Henry Rollins Remembers Roky, Stevie and Texas
I am on my way to Texas for a show. I do a lot of shows in Texas and have done so since 1981. Whenever I am there, many memories of previous shows and visits come back to me. It is one hell of a place. Back in the early '80s, on my first visit to the great state, I was to learn a lesson that has stuck with me all these years: Texas is a hotbed for insanely good bands and musicians.
Had I known more about music in those days, that Texas was the birthplace of Lightnin' Hopkins, Ornette Coleman and Roy Orbison would have been old facts to me. In those days, I could have told you ZZ Top was from there and that's about it. My first up-close dose was the Big Boys, the Dicks and the Butthole Surfers. They were all original and quite great on stage. If a band can't play well live, their records are no longer all that interesting to me. These bands could play.
We're talking about Austin, Texas, though. This is a relatively unique section of this state, which became part of America in 1845. Not everyone in the other 27 states were exactly jumping for joy about this, Abraham Lincoln being one of them. The rest of Texas — wide open, extremely beautiful — contains millions of people, and many of them have some intense ideas about how things should go. It was from some of these people that I learned my early lessons in Americana 101.
An event that says a lot happened to me in the year 1982, I believe. Black Flag had just finished a show in Houston at the Lawndale Art Annex. That was always a tough show. Oven-hot inside, the air never seemed to contain enough oxygen and getting through the set was always a grim proposition. We finished the show in front of all 300 or less of them and I was walking alone across the venue. I heard a voice behind me.
I kept walking. I heard the voice again.
There was no heat behind this utterance, just a monosyllable, flatly stated. I turned and saw a guy about my age, perhaps a little older, following me. It was almost an absurdist episode. I asked him, almost politely, "Did you call me a fag?" He said, matter-of-factly, "Yeah." I forget how I put him on the ground but soon I was holding his head and hitting it against the floor when, all of the sudden, I am in the air and being slammed to my feet.
Two very large Texas policemen pulled me off the man. They had my arms yoked up behind me and one of them asked me what was going on. "He called me a fag," I said. "Twice." My arms were immediately released. I apologized and the man on the ground was picked up, yelled at, and tossed out of the venue by the two policemen. "Take 'er easy. Have a good night, now." Well, OK. Justice, Texas-style.
As much as I am a fan of the bands and artists I previously mentioned, for me, the greatest thing to come out of the state of Texas is the one and only Roky Erickson. Don't get me started. Actually, let's do that. Roky's early work in the 13th Floor Elevators is groundbreaking psychedelic music of the highest order, but for me, it's his solo material that comprises some of the best albums I own.
Roky's genius is of the rare and somewhat frightening type. His music is some of the most beautiful and haunting you will ever hear. His voice is like no one else's anywhere. Roky's life for many years was full of pain, paranoia and psychosis. The first time I ever went to visit him at his home in Austin, way back in the '90s, is a day I will never forget.
Roky was living alone in a small house. I walked in with [Butthole Surfers drummer] King Coffey and was stopped in my tracks by the caterwaul of multiple radios and television sets on at full volume. The sound was fairly deafening. Roky cheerfully yelled over the din that these were his "electric friends." They helped drown out the voices in his head. I went back to my hotel room that night and broke down in tears.
Years later, Roky is much, much better and touring all over the world. He's one of the nicer people you will ever meet and his music is one of the great creations of all time. If you find yourself made curious by this, I suggest you check out I Have Always Been Here Before, a fantastic Roky anthology. If that one grabs you, The Evil One is your next stop. No kidding, this is about as good as music gets.
Texas is as odd as it is vast. Texans can be a real piece of work. They're some of the most generous, charismatic and can-do people in this great country. On the other hand, they execute people like there's free pizza with every lethal injection and Governor Rick Perry is low on my list ever since he joked around about Texas seceding from the union of the states. I had visions of a wall being built around Austin and airlifts bringing in books and other supplies.
One of my favorite Texas moments didn't happen in Texas. We were on tour somewhere. We pulled into some massive truck stop. I went inside to use the men's room. I came out and was walking down the hallway toward the parking lot and there was Stevie Ray Vaughan using a pay phone. We gave each other the nod.
Oh yeah, check out True Widow, yet another amazing band from Texas.
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