Don't Laugh At a Legend Roky Erickson emerges from the cacophony with his first new album in a decade
AUSTIN -- The man standing at the counter, waiting to order his food, is slumped and disheveled and looking slightly deranged. His beard chopped and trimmed in odd proportions, his matted and tangled and unwashed hair sticking up in various spots, his voice an uncomfortably loud squawk, Roky Erickson looks and sounds as if he'd be at home panhandling for change on a street corner. His teeth are covered with a dark film, and underneath his dingy white deck shoes are thick toenails uncut for perhaps months. Though his clothes -- a button-down short sleeved shirt and a pair of slacks -- are clean, he reeks with the stench of death.
"What do ya think I should get?" Erickson asks his companions as the woman behind the Taco Cabana counter eyes him with equal measures of suspicion and disgust. "They got turkey here? Maybe some eggs, huh? They got chicken? Yeah, that'd be good." He wonders if it would be okay to eat the chicken, asking as a child might if he were seeking approval or permission. "That'd be all right, doncha think?"
"Sure, whatever you want."
After the order is placed, he is led to a small table. A few patrons try to turn their heads as Erickson walks through the restaurant, but their stares are obvious to all -- except the man himself, who chatters amiably and endlessly about everything and nothing. When his dinner arrives, he eats it methodically, unsure of whether to use his hands.
"Do you like Kris Kristofferson?" he asks over dinner, a question from out of nowhere.
"Sure," I tell him.
"I don't know much about him," Erickson says. "But he's strange, isn't he?"
"Um, maybe. You know he wrote 'Me and Bobby McGee,'" I say.
"I didn't know that," replies the man who once knew that. "He's strange, though. I guess when people are stars, they become strange."
After he has devoured most of his meal, keeping his plate tidy, Erickson asks if there's a place where he can wash his hands. As one of his dining partners leads him toward the bathroom, a family of three sitting nearby watches. When he passes and is out of earshot, the little girl turns to her parents and visibly shudders, emitting a slight ugggh in disgust at his appearance. "Oooooh, creepy," she says, and the mother and father laugh with the little girl, laughing at a legend.
For as long as he can remember -- if he indeed can remember -- Roky Erickson has been called many things by many people. He's been lauded as a Texas music legend whose name belongs up there with Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin and "T-Bone" Walker. He's been called one of the fathers of psychedelic music, whose band, the 13th Floor Elevators, created a brand of eerie garage rock in mid-'60s Houston and Austin, long before it caught on elsewhere. He has been hailed by the likes of R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers, ZZ Top and so many others as the architect of their respective sounds.
And, unfortunately, he has been pigeonholed as a reclusive lunatic who does daily battle with the demons swirling inside his drug-damaged head.
Since 1966, when The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators album was released on Houston's International Artists label and introduced a frightening new sound -- one that was part blues, part rock, all acid-drenched howls and yells -- Erickson's story has been told and mistold many times. Writers have chronicled his commitment to Rusk State Hospital after he was busted for drug possession in 1969 and the toll his three-year stay took on his mind. They have told of his run-ins with federal officials, of his destitute lifestyle, and they have painted a portrait of a grotesque, overgrown child, a man overtaken by drugs and insanity and the brutality of years spent in and out of mental institutions.
Erickson's press over recent years has finally depicted him as an incoherent lunatic, unable to speak in complete sentences and unwilling to answer any question posed to him. "Don't slander me," Erickson sings in one of his most famous songs, but such pleas have fallen upon deaf ears.
Erickson spent three years in Rusk surrounded by violent and frightening men, convicted murderers and rapists, just to avoid going to jail for possessing one joint; he pretended to be crazy, thinking it would spare him incarceration. But he might not have been pretending: in 1967, two years before he entered Rusk, Erickson spent time in a mental facility in Houston, and one of his ex-wives thinks he might have received shock treatment. But one thing is clear: when he was released from Rusk, Erickson re-entered the world a different man -- one who thought he was an alien, one who walked with two-headed dogs and zombies. Since then, several doctors have diagnosed him as schizophrenic.
