Roky's road

The father of psychedelia is not insane, just a little crazy

AUSTIN--The man standing at the counter waiting to order his food is disheveled, slumped, looking slightly deranged. His beard chopped and trimmed in odd proportions, his matted and tangled and unwashed hair sticking up in various spots, his voice an uncomfortably loud squawk, Roky Erickson looks and sounds like any homeless man standing on a street corner. His teeth are covered with a dark film, and underneath his dingy white deck shoes are thick toenails uncut for perhaps months. Though his clothes--a button-down short-sleeved shirt and a pair of slacks--are clean enough, he reeks with the stench of death.

"What do ya think I should get?" Erickson asks his companions as the woman behind the Taco Cabana counter eyes him with equal measures of suspicion and disgust. "They got turkey here? Maybe some eggs, hunh? They got chicken? Yeah, that'd be good." He wonders if it would be OK to eat the chicken, asking his companions as a child might if he were seeking approval or permission. "That'd be all right, doncha think?"

"Sure, whatever you want."
"OK."
After the order is placed, Erickson is led to a small table. When he walks through the fast-food Mexican restaurant, a few patrons try to turn their heads, but their stares are obvious to all--except the man himself, who chatters amiably and endlessly about everything and nothing. When his dinner arrives, he eats it methodically, carefully, unsure of whether to use his hands.

"Do you like Kris Kristofferson?" he asks over dinner, a question from out of nowhere.

"Sure," I tell him.
"I don't know much about him," Erickson says. "But he's strange, isn't he?"
"Um, maybe. You know he wrote 'Me and Bobby McGee,'" I say.

"I didn't know that," says the man who once knew that. "He's strange, though. I guess when people are stars, they become strange."

After he has devoured most of his meal, keeping his plate tidy, he asks if there's a place where he can wash his hands. As one of his dining partners leads Erickson toward the bathroom, a family of three sitting nearby watches him walk by. When he passes and is out of earshot, the little girl turns to her parents and visibly shudders, emitting a slight ugggh in disgust at his appearance. "Oooooh, creepy," she says, and the mother and father laugh with the little girl, laughing at a legend.

For as long as he can remember--if he can remember--Roky Erickson has been called many things by many people. He has been lauded as a Texas music legend whose name belongs next to Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker on the list of all-time influences and inspirations. He has been called the father of psychedelic music, whose band, the 13th Floor Elevators, created a new genre of music in the '60s long before the Beatles or any San Francisco band ever thought of experimenting with drugs. He has been hailed by the likes of R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers, ZZ Top, and so many other bands as the architect of their respective sounds.

And, unfortunately, he has been pigeonholed as a reclusive lunatic who does daily battle with the demons swirling inside his drug-damaged head.

Since 1966, when The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators album was released and introduced a frightening new sound--one that was part blues, part rock, all acid-drenched howls and yells--Erickson's story has been told and mistold. Writers have chronicled his sentencing to the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane for drug possession in 1969. They have told of his run-ins with federal officials, of his destitute lifestyle, and they have painted a portrait of this grotesque, overgrown child, a man overtaken by drugs and insanity and the brutality of years spent in and out of mental institutions.

Erickson's press over recent years has finally depicted him as an incoherent lunatic, unable to speak in complete sentences and unwilling to answer any question posed to him. "Don't slander me," Erickson sings in one of his most famous songs, but such pleas have fallen upon deaf ears.

Roky spent three years in Rusk surrounded by violent and frightening men, convicted murderers and rapists, just to avoid going to jail for possessing a handful of joints. He pretended to be crazy, the story goes, thinking it would spare him incarceration. But he most likely wasn't pretending: two years before his sentencing, in 1967, he spent time in a mental facility in Houston, and one of his ex-wives thinks he might have received shock treatment. But one thing is clear: when he was released from Rusk, Erickson reentered the world a different man--one who thought he was an alien, one who walked with two-headed dogs and zombies. Since then, several doctors have diagnosed him as schizophrenic.

Roky Erickson, now in his late 40s, is on the verge of releasing his first album in a decade--the striking All That May Do My Rhyme on the Trance Syndicate label. And, contrary to his press, he is no raving madman, at least on the surface--eccentric, perhaps, but not zombie-crazy. He is able to carry on a conversation, though his thoughts seem to be jumbled in a random pattern of words and images and sounds. Asked which of his songs he likes the best, Erickson thinks for a second, than says, "Noooo, I don't think so," then he asks, "You think I ought to have one?"

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