Roky's road

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."
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?"

As we drive into the pitch-black darkness toward Bastrop, some 25 miles away from Erickson's home in Del Valley just outside Austin, I ask Roky if he enjoyed making his new record, if he liked being in the studio more than 10 years after abandoning the recording process.

"No, not really," he says in a high-pitched voice that always seems on the verge of breaking. "I didn't have to do that much. I wanted to make it just right."

As we drive, at the end of a long night that has included a dinner at a fast-food Mexican chain, a shopping spree, a visit to his mother's house, and now this long trip to and from a small town in the Hill Country, Erickson is content just to look out into the night sky, waiting for the rain he predicts will fall. He sits silent, quieter than he's been all evening, taking questions but not really answering them.

"How did you choose the songs for the new record?" I try again, referring to the album's mixture of Erickson classics ("Starry Eyes" and "Don't Slander Me") with previously unreleased gems ("Please Judge" and "I'm Gonna Free Her," among them).

"I just picked the easiest ones."
"Have you written anything new?"
"I haven't," he shrugs, "but I could. I been mostly taking it easy. I have some Cokes at my house."

He talks some more--about his broken CD player, about needing a magnifying lens for one of his televisions, about how strange everything seems in the dark--then we turn around and head home. It begins to rain.

"They are concise and terrifying," R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck once said of Erickson's songs, and the same has been said of the man himself. At times, he is given to short bursts of speech and is frightening in the flesh, the living incarnation of such songs as "I'm a Demon," "Night of the Vampire," and "I Walked with a Zombie."

Craig Stewart, who runs the Trance Syndicate record label with Butthole Surfers' drummer King Coffey, navigates the stretch of Highway 71 out to Erickson's place. As we drive, he explains that each Tuesday, Coffey and two friends, Phil and Lorna, pick up Erickson and take him to dinner. Roky is lonely, Stewart says, and thrives on the attention of adoring, tolerant fans and friends.

Phil, though, has fallen sick this Tuesday and didn't make it. Lorna opted to stay with her boyfriend. And Coffey is in California for the week.

Stewart pulls into the deserted parking lot of a porn video store. Erickson lives behind this place, in a $400-a-month house-cum-apartment he refers to as "The Church" that is partially paid for with his federal medical disability checks.

Thirty feet from the door, we hear a piercing symphony of white noise and music coming from the house. Stewart explains later Roky keeps his house filled with such painful noise to "shut out the voices inside his head." It also keeps Roky from hearing our shouts for a good three or four minutes.

"Hey, ya'll," Erickson says when he opens his door, which bears a sticker that reads "Danger! Do Not Operate!" "Good ta see ya."

He is clearly excited to see Stewart, slightly less so a stranger. "Hey, man, good to see ya again," Erickson shouts to me, though we have never met. "I see ya got new glasses. Look good."

But he's obviously disappointed when he notices Coffey, Lorna, and Phil haven't made the weekly trek to his house. "Where's King?" he asks Stewart, who responds that the Buttholes' drummer has gone to San Francisco. Roky will ask the question repeatedly throughout the course of the evening, always surprised by the familiar answer.

In almost every corner of his home, a television or a radio or a CD player or police scanner or shortwave radio emits music or programming--some John Coltrane becomes evident through the sonic fog, a rerun of some '70s cop show, the incessant babbling of some DJ. Some sort of electronic meter emits only a green test pattern, and in his bedroom, above a ratty futon, a lone radio is tuned to piercing static. Conversation is almost impossible.  

Next to his telephone is a device Erickson uses to order junk from the QVC cable network. And Erickson's place overflows with trinkets and gadgets. A tiny model of the White House, a larger mock-up of the U.S.S. Enterprise, old video games, telephones, calculators. Erickson belongs to every mail-order organization in existence--Columbia House Record Club, the National Rifle Association, the National Smokers Union, the National Hot Rod Association, and dozens of others. He fills out every response card he gets his hands on, looking forward to the trips to the post office for the junk mail. How he pays for it all--if, again, he pays for them at all--is a mystery since he draws only $314 a month from the government.

Six years ago, Erickson was arrested on federal charges of mail theft. He had picked up the mail for his neighborhood at the post office. Another neighbor got it from him and distributed the parcels and letters to the other neighbors. But when that neighbor moved away, Roky continued to collect the mail--and take it back to his place, claiming it was his own. When the cops came to Roky's place, they found hundreds of letters, magazines, and packages--all unopened, many stuck to his walls.

