Roky Erickson Is Back
"One of the great rock & roll singers stood on the stage with his arms crossed. He uncrossed them and crossed them again. He yawned. Then he sang a verse of one of his songs, 'Don't Slander Me.' His once mighty voice was thin and couldn't quite reach all the notes. He turned his back on the audience between verses. He looked beat. It was 1993, and Roky Erickson and his backing band were performing at the Austin Music Awards." Texas Monthly, December 2001
If not that night's performance itself, this description from longtime local writer and musician Michael Hall seared a disordered image of psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson into the imagination of followers and readers alike. Small wonder: in 1993, Erickson was losing a vicious battle with schizophrenia, all but doomed to a lifetime of substandard living and mental illness.
More than a decade later, 2005, Roky Erickson is the very picture of Austin's sly, laid-back, and plugged-in populace. Call it a comeback the comeback, perhaps.
It began in earnest this spring, at South by Southwest. Performing with veteran garage rockers the Explosives at Threadgill's Ice Cream Social; anchoring a SXSW panel on the 13th Floor Elevators, whose Texas Music Hall of Fame award he had accepted several nights earlier at the Austin Music Awards; taking in You're Gonna Miss Me, a documentary on the legendary group at SXSW Film; not to mention signing copies of photo book Easter Everywhere, and Shout! Factory's stunning I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology, music's 58-year-old third eye was everywhere, including this paper's cover (austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-03-18/cover_big.jpg).
That was only the beginning. 2005 also saw him play eight more gigs, including August's benefit for Jon Dee Graham's son Willie, several other shows with the Explosives at Threadgill's, and at the Halloween Masquerade a Go-Go. He played live on 107.1 KGSR. Then there was his September appearance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, where hundreds of locals roared their approval at his transcendent performance under starry skies.
Erickson's euphoric rise in the Sixties as lead singer of the 13th Floor Elevators is a tale of mythic proportion. Forget San Francisco: The Elevators were the original proponents of psychedelic music, here in Austin, Texas. The drug busts and forced hospitalization that followed destroyed the band and began Erickson's terrifying descent into three hellish decades of mental instability and frighteningly good recordings. Well-meaning friends and his mother, Evelyn, stepped in to make him well, but it wasn't until his younger brother Sumner intervened that Roky came back into focus.
Like someone who's been awakened from a long, disturbing dream, Roky Erickson walks cautiously through his newly reclaimed life. But make no mistake, Roky Erickson is back.
"This is the most nerve-racking thing I do," sighs Sumner Erickson as he straightens his brother's Gibson, on loan from the company, on its stand. "I set up his guitars."
Amid the chatter and good cheer of Waterloo Records' annual Christmas party at Donn's Depot, Sumner prepares Roky's gear for a set with the Explosives, his 10th performance of 2005. Guitarist Cam King and drummer Fred Krc settle into their places while Chris Johnson tunes his bass. A Waterloo employee approaches Sumner with an envelope for Roky and one for the Explosives.
"I'm jumping out of my skin," enthuses the employee, lathered up with anticipation for the show.
"Roky loves Waterloo Records and appreciates all you've done," Sumner confides. "He enjoys playing these days and likes the opportunity to come out."
"It's gonna be the Christmas party to remember," grins the employee, who shakes Sumner's hand and disappears into the crowd as Waterloo owner John Kunz appears. Kunz is good King Wenceslas overlooking the feast.
"Good party!" Sumner tells Kunz.
Kunz shrugs, smiling. "I just turn it over to a committee and let them do what they do. I was so surprised and happy when they chose Roky to play. Little did I know there was someone to please everyone and it was Roky."
Kunz surveys the crowd. "Look, there's Roky's mama."
As Evelyn Erickson, petite and pretty in black pearl velvet, sashays through the crowd, Fred Krc is handed the band's Waterloo check by Sumner. Krc clasps him with affection. Troy Campbell, standing nearby with an armful of video equipment, announces, "Hey, I crashed the party! I slept in the bathroom all night just to see this!"
Sumner laughs and the two discuss the best angle to film the show as Krc goes to set up. Campbell decamps to a table overlooking the band, and Sumner hits the exit. It's time to go pick up Roky, who doesn't hang around before or after performances.
