By ANDREW DANSBY Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
June 19, 2009
Among significant musicians who have endured monumental breakdowns
and/or mental illness, few are more sweet and charming in
conversation than Roky Erickson. The Austin-based psychedelic rock
legend has had as bumpy a ride as any. He's been drugged
(voluntarily), arrested, incarcerated, institutionalized, shocked,
drugged (involuntarily) and abandoned over a duration of time (more
than two decades) that should've left him dead. But on the other end
of a phone these days he's unfailingly courteous.
Talking to some of rock's eccentrics and near casualties is usually
an exercise in futility. Brian Wilson was friendly enough the first
and only time I spoke to him, though his shouty voice and naturally
clipped answers gave a gruff impression beyond his control. "Thank
you," he shouted before hanging up. "That was a good interview." (It
wasn't.) Waller native Daniel Johnston was once a chatterbox during
an interview; another time he stared at a kitchen table and smoked
cigarettes shaking like an old washing machine.
Interviewing such artists can sometimes feel like a self-serving
pursuit. The purpose is the same as talking to non-eccentrics: an
attempt to glean some sort of interesting information about their art
from which to spin a minor profile. With Erickson, for instance, I
learned last week that Little Willie John was a influence on his
landmark 13th Floor Elevators song You're Gonna Miss Me. (In a
previous chat, James Brown had been mentioned.)
"I just heard one song of his on the radio," Erickson said. "'Better
leave my kittie alone.' We had this one real, tiny radio, and I heard
Little Willie John sing that. Then I think I heard James Brown's
Night Train. I listened to mostly rock 'n' roll … though I liked the
blues a lot."
Certain this personal revelation was hardly a national one, I opted
not to Google Erickson and Little Willie. But as one prone to
obsessing about music I thought it was plenty logical.
Erickson's life and times following Miss Me were equally foggy,
though they've been well documented since. The Elevators were
short-lived. He spent years in the Rusk State Hospital to avoid jail
time for marijuana possession, and came out damaged. He recorded
sporadically through the '70s, '80s and '90s, some of it listenable,
much of it not. Broke and on the skids, he was rescued in the '90s by
a younger brother, who fixed his teeth and his finances and his
living situation, and facilitated a remarkable comeback. These days
Erickson is giving full performances (last year's Austin City Limits
Music Festival appearance was joyous and rocking). He's also recorded
with Austin's Okkervil River, though there are no release details yet.
Erickson's recall is sometimes keen, other times not so much. Many of
his answers begin with a "let me see …" or "let me think …" Some
details from 1966 are clear as a bell, others from years later are
not. The Elevators were signed to the Houston-based International
Artists label, which purchased Miss Me from the Contact label. He
recalls the touchstone names in the region (Huey Meaux, Gold Star
studio), but stops short of elaboration. Erickson also doesn't recall
the last time he played Houston, though his manager informs me that
it was Aug. 11, 1984, at the Consolidated Arts Warehouse. So nearly a
quarter century will have passed when he takes the stage at the
Continental Club on Wednesday.
If Erickson's ACL appearance is any indication, he'll run through
Miss Me along with other favorites like Creature With the Atom Brain
and Two-Headed Dog.
Much psychedelic rock hasn't aged very well over the years. It's
shackled to its era and infused with an earnest pursuit of hippie
idealism less widely lovable than, say, jive swing, another bygone
genre that fused an antiquated style to its substance.
But Miss Me has proven monumentally resilient, an urgently iconic
nugget from 1966 that doesn't attempt to lure you with slurry guitars
and chanting about kaleidoscopic kittens. The soul and blues that
Erickson cites infused the song with an urgency not found in the
psych rock rooted in the folky jug-band tradition. That rawness gave
Miss Me legs beyond some other music of its era.
Its opening guitar riff is a strangler, a war cry for 40-plus years
of garage rock. And even something as blatantly hippie-esque as
playing a jug is defiantly manipulated as to suggest some sort of
wild-eyed mutation of something innocent. In the pointless music
journalistic pursuit of the punk rock genesis (Iggy! Velvet
Underground! New York Dolls! Elvis! Hank Williams!), the Elevators
warrant mention if for nothing other than Erickson's banshee singing,
the result, at least in part, of his mother's affinity for opera.
Musician Shandon Sahm, son of late Texas music legend Doug (a friend,
admirer and collaborator with Erickson), says the production reminded
him of Sahm's landmark She's About a Mover. "The jug is cool, the
screaming rocks," he says. "It's hard to pin down exactly what makes
it awesome, but as Doug used to say about Mover can apply to Miss Me,
it just flat out had a groove to it."
Erickson's description of writing the song is somewhat cryptic.
"I was just at my house, and I thought I might write a song," he
says. "Then I found myself at this very strange place, some kind of a
poetry place or something. All it had was one room and bar. And that was it."
Erickson says he spends his days "reading a lot," watching beloved
horror movies that seem to inspire his music (see song titles in
previous paragraph), and plinking on a pump organ in his home ("It's
missing a key") and a new Yamaha keyboard, which has pre-programmed
songs that he tweaks, other times he works up original compositions,
which he figures number in the hundreds.
In the late-'90s Erickson was well-represented in record store bins,
though the rash of new releases all featured old material that had
been dredged up. But with the tantalizing tease of new music (his
first in more than a decade) and his urgently loud performances,
Erickson, like Wilson and Johnston, is enjoying a fruitful second act
that is creatively satisfying rather than a sentimental journey.