A long, strange trip
After decades of struggle, psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson returns.
The room is so crowded there’s barely enough space to live. Books, records, DVDs, and notebooks full of lyrics and drawings are piled high, with only a few pathways carved. Roky Erickson walks in and flips on the TV. Then he turns on the radio. And then he sits, hair knotted, teeth missing, perfectly at peace with the noise swirling around him. This is his home.
It’s a scene from You’re Gonna Miss Me, a recent documentary on the legendary singer of the 13th Floor Elevators, the Texas band that coined the term psychedelic rock—and that lost its frontman after a trumped-up marijuana charge and misguided insanity plea landed him at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1969. Years of Thorazine and electroshock treatments meant Roky would never be the same again. “It’s just been a huge catastrophe with a couple of bright moments through all this time,” says his brother Sumner, who became Roky’s guardian in 2001 to save him from his steady decline since his 1972 discharge. “It’s sorta irrelevant to figure out why Roky was where he was. Sadly, Janis didn’t make it through, Jimi, Jim Morrison…but here’s Roky, a rock & roll pioneer, still with us.”
Roky’s music has remained so strong over the decades that it’s tempting to wonder how much better he could have been if the schizophrenia had never taken hold. His throttling vocal style—almost as if he’s screaming on key—was later made famous by Janis Joplin, who was a fan of the Elevators and had considered joining the band. Even if Roky had never made it past the ’60s, his one Elevators hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” would have cemented him as a cult icon. Instead, his career took a turn for the eccentric: In 1974 he founded Roky Erickson & The Aliens, a new group with a heavier, proto-metal sound that revolved around Roky’s interest in sci-fi and horror movies. Later he signed a legal affidavit stating that he was, in fact, an alien himself.
Years of crooked managers and twisted recording contracts meant that Roky was barely subsisting on a Social Security stipend, but he was brought back into the public consciousness in 1990 with Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a tribute album that included covers by the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., ZZ Top and others. With the help of sympathetic music lawyers, he’s finally getting royalties for some of his old recordings, and with Sumner’s help, his mental and physical health have stabilized. He’s also begun to make public appearances, and when he does he’s treated like rock royalty. Patti Smith, Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins (who paid for all of Roky’s new dental work) are all admirers; last year the New York Dolls paused a show to bring Roky onstage and say hi; Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai has asked Roky to write a song with the band, which he will record soon. There’s even a Hollywood movie deal in the works.
But the most extraordinary part of Roky’s recovery is that he’s performing again. “One year I asked Roky what he wanted for his birthday,” Sumner explains. “He says, ‘I wanna be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!’ So he decided to do it, to get back out there and take his music out beyond Texas. Little Steven [Van Zandt] told us the road to the Hall of Fame is through New York, so hopefully we’ll play there next.”
“When you see Roky’s show, you’ll see a man that’s enthusiastic,” he adds. “The biggest comfort zone he has is when he’s up onstage. In a good way, he looks like he’s taking a nap—he’s so comfortable and so in his element. That’s why I always gently encouraged him to reclaim his music. It’s a place where he finds a lot of comfort and energy and oneness with himself. It’s an incredible thing.”When we rang Roky at his Austin apartment, he sounded happy, lucid and eager to regain his status as a legend—not a legendary burnout. What kind of music has he been writing these days? “The blues. Love songs. And demonic music—just because I like horror movies a lot.” Will psych rock live on forever? “Probably so.” How does it feel to be such an important figure in rock & roll? He pauses, and we can nearly hear him smile. “It feels good.”
Roky Erickson and the Explosives play Intonation Fest Saturday 24.