Society has a duality when it comes to accepting or rejecting the "crazy," depending on their social strata. The rich or hip are deemed to be delightfully eccentric, while the paupers are laughable psych cases on the side of the great thoroughfare of the "sane." When you do anything remotely creative and/or innovative while "insane," it will be hailed as a priceless artifact from your delicate and damaged brain casing. The homeless guy on the corner who makes animals out of plastic bags is just labeled a loser. Roky Erickson, who packed the Continental Club for the second time in just under eight months Wednesday night, is one of those guys whose work will forever be scarred by the archaic nature of the '60s. The Texas penal system, the nascent nature of the psychiatric community, and misguided medical procedures worked as a power trio to do a number on Erickson. Maybe if he hadn't have been given electroshock therapy to combat his schizophrenia and wasn't sentenced to ten years for possessing a joint soon after, people wouldn't be making a fuss over him. Rusk State Hospital wouldn't have such a notorious name either.
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One of the saddest parts of Erickson's life story is that some - not all - devotees don't see the man and his kind soul but only his past illnesses and look upon them as some sort of badge of cool. And that's a sick and exploitive reason to patronize an artist's work. Yeah, it may help fund treatments and the performer's ongoing well-being, but your reasons are hollow and are only based on your rubbernecking. As a friend told us online yesterday a few hours before Erickson took the stage, "It's a bunch of people struggling to like and find relevance in his current music because he was in that band a long time ago. And because he's all 'fuckin crazy now and shit, dude'." That's not an invalid statement in the slightest. There are people who feed into the legend of the damaged rocker being pricked and prodded at the hands of antiquated therapies and drugs. His upcoming collaboration with Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil, is due in April and is sounding like a winner so far and should be on a few year-end lists by the time you turn your car's heater on again. But for many, if it's not the Thirteenth Floor Elevators or Roky's work with the Aliens or the Explosives, then it is shit. It may sound cold to say, but had Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett made a miraculous return to music after decades in the wilderness of his psychosis, he would have been a curiosity piece and not the triumphant return of lost genius. Without his mental demons and influential champions, Daniel Johnston would be just a well-mannered yet "off" guy doing caricatures at the mall in front of an easel surrounded by cans of Mountain Dew. But Erickson fought through his illness and has more or less beaten it. He doesn't exactly need anyone's pity to get by these days, and his career's work speaks for itself apart from all the public knowledge of his medical issues. He can now play the music made from inside his own personal inferno and swing it with heft.
But you can tell live onstage that as much as he enjoys playing the most visceral of his songs from the lows of his illness, like Tuesday's mighty "Creature With The Atom Brain" and the roadhouse blues of "Bloody Hammer," it must sting to relive some of the scarier chapters of his journey live every night for hooting fans calling out song titles. Erickson is the poster boy for survival, and his story should give hope to those and the family of those who are fighting mental impairment. If you can touch the very bounds of sanity like he did for the better part of the '70s and still be alive to tell about it four decades later, then most anyone can defeat the veritable demon, beast, vampire or two-headed dog gumming up the works in your brain.