Cosmic love song
The boy grew up believing his full name was Jegar Eugene Erickson. No one, not even his mother, Dana Gaines, told him otherwise--why would she? It wasn't until four years ago that Jegar discovered he had a different first name: Roky. It is his father's name, and it is the name of the man who, in 1965, was there to give psychedelic rock its name, its shape, its colors. Of course, Jegar has always known who his father is, and that he shares with the old man some vague facial characteristics--cheekbones, for instance, and some even say his deep, pensive eyes. He also knows that in 1979, Dana drove Roky to his mother Evelyn's house in Austin and left him standing on the front porch as she sped away with guilty tears in her eyes. Twenty years ago, Dana was scared that if she were to stay with Roky any longer, she and Jegar would drown in his madness. Jegar knows all this.
But Jegar never knew that he carried with him that name: Roky Erickson. "It was kinda crazy," he says now, sounding over a cellular phone from Austin much younger than his 22 years. "It was, like, no one told me."
There is much Jegar does not know about his father, a man best remembered not for his estimable contribution to rock and roll but for his bouts with drugs and insanity. It wasn't until just recently that Jegar met one of his two half-sisters, Cydne, and he still has never been introduced to the other, Spring. All Jegar is certain of is this: Roky doesn't like to be around people, maybe "life isn't fun for him anymore," and that his old man is "a genius"--or so he has been told. Jegar never spent much time around his father. Once it was his mother's decision; later, it became the son's.
Jegar, an aspiring actor with an interest in songwriting, would like to change all that now. It has not been easy growing up the distant son of a man often described in print as a lunatic genius or a "tragic burn-out case." Imagine reading every few years about your crazy pop, a shut-in with rotting teeth and a musical mind long since destroyed by LSD and shock treatment. Imagine carrying the name of someone long since treated as a freak show instead of a human being in a world of pain. Yet he insists he is a grown man now, ready to assume responsibility for his father's life, eager to spend time with a man who prefers to waste away his days curled up in dirty sheets listening to dozens of stereos and televisions blaring static and white noise at top volume.
That is, after all, how Roky Erickson lives now, how he has lived for years--tuned in to a thousand different frequencies at once, perhaps to keep the real world at bay.
"From what I understand from talking to people--not having a personal relationship with him--my dad was a genius, and I don't think he wants to be a spectacle," Jegar says. "I don't think he wants people to see him as a show. He wants them to see him as a person, a wonderful person. Maybe he's tired of showing up and having all eyes on him. But that's me speculating. But any son would regret not seeing their father all these years. Life is short. Everyone has these stories about how he touched their lives, and I don't personally have them. I want that. Through unfortunate circumstances, life for him hasn't been the best, and I want to help him and change that."
Jegar Erickson is, in some ways, no different from those of us to whom the 52-year-old Roky Erickson is more myth than tangible flesh and blood. His father exists to the world almost as memory, as someone who used to be here but vanished a long time ago, leaving behind a trail in the melting snow. There are plenty of Erickson's records still available--all but two of which, released on Austin labels owned by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey and Craig Stewart, actually put money in the trust fund used to pay for Erickson's soft drinks and cigarettes and food.
The rest--including the first album on which he appeared, 1966's The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators--are shoddy collections at best that have been pasted together from purloined recordings belonging to old friends and producers who keep every sordid cent they make off Roky's talent. They're filled with bastard versions of immortal songs, beginning with 1965's "You're Gonna Miss Me" and continuing with the likes of "Don't Slander Me," "Click Your Fingers Applauding the Beat," "Night of the Vampire," and the breathtaking, heartbreaking "Starry Eyes," a piece of music that sounds as though it were on loan from the ghost of Buddy Holly.
