Roky Erickson on road to rediscovery


May 8, 2005


For decades, Roky Erickson has joined Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson at the top of the list of rock's most tragic burnouts.

As vocalist for the '60s pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators and as a solo artist active through the mid-'80s, the Austin, Texas, native influenced countless bands in the punk, garage and psychedelic-rock movements. But for 20 years, he has lived in poverty as a virtual recluse, shying away from the music world as he battled schizophrenia under the dubious care of his mother, Evelyn, who does not believe in modern medications.

Now, as his legacy is celebrated with a new two-disc anthology, two reissues of landmark recordings, and the brilliant documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me," a seemingly happy and healthy Erickson is slowly emerging from the shadows, thanks to a remarkable recovery overseen by his brother and new guardian, Sumner. And even if Roky's resurrection never becomes as complete as that of Brian Wilson -- who not only returned to touring, but completed his epic "Smile" album in 2004 -- he seems primed to reclaim his place in the rock pantheon.

Last July, Sumner asked his brother what he wanted for his 57th birthday, and Roky said he'd like to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Unfortunately, that birthday has passed," Sumner said recently. "But the point is that he is very cognizant of his place in history, and he really wants to be recognized."

Roger Kynard Erickson -- his first two names were truncated as "Roky," pronounced "rocky" -- grew up in a musical household. His mother was a locally renowned opera singer, and Sumner would become first-chair tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony. "I'm lucky that along with my mom, who had a world-class voice, Roky's voice was one of the first I ever heard," Sumner said. "What a gift that was."

By his mid-teens, Roky had developed 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 than the most tender crooning by another Texas great, Buddy Holly.

Erickson had already written "You're Gonna Miss Me" with a band called the Spades when he was approached to join a new group formed by poet and lyricist Tommy Hall in 1965. The 13th Floor Elevators re-recorded "You're Gonna Miss Me" with guitarist Stacy Sutherland's electric riffing, Hall's frantic blowing on an amplified jug (a relic of the jug bands on the folk scene) and Erickson's bone-rattling vocals. It became a hit in 1966, and it ranks with "Louie Louie" as one of the all-time garage-rock classics.

The Elevators signed to a Houston label called International Artists, run by Lelan Rogers, brother of rocker-turned-country crooner Kenny Rogers, and two extraordinary albums followed: "The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators" (1966) and "Easter Everywhere" (1967). More than any other American group in the '60s, including the vaunted San Francisco bands during the Summer of Love, the Elevators proudly espoused the virtues of transcending the ordinary via psychedelic drugs, and they strived to evoke the feeling of an acid trip via the otherworldly music and visionary lyrics of songs such as "Fire Engine," "Slip Inside This House" and "Kingdom of Heaven."

As the surviving band members recalled during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Music Conference in March, there was a price to pay for flaunting such freakiness in Texas at the time. Shortly after the second album's release, 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.

In "You're Gonna Miss Me," Texas-bred rock writer turned Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Keven McAlester tours the now-empty Rusk, interweaving this footage with interviews, newspaper clips, performance footage and rare photographs to bring Erickson's harrowing experience to life. "I could have made a two-hour documentary about Rusk itself," McAlester said.

Instead, the film follows Erickson after he surfaced from Rusk in 1972 as a haunted man. Resuming his musical career, he worked with a series of bands, producers (including Creedence Clearwater Revival veteran Stu Cook) and independent labels, releasing indelible tunes in two basic varieties: furious rockers dominated by horror-movie imagery (as evidenced by titles such as "I Think Up Demons"), and gorgeous love songs such as "Starry Eyes," a tune as beautiful as any of Buddy Holly's romantic ballads. But Erickson was slipping away into a troubled fantasy world.

When I interviewed the artist in 1986, shortly before the release of the album "Don't Slander Me," Erickson chatted amiably about horror movies, but he dodged every question about his music. At one point, he said that his "lady" had just been hit by a car, and she wanted to say hello. There was a long stretch of silence.

"Lady just said, 'Hi,'" he said. "She liked you." Lady was Roky's dog.

Erickson stopped performing during the second half of the '80s. He lived in federally subsidized housing on the outskirts of Austin, surrounded himself with TVs and radios turned up full blast to drown out the voices in his head, and collected his neighbor's junk mail, which he taped to his walls. This led to another arrest for mail fraud, but Austin's tight-knit music community banded together and won his release.

Friends such as Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, and King Coffey, of the Butthole Surfers and the Trance Syndicate label, tried to improve Erickson's living conditions in the years that followed. But he was still under the nominal care of Evelyn, who thwarted attempts to secure mental health care.

Five years in the making, "You're Gonna Miss Me" opens with Erickson in these dire straits. "Here is one of the most talented rock singers ever living in something approaching squalor," McAlester said. "How did it happen? Some of the reasons why are obviously very complicated, and the reasons why people aren't doing anything about it are even more complicated."

The film, which premiered at SXSW in March, not only documents Erickson's legacy, it tells the broader human story of his battle with mental illness and its roots in his troubled upbringing, using a vivid but non-intrusive style as powerful as Terry Zwigoff's in the award-winning documentary, "Crumb."

"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," McAlester said. "But I don't think there is a de-facto relationship between the two. One of the things I wanted to avoid was romanticizing that connection [between Erickson's schizophrenia and the genius of his music]."

