Sunday, June 10, 2007
The Man Who Went Too High
Originally Published: Friday, June 8, 2007
The 13th Floor Elevators were the first psychedelic band. And their singer was one of the 60s' first acid casualties. Now Roky Erickson's back - Dorian Lynskey meets him.
The most improbable of rock comebacks began on the night of March 19, 2005 at an Austin, Texas restaurant called Threadgill's. Every year, the eatery hosts the Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social, in aid of the city's most troubled musical icon. That year, though, the line up included the man himself, something even his closest friends imagined they would never see.
It had been a decade since Erickson's last public performance, a ramshackle set at the 1993 Austin Music awards that led even admirers to conclude that he was better off away from the spotlight. Two years later, a reporter from Rolling Stone discovered a man falling apart at the seams, his teeth rotted to stumps, his hair wild and matted, and his house blaring with multiple TVs, radios and police scanners, apparently a strategy to block out the voices in his head.
Erickson's 1960s band, the 13th Floor Elevators, have been called the originators of psychedelic music. They were certainly the first to apply the word to disorientating, acid-warped rock, influencing the likes of Janis Joplin (who almost joined) and the Grateful Dead, and later covered by REM, Primal Scream, the Jesus and Mary Chain and even ZZ Top (whose roots also lie in Texas psychedelia). You might recognise the Elevators' incendiary first single, You're Gonna Miss Me, from the opening scene of High Fidelity.
More than his music, though, what Erickson became famous for was losing his mind. In 1969, he pleaded insanity over a drugs charge and spent three years in a Texas mental institution, from which he emerged somewhere south of normal. A famous interview with the NME's Nick Kent in 1980 fixed him in the mind of rock fans as a befuddled wreck, burbling about aliens and demons. "The devil, see, he's my friend," he informed a bewildered Kent.
Whatever the cause of Erickson's mental disarray - LSD, schizophrenia, the trauma of being institutionalised, or some combination of the three - he became, like Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Skip Spence, a tragic totem of the relationship between drugs, music and madness.
In 2007, however, Barrett and Spence are dead, while Wilson and Erickson are on the road again. What's more, Erickson's voice is in fine fettle. On June 18, one month before he turns 60, he will play his first ever UK show at Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown festival. Erickson is only dimly aware of the man he calls "Jarvis Coker", but he is pleased to be coming to England for the first time since 1980. "We had interviews," he recalls. "And egg mayonnaise. Have you ever eaten egg mayonnaise? It's good, isn't it?" How does he feel to be performing after so long? "Real good," he says, beaming. "I'd taken a vacation and that was it."
Perhaps the only person not surprised by Roky Erickson's remarkable rebirth is Roky Erickson. In photos taken during the 1980s, he glares through a forest of hair like an aggrieved hobo. Today, his benign, soft-edged features recall Clarence the angel from It's a Wonderful Life, and he dresses like the proprietor of a surf shop. His mood is as bright as his shirt. "Pleased to meet you, brother," he says in his folksy, upbeat Texan twang, as he nestles into a booth at his favourite Austin diner and orders turkey omelette, sausage and French toast.
Opposite him sits the man largely responsible for his recovery: his youngest brother, Sumner. The former principal tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Sumner was Roky's legal guardian from June 2001 until last February. Even now his official duties have been discharged, he functions as protector, cheerleader and interpreter, clarifying some of Roky's more gnomic responses. "Let me know if I butt in too much," he tells Roky.
"That's all right, man," smiles Roky. "I 'preciate you tryin' to help me."
Sumner proudly lists the ways in which his big brother's life has improved. Roky has a full set of dentures, paid for by one of his musical admirers, Henry Rollins. (A successful suit to reclaim back-catalogue royalties means he is now financially secure for the first time in decades.) He has quit smoking. He has a driver's license. Most surprisingly, on Christmas Day he finished weaning himself off the anti-psychotic medication Zyprexa. The brothers say that is because there's no such thing as mental illness, but we'll get to that later.
Sumner was only a toddler when Roky (the name is a contraction of Roger Kynard) joined the 13th Floor Elevators. "I remember the Elevators practising in our living room," he says. "I was laying down right in front of the amplifier. The cops came and broke it up. I was almost four then."
Roky describes the Erickson household in one word: "hectic". He was the oldest of five brothers, Sumner the youngest. Their father, Roger, was an architect who designed the house they grew up in. Their mother, Evelyn, was a talented amateur singer who took Roky to piano lessons from the age of four. Roky's passions were music (James Brown, Little Richard, Buddy Holly), comic books and horror movies. He dropped out of high school three weeks before graduation and joined a local group called the Spades, with whom he first recorded the primordial garage-rock howl of You're Gonna Miss Me.
He was poached from the Spades by Tommy Hall, a University of Texas psychology student with a plan for an LSD-influenced rock band, in which he would play "electric jug" - a mic'ed up jug into which he blew to create the unearthly wobbling sound that defines the Elevators. Some former 13th Floor Elevators have talked about "the Tommy Hall schedule", which involved ingesting acid before every show. (Hall came to one of Roky's recent shows, reports Sumner. "He was saying: 'Roky, do cannabis. Jazz musicians do cannabis. Do cannabis.' Bless Tommy's heart but it was very strange.")
