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.
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 (http://www.rokyerickson.net/trust.html) 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.
“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.
“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.”—Jim DeRogatis (2005)
Nothing’s been giving me greater aural pleasure lately than listening, while working or whatever, to past broadcasts of Kevin Nutt’s weekly one-hour gospel radio show Sinner’s Crossroads, which can be found here.