BY JONATHAN VALANIA Cosmic ’60s psych/garage-punk pioneer. Acid casualty. Drug-war martyr. Demon-crazed extraterrestial ’70s solo artist. Patron saint of alt-rock’s fringe dwellers. In 1968, Roger Kynard Erickson, aka Roky Erickson, then singer for Texas’ psychedelic avatars the 13th Floor Elevators, was busted for possession of a joint’s worth of marijuana and offered a choice: 10 years of hard time or a stretch at Rusk State Hospital For The Criminally Insane. He opted for the padded cell. Already half-fried from Herculean doses of psychedelics, Erickson was subjected to a cruel regimen of “experimental” drugs and electro-shock therapy and was released three years later a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Perhaps telegraphing the horror within, Erickson released a series of protopunk solo records in the ’70s and early-’80s riddled with lurid references to zombies, vampires, aliens and the devil himself. By the 90s, his appearances were rare, erratic and finally non-existent.
Though he never scored another hit after 1966, his tragic legacy commands a large and devoted cult following. His profile was raised further by the 1990 tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which featured REM, ZZ Top, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Butthole Surfers. After getting arrested again–for stealing his neighbor’s mail–Erickson was taken under the wing of the Butthole’s drummer, King Koffey, who got him back into the studio for 1995’s quite lovely All That May Do My Rhyme. In 1999, Touch and Go released Never Say Goodbye, a recording of Erickson alone with his acoustic guitar during his stay at Rusk.
Like fellow Texan Buddy Holly, Erickson delivers heart-tugging snatches of melody in the hiccup of his reedy voice and the plaintive strum of his guitar, mapping what Leonard Cohen calls the crack at the center of everything where the light gets in. Minus the acid polemics of his tenure with the Elevators and the demons that haunt his solo career, Never Say Goodbye reveals a gifted, broken soul searching for peace, love and understanding–and really, there’s nothing funny or crazy about that.
His life story is the subject of You’re Going To Miss Me, a 2005 documentary that maps his path back from the dark side. In 2010, Roky was backed by fellow Austin residents Okkervil River on True Love Casts Out All Evil (Anti). The following interview originally posted back in 2012. In advance of his show at Underground Arts on Saturday with special guests Far-Out Fangtooth (arguably one of the greatest band names in the history of local rock), we are re-posting it today. Discussed: Led Zeppelin, paranoid schizophrenia, Walker Texas Ranger, Wells Fargo, psychotropic pharmaceuticals, Dean Koontz, Family Guy, Rusk State Hospital For The Criminally Insane and the ubiquity of cable television.
ROKY ERICKSON: Hi!
PHAWKER: Hey, Roky. Before we get started I just want to tell that I’ve been a fan for a long time, so it’s a huge honor to speak with you today.
ROKY ERICKSON: Thank you.
PHAWKER: I really enjoyed the movie they made about you, You’re Gonna Miss Me, and I’m happy see that you’ve bounced back and you seem to be in a good place these days.
ROKY ERICKSON: Yes.
PHAWKER: Well I’m happy to hear that.
ROKY ERICKSON: We had a plane ride today coming out here, you know.
ROKY ERICKSON: Yeah.
PHAWKER: And you’re in Chicago right now?
ROKY ERICKSON: Well, we made it through security.
PHAWKER: What’s a typical day in the life of Roky Erickson these days?
ROKY ERICKSON: Yeah, well I been doing real good, and everything, you know.
PHAWKER: What do you do when you get up in the morning? Do you like to watch TV?
ROKY ERICKSON: Yeah, that’s what we do, I just watch cartoons.
PHAWKER: What’s your favorite cartoon?
ROKY ERICKSON: Um…I like Family Guy.
PHAWKER: Do you still listen to music for pleasure?
ROKY ERICKSON: Yes I do.
PHAWKER: What are you listening to these days?
ROKY ERICKSON: We sure enjoy a lot of radio. We listen to KUT back in Austin.
PHAWKER: Any specific groups or songs that you like these days?
ROKY ERICKSON: I like Led Zeppelin.
PHAWKER: You and me both. Do you still write songs?
ROKY ERICKSON: Yes, I’ve been working on it. I’ve been reading a lot of books and thinking about writing songs about them. Like Dean Koontz. He writes about this guy named Odd Thomas.
ROKY ERICKSON: Well I can’t think of anything about them that nobody else knows except…I just got this album in, it’s called Album Of The Three-Eyed Men or something, you know? And I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. I have albums, you know, like 33 and a 1/3 albums?
PHAWKER: Sure. Vinyl. I am familiar with it.
ROKY ERICKSON: So we got out house set up, so we’ve been working on that and everything.
PHAWKER: Very nice.
ROKY ERICKSON: We condemned a lot with Wells Fargo, so they watch out for us a lot, you know what I mean?
PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about the movie you made with your brother…
ROKY ERICKSON: Uh-huh.
PHAWKER: In the bonus features of You’re Gonna Miss Me there’s an on-camera segment with your brother recorded after the movie was finished and he says there is no such thing as mental illness, Roky is cured and there is no need for him to take medication anymore. Is that where things still stand, you no longer take medication to control your schizophrenia? Do you take medication?
ROKY ERICKSON: I have been taking it for blood pressure.
PHAWKER: Just blood pressure, no mental health drugs?
ROKY ERICKSON: No.
PHAWKER: That’s interesting, because in the early part of the movie, when your mother was taking care of you, you weren’t taking any meds to stabilize your mental health because she didn’t believe in it and you were not in a very good place mentally, best I could tell. And then your brother takes over and gets you back on your meds and you seem to be a lot healthier and a lot more functional. And at one point you just stopped taking any meds and yet you don’t seem to have reverted back to the way you were before. Is that true?
ROKY ERICKSON: Well, I’ve had lots of help from my friends, so I’m doing real good. We have Time Warner and everything. You know, the cable TV Show? Do you have that too?
PHAWKER: Yes, we have that here in Philadelphia.
ROKY ERICKSON: Good.
PHAWKER: What other TV shows do you like to watch?
PHAWKER: The movie?
ROKY ERICKSON: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Not to bring up unpleasant memories but is there anything about your time at Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane that nobody else knows?
ROKY ERICKSON: Well, there’s this one movie called You’re Gonna Miss Me, you know? Where they visit for a while and interview some people there. And it’s really interesting.
PHAWKER: One last question, if you had your whole life to do over again is there anything you would do differently?
ROKY ERICKSON: Oh, I don’t know, I’d have to get some help on that. That’s an interesting idea, that sounds like winning some kind of extravagant contest or something, you know?
PHAWKER: I suppose it does. Well, I want to say thank you to for taking the time to talk to me and I wish you well and look forward to seeing you when you get to Philadelphia.
ROKY ERICKSON: OK, so you’re going to call there, too?
PHAWKER: No, I’m not going to call, Roky, I am going to come see you perform.
ROKY ERICKSON: OK. Take care. Take care. Take care.