Bassist Ronnie Leatherman's idea of outwitting his messianic band leader was dropping only half a tab at a time. Drummer John Ike Walton decided to leave all together. "It got so bad Roky wouldn't even sing," he told writer Richie Unterberger. "He would just sit there with his back to the audience and his amplifiers squealing. He forgot that he was our lead singer."
The counter-culture in San Francisco embraced the Elevators, but Roky was becoming increasingly unwell, adding heroin to the pharmaceutical mix. Interviewed years later by journalist Michael Hall, Leatherman described Roky as "a vegetable" by 1968. Roky's friend Terry Moore told Hall he remembered the singer taking a fistful of acid and thumping himself while shouting, "Get out, bad spirit!"
"Roky's told me that if he had to do it all over again he'd leave out the drugs," says Sumner. Roky, however, remembers none of this. "It didn't really affect me," he says calmly. Does he have any bad memories of the Elevators? "All good. Uh-huh." Contradicting him is fruitless. Suffice to say that Roky's account of most events seems excessively upbeat.
In 1969, Roky was charged with possession of marijuana, diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised. After several escapes and recaptures, his best chance of avoiding jail was to plead insanity. It turned out to be the worst mistake of his life, consigning him to three years of electric shocks and Thorazine at the maximum security Rusk State Hospital in Texas. He formed a band called the Missing Links, playing rock'n'roll oldies. Roky was the only member who hadn't killed anyone. He also wrote poems, which were collected under the title Openers.
A lawyer hired by Roky's brother Mike successfully petitioned for his discharge in 1972, but the damage was done. I ask him exactly what effect Rusk had on him, but he doesn't seem to understand the question and just sits there silently trowelling more butter onto his French toast. Sumner gamely fills the gap. "I remember you were writing some kind of hieroglyphic on the wall," he tells his brother. "You wrote on a bunch of your Openers books. My impression was that you were pretty stressed out."
"Uh-huh," says Roky, always eager to please.
Does he remember behaving strangely? "No." I picture his memory as the surface of a frozen lake, beneath which the shapes of the past are only dimly visible.
The next three decades were chaotic but not unproductive. He continued to record and play live, once claiming to have written more than 300 songs. His solo career moved from wild horror-influenced garage-rockers with titles like Creature With the Atom Brain to tender, frayed love songs such as True Love Cast Out All Evil.
He also fathered three children (Spring, Jehar and Cydne) and had two wives. But his health continued to deteriorate. In 1987, he was arrested for mail theft (he believed he was just safeguarding his fellow tenants' letters) and institutionalised again. Upon release, he immediately dropped his medication and seemingly lost all interest in music. With the best intentions, his mother Evelyn indulged his worst impulses, allowing him to shun all medical treatment, including dentistry. She decided the answer was prayer.
For Sumner, the teeth were the last straw. In 2001, a doctor testified that an abscess in Roky's mouth risked infecting his brain, which convinced a court to award Sumner guardianship. Roky stayed with his brother in Pittsburgh for a year. Later, Sumner joined Roky in Austin.
The strange thing is that Sumner has come around to Evelyn's way of seeing Roky's condition. "The big picture - and I know this is controversial - is there's no such thing as mental illness. He was being treated for something that didn't exist. Had I known then what I know now, I would never have encouraged him to go on the meds." Then what was wrong? "You could say stress. Or emotional instability."
It is hard to argue with the Ericksons. Roky has an explanation for even his troubled 1990s. Was he in a bad way? "I just got out of hospital so I was a little bit nervous about that. But I was having fun eating out with my friends." What about the cacophony of TVs and radios? "I was into electronics." Did he hear voices? "No."
I try a different tack. When he told Nick Kent he was an alien, was he serious? "Uh-huh. At one time I had it notarised that I was from another planet. By a lawyer."
Looking back, does that seem somewhat peculiar? "Not really. I had pictures in books of flying saucers and they looked familiar to me." So do you still feel like that? "Yeah." I search his placid, smiling face for signs that he's joking, but none are forthcoming.
I don't quite know how to read Roky. I don't believe that all those friends, bandmates and family members over the years were wrong to worry about his mental health, nor that schizophrenia is a myth. But then I'm not sure it matters what I or anyone else thinks. He is healthier than he has been in 40 years, and whatever he needs to believe in order to stay well is perhaps nobody's concern but his.
His comeback is proving extraordinarily fruitful. As well as an ongoing tour, he has recorded a collaboration with Scottish band Mogwai and is considering writing new songs. There is talk of a biopic, with Jack Black in the title role.
Most days he gets up around 2pm and spends his time watching the Cartoon Network. Every Friday, he sees a psychiatrist or a Feldenkrais movement therapist. Although he is oddly passive and childlike, Roky does not seem fragile. Rather, there is something solid and unshakeable at his core. What, I wonder, did he need to be well? "I needed to be off drugs, and be free, and play my music."
Do you feel lucky or unlucky in your life? "I feel lucky. I had a good time."
Do you wish your vacation had been a bit shorter? He chews this one over and, for the first time, allows a ripple of sadness to cross his face. "Maybe so."
Sumner drives us to Amy's, an ice-cream joint that sells a malted milk named in Roky's honour. The staff all greet him loudly by name and he responds with his familiar aw-shucks smile. We sit there, sipping our Roky Ericksons, and talk about his imminent trip to Britain.
"Maybe we could go out to eat," he says, drifting off once more into his uncertain past. "I'd like egg mayonnaise again."