Getting To Grips With Roky Erickson: A Dr Rock Interview
, August 19th, 2009 10:02
All hail the mighty return of Dr Rock! And Roky Erikson! That's a whole lot of rock
When I was asked to interview Roky Erickson I was excited as well as worried – where does one start with an artist whose life story is so bizarre? One could easily talk about it for days and still probably only scratch the surface of the enigma that is Roky Erickson.
His songs tell the real-life tale of a man who went from being the 19-year-old heart-throb lead singer of one of the world's first psychedelic groups - the 13th Floor Elevators - to being incarcerated in a high security psychiatric institution. The Rusk Maximum Security Unit for the Criminally Insane was where he lost three years of his life to bouts of shock treatment and mind numbing drugs. And when he emerged, he was but a shadow of his former self, obsessed with demons and aliens. He turned his new, unusual world-view into songs and released them with his now cult-group Bleib Alien / Roky Erickson And The Aliens. This is arguably some of his best material, with classic numbers like 'Creature With The Atom Brain', 'Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)' and 'Bloody Hammer'.
The Aliens ceased to exist and numerous new groups and solo projects surfaced, and Roky’s gift of making even the most simple of songs feel touching because of his uniquely honest way of telling a story never waned. Due to ill-health Roky disappeared from public view after his last show in 1987 and apart from strange incidents like one in the late 1980s where Erickson was accused of mail-theft after his neighbours letters were found glued to his living room walls, no-one seemed to know what he’d been up to. Erickson had officially quit the music business but his fans didn’t forget him. A compilation CD [Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye] of Roky Erikson songs was released in the early 90s with songs covered by groups as far ranging as ZZ Top, REM and the Butthole Surfers. The record remained steadily popular and introduced Erickson to a new generation of fans.
Meanwhile it was quiet still in Camp Erickson, no one knew if he was dead or alive. Then in 2005 the documentary You Will Miss Me was released. A team of film makers had sought out Erickson and recorded his hermit like existence and his brother Sumner’s battle to receive guardianship over Roky with the goal to make him well again. The film won numerous awards and finished on a happy, or happier note – after years of untreated schizophrenia, he ended up on medication and received therapy, and also revived his career that saw him travel to London for the first time in 2007 for a sold out show at the Royal Festival Hall.
Two years on and I have Erickson on the line, a little confused but enthusiastic sounding, looking back excitedly on the early days of his life and his career in general.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
Roky Erickson: Yes I did. It was supposedly called a musical household but it was kind of an unsolved; America’s most interpretive guidance help mystery. [laughs] They just wanted me to play music. I just had one guitar, a little tiny guitar. Most of the time all my studies were real kind of groovy, I really had to stick with it. But somehow I got it and I didn’t really have to do it, I guess. I just went "Wow, oh my God!" Do you know what I mean, about it? I just got it, you know?
Did you first play the electric guitar with The Spades?
RE: No, that was with another group, The Roulettes. We’d just get together and wear clothes that would kind of be like a rainbow - black and red.
Moving on to the 13th Floor Elevators, how did you first meet those guys?
RE: Well, let me see, I was playing somewhere, New Orleans at the Jade, I think. They came up and told me there was this kid out in the audience that wanted to talk to me. It was Tom Hall [jug player and band leader of the 13th Floor Elevators]. He said “Boy, I’d sure like to form a band." So I left the Spades but I had a hard time telling them because it was a large band, about 10 people.
I hear Janis Joplin briefly thought about joining The Elevators. What do you remember about that?
RE: That was just something they said. That was something I thought was kind of controversial.
So she never actually auditioned for you?
RE: She did not. Neither her nor Townes Van Zandt. We were gonna get him to play heavy bass but it didn’t happen either, somehow.
People say it was Tommy Hall who pushed you into taking too many drugs. What do you think of that?
RE: I don’t really know. That can’t be found out about now. For some reason I came alright through it though, I’m alright.