Picking up Roky is part of Sumner's job as Roky's legal guardian. The duties are enormous and require not only legal responsibilities but personal sacrifices. Roky's not the ghost he was a decade ago, but he's set in his ways. Routines are important to Roky, who doesn't tour or play out-of-town gigs yet. Roky makes his own decisions, though, points out Sumner, noting he didn't know his brother quit smoking cigarettes until recently when he overhead him telling a friend.
It's a 15-minute round trip to fetch Roky and bring him back to Donn's. Along the way, the brothers make small talk. Roky spent the day as he often does, watching the Cartoon Network. He's pleased to be the subject of a story again. And he's most concerned with getting to Amy's Ice Creams after the set. That's the topic as we enter Donn's and Roky is greeted on all sides with hails of "What's happening, man?" and "Hey, how's it going?"
Hopping aboard the section of Donn's that was once a boxcar, Roky settles into a seat in the corner. He's wearing a dark shirt and a Southwestern print jacket, his long dark hair combed back from his face. A white napkin spread on the table before him holds three "communal cookies" on it. They're triangular gingerbread cookies, pyramid shapes with white frosting eyeballs in honor of the evening's musical guest, but Roky doesn't eat them. There's a childlike innocence to his expression, yet his eyes clear, light blue are sharp. They don't miss a thing.
He's quiet save for the occasional reply to a question. No, he's not cold. No thank you to drinks. No food. A smiling nod acknowledges a couple on the dance floor who are grinning in his direction. Sumner waves at him through the crowd. "It's time."
No one stops him as he heads to the band and hoists the Gibson over his shoulder. Partygoers crush toward the front as he strums a chord, its electric sound reverberating in the air. He looks back at Krc and Cam King, who both give the high sign. Under photographs of Elvis, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers, Roky strikes the opening chord of "It's a Cold Night for Alligators."
The audience howls, pushed together and undulating as one vibrating mass. Evelyn stands on her toes, not able to see until the front row parts. Spying Roky standing only feet from her, she beams with maternal pride as the song ends and her son is met with a roar of approval. Then she looks down, mutters about her panty hose, and gives them a yank. Roky launches into "White Faces," then "The Interpreter," and "Bermuda."
"Thank you," are the only words he speaks between songs.
His voice is in excellent form tonight, as is his playing like the music itself: tough, confident. Guitar rock from any era, played with experience and verve, has no expiration date. Neither do these songs. It's been that way all year, each show better than the last. The Austin City Limits Music Festival set was a milestone, yet every gig is important to Roky because it's a step away from the haunted past and toward a bright future. The opening jangle of "Starry Eyes" fills the room, and the crowd issues a deep sigh of pleasure, mouthing the well-known lyrics, melting into applause at the end.
As the menacing "Two Headed Dog" rears its head and snaps to life, Roky barks ferociously into the mic, the crowd gleeful. It's another sing-along for the record store troupe, passionately bouncing in time to the song. Then comes the anthem.
As the band tears into "You're Gonna Miss Me," Roky's voice takes on the unearthly yowl that forever defines him a master vocalist and an electrifying performer. He basks in the glory of his signature song and its relentless beat. It closes the short set, but the audience won't let him go. "I Walked With a Zombie" is the encore scrawled on the song-list, but someone requests "Creature With the Atom Brain" and Roky complies. The song, unrehearsed, hits the mark to its final ringing note.
After the thunderous cheering dies down, Roky signs a few autographs and chats with well-wishers. His face glows, obviously pleased with the attention. Sumner packs up Roky's guitar and stops on the way out to consult with Troy Campbell about the footage. Music rises in the club. It's the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Roky slips out of the bar and into the clear night, only one thing on atom brain.
"That was one supercharged crowd!" Sumner crows enthusiastically, driving toward Amy's. "It was so cool of you to play the request! Awesome, brother!"
"Uh huh," Roky's voice is noncommittal, but he's clearly buoyed by the show. He and Sumner count performances in 2005 and come up with 10. The two are still reminiscing about Roky's most public year since the early Nineties as they walk into Amy's and order malts.
Sumner balances these gigs with his day job. Jobs, rather, as the youngest Erickson teaches part-time at both UTSA in San Antonio and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. He also works with the Austin Symphony as a substitute tuba player, teaches private lessons, and plays the Young People's Concerts. He balances his life with the multitude of roles he plays in Roky's, which include but are not limited to guardian, brother, friend, fan, protector, and go-between. Tonight, he pulls out a sheaf of fan mail and reads it to his brother.
Roky takes the mail when Sumner's finished and scans it as the two slurp their malts. One letter is from a longtime fan who's been involved in an online Erickson/Elevators trading group that's deviled Sumner for more than two years. The other is from a musician in Chicago who recorded "I Have Always Been Here Before" and included a CD of it. The latter piece of mail is more and more a frequent occurrence as Roky's music creates a dialogue with every generation, always dumbfounded at the power of his sound.
"Let's listen to it," Sumner suggests, the empty malt cups tossed into the trash as we walk to the car. Next stop, Magnolia Cafe.
"That was good," offers Roky, assessing the song's interpretation as we're shown to a booth at Magnolia on South Congress. He doesn't elaborate nor does he spend any time reading the menu. Roky is a creature of habit, living in a manner that makes him comfortable and puts him at ease with the adulation accompanying in public wherever he goes.
Sumner makes a well of syrup in his pancakes as he talks about his life with and without Roky, who sits silent but is all ears. Sumner, younger by 18 years, was 3 when Roky's first band, the Spades, released "You're Gonna Miss Me" b/w "We Sell Soul" in 1965 on a local 45. He missed the 13th Floor Elevators' halcyon days, growing up instead amid Roky's frequent hospitalizations and subsequent fractured life. Sumner, like Roky, was a gifted student and musical prodigy.
Music took Sumner down a very different road, however, one that led to a 20-year-plus stint as principal tubaist with the prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of André Previn. Sumner was reaping the benefits of life as a classical musician when his brother's friends in Texas decided Roky needed family support beyond Evelyn's efforts. Roky's teeth were bad, and he was suffering, living in government subsidized housing off Social Security. Roky's friends contacted Sumner and legal machinery began to crank. On June 13, 2001, after a five-month court battle that pitted him against his mother, Sumner was declared "Guardian of the Person and Estate of Roger Kynard Erickson."
Sumner moved Roky to Pittsburgh, continuing his orchestra duties while making sure Roky was away from old habits and monitored for medication. The Erickson boys (there are three other Erickson sons) saw their father, who also lived in Three Rivers city, occasionally. Roky spent just over a year there, got his teeth fixed, and returned to Texas on his birthday in July 2002. Sumner followed in 2004; his career with the symphony ended on a sour note.
The break from the classical world gave Sumner impetus to try something different with music. With his band the Texcentrics, he covers Texas songwriters like Cindy Walker, Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and, yes, his big brother. Nepotism, snipe occasional onlookers who see the Texcentrics scoring primo opening gigs in town. Sumner's lived with criticism of all colors, stating on his Web site, "I am Roky's youngest brother enjoying the shade of the long shadow he casts."
Yet if the Texcentrics enjoy occasional familial favoritism, Sumner's 2005 CD, 24 Melodious Etudes for Tuba by S. Vasiliev, is testimony to his professional aptitude. It will come as a surprise to anyone who thinks of tuba as the circus clown of orchestral instruments. In Sumner's hands, Vasiliev's compositions take on a deep bass life of their own, the ungainly brass instrument as expressive as strings or woodwinds.
The youngest Erickson brother is rightfully proud of his contributions to Roky's recovery, noting that Roky has a driver's license for the first time in decades, owns a car, and voted last year. Another source of pride is Roky's son, Jegar, who produces The Austin Movie Show (Roky also has two daughters, Spring and Cydne). Sumner's also protective of his mother, Evelyn, insistent that their relationship was twisted in the media after the battle for Roky's guardianship almost five years ago.
"I never said she was a bad person," he clarifies. "I said there were things she was doing that were bad. I never damned her. I only wish her the best. After seeing the documentary, she wrote me a letter and said, 'I never realized how stressed out I was. Ask Keven [McAlester, director of You're Gonna Miss Me] if he'll let me make a postscript saying I'm grateful for what he did.'
"I told her just the other day, 'It wasn't ever really about you, it was about me.' She corrected me and said, 'It was about me. I just didn't understand what you wanted to do.' Now, she couldn't be happier and I couldn't be happier."
The subject turns to eBay, where Sumner recently bought back one of Roky's guitars from the Elevators days and another through a collector. This leads back to discussion of Sumner's battle with the online trading group that he's tried to make peace with. The problem, according to him, is that the group releases not only unlicensed live material, but licensed studio recordings as well.
"I've told them, 'I will let you speak to everybody. To my judge, to the guardianship attorney, to [attorney] Rick Triplett, everybody. Let's find every legal way to exploit Roky's music, for sure. But I can't be a part of anything that's illegal.'"
A familiar four chords explodes through Magnolia's sound system. It's "You're Gonna Miss Me," but it takes Roky a moment to realize it. Buttermilk pancakes are quite distracting. The song reminds Roky about all the films that use his music, such as the opening scene of High Fidelity, and especially his desire for a copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It also reminds Roky of a biopic being bandied about.
"Jack Black called up and said he didn't want to do it," says Roky, spearing a bite of pancake. "He said he couldn't handle my part."
Afraid he couldn't step into your shoes?
Roky pauses, the pancake on his fork in mid-air. The look in his eye is positively wicked and his reply delivered with a veteran comedian's timing.
"We sell sole."
"Sorry about your car."
Two nights later, Roky examines the gaping hole in my Mazda's dashboard, where some ratbag ripped out the stereo a few days earlier. He locks the door and buckles his seat belt.
He likes listening to the radio, specifically BOB FM and its familiar mix of old favorites. The radio is usually on at his apartment, even when the television is playing, a throwback to the days when he kept a cacophony of electronic media blaring simultaneously to drown out the voices in his head. Today, the volume is no longer head-splitting; the radio's by the kitchen, while the television's in the living room.
The sore subject of a stolen car stereo makes this evening's driver grumble about stringing up the thieving bastards. Roky clucks sympathetically as we pull up alongside Waterloo Records and park in front of Amy's. He strolls inside and stops below the chalkboard display of ice cream specials. There it is: The Roky, drawn in red and green chalk with a pyramid to suggest the Elevators' first LP cover, and advertising his beloved sweet cream ice cream malt. Sumner's inside, too, waiting for us.
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!" he sings in greeting.
Roky and I had been on 37th Street two nights earlier for a photo shoot, but Sumner was sick and we're all making up the session now. Three malts are ordered. Roky paces in anticipation.
"Are you coming to Threadgill's with us?" Roky quizzes Sumner.
"No," says Sumner, digging his hands into the pockets of his jacket. "I've got a party to go to."
Roky's head bobs in assent. The photographer arrives, as do the malts.
"I'd like to see the two of you posed back here," I indicate the exit stairs at the back of Amy's as the camera setup begins.
"Do I have to sit on the steps?" asks a skeptical Roky.
"No, not if you don't want to, you can stand."
"I'd rather stand." Roky's expression changes, foxlike. "Then I want to be photographed by the cow." The wall opposite him features a brightly painted cow.
"We can shoot you by the cow."
The brothers Erickson are posed in different positions as the photographer snaps away. After a few minutes of stiff demeanor, Roky and Sumner relax. Sumner flashes a V with his fingers behind the head of his brother, who grins at the antics as the camera flashes repeatedly. In that moment, all the troubles and pain of years gone recede in the play of a pair of boyish siblings.
Roky leads the way out of Amy's to the front of Waterloo Records. He plants himself before the huge poster advertising the Shout! Factory anthology, I Have Always Been Here Before. (austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-03-04/music_phases.html)
"Were you happy with the collection?"
"Yes, I really liked it." A young man with a bleached goatee enters the store ahead of us and holds the door open, his face registering recognition as surprise when Roky Erickson glides past.
"I'm over here," motions Roky, walking directly to the end of an aisle near the main registers. Two of his CDs are on display in the E section, and we thumb through the bin inspecting the other titles.
"I don't know the songs on this one very well, except 'Starry Eyes' and 'Don't Slander Me,'" I confess while examining All That May Do My Rhyme. He gives me a sideways glance. "You would if you heard them." He's probably right.
"The Elevators are over here," he beckons, already a few aisles away. We need not search; a CD copy of Easter Everywhere, the band's second album from 1967, lies askew atop the T section.
"Is that a sign?" I tease Roky.
"Yes." He slides Easter Everywhere back into the stack.
"That's got my favorite Elevators song on it," I tell him. "'Slip Inside This House.' What's your favorite Elevators song to sing?"
Roky gives me a wily look, the gleam in his blue eyes starry.
"'You're Gonna Miss Me.'"
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Roky Erickson made his 11th appearance of the year to a full house at Shoal Creek Saloon fronting the Nortons' rhythm section of John X Reed, Speedy Sparks, and Rusty Trapps. He sang "Starry Eyes" and "Don't Shake Me, Lucifer."