Texas singer and songwriter Roky Erickson, a man half-shrouded in myth and legend, is back. A lot of people may not be aware of it, though. A lot of people don't even know who he is. How can this be?
Roky's best-known song, without a doubt, is "You're Gonna Miss Me," which he recorded in 1966 with his vanguard psychedelic band, the 13th Floor Elevators. Now a garage-rock classic, the single was featured on the seminal 1972 "Nuggets" album and revived for a new generation in the 2000 John Cusack-Jack Black movie "High Fidelity." It's been widely covered, as have a number of other Elevators tunes, such as "Don't Fall Down," "Reverberation (Doubt)" and the wildly tripped-out "Fire Engine." (One of the best of the latter-day Elevators covers is a raucous 1994 version of "I've Got Levitation" by Satan's Cheerleaders.) In 1981, with a new band called the Aliens, Roky released an explosive album called "The Evil One," which stands now as one of the great hard-rock records of that decade. In 1990, a number of Roky admirers — REM, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Butthole Surfers among them — contributed fond covers of his songs to a tribute compilation called "Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye." There's also a new and considerably more ferocious Euro comp called "Scandinavian Friends: A Tribute to Roky Erickson," which features a cover of "Stand for the Fire Demon" by a band called the Rokys.
So what ever happened to Roky himself? It's a sad story, and director Keven McAlester lays it out in heartbreaking detail in his new documentary, "You're Gonna Miss Me." By 1967, the Elevators — a band whose lineup included an amplified jug — appeared to be on the crest of actual rock stardom. They had two albums out. They were commuting back and forth between Austin and San Francisco, then the media-endorsed capital of world grooviness. They played the Fillmore. They smoked a lot of pot and dropped a lot of acid. (The documentary includes priceless footage of an "American Bandstand" appearance during which host Dick Clark asks the group, "Who's the head guy here?" Jug-player Tommy Hall instantly replies, "We're all heads.")
Roky went on to become involved with speed and heroin. By the time the Elevators were ready to record their third and final album, he was so out of it that he was unable to contribute any songs. Now hearing voices in his head, he returned to Austin to live with his mother, who says in the film that she found him in the back yard one day in 1968, babbling and covered with sores. (Over the years, in and out of relative lucidity and musical activity, Roky's voices have shifted in character. Around the time of the "Evil One" album, they were Satanic, prompting songs with such titles as "I Think of Demons" and "Don't Shake Me Lucifer." Later the voices became extraterrestrial.) It was in 1968 that Roky was committed to the first of three mental institutions, at all of which he was subjected to electro-shock "therapy." He kept escaping from these places, which the authorities found annoying.
America's never-ending "war on drugs" was especially intense in Texas in the late '60s, and Roky, in those periods when he wasn't locked up, became a person of interest to local law-enforcement. In 1969, he was arrested for possession of a matchbox containing some marijuana. Incredibly, he faced prison time if convicted of this offense. His lawyer decided a wiser move would be to plead insanity, which he did. Roky was eventually dispatched to Rusk State Hospital, a converted penitentiary with a maximum-security unit for the criminally insane. There he is thought to have endured more electro-shock along with other torments, both medical and disciplinary, although his records are long lost. By the time Roky was released from Rusk, in 1972, it was clear he would never be the same again.
McAlester began shooting his documentary in 1999, when Roky was 53 and still living in Austin, under his mother's guardianship. Our first sight of him is startling. The handsome young Elevators frontman is long gone, of course, but who could have guessed he would come to this: a paunchy, shambling wreck of a man with a rat's nest of hair piled on his head and a jowly face furred with gray stubble. He sits in a squalid apartment surrounded by an array of multiple televisions, radios, amplifiers, and a cheap auto-play keyboard. They are all turned up to maximum volume. He slips on a big pair of sunglasses and settles in, staring straight ahead. "He falls asleep with all that stuff on," says his mother, Evelyn Erickson. "If I turn it off, he wakes up."
Evelyn is a strange and disturbing character. A failed singer herself, she has for years been Roky's passive-aggressive guardian and gate-keeper. Although there are easily available meds that would ease her son's internal chaos, she is opposed to medication of all kinds and doesn't let him take any. She is apparently also opposed to dentistry, since most of Roky's teeth have rotted out. Sumner Erickson, one of Roky's four brothers, a classical-tuba player who lives in Pittsburgh, is appalled by Roky's wretched condition, and by his mother's role in sustaining it, and he determines to wrest guardianship from her and take over his brother's care himself. The film chronicles Sumner's quest — and Evelyn's resistance, and Roky's oblivious disconnection — in scenes of remarkable and distressing intimacy. There are also several clips of rare footage from the Elevators days that help illuminate how much was lost when Roky went over the edge. (It must be noted that I make a fleeting appearance as a talking head in this picture, but please don't let that stop you from seeing it.)
Happily, there is now some good news on the Roky front. Earlier this year, he successfully petitioned a court for emancipation from guardianship, and was judged to be fit at last to take care of himself. He's put together a new band, and has been playing sporadic dates in Texas and elsewhere to uniformly enthusiastic critical response. The remarkable music he made in his youth is still out there as well. (The first two Elevators albums — the only ones that count — are available on iTunes, as is an expanded version of "The Evil One.") He'll never retrieve all the missing years, but maybe he still has a few good ones left. Now that he's back (pretty much), we'll see.
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