Smile Politely

Roky Erickson: He’s never been here before

If, paraphrasing Springsteen, the snare shot that kicked off “Like a Rolling Stone” blew your mind open, then one year later, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Roky Erickson’s 1966 hit with the 13th Floor Elevators, blew your mind straight up. Beautiful yowls and yelps, acidic guitar work, and the warbly, ear-pricking rhythmic whirls of Tommy Hall’s electric jug propelled the group to the American Bandstand and a sure place in the history of psychedelic rock.

After an incredible follow-up album, though, the band declined and so did Roky. What happened there is better left to the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history in the form of documentaries, books, films, and articles, like Doug’s exuberant piece back in April, when Roky Erickson with Okkervil River was the first headliner to be announced for this year’s Pygmalion Festival.

A lot’s happened since then. For instance, Roky and Will Sheff (of Okkervil River) dropped a new album, True Love Cast Out All Evil, a mere four days later. And then I spent all summer listening to it and anticipating the show that’s taking place tomorrow night at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Truth be told, a lot of credit for the success of Roky’s release belongs to Will Sheff’s production. Sheff combed through over sixty demo tracks and miscellanea Roky had written and recorded over the past few decades and assembled a beautifully instrumented and arranged collage that points toward redemption. Of course, though, that would be impossible without the voice of a songwriter who had truly been to hell and back, the Alien, the Evil One himself, Roger Kynard Erickson.

Lest you worry that he’s not up to the challenge, that the fruits of the studio won’t add up to a compelling performance, I’d like to point out that Roky and Okkervil originally teamed up live, sans rehearsal time, for a hometown gig in Austin, where Roky seems to be a legend. Those initial gigs were so enjoyable for all involved, audiences included, that the group went into the studio and out on tour. If he’s got the wherewithal to rock Coachella, I think he at least has the stamina to go toe to toe with Cap’n Jazz and Ted Leo.

When I got the chance to talk to Roky Erickson Monday afternoon, I’d made up my mind not to ask anything about Rusk State Hospital, where he spent years of his life at the behest of the Texas legal system, about his mental health now or in the past, about the legal situation that landed him at Rusk. But what I quickly found out was that these topics were somewhat inescapable, and the attempt to avoid, or at least ignore them, is a bit asinine.

His past, his life, and his mind are every bit as much a part of the artist’s repertoire as spirituality, horror, garage rock and the wildly weird Austin, Texas scene. On the album, the raw takes from Rusk blend in with found sounds and new recordings and arrangements. Talking to Erickson for a minute, you find out he isn’t shy about what may have been very painful topics only a couple short years ago, that he enters into dialogue about them seemingly without anything close to prodding.

And then some interesting things surface. Though it’s been printed and reprinted time and again that Roky Erickson received years of involuntary electroshock therapy at Rusk, Roky claims it didn’t happen like that. When I followed up with his manager, Darren Hill, he told me that this has been a source of some discrepancy. While there’s no doubt that he received the controversial treatment at a psychiatric facility in Houston, Rusk is a bit more uncertain. Other people claim Roky got the shock there, but Roky says no. If he did, it was certainly a traumatic experience that eludes memory.

Erickson the Younger, Jegar, who is accompanying his father on tour, has become a filmmaker and re-enacted the treatment, playing the role of his own father in an independently released short film entitled Always Been Here Before.He’ll probably be selling some copies at the merch table tomorrow.

Roky was also a bit coy about whether or not that fateful jazz cigarette was really what the authorities claimed it was. Just so you know.

But you know what you should do if you really wanna have a good time? You wanna turn on to what’s really happening? Check out the show at Krannert on Saturday. I swear, man. This is a solid folk and country writer, a trailblazer for psych, for garage, for metal, for pop music. He casts a long shadow that a cultish following has known for years, and now we all get to watch the man at its source.

Seriously, Roky Erickson may be one of the most influential American songwriters that most people have never heard of, and seeing him play rock ‘n’ roll live, seeing this sweet, soulful, endearing man, hearing his voice, moving to his music, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Something that really couldn’t have happened any time other than now.

Saturday night, stand up for the fire demon, but leave your bloody hammers at home. And your jugs.

The transcript of our interview follows for those of you who really don’t care about tl;dr’s.


Smile Politely: Did you ever have a moment, maybe in your childhood or when you were a teenager, when you thought to yourself, ‘I don’t have to just perform music forever, I could
actually write it and people might appreciate it.

Roky Erickson: Yeah! I have. Yes I have.

