Smile Politely

A Roky revival at this year’s Pygmalion Music Festival

Folks, consider yourself lucky. In September, you’ll get the opportunity to see the headlining act of the 2010 Pygmalion Music Festival, the rarest of all creatures, a truly singular voice in rock’s great canon, a man who should need no introduction: Roky Erickson.

The fact that Roky Erickson does need an introduction is one of rock and roll’s saddest stories. That Americans don’t mention Roky (pronounced “Rocky”) in the same breath as other signature songwriters like Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Van Morrison is at the least unfortunate. One of the greatest singers and songwriters of the psychedelic era, Roky is best known for the vicious wail he let loose to open the only hit he ever recorded, a song that helped give birth to garage psych in 1966, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” The tune, recorded by the band he fronted, the 13th Floor Elevators, has long been manna for the Nuggets crowd and received a modest revival by its inclusion in the soundtrack to High Fidelity. But that’s hardly where Roky’s story ends. For if it were, it’s highly unlikely that so much hype would be forthcoming for his performance in Champaign-Urbana.

Roky’s new record, True Love Cast Out All Evil, drops next week on Anti- Records and features indie stalwarts and fellow Austin comrades Okkervil River as backing band (they will also be backing him on the road). It will be his first offering of new material since 1995, and his first fully realized rock and roll record in nearly a quarter century. Roky will also be touring this year, something he hasn’t done consistently in more than two decades.

Does that make Roky just another in a long line of has beens trying to earn a buck on his former glory? Hardly. Roky has never had the opportunity to bask in any such glory. Fame has eluded him. Despite a career that began in the 1960s, Roky has recorded just eight albums in forty-plus years: four in three years with 13th Floor Elevators and one solo album in each of the following four decades. The reason for his inactivity is what makes his story so unusual and this comeback so warranted.

Roky was one of the first casualties of the psychedelic era, except his tragedy didn’t end with a tombstone. Too many mind-altering substances tripped up Roky’s brain and caused him to be institutionalized for the first time in 1968. The diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia and the involuntary treatment du jour was electroshock therapy. The following year, Austin police, eager to send a message to the LSD-loving hippies, arrested Roky, a popular frontman and proponent of drug culture, for possession of a lone joint of marijuana. Facing a decade in the slammer, he pled not guilty by reason of insanity, which landed him in the local state hospital and, following several successful escapes, a hospital for the criminally insane. For nearly three years, Roky was subjected to more electroshock and various pharmacological cocktails.

His musical career was over, but he never stopped writing songs. Upon his release, he formally returned to music and started a new band. Roky’s revamped sound incorporated the more muscular musical elements of heavy metal along with the blues boogie rock and rural R&B of his Texas roots. Fixated on classic horror movie themes and his own obsession with aliens, this new batch of songs sent Roky’s former fan base for a U-turn. In 1980, The Evil One was finally released to rave reviews in Europe. In the States, however, it fell on deaf ears despite some truly outstanding songs, such as the catchy pop-metal ditty “I Think of Demons,” which was ahead of its time and probably could have topped the rock charts if not for lyrics like this: “Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer Lucifer / he’s been waiting on you / Demon eyes and demons do / waiting until you come through  / to be our leader, we’ve been waiting on you.” That was a step beyond even Ozzy. But credit Roky for his fearlessness and for transforming his demons into art.

This is where things really took a turn for the worse. Roky spent the next 15 years engrossed in a long, losing battle with his illness. While he recorded one more studio album and occasionally played gigs, his personal issues easily overtook his artistic capacity. He signed a notarized document announcing that he was an alien, began obsessively poring over junk mail and responding to countless prize offers, and spent time living with his slightly mad mother — all of which is highlighted in the engaging documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, which the Art Theater would be wise to screen in conjunction with his performance.

In 1995, at the urging of Austin-area musical peers like Billy Gibbons and the Butthole Surfers, Roky returned to the studio to record a largely acoustic set of tuneful love songs. The man who resurfaced in the 1970s penning songs about two-headed dogs and zombies was now writing touching, sentimental odes to loved ones. They were normal songs, by most standards. By stripping away the brawn of his first couple solo albums, Roky showcased his exceptional way with words and simplistic, 1950s-inspired songwriting. Moreover, his trademark voice still sounded spectacular.

Several years later, Roky’s youngest brother was granted the right to supervise the singer’s affairs. Roky moved to Pittsburgh, where his brother began the process of medicating him and overhauling a contractual mess that had left the songwriter’s bank account devoid of royalty checks. A few years ago, Roky, his psychosis now in check, began occasionally playing live, appearing at a handful of festivals (South By Southwest, Coachella, Lollapalooza) and on PBS’s Austin City Limits. His new record is the culmination of an intense amount of struggle to help a broken artist rediscover his voice. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff was given demos of sixty mostly unreleased songs written by Roky during the previous 45 years and told to choose his favorites. Twelve appear on True Love Cast Out All Evil, including the album’s single, the dark, remorseful “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.” While it is a gripping rock song drenched in penitent and bitter tones, the other two songs I’ve heard from the forthcoming record display restraint, texture, and a bit of southern twang.

We’re at the beginning of something that has been a long time coming: a Roky revival. Do not miss your chance to partake.

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River — “Goodbye Sweet Dream” (from True Love Cast Out All Evil)

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River plays at the Krannert Center’s Tryon Festival Theater on Sept. 25, 2010, as the headlining act of the 2010 Pygmalion Festival. Festival passes go on sale May 3, 2010 at 10 a.m. and single tickets on sale at on July 10, 2010, at 10 a.m.

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