McAlester's camera is present in court when Sumner fights his mother to assume Roky's guardianship. Sumner, who is 43, won the case and began the process not only of nursing Roky back to health, but of helping him regain control of his music.

"When I started this, I just wanted to give my brother a chance to be on meds, get a physical, get his dental work done and live in a safer environment," Sumner said recently. "But when they made me guardian of his estate, that sort of made me his manager. So now I'm trying to get all his music accounted for, make sure he was paid and try to address the people out there who were pirating and bootlegging his music."

Roky stayed with Sumner in Pittsburgh for more than a year, but now he is living on his own again in Austin. And Sumner also has returned to Austin after leaving his job with the orchestra because of a labor dispute. He sees his brother daily, and the two sat side by side a few rows away from Evelyn during the screening of "You're Gonna Miss Me" that I saw at SXSW. Roky and the film both received extended ovations.

For years, Roky resembled a wounded animal whenever he was dragged into the spotlight for a 30-second appearance at the Austin Music Awards. In the mid-'90s, rocker-turned-publisher Henry Rollins arranged a book-signing during SXSW to celebrate Openers II, a collection of Roky's poems and lyrics. I watched as a frightened Roky emerged from the car, then immediately demanded to be driven back home.

This year, before Sumner could even introduce him, Roky bounded onstage to sing "Starry Eyes" -- his voice as pure and strong as ever -- during the annual benefit for the Roky Erickson Trust ( at Threadgill's.

Roky and I chatted briefly following the screening of "You're Gonna Miss Me." He was much more lucid and content than the troubled soul I had encountered in the past, even if our conversation was no more relevant than our earlier interview. Mostly we talked about the weather.

"Roky recently got his driver's license for the first time in two decades, and that was a huge accomplishment for him," Sumner said.

Sumner has evoked the enmity of some Roky fans because of his efforts to thwart Internet trading of his brother's music. "If I've overreacted, given the history [of Roky being ripped off], that is a good thing," Sumner said. He has also been criticized for performing Roky's songs around Austin in a new rock band. But there's no denying that Sumner improved his brother's life, and he may be helping Roky rediscover his muse.

"You're Gonna Miss Me" -- which will screen at other film festivals before finalizing a deal for widespread release -- ends with a poignant scene of Roky playing acoustic guitar and singing a newly written song about the power of love on the porch outside his therapist's office.

"I hesitate to give any sort of authoritative answer, but the fact that he is actively engaged, wanting to sing again, and does look better are all good signs," McAlester said when asked if his subject is better off now than when the director started his film.

"It's been a real gradual but steady process, and it is light years beyond what anybody thought was possible," Sumner said. "I told Roky originally that my number-one goal for him was wellness, but that his wellness would eventually include being creative and being who he is.

"Right now, nobody is more invested in Roky Erickson's wellness than Roky is, and nobody is going to pull him off his path -- nobody, nobody, nobody."



The Roky Erickson catalog is daunting for listeners in search of solid introductions to the work of this rock 'n' roll great. His solo efforts have been packaged and repackaged through the years, and there are numerous CD versions of the 13th Floor Elevators' releases, many of them shoddily compiled. (Ownership of the band's music remained hazy for decades, a situation his brother Sumner Erickson is working to rectify.)

Thankfully, several recent releases, all of them issued with the approval of the Roky Erickson Trust, provide a prime introduction to these timeless sounds, especially along with the epic tribute album that stands as the best testament to Erickson's wide-ranging influence.


This comprehensive two-disc, 42-track set charts Erickson's career via representative classics from his earliest days with the Spades ("We Sell Soul"), through the Elevators ("I Had to Tell You," "Reverberation (Doubt)," "You're Gonna Miss Me") and his solo recordings in the '80s ("I Have Always Been Here Before," "Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)"), up to a sampling of the fragile tunes released in 1995 on the Trance Syndicate album "All That May Do My Rhyme." Consider it a course in Roky Fandom 101.



Originally issued on Pink Dust in 1986, "Gremlins Have Pictures" stands as the best album from Erickson's solo career, though it was actually a hodgepodge collection drawing from sessions with several different bands and rounding up songs that had been released earlier in other settings. The album finds the artist indulging his mania for monster movies with tracks such as "Night of the Vampire," "Burn the Flames" and "The Beast," but there is also a surprising political awareness in the classic "Warning (Social & Political Injustices)."

Recorded in 1982 in a more focused burst of activity with a single strong backing band, "Don't Slander Me" is only slightly less effective. The title track burns with a raging fury, and "Starry Eyes" is a poignant and beautiful song that wins an instant spot in your heart the first time you hear it.


Compiled in 1990 by Warner Bros. exec Bill Bentley (who wrote the fascinating liner notes for "I Have Always Been Here Before"), this disc not only serves as impressive testimony to Erickson's influence, it is widely recognized as the best tribute album ever. It's still in print 15 years later, and as much fun to listen to now as the day it was released. The 19 artists who cover Erickson all rise to the occasion, with R.E.M. ("I Walked with a Zombie"), Julian Cope ("I Have Always Been Here Before"), Poi Dog Pondering ("I Had to Tell You") and T-Bone Burnett ("Nothing in Return") among the highlights.