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Never Say Goodbye 

Roky Erickson home to stay

Wednesday, Feb 21 2007
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Roky Erickson wakes up at the crack of dusk — a creature of the night or maybe just a creature of habit, but either way he's cheerful and sharp during an early-evening wake-up call. One of the great lost singers of American rock 'n' roll — a sweet Texas kid who got scissored between Ken Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest and Ken Kesey's acid test, sleeping silent for 10 or 20 years in an Austin apartment — is now found and sound and happy to reclaim the fame that went all over the world without him. How you been, Roky? "Real good!" he says.

Over the course of our telephone chat, he also says, "I feel great," or, more often, "rock 'n' roll" — short, happy responses from someone who'd rather talk about what makes him feel good than repeat the references to demons and devils he fed to interviewers 30 years ago. On April Fool's Day, 1978, Roky was asking KSAN callers not to shoot him through the phone, then running rapid-fire patter about werewolves and the Lone Ranger. Now when he talks about horror movies there isn't that troubling immediacy. He doesn't seem like he knows the monsters personally anymore.

It's been 40 years since Erickson and his most noted band, the 13th Floor Elevators, recorded their last fully realized album, Easter Everywhere, and about 39 years since things really began to get difficult for the singer. In 1968 a confused situation involving drugs and police and a rattled Erickson resulted in a minor marijuana bust, which he snuffed with an insanity plea. But that collapsed into Erickson's sentence to three years in maximum-security Rusk State Hospital in 1969.

While locked up, Erickson's mother brought him a tape deck and he recorded songs like "Save Me." When he got out, as the folklore goes, he was a supposed psychedelic casualty, said to be staring at the same glass of iced tea forever. There was a comeback string of horror-rock songs in the late '70s — by Roky and the Aliens, his San Francisco band — and then a slow dissolve into one of his very last shows in Austin in 1993, where they pushed Erickson on stage with a guitar and he just stood there, eyes wide and smile wider, but not singing along to his signature song, "You're Gonna Miss Me." He'd written that track when he was 17, and by this time he was 47, and after that performance he was gone for a while — no more music from Roky Erickson. "Just kind of taking a vacation," he says now. Did you miss it?

"Yeah," he says, "I missed it."

The documentary You're Gonna Miss Me is a measured and moving look at those quiet years — of Roky and his mother and his youngest brother Sumner, who wins legal custody of his sibling and brings Erickson back to health. The film ends on a soft note — Erickson playing his guitar again, sitting on a sunny porch — and it finishes before Erickson's first show in 10 years, backed by the Explosives (Fred Krc, Cam King, and Chris Johnson, who are backing Roky now, too) at the Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social at South by Southwest in 2005. That was a short set and Erickson looked a little surprised to be there, but there were a few hundred family types with salt-and-pepper hippie hair singing, "Two-headed dog! Two-headed dog!" (another signature song) with reverence and joy. Now Erickson's just back from a set in Canada and pointed toward his first show in San Francisco in probably 20 years.

The 13th Floor Elevators' debut single "You're Gonna Miss Me" charted hard in San Francisco in 1966, a plausible part of the beginning of American psychedelic rock. Elevators business cards actually said 'psychedelic rock' right under the name, and Erickson's soul and R&B roots — he remembers being about the only white kid at James Brown shows in the '60s — put electricity into a softer, folk-influenced sound. The Elevators were the first Texas band to really blow apart the teeny-bopper tradition, says Easter Everywhere engineer Frank Davis. Elevators lyricist Tommy Hall introduced a hallucinatory sense of purpose — "This quest for pure sanity," as he wrote on the back on the Elevators' first album — that made the band into acid evangelicals, and that made Roky's sweetheart charisma almost messianic. They had followers, not groupies, says Davis, and he — like many Texan Roky fans — grants the band credit for revving up the San Francisco sound when they visited on tour. What kind of music were they playing when you first went to San Francisco, Roky?

"Hippie kind of music!" he says. "But they liked us — we played a lot!"

San Francisco still likes Erickson. His show is sold out — he's very happy about that, too: "I've had real good success," he says. The set has all the songs everyone wants to hear, he says — "The rock 'n' roll!" — and he's even working on some new material, and wondering about a scheduled biopic floating around Los Angeles. And he has his voice, the scream and the softness still faithful. So after this long time gone, Roky, how does it feel to be back singing? "It feels good," he says. "Feels rockin'!"

About The Author

Chris Ziegler

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