Now in his late 40s and having just released his first album in a decade (the striking All That May Do My Rhyme on the Trance Syndicate label), Erickson is no raving madman at all, at least on the surface. He's certainly eccentric, but not zombie-crazy or violently insane. He's able to converse, though his thoughts seem jumbled in a random pattern of words and images and sounds -- not too unlike the cacophony that engulfs his home.
Asked if he has a favorite song of his own creation, Erickson thinks for a second and says, "Noooo, I don't think so." Then he asks, "You think I ought to have one?"
As we drive, at the end of a long night that has included the dinner at Taco Cabana and a visit to his mother's house, Erickson is content just to look out into the night sky, waiting for the rain he predicts will fall. He sits silent, quieter than he's been all evening, taking questions but not really answering them.
"How did you choose the songs for the new record?" I try again, referring to the album's mixture of Erickson classics ("Starry Eyes" and "Don't Slander Me") with previously unreleased gems ("Please Judge" and "I'm Gonna Free Her" among them).
"I just picked the easiest ones."
"Have you written anything new?"
"I haven't," he shrugs, "but I could. I been mostly taking it easy. I have some Cokes at my house."
He talks some more -- about his broken CD player, about needing a magnifying lens for one of his televisions, about how strange everything seems in the dark -- then we turn around and head home. It begins to rain.
Craig Stewart, who runs the Trance Syndicate record label with Butthole Surfers' drummer King Coffey, navigates the stretch of Highway 71 out to Erickson's place in Del Valle. He explains that each Tuesday, Coffey and two friends, Phil and Lorna, take Erickson to dinner, sometimes to his mother's house. Roky is lonely, Stewart explains, and craves the attention poured upon him by adoring, tolerant fans and friends.
Phil, though, has fallen sick and can't make it tonight; Lorna opted to stay with her boyfriend. And Coffey is in California for the week.
Stewart pulls into the deserted parking lot of a porn video store. Erickson lives behind this place, in a $400-a-month house-cum-apartment he refers to as "The Church" that is partially paid for by his medical disability checks from the federal government.
A good 30 feet from the door, we can hear a piercing symphony of white noise and music coming from the house. Stewart explains later Roky keeps his house filled with such painful noise to "shut out the voices inside his head." It also keeps Roky from hearing our shouts for several minutes.
"Hey, y'all," Erickson says when he finally opens his door. "Good ta see ya." He is clearly excited to see Stewart, less so a stranger. "Hey, man, good to see ya again," Erickson shouts to me, though we have never met. "I see ya got new glasses. Look good." He's downright disappointed when he notices that Coffey, Lorna and Phil haven't made the weekly trek to his house. "Where's King?" he asks Stewart, who informs him that the Buttholes' drummer has gone to San Francisco for the week. Roky will ask the question repeatedly throughout the course of the evening, always surprised by the familiar answer.
In almost every corner of Erickson's home is a television or radio or CD player or police scanner or shortwave radio going, emitting various pieces of music and network programming. Through the sonic fog some John Coltrane becomes evident, along with a rerun of a '70s cop show and the incessant babbling of some DJ. In the den, an electronic monitoring box emits only its green test pattern, and in Erickson's bedroom, above a ratty futon, a radio is tuned to the most painful, piercing static.
Erickson is fascinated with electronic devices of any kind. In his kitchen alone, the floor is covered with wires hooked up to amplifiers hooked up to televisions or CD players and sometimes to nothing at all; next to his telephone is a device that looks like a credit-card verifier used by retailers, though Stewart explains it's actually a machine Erickson uses to order junk from a home-shopping cable network.
The place literally overflows with trinkets and gadgets Erickson ordered from some place: a tiny model of the White House, a larger mockup of the U.S.S. Enterprise, old video games, telephones, calculators and other gadgets. He appears to belong to every mail-order organization in existence -- Columbia House Record Club, the National Rifle Association, the National Smokers Union, the National Hot Rod Association, some organization for drivers of four-wheel-drive vehicles -- and each of them has issued him a membership card in the name of Roger Roky K. Erickson that he keeps neatly in a small box. He apparently fills out every response card he gets his hands on, always looking forward to the trips to the post office that guarantee huge boxes of junk mail and other rewards. How he pays for it all is a mystery, since he draws only $314 a month from the government.
Six years ago, Erickson was arrested on federal charges of mail fraud: He had picked up the mail for his neighborhood at the post office, and another neighbor then got it from him and distributed the parcels and letters to the other neighbors. But when that neighbor moved away, Roky continued to get the mail -- and would take it back to his place, claiming it was his own. When the cops came to his place, they found hundreds of letters, magazines and packages -- all unopened, many affixed to his walls. In early 1990, the government dropped the charges after Erickson's mother agreed to have him sent to Austin State Hospital for two months.
Erickson's walls, though, are still covered with ads ripped from magazines, old calendars, pieces of junk mail sent to his home and the homes of others. Stacks of video cassettes, CDs without their cases and some 7-inch vinyl singles sit on tables and couches and shelves. And then there are the magazines, the thousands and thousands of magazines piled and scattered and thrown all over his place, from the latest issues of People or Car and Driver to some from the early '80s.
Over the noise that engulfs his home, Erickson complains to Stewart that his toilet, which is nearly overflowing with water the color of pale rust, has been unusable for a couple of days. He asks if his friend can fix it, but Stewart begs off, saying it's too big a job.
Roky says he's hungry, ready to go, and wonders which pair of shoes he should wear tonight. When Stewart reaches down to hand the pair of white deck shoes to him, Erickson recoils. "No, no, man, I'll get them."
Erickson does not like people making physical contact, even with his belongings. It has been a long time since anyone touched Roky Erickson.
"The story of Roky is the story of any musician who does not give a damn about the business side," says Casey Monahan, who, when not working at his day job as director of the Texas Music Office, was responsible for getting Erickson into the studio to record All That May Do My Rhyme. "And you take that and add to it real or perceived mental illness, an overbearing mother and do-gooders like me, and if you don't watch out, you'll never get out."
Monahan, however, got out. On the eve of the album's release, he severed his ties with Roky, blaming mutual burnout.
Three years ago, Monahan began taking Roky, one of his favorite singers, out to eat every Wednesday night -- "as respect for what he's done for Texas music," Monahan says. He introduced Roky to King Coffey, then-Austin Chronicle music editor Rob Patterson (who Roky refers to as "Leonard") and Andrew Halbreich, who now handles Erickson's song publishing. Monahan also brought Austin bassist Speedy Sparks back into the fold, long after Sparks had burned out on his first collaboration with Roky.
"They were people who either knew or loved Roky," Monahan says, "and who I knew and trusted."
Monahan helped secure Erickson's deal with Trance, and transcribed every single song lyric for a book, Openers II, to be issued shortly by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 publishing house. But Monahan, like all those who have come into contact with Erickson over the years, found that as soon as one steps into Roky's world, the distance between sanity and madness -- your own, not just Erickson's -- is only a short drive out of Austin.
Monahan discovered that Erickson's business affairs were a wreck; that he was nearly a pauper, not because of drug use, but because over the years, Erickson -- or those who surrounded him -- had sold off his songs for literally pennies. Erickson's ex-wife Dana Gaines says she was present when Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet, for instance, bought the rights to "Starry Eyes" for a malt decades ago, during a period when Erickson and Gaines (for whom "Starry Eyes" was written) were starving.
There are dozens of records credited to Roky Erickson -- some with the 13th Floor Elevators, some with the Aliens, some with the Explosives, some to him alone; there is even one out on the French New Rose label recorded at the Palladium in 1979 with the Nervebreakers, the Dallas punk band of the '70s. But Erickson doesn't see a dime from most of those albums, and he's even unaware that most of them exist. The master tapes have been sold, bootlegged and exploited by fans and friends and even family, and it's almost impossible to collect on such ventures. Monahan and Dana Gaines say Erickson often unwittingly gave away publishing rights to his own material, sometimes signing them over for nothing at all.
"The enormity of the mistakes that have been made in his name professionally are such that I couldn't sort 'em all out," Monahan says. "So slowly I tried to bring people in to this little circle whom I could trust, who Roky would trust, and to try to make things better."
