PRODIGAL RETURN Roky Erickson & Okkervil River

When
the psychedelic godfather was ready to resume recording after years in the
wilderness, his Austin
neighbors proved the perfect collaborators.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Were you shocked when Pavement reunited? How about when
Mission of Burma returned? Nice as those were, their comeback stories have
nothing on Roky Erickson. As leader of The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson
basically invented psychedelic rock, writing the classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me”
at the age of 15.

 

But things went downhill quickly after that. Soon, Erickson
was dropping acid and shooting heroin on a regular basis. Yet it was one joint
that really ruined his life. In 1969, he was arrested for having a single
marijuana cigarette and sentenced to 10 years in prison by authorities looking
to make an example of him. Instead, he pled insanity and was sent to a mental
hospital where he received electro-shock treatment. By the 1980s, he was living
in squalor and suffering serious health problems.

 

His brother finally came to the rescue in 2001, winning
legal custody of Roky, getting him on medication and into therapy. Within a few
years, Erickson had put his life back together and begun touring again. Now,
he’s releasing his first new album in 14 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil (reviewed here at BLURT). The album was
made with an assist from fellow Austinites
Okkervil River.
We talked with Okkervil leader and album producer Will Sheff about a record few
thought they’d ever see.

 

***

 

BLURT: How
did you begin working with Roky?

WILL SHEFF: There was a writer for the Austin Chronicle who was a fan of Okkervil River
and a longtime fan of Roky’s. She thought it would be fun if we did a show with
him at the Austin Music Awards in 2008. Roky loved it. He felt inspired and
excited to have a younger band play with him, and we had a blast.

      Shortly after
that, Roky’s management approached me about producing a new record. I was
hesitant. I didn’t want to make one of those perfunctory late career records
that exist just for a tour or get by on generalized goodwill, but aren’t very
good in and of themselves. I wanted it to be a worthy addition to the canon.

      Then they sent
me the songs. There were 60 songs from throughout his career – stuff from The
13th Floor Elevators they never put out, stuff he wrote while he was
incarcerated and some from his horror rock era in the 1970s. The songs were so
powerful and moving and autobiographical. They presented a side of his writing
I never knew was there. I felt they were some of the best songs he’d ever
written.

 

What
struck you most about the songs?

If people know Roky for something beside The 13th Floor Elevators, it’s for horror rock, which was essentially his own genre. He
was doing these scary hard rock b-movie themed songs. He was talking about
electro-shock treatment and being on Thorazine in a veiled way. I wanted people
to know he also wrote about electro-shock treatment and Thorazine and prison straightforwardly
and openly. There’s no humor, no metaphor in these songs that insulates you
from the pain. It’s very, very raw, but there’s beautiful, whimsical, fanciful
language that has to do with who Roky is as a person. It’s a very special thing,
these pretty, fanciful songs soaked in this really intense pain.

 

What
was your main goal as Roky’s producer?

I really wanted people to see Roky in a different way. I
wanted them to see the wisdom and tenderness and mysticism that is part of his personality
just as much as the wild man rock and roller is. And that [wild man] stuff is
great. I don’t mean to downplay it, but when you hear this, you see how varied
his work is.

 

The hard
rock sound that he’s known for isn’t really part of this album.

His horror rock songs were happening during the flowering of
heavy metal. They dealt with horror, but they were theatrical. When you’ve been
in prison with pedophiles, rapists and murderers, and are getting shock
treatment, a werewolf or a vampire isn’t scary. It puts a smile on your face,
like a Halloween costume. Songs like “Please Judge” or “John Lawman” are actual
horror rock. That was the real horror in Roky’s life.

 

How is
Roky’s mental health these days?

He’s doing better than ever. Roky is schizophrenic. There’s
no way around it. But for over a decade he was not allowed to be on medication,
so he was really declining physically and mentally. Everyone in Austin thought you’d
never hear from him again. We thought he’d be like Syd Barrett and disappear. It’s
miraculous what people did to help him out. And once they got him to that
place, he helped himself out. He’s happier than he’s ever been. His whole life
was marked by excess. He really even keeled now.

      One thing that
really frustrated me about the [2007] Keven McAlester documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, is that they stopped filming at a certain
point. It’s not Keven’s fault. It’s just the nature of the project. But the
point at which they stopped filming was the beginning of Roky’s recovery.
People walked away from the movie thinking Roky was beyond recovery. That’s
completely false. But you don’t see that in the movie because it stopped
filming in 2001. Since then, he bought his first house, bought his first car,
reconnected with his son, and asked his first wife on a date so they
reconnected and now live together. He tours regularly. If you saw the movie, you’d
never anticipate that. I want to spread the word about it.

 

What’s
happening with your own band? Is there a new Okkervil album in the works?

We’re working on an album, but we’re going real slow. In the
past, I always felt rushed. I don’t think anything that came out was
compromised, but there were moments where the fun was starting to fall away
because I was working so hard. I think there’s something about music that
should be play, not work. I’m always
suspicious of people that use the word “work” in reference to art.

 

You’ve
worked with several legends lately – not just Roky but also Levon Helm. What
did you learn from them?

The thing I took from Levon is that he’s just so happy to be
playing in a beautiful, old-fashioned entertainer way. If you think of humans
making music for each other, it’s a beautiful natural thing. Being a rock star
is like the cancerous version of that, where the cell has grown out of control
and become toxic. The idea that you should bow down to this one person or that this
person is more deserving of attention is such a gross mutation of what music is
supposed to be about. Levon is so great as a musician, and The Band are one of
the all-time great rock bands. At the same time, there’s such humility with him.
Although there are all these people who come to see him, he’s bringing the feeling
of a bunch of people sitting around enjoying themselves.

     Roky is the same
way. He has a line in “Be and Bring Me Home” that says “Special and magical
music/ These are feelings from one to another.” That alludes to something about
Roky’s life. Music sustained him and kept him going. In the mental hospital,
music kept him sane. It kept him from complete and utter despair.

 

[Photo Credit: Todd Wolfson]

 

Leave a Reply