Though he is the man who quite possibly invented psychedelic rock, fusing together rock's simple pleasures with LSD's mind-expanding possibilities, Erickson receives only the tiniest bit of credit. His history is written in rock and roll's margins, smudged and too often incorrect. Most often Roky is written off as a lunatic--"America's Syd Barrett," as too many newspapers have called him over the years. It's an epithet that does little justice to the man or his music, so much of which deals with far more than the monsters, vampires, and zombies that would become his claim to infamy. Even those who want to help him--the attorneys fighting in court to get back his recordings and all the money he's lost over the decades; King Coffey and Craig Stewart; his mother--can only sit back and watch him slip away and watch others defame his name.
But Roky, who was born in Irving and moved to Austin when he was 2 years old, is not here to defend himself; most likely he couldn't set straight the story if he wanted to. There has long existed the theory that Roky Erickson is in fact a very sane man just putting everyone on, that his "madness" is more a manipulative goof. Maybe so, but it has been three years since Erickson had much contact with the outside world--three years since the release of All That May Do My Rhyme on Coffey and Stewart's now-defunct Trance Syndicate, Roky's first record in a decade. Back then, Erickson used to get out, used to accept visitors, used to look forward to his weekly dinners with Coffey and Stewart.
Upon the release of All That May Do My Rhyme, a disc made up of songs Erickson recorded in 1984-'85 and '93-'94, Erickson came out of his hole and suffered through interviews with journalists from all over who came to Austin and tape-recorded his poetic, incoherent ramblings. During that period, I spent several hours with him, ending the night with Roky strumming an out-of-tune guitar in his mother's living room. He was singing Richie Valens' "Donna" in that high, angelic voice he still possessed. Like the man once wrote, "If you have ghosts, you have everything." He has performed only a handful of times since then, most recently a year and a half ago at a benefit for his brother Mikel, who had been convicted for selling cocaine. (Those close to Roky, or as close as they can get, marvel at the irony of Roky performing at someone else's benefit.)
There will be no such visits with anyone to coincide with next week's release of Never Say Goodbye, a collection of "field recordings" made of Erickson from 1971 to 1985 that Craig Stewart is releasing on his Emperor Jones imprint. Several of the songs were made by Evelyn Erickson during Roky's stay in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane--the place, it is said, that Roky Erickson entered in the late 1960s with all his marbles in order to dodge a marijuana conviction and left in the early '70s holding an empty bag.
The new record will hardly be greeted with the minor hoopla that surrounded the studio sessions of All That May Do My Rhyme; the disc even comes with a sticker warning the buyer that inside are "lo-fidelity" recordings that are almost 30 years old--a sort of escape clause. Though no amount of static and age can cover the radiance of such songs as "I Love the Living You" or "Be and Bring Me Home," these are recordings that belong in the hands of completists and true believers.
And those who put together the collection know this. These songs were never intended for release. In 1994, Casey Monahan, head of the Texas Music Office, began compiling every single song Erickson had written and/or performed for Openers II, a book of song lyrics. Evelyn, who has recorded everything her son has done for 40 years, handed to Monahan a bag full of unmarked cassettes; so too did Bill Miller, the man who helped Erickson assemble his first band after he got out of Rusk. Monahan and Roky's brother Sumner transcribed every single song, and the result was a book that reads like simple, perfect poetry. A year ago, Craig Stewart offered to transfer the 25 cassettes to Digital Audio Tape in order to preserve them. Monahan loaded them in a grocery bag and gave Stewart the tapes.
"King and Craig love Roky's music as much as me, and I don't think I would have let anyone but them borrow these cassettes," Monahan says, explaining that he is in constant fear of having Erickson's music bootlegged. "So Craig dropped them to DAT, and he said, 'What do you think about this as a fundraiser for Roky?' I said, 'Well, as long as it's marked as being field recordings, I don't think there's anything at all that wrong with it.'"
If nothing else, these would be 14 more songs to which Erickson owned the copyrights and publishing--no one would be able to collect money from these songs except for the estate, which is administered by Austin attorney Rick Triplett. In fact, for the past eight years, Triplett has been engaged in a legal battle with Lelan Rogers--Kenny's older brother--to get back so many of the recordings Rogers has been licensing to such labels as Collectables and Charley. Not long ago, Rogers, who worked at the label that released the 13th Floor Elevators' two records in the 1960s, had agreed with Triplett and Erickson's estate to turn over the tapes--then turned around and licensed the tapes to overseas labels that, like so many other bootleggers and con artists, have never paid Roky a dime, according to Triplett. The case is scheduled to go before an Austin jury in July.
"I see it all too often," Triplett says. "Even musicians I've represented who are fully competent never get what they were supposed to. No matter how we draw up the documents, if you have an out-of-state producer who refuses to abide by the documents, it's hard to go after those people. Musicians don't have the money to go after them. Roky being taken advantage of doesn't have anything to do with his competence. It's rampant throughout the industry."
Monahan knows the quality of the recordings will turn off the casual fan. But that hardly matters: The songs speak loud and clear through the static and deterioration. They offer one more bit of proof that Erickson was indeed a very sane man in the 1970s and early 1980s, a musician capable of writing witty, plaintive songs about everything from his hatred for the music business ("@2 Gone and Number") to his steadfast belief that no one will ever keep him down ("You're an Unidentified Flying Object") to, well, the truest, purest love ("I've Never Known This 'til Now," "I Love the Living You," and so many others). On each song, Erickson strums his guitar carefully, defiantly, and sounds alternately like Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly. They could trap his body at Rusk, but never his mind, never that voice.
"When I heard these songs, I was amazed," Stewart says. "Here were these love songs he made while he was in Rusk that no one had ever heard. I knew people who were into Roky would die to hear these songs."
If nothing else, Monahan hopes, perhaps some musician out there will hear these songs and want to cover one or a few of them. It has happened before: In 1990, Warner Bros. Records' Bill Bentley--a Houston boy, baptized in Erickson's holy waters when he was just a teenager--assembled the likes of R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers, ZZ Top, Primal Scream, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and so many others to record Roky's music for the heartfelt homage Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. It was the first and maybe the last time the phrase "tribute record" meant something.
"I was 15 when I first saw the Elevators, and when I saw them, they completely opened me up to what music could be, especially rock and roll," says Bentley, who is writing a book about Erickson's days in the Elevators. "Rock and roll had always been entertainment, and the Elevators showed me it could be more than that. I thought, 'If this is the way it could be, this is it for me.' I grew up a little more, and I never found a band after that that could do it for me. They used spiritual and philosophical concepts to talk about how to evolve yourself. And Roky is one of the greatest examples of a rock and roll singer who ever lived, and people need to know that. It's easy to dispose of our artists. Once he was labeled crazy, that's more what he was than an artist--he was crazy. But in the Elevators, he wasn't crazy. He was the best."
And so Roky Erickson will have one more record in stores that he may or may not know is out there. One day, it might put a little money in his pocket. One day, maybe someone will record one of these songs and make it a hit. Either way, he won't care.
Until a few weeks ago, Stewart hadn't even seen Erickson in more than a year, since Erickson moved from his hovel outside of Austin into a four-plex near his mother's home. Stewart says Roky recognized him but wasn't happy to see him this time around. Monahan thinks that when Erickson saw Stewart, he saw work--and Roky doesn't much care for that anymore. In the end, his legacy will be left to those who care more about Roky than Roky.
Which brings us back to Jegar Erickson, the son who doesn't think of Roky as a burned-out legend but simply as the father he wanted but never knew.
"When I go someplace and say my dad's Roky Erickson, the way people act, it makes me proud," he says, insisting he will begin very soon reaching out to his father, that he will not waste another day staying away from Roky. "The mention of his name makes you go, 'Whoa, you're his son?' For a long time I never told anyone. I didn't want people to feel...well, because I didn't have the relationship with him, I didn't want it to be like riding on his coattails. I didn't want people to think I was using him like so many other people had. I tried to downplay it.
"But I've never been ashamed of my dad. The most important thing to me is my family. My dad could be the kind of guy who worked nine to five, mowed the lawn, or he could be how he is now, and it wouldn't change how much I love him or how much I respect him. I just didn't understand it. And I don't know if I totally wanted to. But I am ready to now.
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