After dinner at the Taco Cabana, we head to Evelyn Erickson's house. Roky sees his mother every day. On the way, Stewart asks Erickson for directions.
"I guess just any way you wanna go, man," says Erickson, who moved with his family to Austin from Dallas when he was just two years old.
Evelyn Erickson's front yard is overgrown with bushes and tree limbs; cats run wild through the shrubbery. The scene inside is familiar: collected junk and discarded newspapers and magazines strewn across the floor. On the ceiling, Evelyn has painted a ghostly figure that looks strangely like Roky, though she explains it's actually a copy of a drawing given to her by one of Roky's fellow inmates at Rusk.
In the center of her house sits a piano, on top of which are a handful of cassettes, some of which bear Roky's name and a date. For years, she has been recording her son whenever he feels like performing. It was from such homemade cassettes that Monahan found the decade-old unreleased songs that served as the catalyst for All That May Do My Rhyme.
"Mother, what am I gonna do about my toilet?" Roky asks. "I gotta go to the bathroom. I guess I'll wait till it gets fixed." He paces about nervously, holding his crotch.
"Roky," Evelyn says, "just go now." He ignores her. Evelyn eventually calls a plumber, who agrees to come out to Roky's place in the morning.
As Evelyn talks on the phone, Roky sits in a thick recliner and picks up a guitar, idly and loudly strumming as his mother tries to speak into the receiver.
"You gonna play something?" Stewart asks Roky.
"I guess I could," Roky says, though he complains he doesn't have a pick. His mother hands him a plastic bag filled with blue guitar picks, from which Roky takes one, then mumbles something about it being too hard to use.
But he manages just fine and launches into a version of Richie Valens' "Donna"; as he does so, Evelyn sets up the recording device. The guitar is slightly out of tune, but Erickson's voice is perfect -- in-key and beautiful, quietly powerful. He recalls every word, never missing a note as his fingers glide effortlessly up and down the guitar's neck. If the guitar were in tune, the performance would be amazing, but because the instrument is just a bit off, it's incredibly haunting -- like the music of ghosts or something not of this world.
The impromptu performance hints at the origins of such songs as "I Have Always Been Here Before," a sweetly gorgeous song he recorded in 1981 that would be later echoed in the best of R.E.M. And it is to be reminded that Roky Erickson is one of the great but mostly unheralded figures in the history of rock and roll.
"Ya like that?" Erickson wonders when he finishes. "Straaaaange, isn't it? I've got a lot like that." He explains that he keeps such songs on a compilation titled something like "Contortion of Distortion" -- a record that exists only in his mind. He then proceeds to play snippets of such songs as "To Know Him Is to Love Him," "I'm a Fool for Your Love," and other '50s favorites. Each time he plays, he asks how we like the song, then says, "Strange, isn't it?"
When he's finished and gently places the guitar down on a couch, Evelyn plays back the tape for her son. Afterward, she will mark the cassette with the date. At least once in Roky's on-and-off career, his mother has licensed (actually, sold) such cassettes to record companies seeking to capitalize on Erickson's legend. The 1988 Live at the Ritz, released by a French fan club, and a portion of a recently released three-CD compilation on the Collectibles label called The Unreleased Masters came from Evelyn's hands -- which she is allowed to do, since she has power of attorney over Roky's affairs. Evelyn says such deals, however, were made for between $1,000 and $2,000 and before she helped secure trust funds for her son.
Roky now has two trust funds -- one for income from albums and song royalties, including proceeds from a 1990 Warner Bros. tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which features the likes of the Butthole Surfers, R.E.M., ZZ Top and Sahm among those covering Roky's material; the other is for donations from benefits and fundraisers.
Evelyn controls the sales trust funds, from which she gives her son about $20 every other day to buy "cigarettes and hamburgers," she explains. The other fund is handled by two of Roky's brothers and a couple of old friends.
Before we leave, Roky finally decides to use the bathroom; when he's done, he yells, "Here I come!" from around the corner. He is still washing his hands, obsessed with ridding himself of the germs.
As we climb into Stewart's Jeep, Evelyn Erickson waves and yells to her son, "Love you."
Roky does not respond. But as we pull away, he wonders aloud, "You think she'll be all right?
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