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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky