I Rocked With a Zombie

Roky Erickson’s usually cited claim to fame is the edgy psychedelic classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” recorded back in 1965 with the 13th Floor Elevators of Austin, Texas. Erickson and the Elevators’ drug theorist, Tommy Hall, sparked the band’s trippy fury with an odyssey of chemical experimentation notable even by the standards of the time; two classic albums, The Psychedelic Sounds of… and Easter Everywhere, were the result. But the band fell apart and Roky’s personal odyssey began soon after that. It included travel, disease, increasing mental problems, a pot bust, extensive psychotropic drugs prescribed by doctors, incarceration in a state hospital, an escape, a resulting three-year sentence to a hospital for the criminally insane, some scattered recording, a belief that he was from Mars, and other adventures.

Erickson’s best work ranged from bayou howling that surpassed Creedence (“Don’t Slander Me”) to proto-hard-rock rumbling (“Don’t Shake Me Lucifer”) to effortless Buddy Holly-goes-to-Liverpool pop (“Nothing in Return”) to an odd sort of folk horror (“I Walked With a Zombie”). His peculiar tragedy is nicely captured in the fact that You’re Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson, which came out on Restless records in 1991, is at once a furious, awesome document and all the Roky you’ll ever need. The organizers of Austin’s South by Southwest music festival had been trying to put together an Erickson redux concert for years; they’d been hampered most recently by his being incarcerated yet again. (He’d been collecting his apartment neighbors’ mail and taping it to his walls; according to an article by Austin writer John Morthland, Erickson was diagnosed at the time as having organic brain damage.) In 1991 the festival managed to actually produce a Roky Erickson live onstage; but all he could do was squint his eyes and wave. But at the climax of last Wednesday’s Austin Music Awards, a pickup band led by guitarslinger Will Sexton walked out in front of the crowd at Palmer Auditorium. Center stage stood a vacant-stared street person, apparently just back from a day of dumpster diving. Erickson sported a lumberjack’s beard, a wino’s eyes, and a severe case of bed hair. He wore two clashing long-sleeved shirts and a discolored red jacket. Standing stiffly, his arms crossed protectively, he had the basic mien of a drunk enduring a few moments of salvation before getting fed, or a distracted dog going through his repertoire of tricks. Between verses he yawned.

The sight was so disconcerting that it took a few minutes before you could manage to shut your eyes and pay attention to the music. If you did, the voice came through. Gone was the rasp, the wobble, the blues of the past. His odyssey had taken everything but his tenor, which was now higher and clearer than ever before. The Aerosmithy “Two Headed Dog” was rough and unpracticed, but the inarticulate rage of “Don’t Slander Me” (“Don’t slander me just just / For you me and I I / Don’t slander me my my”) remained, and so did the roaring drive of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” And finally, crossed arms, yawns, rolls of the eyes and all, came “Starry Eyes,” an impenetrably beautiful song Erickson recorded nearly 20 years ago with a group called Bleib Alien. On record (it was a single, a sort of Buddy Holly tribute produced by Doug Sahm) the song is a deliberately constructed, awesomely oxymoronic (“Starry eyes / What can I say to make you listen?”) exasperated ache for the past. Last week it was an ache for something else. If the mind, body, and soul combine to create art, what is it that’s produced when the mind is gone, and possibly the soul? Erickson’s has been thoroughly eaten by the ghosts he once celebrated (“If you have ghosts / You have everything”). After each verse, after each chorus, you could argue with yourself, try to remember that there had to be some sort of engine pulling this charging, breathtaking train, but then you watched Will Sexton sidle over to the man. Roky looked at him questioningly. “The bridge,” Sexton said. Roky sang it.

Chicago News From Austin

Also at the Austin Music Awards, former Reader and Sun-Times pop critic Don McLeese, now with the daily Austin American-Statesman, was voted best journalist by the readers of the Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly and the parent of SXSW. It was his second win in a row… Readers will remember that Hitsville recently gave an update on the personal doings of another onetime S-T writer, Michael Corcoran. While I was in Texas I picked up a copy of the Dallas Morning News, where Corcoran is now a writer on country. The Morning News is considered to be the best paper in Texas, and this issue demonstrated one of the reasons why: when you have a good writer on hand, you should channel his energies and let him go. It contained a major feature by Corcoran on Houston’s Rap A-Lot records, home of the Geto Boys; Corcoran’s weekly “Country Railbird” column, a collection of sharply observed handicaps on various new C and W singles’ chances of hitting number one; and, apropos of absolutely nothing, his scabrous memoir of Johnny Thunders. My two favorite sentences in it: “William Burroughs has written that junkies look like they’re wearing borrowed flesh, but even face down on tile Johnny Thunders’ skin looked tailor made” and “In JT’s warped and bleary world, the line between vomit and orgasm was erased.” Not bad for one writer’s music coverage at a daily newspaper in Texas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Grenon.