Gonna Fly Now
Sumner Erickson's on the phone from Copenhagen, Denmark, explaining that his older brother, Roger Kynard Erickson, will be phoning a few minutes later than expected. "We're in the car, and he wants to do it from his hotel room, if that's OK," says Sumner, who, in no uncertain terms, helped pull his brother from the abyss just when everyone else thought him lost to the demons, ghosts, gremlins and two-headed dogs barking in his head. He knows what is OK for his brother. There was a time when Sumner was the only one who knew what was OK.
Roger—known as Roky, chief among the acknowledged, revered and beloved fathers of psychedelic rock—has just finished his set at the Roskilde Festival, where he shared a weekend bill with the likes of The Who, the Flaming Lips, Wilco, Spiritualized and dance-rock sensations J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Sumner is still buzzed from the reception his brother received: "The crowd at the end kept singing, 'Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh' for, like, 10 minutes, and Roky was already leaving the stage, and I told him, 'Why don't you go out and take another bow?' So he did all by himself, even while the stagehands were pushing the drum riser off the stage. And the crowd kept singing. It was beautiful."
In the background, Roky asks Sumner a question. "Really? They pushed the drums offstage?"
This is just about the last story anyone expected to tell about Roky Erickson. Sorry, but Roky Erickson's playing concerts again? In Denmark? Norway? San Francisco? New York? Dallas? You're kidding, right? Only, it's not a joke: The second act's in full swing and coming to the Granada Theater on Saturday night—part of Roky's brief 60th birthday tour. He plays here Saturday night and wakes up here Sunday morning—in Dallas, where Roky was born when his mother, Evelyn, came up here from Austin to have her boy surrounded by family. The Ericksons' house was under construction in 1947, and Evelyn figured she'd have the boy in relative peace and quiet. There would be plenty of noise soon enough, as it turned out.
He is, by all accounts, in fine voice; no surprise there, as it's been resting for more than two decades—the last time Erickson was doing full shows. He's performed only a few times in the past two decades, and usually only a few songs here and there. This comeback began more or less at the South by Southwest Music Conference in March 2005, when Erickson sang three songs at Threadgill's, among them his immortal ballad "Starry Eyes." In September of that year came a show at the Austin City Limits music festival, where Erickson was introduced by Kinky Friedman as "an explorer of the mind and a pioneer of the heart...the man I call The Magic Messenger." Erickson opened the show with "Cold Night for Alligators," and he sounded like he did when he was a young comer—his voice high and tight, his guitar full of sparks and gasoline.
"I love my brother dearly, and I was chronically depressed about where his life was," Sumner says. "But right now, we're living a life better than Hollywood could dream it."
By now, anyone who knows the name Roky Erickson knows his story—his rise to prominence (in 1966, Roky and the 13th Floor Elevators performed their Top 40 hit "You're Gonna Miss Me" on American Bandstand) and his descent into mental illness (the trips in the 1960s and early '70s to Hedgecroft Hospital in Houston, where he was treated to electroshock jolts, and Rusk State Hospital) and the Roky road in between the horrific then and the astonishing now. And for those unfamiliar with Erickson's story, in stores this week is former Dallasite Keven McAlester's documentary's You're Gonna Miss Me, which he started working on eight years ago this very month.
McAlester didn't know what the movie was going to be in 1999—probably a first-timer's short feature on the man Erickson used to be, a look back at the ghost of greatness. Then he found himself capturing Erickson's recovery, as Sumner, 18 years Roky's junior, went to court to get himself declared Roky's legal guardian. When McAlester met Erickson he was living outside Austin in a house full of TVs and radios tuned to everything and nothing—hellish white noise. He was rotting from head to toe, literally—his teeth and toenails were about to fall out. Now, Erickson's got a full head of fresh pearlies (thanks to Henry Rollins), and he even drives. "Better than me," McAlester says.
"When I started the movie, Roky seemed wholly uninterested in doing anything other than sitting in his house with that horrible white noise playing," McAlester says. "I never in a million years thought this would happen. I never thought in a million years he'd get a driver's license, much less play concerts."
Or, for that matter, do interviews. As McAlester says, as recently as a decade ago Erickson was never engaged in conversations; I spent a few days with him in 1995 and always wondered if he heard me or was just putting me on, so oblique and strange were his answers to simple questions. Now, he doesn't say much beyond, "I'm just havin' fun, man," but even over an international call, you feel that he's, well, present. "Hello, Robert," he says later, when Sumner calls back. "How ya doin', brother?"
"I just expected this to be real good, ya know?" Roky says. "My manager's been booking a lot of concerts for me, and this is going real well. Been a lot of fun. Exciting. I've been havin' a lot more fun since I began playing."
He says he performs the songs he likes and the ones he missed playing for years: "Cold Night for Alligators," "The Wind and More," "The Interpreter." He's amazed that audiences know all the words. He's delighted by their chants: "Rok-ee, Rok-ee, Rok-ee." He says he always knew he'd come back. He says he "enjoyed" McAlester's movie. He says "it was a new experience for me, watching it told that way." He says he thought the movie "would be a good idea" and that "it was a lot of fun."
"One time, Keven bet me $10 I couldn't finish one of Sumner's omelettes, because he puts everything in 'em," he says. "And I finished it, and he had to pay me $10." He laughs. "They're really good. They're big omelettes."
He says he loves being with his brother on the road. "He thanks me for bringing him along, and I tell him, 'It's my pleasure.'" He's also brought along his ex-wife Dana, who left Roky years ago when she believed his madness had become contagious. "I just decided I wanted to have her along, so I asked her if she wanted to come along, and she said, 'I'd love to.'"
And he says he loves playing his old songs now, more than ever. "I'm seeing clearer now than ever before, and I'm receiving the songs now in a way I didn't before." He's "thinking about writing new songs," and might record a collection of unreleased songs before the year's end. He likes touring in Europe, "even though it feels like you're miles from home."
So, Roky, did you miss all this?
"Yes, I did," he says. "I was on vacation for a while. But after they talked me into doing a couple of numbers at Threadgill's, I had a good time. It was exciting. People said they missed me performing, so I said I would. And it really felt good being onstage."
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