Roky Erickson: Roky road
Mar 3, 2012
It is 2.00pm in New Zealand and 6.00pm the previous day in Austin, Texas, which is the current physical location of Roky Erickson, pioneer of psychedelic rock and living musical legend. But which time zone Erickson really inhabits is another matter.
I have just asked him about the influence of the Rolling Stones on You’re Gonna Miss Me, the garage-rock classic he cut with his band the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966 when he was 19, and he seems to have teleported straight back to that year. “They haven’t had that many records,” he muses, “but the ones they did are real good. The Beatles have a thing out called Yellow Submarine and I wonder if the Stones maybe had something like that …”
It is as though the subsequent half-century simply hasn’t happened. Such unsettling time-bends are, I discover, typical of Erickson’s conversation. And yet his manner is genial and upbeat, in refreshing contrast to the typical rock interviewee on a circuit of promotional phoners. His cheerfulness is all the more surprising in the light of his personal history, which makes for one of the more terrifying tales in rock’n’roll.
The young Erickson was handsome and charismatic, with a gift for guitar hooks that would influence ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and a thrilling scream that would inspire another fellow Texan, Janis Joplin. Check out the Elevators’ 1966 American Bandstand performance on YouTube. But his enthusiasm for the substances that gave psychedelic rock its name, plus some unfortunate legal advice, derailed his career. In 1968, his erratic behaviour led to a spell in a psychiatric institution where he was given shock treatment. The following year, he was arrested for possession of a joint of marijuana. Facing a 10-year prison term, he was persuaded to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and wound up in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The only people he was allowed to make music with were murderers and paedophiles.
After his release in 1972, he invented yet another new style of music, which he called “horror rock”, combining personal experiences with images borrowed from sci-fi movies in songs like Two-Headed Dog and The Creature with the Atom Brain. By the early 80s, he had decided he was an alien, and had a legal document drawn up declaring himself to be from another planet. “Yes, I did,” he confirms enthusiastically. “I just told ’em that if you aren’t human then you would be able to maybe help somebody else, and that would make you have a certain kind of outlook or somebody would help you, and you would be able to have information you would want other people to know about, you know what I mean?”
I’m not sure I do, but I ask how Erickson feels about that document today. “I still like it. I’d probably be able to find it. I’m looking at this paper here that says ‘IDs and birth certificates, renewals and duplicates only’, so I’d probably be able to get that, but it’s just like that album I had …” “That album” is True Love Cast Out All Evil, his first new record in 15 years; a collection of songs written over four decades, which Erickson recorded in 2010 with reputable indie-rockers Okkervil River. Ranging from horror-rock to reflective country ballads, it is an affecting, coherent and curiously innocent piece of work.
Erickson says he has hardly listened to it. Does he own a copy? “Yes, but we had a misunderstanding with our old house, and I have the album over there. I may have lost it, I don’t know. But I do like it. It’s a very good one. It’s a very strange album, you know. I’d like to hear more of it.”
The fact that Erickson is functioning musically at all is largely because of the efforts of his youngest brother, Sumner, a classical tuba player with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic. At the turn of the millennium, Erickson was broke, toothless and obsessed with junk mail, which he would hoard and often reply to. Sumner got him a therapist, a dentist and a new guitar.
Now 64 and reunited with his first wife, Dana (they were married in 1974), Erickson is touring and writing songs again. And how is his voice? Can he still do the screams? “Oh yeah! I usually take a lot of lozenges, but as soon as I walk out on stage there it is, it’s right there.” Last year, he toured Scandinavia (“very strange places, I didn’t know if they were in Europe but I guess they were. I was like a stranger in a strange land”). Now, he is about to play in New Zealand for the first time. It’s a long flight, another time zone. How does he find the travelling? “It’s a little strange, but you learn more about it the more you fly. You know what I mean?”