SP: What was that like?

Roky: Well, I wrote a song one time called “For.” F-O-R.

SP: And how old were you when you wrote that?

Roky: I was in Rusk, TX at the time.

SP: That was when you were in the institution.

Roky: Uh-huh. That’s right. I went there ‘cause they were gonna give me stricter time. And they said if I went to Rusk, I might get off the hook earlier, y’know?

SP: Right, right. Yeah. But, did you ever have a moment in your childhood when you had your first songwriting experience that you can remember?

Roky: …Uh…no. I once wrote this song about this little frog. I wrote a song about him, and then drew a picture, wrote a poem, like that, y’know?

SP: What is performing like for you? Is there anything special that goes through your head, your soul, or your body when you’re on stage?

Roky: No, um…I just have to comply with everybody. I just have to go along with what they say and that way I’ll be allowed to…be myself. And that way when it’s over I can just go on home or whatever it is, you know what I mean?

SP: Then, do you enjoy performing these days, or no?

Roky: Well…there have been times when I have and then…there was a time. I think there was just one time when I did not enjoy performing. There was just one show.

SP: Just one show in your career, or…?

Roky: Uh-huh, yeah, just one show.

SP: Wow…that’s pretty significant.

Roky: I think that was with the 13th Floor Elevators. We were performing in Houston. And I didn’t have too good a time at that thing, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, what went wrong?

Roky: Oh, I don’t know. It just seemed like the police were there or something like that, you know?

SP: So there was a lot of police presence at your concerts with the 13th Floor Elevators, right?

Roky: Yeah, uh-huh. That’s right.

SP: And eventually that wound up in you getting sent to Rusk?

Roky: Well, yeah, that was it. At Rusk though there were two different opinions on it. They told me…You know, I’m not really the one that has records on that. They told me that…in my mind, there was only one time I ever really got into trouble, and that’s when I had to go to Rusk for smoking whatever-it-is, you know?

SP: Whatever-it-is?

Roky: Yeah, right, for smoking a cigarette or whatever.

SP: Oh, it was a cigarette?

Roky: Yeah, well, apparently they claimed that they could prove that it was…they thought…they were thinking that it was something like subversion. That it was marijuana. That it would be like a…spy thing, y’know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, yeah. So when you go on tour these days…You went on a Scandinavian tour a couple years ago, right?

Roky: Well, yeah. Different places. Most of them would be countries that would be related to…uh…places like Sweden. Places that I wouldn’t be too familiar with. I was before in my life, but not at this time. You know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, right. So, do you like touring these days? Is it exhilarating and exciting for you? Or do you just wanna go back home?

Roky: No. I’ve been thinking about writing songs. And then, uh, I’ve been thinking about drawing pictures, you know? [Laughs] It sounds like an exciting thing to do. I’ve been mostly having a good time, you know what I mean? So, most of all, I’ve just been relaxing and having a good time. And been doing things you know? And things like that. I’ve been having the freedom to…make a decision, to do anything I want, you know? And I’ve been pleased with that. With what’s been happening, like I can go to the movies and make a choice, like I’m not gonna go again if I don’t want to, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, it’s a good place to be.

Roky: And, most of all, I really look forward to being able to watch television, you know what I mean?

SP: Oh yeah, what do you like to watch on TV?

Roky: Uh-huh. I really, really enjoy it. I think they really do their thing. And there’s a real colorful thing about it, y’know?

SP: What kinda shows do you like watching these days, though?

Roky: Oh, I don’t know…You know, I have the freedom, again, to be able to flip the channel and to not do it if I don’t want to. And so that’s what I do.

(During darker days, Roky compulsively blared radios, TVs, noise, all at once.)

SP: Yeah, sure. So you mentioned you’re looking forward to writing songs again. What’s your songwriting process like if I can ask you about that?

Roky: Oh, well I usually enjoy writing love songs. Or songs like that. I enjoy writing about the Bible, but the Bible is a real hard thing to write about. So, what you’re supposed to do is you’re supposed just kinda have faith in it and then if somebody with guidance could teach you about it, then you would be able to look at a sentence and to understand what it means. You know what I mean?

SP: Mmhmm.

Roky: But, that’s been the main thing in my life.

SP: The Bible has been? And interpreting it?

Roky: Mmhmm. Well, first of all, I went to church. And then I had to study it and everything like that, you know what I mean? And then I decided I really did love the Bible.

SP: Yeah. One of my favorite tracks off the record you did with Okkervil River was “God is Everywhere” and I was wondering what your spiritual beliefs are like these days. Do you still believe in…God, angels, demons, Jesus, the Bible. All of that. Or do you feel like you kind of have your own take on spirituality?

Roky: Well…mostly I’ve been performing in these real little places, and they tell me not to perform there [laughs]. And I haven’t had to do too much. But it’s been pretty much work for me, you know? Everybody else seems to know about work. It feels pretty good for me, it feels like it could be interesting. [Chuckles] But for me it’s pretty hard work, you know, getting on stage and everything like that. I wish I had some sort of picture of it, or a documentary of it, because then I’d show it to you. But as of now, all I have of it is my say-so on it.

SP: Yeah. Did you see the documentary about you that came out a few years ago, You’re Gonna Miss Me?

Roky: Yes I did, but I have not seen it that much. You know, first of all I was real kinda fishy about it, because I watched it, you know? And I thought…boy, is that me? But I got to like it after a while, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, yeah. You know, I heard that a few years ago they were trying to get Jack Black to play you in a movie but that didn’t really pan out.

Roky: Jack Black, not anybody else but him, right? [Laughs]

SP: Yeah, right! Do you think Jack Black could play you well if he had decided to do it?

Roky: Well, you know, I told them kinda at the end I said…I’m kinda backing out on Jack Black, you know what I mean? I guess if somebody wanted him to do it, I’d do it. And then if somebody with guidance could help me understand about that, then I would like that, you know? I like Jack Black…you see they introduced me to him, said he’s a good guy, name’s Jack Black, an entertainer and all that. And we been thinking about getting him to do you in a movie.

SP: And you just didn’t really think he could handle it?

Roky: No, I really liked him, but I thought, ‘Boy is that a strange request.’ Haha! Know what I mean? They said it’d be a really good thing, because he’s in a whole lot of movies, and I thought that’s really strange, but I guess it would be a good idea, you know what I mean?

SP: I saw the trailer for a movie that I believe your son Jegar made called Always Been Here Before.

Roky: Uh-huh. Right.

SP: How do you pronounce your son’s name, is it YAY-ger, or JAY-gar, or…?

Roky: Right, it’s CHAY-gar. Yeah, it’s a real hard name to pronounce.

SP: Yeah, so that movie got made in 2006, did you see it?

Roky: Which one?

SP: Always Been Here Before? The one your son made?

Roky: No, I haven’t seen that one yet. No, I haven’t even heard of it. I Have Always Been Here Before? Now what’s it about?

SP: Well, there was a trailer for it on your Myspace page and it looks like it was just
about your life.

Roky: Oh! I’d like to see that! Yeah. I thought you were talking about this little film Jegar was making where he’s laying down on a table about to get shock treatment and saying that he’s me. You know what I mean?

SP: No, I’m not sure what you mean…

Roky: Boy, that was a real interpretive movie! But I don’t know, I thought that was the one you were talking about.

SP: Which one, could you tell me again?

Roky: Well, where Jegar thought I had had shock treatment so he was laying down on this table…with some sheets on it to make it comfortable for him, so it wouldn’t hurt him, you know? And then I was getting shock treatment and he was portraying that.

SP: Yeah, that’s the movie I was talking about actually. I think. So you saw that one?

Roky: Uh-huh, yeah. And so that’s the one? Or is it the trailer for You’re Gonna Miss Me?

SP: No, I think it was the movie you were just talking about. With Jegar.

Roky: Oh, okay, yeah, that sounds good. I’ll have to see that. But you think you can get a
copy of it, huh?

SP: No, no. I don’t think I can get a copy of it. I can’t find it anywhere.

Roky: [Laughs] Oh-ho. Well that’s strange. That sounds like a problem. There’s a new song like that, “The Thing That I’m Looking For, I Just Can’t Find It Anywhere” or something like that. 

SP: Now, you said in that movie Jegar thought you got electroshock therapy at Rusk?

Roky: No, he heard that I got shock treatment at some place in Houston, and then he thought that because I got shock treatment there, I also got it at…in, uh…[Rusk] State [Hospital].

SP: Did you get shock treatment?

Roky: No, I never did. Now a lot of people thought I did and they wondered, well if you didn’t get shock treatment, then what’d you do? You know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, because I’ve been reading everywhere that you did get shock treatment.

Roky: Yeah, well, I did not. Now, Dana [his wife] said that, when she went there, they were fearing that she’d get up, you know? But she said that if she had to come, then they’d be real nice to her or something like that, you know?

SP: Uh-huh…So can you tell me what sort of treatments you did get then?

Roky: Oh, well, the only time I have had shock treatment was at a place called [sounds like] Hedge Trough. And they did this thing where they took me into this real comfortable place. This real comfortable room. And then they showed me all this tape that looked like it was made out of comforts or something, you know? And they told me that all they’re gonna do is that they’re gonna make me think that they’re putting tape on me. And then what they wanna know is…they can give me a little aspirin or something, and then if I can rest. And then that would be it, I wouldn’t know about it. Or something like that, you know?

SP: They were actually giving you shock then, though?

Roky: Well no, they didn’t give me any…they just kinda told me…you know… ‘don’t worry about it,’ you know?

SP: Mm-hm. And you didn’t really know what was going on?

Roky: The guy’s name, it was like C-R-W. Crow. Dr. Crow. Yeah. He was…well, he said, ‘I’m more of a…’ if you were ever to have a headache or something you could come to him. He’s more of a medical guy.

SP: Yeah, not really a psychiatric doctor?

Roky: That’s right.

SP: What kind of treatments are you taking now? Are you still taking medication or no?

Roky: No, no I haven’t had to do that. You see, the thing about that is that’s kind of a mystery, you know? All of a sudden they told me, ‘Well, I guess you don’t have to take it anymore.’ Y’know? And then a few people would say, ‘Well, I don’t know, why haven’t you been doing it? We’re very concerned about that.’ You know?

SP: Yeah.

Roky: And then I would have other people handle those people and talk to them and that
way they could tell me if they were…personally good people.

SP: Yeah, it’s gotta be hard to know who to trust in those sorts of situations, I’d imagine.

Roky: Uh-huh. Yes, that’s right. I was taking this thing called Zeprex [probably Zyprexa]. It’s just this thing that they tell you it’s not gonna bother you. But it’s been sitting around for I don’t know how long. [Chuckles] So it’s like the same thing as having something like bad cheese.

SP: Haha, right.

Roky: You’d have to describe it to somebody like you…it would make you feel like you
were relaxing on something like a hard mat that you’d perform sit-ups on.

SP: I gotcha. So you feel better these days unmedicated?

Roky: Yeah, I feel, really, a whole lot better now that I’m not doing it anymore. Now, other people who know the process…I have a book here called The History of Shock Treatment. And so, uh… But I don’t have any books on medication.

SP: Yeah, is it kind of weird for you to read about shock treatment and look back on your own experiences?

Roky: …Well…I’ll tell you what I’m doin’. I put that book up until I thought I should read it, [laughs] you know what I mean? It just…it gets a little bit more fishy or something like that, you know what I mean? So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have it right here; it’s a paperback. But a big, big paperback.

SP: Right. How about the new record? When you heard the record, as Will had put it together, was it kind of like looking at a snapshot of your life up until now? How did you feel about it?

RE: Well, let’s see I’ll tell you…uh…I haven’t listened to this record yet. Now, I looked at the picture and I knew it was [chuckles] very strange, you know?

SP: The record that you put out with Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil?

Roky: That’s right.

SP: You haven’t listened to it yet?

Roky: Only one thing I’ve listened to.

SP: Which song?

Roky: Oh…I don’t know what it is. It’s just this song that’s…real slow. And I never can remember what the name of it is.

SP: And that’s the only one you’ve listened to?

Roky: Right, well, we’ve got a record player here, but I haven’t put it on yet. Yeah, they tried to get me to listen to it, but I’ve only done the one song, you know?

SP: Right.

Roky: But they say the name of it is, uh… “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.”

SP: Yeah, the single.

Roky: So I guess that could be it. It’s real slow, but I don’t know.

SP: I feel like “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” is a little bit faster than some of the songs on the record. It is kinda slow though.

Roky: Right, uh-huh. I listened to that over at this guy, his name is Stu Solomon, and he owns this studio called Wire.

SP: In Austin?

Roky: Uh-huh. They played it for me one time there and they said they really, really did
like it, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, it’s a great song. I loved it.

Roky: Thank you!

[For the record, when asked about this exchange, Roky’s manager gave a hefty laugh and
responded, “Yeah, I don’t know how that could be possible. Of course he’s heard the
record several times.”]

SP: Of course. So what do you think is next for you, Roky, after this tour?

Roky: Well, I don’t really know. Mostly I’ve been reading books and everything. And a
long time ago I was in this magazine, you’ve heard of it? It’s called Sluggo.

SP: I haven’t heard of it, but I’ll check it out.

Roky: Yeah, well, anyway, in Sluggo they had this picture of this real thin kid. And his T-shirt would be too small for him or something. And so they had this…it went, ‘We’re gonna be talking about Roky Erickson and he’s our favorite, we just love him so much. But, it seems like he needs friendship to understand things that are kind of…introverted,’ or something like that, you know? So when I’d read it, I’d have to understand they didn’t really mean anything. That they were actually trying to say good things.

Roky: Right, sure. Do you read a lot of what people write about you in the press?

Roky: Yeah, I do read about it. There’s this magazine here that’s about me, and it’s
Velocity. But I looked at it and my interview was in another language. And I looked at
it. I told Dana I couldn’t read it, it was in another language.

SP: [Laughs] Was it in Spanish or something?

Roky: Yeah, something like that. All these articles about me, after my shows…I look at them, and usually I can understand some things about them, but this was in another language! Haha, I don’t know what language that could be in!

SP: So, if you’re reading a lot, do you have a favorite book?

Roky: No, but I…Well, I think….When they say I have, several times I’ve been interviewed, that I’ve been on the cover of the Rolling Stone, I’ve never been on it! They didn’t do an interview with me, they just wrote about it. It was about me and Doug’s song, doing our record “Two Headed Dog.”

SP: So that was from a while ago?

Roky: Yeah, and that was…and then…me and my wife went in and had some doughnuts and coffee.

SP: [chuckles] Right…so do you have a favorite…book of…fiction or stories, though?

Roky: Let me see, well, the books I like, most of all, are books I’ve found myself reading like the Bible that are really hard to read. But I enjoy reading ‘em, you know?

SP: Mmhmm.

Roky: I have these books that are like, more concise versions of them. When I was with my band, now they would suggest like, ‘You might really enjoy reading this book.’ You know what I mean.

SP: Yeah, they’d give you recommendations.

Roky: Right, right.

SP: So would you say the Bible is your favorite book, maybe?

Roky: Yeah, well, the Bible, and these books that are a lot like the Bible, you know what I mean?

SP: Right, right. Well, that about wraps up most the questions I wanted to ask you, Roky. But I was wondering if you take song requests at all.

Roky: Do I what now?

SP: Take song requests, like if I requested a song for you, might you consider playing it when you come to play Pygmalion?

Roky: Uh, what’s the name of the place? Tech Moon? Pig Moon?

SP: Pygmalion.

Roky: Oh, okay. Right, right. Well, I’ll have to find out about that. But would I play a song you’d requested?

SP: Yeah.

Roky: …Yeah! Well, sure! Now, how would you send it to me, Western Union or
something like that?

SP: Well no, just one of your songs I was curious if you’d play, it’s called “Song to Abe Lincoln.”

Roky: Oh, yeah! Well, now that’s a good one. I could do that.

SP: Great! Because we like to think of ourselves as the Land of Lincoln here in Illinois, I think some people would get a kick out of it.

Roky: Uh-huh, right.

SP: Well, great. I’m really looking forward to hearing you play this weekend with

Roky: Oh, is that who I’m playing with?

SP: Yeah, yeah. With Will [Sheff] and everybody?

Roky: Who’re they gonna have?

SP: What?

Roky: Do you know about their band?

SP: Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard a few of their records, too.

Roky: But you’ve never seen ‘em, right?

SP: No, I’ve never seen they play, personally.

Roky: Well, that’s real strange because every time I play with them they have different members, you know what I mean?

SP: Yeah, their line-up changes a lot. But they’ve put out some really good records on their own, too. I’m really looking forward to seeing you play with them when you get to Champaign this weekend, Roky.

Roky: Okay, it’s gonna be this weekend. So that’s in a couple of days right?

SP: Yeah, pretty much. I believe it’s Saturday.

Roky: Let’s see and today’s Monday.

SP: Yep.

Roky: …Sounds good to me!

SP: Great. Thanks for taking some time to talk to me, Roky. It was really great getting
to speak with you.

Roky: I sure would like to know the names of the people that interview me, because they’re
pretty nice people, you know?

SP: Well, my name’s Matthew.

Roky: [Laughs] Well, good. Okay! Well, we’ll do that sometime then.

SP: Okay! Thanks, Roky! It was real great talking with you.

Roky: Thanks for calling. Where you calling from?

SP: Champaign, IL.

Roky: Alright, sounds good!

SP: Alright, see you when you get here.

Roky: Mhmm, bless you.

SP: You too.

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