Although there are certainly other candidates, the man born Roger Kynard Erickson 62 years ago in Dallas, Texas, just might be the greatest rock 'n' roll cult hero of all time. But first, some backstory ...
It was always a personal pipe dream — to host a panel at South by Southwest or one of the other national music conferences and to title it something like "Rock's Greatest Crazies." The number of possible participants has sadly been greatly reduced over the past dozen years or so. But the general idea was to have Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Arthur Lee, Sky Saxon, Arthur Brown (Bob Dylan may have even fit at certain points in his career) — people like that — on a panel, let someone like late Brian Wilson psychotherapist-guru Eugene Landy moderate, and then just let them all go wild.
The concept involved no mean-spiritedness. Sure, it would be immensely entertaining — but it would also be fascinating and there would certainly be things to be learned from all these so-called "crazies." As Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore once said while commenting on Wilson at his most "gone": "To me, it's really fascinating to hear such complex harmonies coming out of somebody who's considered ‘not right.' I mean, I'm learning something about beauty from this person. So it's like, hey, who's ‘not right' here?"
But even beyond what might be learned from these "loonies," having met and even interviewed a few of these damaged but great artists over the years, I can safely say that there's a certain sweetness — something even childlike — to a lot of their spirits.
And sweetness was surely on display when Roky Erickson phoned Metro Times from his Austin home early one evening several weeks ago. I was warned beforehand that Erickson is often very brief with his responses these days. And honestly, a few of his answers weren't exactly coherent, or at least they didn't follow a linear path. But then I also felt bad afterward, wondering if perhaps he just didn't hear or understand some of the questions and was too nice (or sweet) just to say so. But the sweetness and the fact that there's any coherency there at all should come as a relief to those who saw You're Gonna Miss Me, Keven McAlester's excellent 2005 documentary about the musical legend's career and troubles, both mental and legal, or read an infamous MOJO magazine interview from the late '90s in which Erickson seemed so far gone, there didn't appear to be any chances for a return to anything resembling normalcy in sight.
He still seems obsessed with television, but only because he enjoys watching TV, as opposed to the days when he'd constantly run three televisions in his home at the same time at top volume; it's been suggested it was an attempt to drown out all the voices (or demons) residing in his head. Of course, at least a few of those voices — even some of those demons — were responsible for some of the finest rock 'n' roll music to be found in the canon ...
For those not yet indoctrinated into the cult of Roky Erickson, he first came to prominence as the singer, rhythm guitarist and co-songwriter for the 13th Floor Elevators, the most legendary Texan psychedelic band — hell, possibly just psychedelic band in general — of all time. The group's first single, "You're Gonna Miss Me," was released in 1966, and it sounded, as über Elevators fan and expert Bill Bentley once wrote, "like a rocket-fueled message delivered by a man from another planet." The song would gain new and even greater life when it was featured on Nuggets, Lenny Kaye's now-legendary psychedelic garage rock compilation, but the Elevators were already well known and loved in certain circles as perhaps the most psychedelic band in history, thanks to their belief in the bible of Timothy Leary and the religion of LSD and mescaline (a certain point, it's doubtful they ever did a show when they weren't under the influence of hallucinogenics).
Entire books and essays have been written about the band's colorful, eventful career — but things had started to fall apart for the Elevators even before Erickson was busted for marijuana possession (one joint, actually) in 1969. Texas, which had some of the strictest drug laws in the country and already knew the band members as "troublemakers," surely would've given the musician prison time — so, at a lawyer's advice, he pled not guilty by reasons of insanity and was sentenced to the Rusk (Texas) Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Erickson spent three yeas in the facility, where he was subjected to electro-shock therapy and experimental medication, including Thorazine. When he finally returned to Austin (where he was raised and where the Elevators formed) in the early '70s, he appeared to be a shell of his former self; the mental deterioration had been dramatic. (More than one fan has said over the years that if they had the money, they'd have sued Rusk for what it ultimately did to Roky Erickson). Slowly but surely, though, he was drawn out. Fellow Texan outlaw Doug Sahm started a new label, Mars Records (of course!) just to release a new Erickson single in 1975 — "Starry Eyes" b/w "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)." The single effectively showed the two very different sides of the "new" Roky that have remained consistent throughout his solo career.
"Starry Eyes" sounds like it could have been written by Buddy Holly at the height of his powers. Erickson has recorded the song various times over the years, including a gorgeous duet version with Lou Ann Barton in 1995. Each version has been different but each has stood as a testament to the song's power as one of the sweetest, most beautiful pop-rock love songs ever written. The flip side, however, was closer to the electric blues-rock preferred by the Elevators (perhaps by way of CCR; that band's Stu Cook produced one of Erickson's finest solo albums). Subsequent forays into the style almost always borrowed imagery (and even titles) from Erickson's favorite classic B monster and horror films. In effect, the zombies and devils in his lyrics became metaphors for the aforementioned demons in his head. Talk about artistic sublimation!
Erickson released an album on Columbia UK and another for San Francisco's progressive punk 415 label, as well as some for smaller indie companies; some of the best is collected on Restless Records' You're Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson, now out-of-print but definitely worth seeking out. Bill Bentley put together a tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, on Sire/Warner Bros. in 1990, featuring such acolytes as R.E.M., Primal Scream, T. Bone Burnett, and the Jesus and Mary Chain — but the late '80s and '90s saw Erickson's life unravel into further instability. Nevertheless, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey and Austin producer Carey Monahan rallied the Texan troops in 1995, got Roky back into a studio with some of Austin's finest musicians, including Charlie Sexton, and the result was All That May Do My Rhyme, one of his finest works and surely one of the sweetest rock 'n' roll albums of that decade.
As McAlester's documentary revealed its conclusion, Erickson's younger brother, Sumner, gained legal conservatorship of Roky in 2001. After 13 months in Pittsburgh, where the siblings lived together (Sumner was a member of that city's symphony orchestra) and Roky was placed on a new therapeutic and medicinal regime, the elder Erickson seemed to regain some stability, even happiness, in his life. He returned to Austin in 2002, where everyone knows him and honors him as a hometown hero. In 2005, Bentley and A&R executive Gary Stewart assembled I Have Always Been Here Before, the first compilation to spotlight Roky's entire career, including the Elevators, for Shout Factory (although I've never completely forgiven them for excluding the great "I Walked with a Zombie," perhaps better known to '90s "college radio" fans via R.E.M.'s cover version).
He started touring again that same year, including high-profile gigs in Britain, other parts of Europe and at California's Coachella festival. This new life finally brings him to Detroit this Devil's Night, backed by a band that includes guitarist Kyle Ellison (Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets), bassist Matt Harris (the Posies, Oranger) and drummer Kyle Schneider (Charlie Sexton's band, Ian Moore). The Midwest should feel especially honored; last year, L.A. got Roky on Devil's Night, with San Francisco getting a Halloween show; this year, it's Detroit — his first show here ever — and then onto Chicago. Which is what led to his phone call to us.
After an initial "false alarm," during which manager Darren Hill said he'd have to call right back because Roky suddenly decided he "needed to wash his hands first," they phoned again and Roky began with one of the most enthusiastic and sincere "Hiiiiiiiiii!"s this writer has ever heard.
Metro Times: How are you?
Roky Erickson: I'm doing real good.
MT: We're really excited about you coming to Detroit. You've never been to Detroit before, have you?
Erickson: No, I never have. I heard about it, you know?
MT: I know you like to play shows on Halloween. You've done Los Angeles and San Francisco in the past but this time you're playing Detroit/Chicago. Any reason for that?
Erickson: No. I'm just trying to hear about these things, you know.
MT: Is Halloween one of your favorite holidays?
Erickson: Yeah, Halloween's real fun. You have to be careful because I like to go through the stuff, you know what I mean?
MT: Are you happy to be back in Austin?
Erickson: Yeah, I'm real glad to be here. I've been having a good time. I've been watching TV, you know what I mean?
MT: In addition to watching TV, though, I hear you've been playing out a lot. People have told me that, in Austin, you'll actually go onstage and guest with a lot of bands. Is that true?
Erickson: Yeah, I've been taking it easy for some time, you know.
MT: Are there any young bands in Austin right now that you've seen that you like?
Erickson: I've been watching TV, you know. They like to do these Farmer's Almanac shows, you know what I mean?
MT: Gregg Turner of the Angry Samoans told me there's an ice cream parlor in Austin where they actually have an ice cream special called ‘The Roky Erickson."
Erickson: That's right, yeah. Or something like that. It's "Roky, Roky." It's made with Rocky Road ice cream
MT: That's a pretty cool honor, to have an ice cream named after you.
Erickson: Yeah, it is. And then they said they were going to put me on the, you know, whatever it is. They're gonna put a nice thing on the wall or something.
MT: You're like a hero in Austin. People must look at you like "Roky Erickson, the rock 'n' roll hero.
Erickson: Yeah. I went someplace the other day and it was good, you know? A real crowded place.
MT: Did people recognize you when you came in?
Erickson: Yeah, they did.
MT: Who is currently in your band? I know you were playing with the Explosives and the Black Angels. Are you playing with either of them right now?
Erickson: Well, I haven't played with them in a long time. They gave me a picture and it's kind of filled out with a zombie or something like that. Usually I've been playing with people who have names that are kind of, you know, they keep them a secret.
MT: I recently saw the gig you did on the Austin City Limits TV show.
Erickson: Yes, I enjoyed that a lot. Yeah. We didn't play a lot of songs but we had a really good show.
MT: A few years ago, you played Coachella in California. It must have been fun playing in front of a crowd that big.
Erickson: Yeah. I never did really find out who they all were. It was really, kind of . . . the heat was real bad!
MT: There's been a rumor for years that Janis Joplin almost joined the 13th Floor Elevators. Is that a true story?
Erickson: Well, the thing was, we heard her scream, you know what I mean?
MT: Her scream was good but it was not anywhere near as good as your scream on "You're Gonna Miss Me."
Erickson: Well, I never really even heard her scream. I'm sure that she probably had some good ones, you know?
MT: So many bands and artists have covered your songs over the years. Do you have a favorite cover version of one of your songs?
Erickson: Well, let's see, a cover version that somebody else performed ... I have a bunch of things here but I haven't had time to listen to them.
MT: In the '90s, Bill Bentley did that tribute CD, where a bunch of artists like the Jesus and Mary Chain and R.E.M. did your songs. Did you ever get to hear that?
Erickson: Well, I have one here called The Scandinavian Tribute. And then there's a band that's called "The Rokys."
MT: It must be rewarding to have so many young bands who were influenced by you.
Erickson: Yeah, I'll tell you. I really like it. That's great to do that, you know what I mean?
MT: You recorded "Starry Eyes" several times. Of course, there was the original version and then you did a duet with Lou Ann Barton ...
Erickson: You're aware of that, and I heard things about that.
MT: Do you have a favorite version of "Starry Eyes" or do you like them all?
Erickson: Well, let me see ... I like them all.
MT: Yeah. Well, it's one of the best songs ever written. It really is.
Erickson: I appreciate that.
MT: The documentary that was done a few years ago by Keven McAlester; did you ever see that? Did you like the movie?
Erickson: Yeah, we did. It's just a very strange thing. You have to figure out what harm it's after. It could be hell. You know, "the night he came home" or something like that. It's that one part. It's just good to move in on something, you know what I mean? And then it goes into stuff that would be more personal that should only be "for your eyes only" or something else.
MT: The personal stuff must be weird when the movie's about you. You've been playing a lot these past few years. Does it feel like you have your mojo back?
Erickson: The wardrobe back?
MT: No, the mojo.
Erickson: Oh! Well, yeah. I just read a book called something about heads. Shrunken heads, you know? "Have You Seen My Shrunken Head?" Or something like that.
MT: Right. Was it a good book?
Erickson: Yes, it was real good. Yeah.
MT: Darren [Hill] mentioned to me that you're working on a new album?
Erickson: Who mentioned that to you again?
MT: Darren Hill, your manager.
Erickson: Oh, right. I thought you said Barry!
MT: I'm sorry. Maybe I'm not talking loud enough.
Erickson: That's alright. It doesn't bother me. It's kind of windy here, you know what I mean?
MT: But he had mentioned you're working on a new album. That must mean you're writing some new songs then?
Erickson: Mostly, I play my organ.
MT: Do you prefer the organ to the guitar these days?
Erickson: Yeah, I like all the instruments. They're kind of like TV, you know? I don't know. There's something that's supposed to be guided; something that's supposed to be there.
MT: The new songs that you've been working on, have you been working on those on the organ or the guitar or both?
Erickson: I've been working mostly on my organ.
MT: Any idea when the album might be done, when it might be coming out?
Erickson: I haven't thought about it. We had this one, you know, it was a real slow thing. They played it for me. It was just one long song. It was just like [makes high pitched noise] Everybody said they liked it, though. (According to management, the new album was recorded with Okkervil River and will be released sometime in the new year.)
MT: I'm sure it's great. You're one of the great songwriters. Speaking of which, it always seemed like there's an interesting blend to Roky Erickson's music. There are two sides. You had the psychedelic side. But you also have the "Starry Eyes"/"I Walked With a Zombie" side where you were obviously influenced by Buddy Holly. I take it you were a big Buddy Holly fan.
Erickson: Yes, I still am! I have a little bobble-head thing of Buddy Holly here right now, you know.
MT: There was a bootleg several years ago that had you singing "One Last Kiss" from the movie Bye Bye, Birdie. I figured you probably learned that from listening to Bobby Vee's version.
Erickson: It's really strange. It's like, you can't really figure out who that is. The same kind of thing as [makes high noise again]. A real strange thing. Like a siren or something, you know what mean?
MT: I see that Webb Wilder recently covered "Don't Slander Me." Did you get to hear that?
Erickson: Webb Wilder? I didn't know he did that or something like that. But it
sounds like a good one, yeah.
MT: A few years ago, I was watching TV and a Dell computer commercial came on and "You're Gonna Miss Me" was on it. Did that surprise you — to hear your song on a TV commercial?
Erickson: Yes, it did! I didn't mishear that one.
MT: That book came out last year or so called Eye Mind. It was about the 13th Floor Elevators. Did you get a chance to look at that book at all?
Erickson: Yeah, I have it here. I didn't interpret it that much, you know. You have to have someone read it for you, you know?
MT: It is a big book. That's for sure.
Erickson: It is a big one, yes. I just read these articles where it said we were having trouble with Texas or something like that. Wondering about the Texas people or something, you know?
MT: Well, you're a Texas hero.
Erickson: Well, thank you! I don't let it be too weird when I read things like that, but, you know, I don't think we ever did have trouble with them.
MT: Sometimes people, when they write about things that you actually lived, they don't always get everything right.
Erickson: Oh, well. They try, don't they?
MT: They do, especially if they're a fan. Do you like looking back at your past, with books like that? Or do you prefer to look toward the future?
Erickson: Well, I just mainly like to take it easy and try to gauge what I'm doing.
MT: Are you enjoying being onstage again? Except when it's too hot like at Coachella. But whenever you perform, do you enjoy it?
Erickson: You know, I have to gauge that too. I was ... one time, in this room and this person came up and said "Boy, we smell smoke in the auditorium!"
MT: Well, that would make you nervous, for sure.
Erickson: I'll tell you it will. It'll straighten you right out. I didn't think they were too mad at me but ... you know what I mean?
MT: Yeah, well maybe you're just so good onstage that they thought you were smokin'.
Erickson: [laughs] They just said they smelled smoke or something. They saw something in a cloud or something like that, I don't know. They tried to be polite but there was just something wrong, you know?
MT: I read that you recently recorded with the Scottish band, Mogwai. You did a song with them called "Devil Rides."
Erickson: Well, I did something like it. It's a strange song. It says "Will you come into my mind and teach me about things?" And then the devil will really, really enjoy it and you can travel with him or something like that, you know?
MT: Maybe they thought of you for that song because you've written so many songs about Lucifer and stuff like that.
Erickson: "Lucifer" is a very hard one to sing.
MT: Are you still a big fan of horror and monster movies?
Erickson: Yeah, I am. You've heard that thing "Curb your dog" or whatever it is? That your dogs have guidance so they won't be hoggin' ... being a road hog, you know? And so, like, I do enjoy that.
MT: Well, we're really happy to have you back and we're so excited about you coming to Detroit.
Erickson: Detroit is the capital of what? Machines or something?
MT: Well, we make cars here. It's not going real well right now, though.
Erickson: Cars! Yeah! I'll tell you, that sounds good.
MT: Do you have a car in Austin?
Erickson: In Austin, right? I do. I do.
MT: A couple years ago there was a Roky Erickson anthology that came out on Shout Factory. Did you ever get to listen to that?
Erickson: It would be beautiful to find that. I have one here, and it's called The Anthology that Swedes do to Erickson. Something like that, you know? I'm going to have to listen to it. It's real strange. It gets around. It says one thing and then I look at it again and then it says another.
MT: It must be interesting to hear other people doing music that you wrote. I'd imagine that must be pretty exciting sometimes.
Erickson: Yeah, I enjoy it. But our record player — it's working pretty good but we want to get another one, you know? We were looking the other day. It was pretty good, but there was no telling what part of it fell off or something.
MT: Well, I appreciate your time, Roky. It was a pleasure to finally talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.
Erickson: I enjoyed it. Who is this again? You're calling on the telephone from ...
MT: From Detroit. A newspaper in Detroit.
Erickson: Sounds good ...
MT: We're all looking forward to seeing you play here.
Erickson: Alright then. Bless you. I'm glad. This was a nice, nice interview!
Roky Erickson plays Friday, Oct. 30, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Avenue, Detroit; 313-833-9700. With KO & the Knockouts and the Octopus.
Thanks to editorial intern Brady Bell for transcription assistance.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org