Call it what you will: tragedy or triumph, cautionary tale, one of life’s odd journeys or the overwhelming power of family and the human spirit, because the story of Roky Erickson is all these things and more. One can’t simply review the soundtrack for this documentary as a separate entity, though most who are asked about Erickson will tell you the music speaks for itself. Instead, this soundtrack is one piece of a larger picture that is the life and incredible story of a musical genius and troubled soul. One of the other pieces to the puzzle is the actual documentary film from whence the music came. Keven McAlester took it upon himself to tell Roky’s story, finding himself at a critical juncture in the artists’ life, much like Sam Jones with I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The resulting documentary is just as astonishing as the exhilarating music of the artist. The two go hand in hand. When watching the film, you revel in Roky’s music, realizing just what a spectacular songwriter and visionary the man truly is. When listening to the soundtrack, you remember the images in the film, the pictures of a man who’s led anything but a charmed life.
If you don’t know the story of Roky Erickson, here it is in as concise, yet as explanatory, a way possible. Roky was the vocalist for the 13th Floor Elevators (so named because Roky said if you listened to their music, you’d get to that mystical non-existent 13th floor), a band formed in Austin in 1965 who went on to coin the term `psychedelic rock.’ Yes, before the Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the entire Haight-Ashbury scene tuned in, turned on and dropped out, the Elevators were revolutionizing rock and roll. Their song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” stands as one of the premiere examples of the birth of psychedelic garage rock, and Roky’s voice a transforming and vitalizing yelp that reverberated throughout the country. Only Janis Joplin, who almost became a member of the band, has a scream as powerful as Roky Erickson. The song, and Roky, became such a symbol for cult classic collector’s rock that it was used as the opening track for the film, High Fidelity. But high times were short lived for Roky as, after bouts of heroin use and over 300 confessed acid trips, he became a casualty of the music scene. He was arrested for marijuana possession, and on the advice of his lawyer, thinking that jail would be tough on Erickson, pleaded insanity. Thus, Roky was sent to Rusk Mental Hospital for three years where he underwent draconian treatments such as electro-shock therapy for `schizophrenia.’ Whether it was the drugs, the shock treatments or something latent in Roky’s brain, the ensuing years of his life were difficult ones. (I wonder about something latent in Roky’s brain because of the actions of his mother, who, if the camera is to be believed, and she is being portrayed the way she wants to be portrayed, is utterly batshit crazy.)
Eventually, Erickson became a nonsensical recluse, never seeing anyone but his mother, and only able to sleep with the sound of four radios, three TV’s, two amps, a radio scanner and a Casio keyboard constantly assaulting his eardrums. Roky only woke up when his mother turned it all off. Ultimately, the film is about how Erickson hit rock bottom, and how his family, namely his youngest brother Sumner, helped him claw his way back out to see the light of day and regain some semblance of a normal life. The fact that Erickson played this year’s Coachella should give you some indication of his renewed success and mental wellbeing. There are many things people disagree about in the film, including the causes of Roky’s descent, the solutions for his eventual rescue, and who has his best interests at heart, if not Roky himself. There’s one thing that no one disagrees upon in the film, and that is the genius of Roky’s music. Besides the requisite title track and most well known Erickson song, complete with electric jug, there’s also one other Elevators’ number, “Fire Engine.” The rest of the tracks are all from Erickson’s later career, not one to be ignored. Some songs are actual studio recordings from different band incarnations and some are off-the-cuff found tapes. Some are sweet and lucid such as 1985’s “Starry Eyes” and the two unreleased gems “For You (I’d Do Anything)” and “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.” Others let us peek into a different level of Erickson’s brain, and the possible madness that resides, such as “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” and “Bloody Hammer.” While these songs can be disturbing lyrically, sonically they rock!
The influence of Roky Erickson can be felt everywhere. Besides pioneering psychedelic rock, Erickson continued to make records that most musicians found to be incredibly gifted and criminally underrated. Supposedly, possibly due to his mental state at the time, Erickson was completely unaware of how revered he was until a tribute album to his music appeared in 1990. Erickson is name-checked frequently by those in the know, including, most recently, Patton Oswalt on his latest comedy CD. Then there was the High Fidelity opening track exposure, and also recently, novelist Jonathan Lethem named his latest book about a band on the verge after an Erickson tune, “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” Luckily, unlike stories of say, Syd Barrett or Skip Spence, Roky Erikson’s story is not over yet, and has taken a happy turn. Not only is his music more accessible than ever, but he’s actually writing, recording and performing again. After being in the custody of his mother and his brother, Roky was eventually given his legal independence this year and is now making his own decision and leading his own life. It’s difficult to separate the story from the music, as will be particularly evident now with a successful documentary, much like with Daniel Johnston, but if there’s one thing the movie and soundtrack do well is champion that music as it so rightly deserves.
The 13th Floor Elevators- The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
The Rolling Stones- Hot Rocks: 1964-1971
Roky Erickson- You’re Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson