Don't Laugh At a Legend Roky Erickson emerges from the cacophony with his first new album in a decade

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky