Musical dropout returns to the stage

June 18, 2006


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.

Erickson's 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 only one.

"It's really 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."

An unfortunate turn

Roger Kynard 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.

Shortly after 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.

He eventually 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.

Prison had 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.)

Man of few words

During our 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.

"Gibson Guitars gave me a guitar -- an electric one -- and now they're making one to my specification," he said. "It will have paisleys on it."

Q. Do you remember what it was like touring in the '60s?

A. "Yeah, it was a lot of fun."

Q. Was it ever grueling?

A. "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 San Francisco."

Q. What about the '80s?

A. "I went to England; that was just me, though. No band."

Q. 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."

Q. Are you doing any Elevators material?

A. "We're doing 'Splash 1' and 'I Had to Tell You.' "

New 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 worth celebrating.

What's more, 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 the works.

"My ultimate 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.


Roky Erickson 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