love leader Arthur Lee, it's hard
to forget the artist's personal struggles when watching his return
to the stage. As director McAlester said last year, "When we
encounter somebody who has Roky's kind of talent but also has some
other thing that they are struggling with, it makes the story that
much more poignant."
But above and
beyond the emotional and nostalgic aspects of seeing Erickson
perform again, the fact remains that he has created one of the most
brilliant if least heralded catalogs in rock history -- music that
is as vital today as it ever was -- and that is always something
Erickson may be recording new material again soon: Intonation was
curated by the red-hot New York label Vice Records, the singer
played their party at SXSW and Hill reports that a deal memo is in
goal is to have him do a new record comprised of new songs that he
has written as well as a lot of beautiful songs that he's written in
the past but that have never been recorded properly," he said.
A year ago, new
Roky Erickson music would have seemed like a slim possibility
indeed. But then so would the idea of him performing at a major
festival in Chicago.
is one of 13 acts performing at the Intonation Music Festival in
Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, next weekend; he takes the stage at
6:05 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20 for the day or $30 for a two-day
pass; for more information, including the full list of all 26
performers, visit www.intonationmusicfest.com.