Eventually you got put into a mental hospital for using drugs and Tommy Hall helped you escape. Can you tell me about that episode?
RE: That was a strange one. All of a sudden he came in there, I don’t know, with something to cut the door off. That’s all I remember.
Eventually you ended up at Rusk State Hospital for possession of marijuana. What would your day consist of there?
RE: Mostly I would just smoke cigarettes and get out of doing chores [laughs].
Your ex-wife Dana was quoted as saying that your time at Rusk was your most productive. What did you work on then?
RE: I worked on my stuff all the time, I worked real hard. I had three books and for some reason I became disoriented with doing that.
Tell me about the band you formed inside Rusk.
RE: Well, we got together a band and called it the Missing Links. We practiced and played one gig.
Did you record any of those sessions?
RE: Let me see. I don’t think so. We may have recorded one song called 'Cell Soul'.
Whilst in there you studied religion and became a Reverend, correct?
RE: That’s right, I was encouraged. I said I really want to do it. They had this advertisement, it said ‘Reverend required’ and recommended me to do it.
Once you were pardoned from Rusk you started to obsess over extra terrestrials and demons. What caused that?
RE: It could’ve been the earthquake movement, that could’ve been it. It could’ve been in the outer space, or in the air or in the atmosphere, or something like that.
The music of your new band Blieb Alien, was categorised by you as horror rock. Why?
RE: Oh, I don’t know, it just was. I guess I was big fan of horror movies but I hadn’t been to too many horror movies lately.
What’s your favourite horror movie?
RE: I like The Creature With The Atom Brain. And I like The Giant Cricket. I like them two a lot, yeah.
In 1987 you stopped playing live. Why?
RE: I don’t know I guess I just wanted to take it easy. That weather in San Francisco, have you heard about that? It’s real strange, it’s like somebody left their fan on all the time. Living there was alright but I had the feeling at certain times that I just wanted to take it easy.
For the film You’re Gonna Miss Me you were filmed over a period of 5 years. Did it sometimes feel like your life was being intruded?
RE: They didn’t really bother me. But it’s a strange film, I can only ever watch it for a very short time.
RE: Well, for one my hair was a very strange thing.
What do you do in your spare time these days?
RE: I play guitar, I got a whole lot of guitars around here.
What sort of stuff do you play these days?
RE: I usually play acoustic and sometimes electric.
Do you still paint?
RE: I’ve been thinking about it. Shout Factory have asked me if I would do some drawings. I did one and they said "Boy, it’d sure be nice if maybe you could draw us another one”.
What are you most looking forward to on your trip to England next week?
RE: They’ve been taking it really easy on me in terms of practicing and all that.
Will you have time to have to do some sight seeing?
RE: Well let me see, probably yeah!
I guess it must be exciting for you to visit England because of its musical heritage, The Yardbirds and The Who were around at the same time the Elevators were around at.
RE: That’s right, I’ve got an article about them here, you know. I haven’t read it though. I have an article of mine in here too.
Looking back now, from a sober point of view, how do you feel about your career?
RE: I’d just like to have it serialised, to have it put in a book.
I hear you’ve been working on some music with Billy Gibbons recently, how’s that been going?
RE: It worked pretty good. He’s real strict about making sure he’s got guidance all the time, you know? Thank you for asking.
How do you enjoy performing live these days?
RE: Live performances? I don’t mind them. Live performances are just like practicing. But I tell you, you got to have guidance and help, you have to have somebody with you to know that you’re being instructed to do something.
So you’re off the medication now and you’re feeling well.
RE: That’s right, I am doing well, I sure am.
The mighty Roky Erickson will be playing the HMV Forum on Thursday, 20th August and Green Man Festival on the weekend.
Roky's backing band is: Kyle Ellison - guitar (Meat Puppets / Butthole Surfers), Matt Harris - bass (The Posies / Oranger), Kyle Schneider - drums (Ian Moore/Charlie Sexton)