Playback: Roky Erickson at 70

Austin's native psych and horror rock pioneer Roky Erickson reaches 70 and throws himself a birthday concert to mark the milestone

If You Have Cake, You Have Everything: Roky Erickson. July 5, 2017 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Everyone in Austin is invited to Roky Erickson's birthday party, a shindig titled "God, Devil, Alien," this Saturday at the historic Charles Johnson House starring the native Austin howler performing with surprise guests. At 70, the gentle local, who lays claim to originating both the psychedelic and horror rock genres, is distinctly modernized, enjoying an Amazon Echo speaker setup, while remaining charmingly old-school – hunting stamps to support his letter writing habit.

Meanwhile, Erickson embodies resiliency. He's overcome chronic mental health issues to outlive and outperform the field of Sixties musical counterparts. He's earned every candle on his birthday cake.

"This is good cake. Where'd you get it?" asked the budding septuagenarian as we prepared to discuss his legacy.


"That's a good place," confirmed the notoriously curt but unfailingly polite interviewee, noting that he does his shopping at H-E-B, which he references in perfectly Roky slang: "Heebie Jeebies."

Austin Chronicle: You began playing music in Austin way back in 1964. What do you remember about that time?

Roky Erickson: Well, I just remember that I got in the studio with a few musicians and recorded the song "We Sell Soul" for Zero Records. We did a show over a place called Le Lollypop where they usually had [go-go] dancers. We played our song and it went real well. It burned down after that.

AC: Were you a confident performer as a teenager?

RE: Oh yes, for sure. I figured that's the thing. You got to have that. You've got to have energy, too.

AC: You had a strong voice already.

RE: Thank you! My mom always encouraged everybody to sing. She'd say, "If you're not going to do anything constructive around the house, the least you could do is sing! Sing a happy song."

AC: Would you have ever believed back then that you'd still be performing music at 70?

RE: In my life, I live by the adage, "The choice is up to you." That's a good thing because you want that to be the case. I think [continuing to play music] is up to me. People say, "You haven't played in a long time and we have this thing coming up, will you think about it?" I'll say, "If it's an easygoing, comfortable thing, I can do it."

AC: In recent years, you've included more 13th Floor Elevators songs in your live sets.

RE: Yes I have. That's a very energetic thing, because those songs ask to be recognized as much by the person singing them as the people there. So it gives off a lot of that energy. I like the Elevators stuff, but it's saying, "If you're gonna use me, then go ahead and do it," like Alice in Wonderland. You really have to be ambidextrous to do it, use both hands – your id and your ego.

AC: Your lyrics have been inspired by horror and sci-fi movies. Anything worth watching these days?

RE: We like those police dramas like CSI. Oh and The Hitcher!

AC: Many artists cite you as an influence. Do you have an appreciation for your legacy in that sense?

RE: I enjoy hearing that. I do. There are certain people I would hear say they were influenced by my music or were fans. People like R.E.M. and the Talking Heads.

AC: When the You're Gonna Miss Me documentary came out in 2005, you attended several screenings. What was it like watching a movie about yourself?

RE: It's just a real strange movie, but I enjoyed it.

AC: Did you feel like it was the truth?

RE: Oh yeah, it would have to be. It came from different angles. First they were gonna do a movie and get somebody to play the part, then they changed it to this chronicle.

AC: The period of your life when you weren't performing – what was that like?

RE: It wasn't really a time. It was more of a change of concepts. You know, studying things. Like I would read different authors: Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain.

AC: But you weren't doing the thing that everyone knows you for, singing your songs.

RE: I had to get back around to it. Somebody would say they miss seeing certain situations, but I was thinking about things, studying. I went to lot of movies.

AC: For the last 12 years, you've played live regularly. What's your favorite aspect about being onstage?

RE: I just enjoy singing the songs, and now making sure we're taking it easy – having more control of what's going on.

AC: What about songs, writing any?

RE: I read a lot of books, so I come up with a lot of different ideas. The one I'm reading now is called The Stranger, a horror story. It's good. It's about this girl who wanders out in the woods and sees this guy out there named Jethro. He's the stranger. She goes back to her house and talks to her family, but keeps going back out there.

AC: Sometimes when reading a book, I think about how that story would go as a song.

RE: Yeah, that's good thinkin'! That's what I was thinking too.

Half Notes

Erica Shamaly has been named manager of Austin's Music & Entertainment Division. The former marketing director for ACL Live at the Moody Theater begins work July 24, leading a nine-person office responsible for accelerating local music interests. Thanks to Shamaly's existing relationships in the community and visibility at concerts, venue owners and musicians now feel like they have someone on the inside. More on our music blog:

Rechristening Stubb's: Red River's largest music venue will be changing its name, the result of a lengthy legal dispute with condiment giant McCormick & Co., who own the trademark to the venue's spin-off barbecue sauce. Last week, Stubb's owners, including C3 Presents majordomo Charles Attal, filed paperwork to reserve the name Liberty Lunch, an iconic Austin venue 1975-99 whose trademark Attal acquired from owners Mark and Jeanette Pratz a decade ago. Mark Pratz admitted to mixed feelings about Stubb's potentially using the brand, which he calls "the goofiest name in the world." Read this week's Q&A with Mark Pratz on our website.

Dancing on the ceiling: Lawyers for the Westin Hotel and nearby bar the Nook have reached an agreement to squash a lawsuit, in which the former sought $1 million from the latter over music disturbing its guests. Westin owners will reportedly pay for the purchase and instillation of a JBN Sound Ceiling, which utilizes panel-shaped speakers to pump music downward from overhead instead of out onto Sixth Street. Estimated cost, according to Nook owners: $75,000.

HAAM, the beloved nonprofit connecting roughly 2,200 Austin musicians with affordable health care opportunities, may have to temporarily suspend enrollment to new members because sign-ups – up 25% in the last year – are outpacing fundraising. HAAM's Rikky Hardy says they do well with event-based donations, but hopes to see increased engagement from tech giants who use Austin's vaunted music culture to recruit employees.

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Roky Erickson, 13th Floor Elevators, Erica Shamaly, Westin Hotel, the Nook, Stubb's, Liberty Lunch, Mark Pratz, HAAM

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