In early 1990, the government dropped the charges when his mother, Evelyn, agreed to have him sent to the Austin State Hospital for two months. When he was released, the doctors said he had "organic brain damage, with possible underlying schizophrenia," according to a piece in the L.A. Weekly in 1990.

Over the noise that engulfs his home, Erickson complains to Stewart that his toilet has been broken for a couple of days and asks if his friend can fix it. Stewart begs off, saying it's too big a job.

Roky says he's hungry, ready to go, and wonders which pair of shoes he should wear out tonight. When Stewart reaches down to hand a pair of deck shoes to him, Roky recoils. "No, no, man, I'll get them."

Erickson does not like people making physical contact, even with his belongings. It has been a long time since anyone touched Roky Erickson.

"The story of Roky is the story of any musician who does not give a damn about the business side," says Casey Monahan, who, when not working at his day-job as director of the Texas Music Office, was responsible for getting Erickson into the studio to record All That May Do My Rhyme. "And you take that and add to it real or perceived mental illness, an overbearing mother, and do-gooders like me, and if you don't watch out, you'll never get out."

Monahan got out. On the eve of the album's release, he has severed his ties with Roky, blaming mutual burn-out.

Three years ago, Monahan began taking Roky, one of his favorite singers, out to eat every Wednesday night--"as respect for what he's done for Texas music," Monahan says. He introduced Roky to King Coffey; then-Austin Chronicle music editor Rob Patterson (who Roky refers to as "Leonard"); and Andrew Halbreich, who now handles Erickson's song publishing affairs. Monahan also brought guitarist Speedy Sparks back into the fold, long after Sparks had burned out on his first run-in with Roky.

"They were people who either knew or loved Roky," Monahan says, "and who I knew and trusted."

And they are the ones who resurrected Erickson's career, getting him into the studio last year.

Monahan helped secure Erickson's deal with Trance, and transcribed every single song lyric for a book, Openers II, to be issued in mid-March by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 publishing house. But Monahan, like all those who have come into contact with Erickson over the years, found that once you enter Roky's world, the distance between sanity and madness--your own, not just Roky's--is only a short drive out of Austin.

Monahan discovered that Erickson's business affairs were a wreck, that he was nearly a pauper not because of drug use, but because over the years, Erickson--or those who surrounded him--has sold off his songs for literally pennies. Ex-wife Dana Gaines says she was present when Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet, for instance, bought the rights to "Starry Eyes" for a milkshake decades ago, during a period when Roky and Dana (for whom "Starry Eyes" was written) were literally starving.

There are dozens of records credited to Roky Erickson--some with the 13th Floor Elevators, some with the Aliens, some with the Explosives, some to him alone; there is even one out on the French New Rose label recorded with the Nerve-breakers, the Dallas punk band of the '70s, that was recorded in 1979 at the Palladium. But Erickson doesn't see a dime from those albums, most of which he is unaware even exist. The master tapes for those albums have been sold and bootlegged by fans and even family, and it's almost impossible to collect on such ventures. Roky, say Monahan and Roky's ex-wife Dana Gaines, often unwittingly gave them the publishing rights to his own material, sometimes signing them over for nothing at all.  

"The enormity of the mistakes that have been made in his name professionally are such that I couldn't sort 'em all out," Monahan says. "So slowly I tried to bring people in to this little circle whom I could trust, who Roky would trust, and to try to make things better."

After dinner at the Taco Cabana, we head to Evelyn Erickson's house. Roky sees his mother every day--his father has long since disappeared from the picture. On the way to her house, Craig Stewart asks Roky for directions, whether he should take a right or left at the next street.

"I guess just any way you wanna go, man," says Erickson, who moved with his family to Austin from Dallas when he was just two years old.

Evelyn Erickson's front yard is overgrown with bushes and tree limbs, with cats running wild through the shrubbery. Inside newspapers and magazines are strewn across the floor. On the ceiling, Evelyn, a former opera singer who dabbles in video and visual art, has painted a ghostly figure that looks strangely like Roky. She explains it's a reproduction of a drawing given to her by one of Roky's fellow inmates at Rusk.

For years, she has been recording her son whenever he feels like performing, hooking up a microphone and an old Realistic jambox as he quietly strums on his guitar. It was from such homemade cassettes that Monahan found the decade-old unreleased songs that served as the catalyst for All That May Do My Rhyme.

"Mother, what am I gonna do about my toilet?" Roky asks Evelyn. "I gotta go to the bathroom. I guess I'll wait till it gets fixed." He paces about nervously, clutching his crotch.

"Roky," Evelyn says, "just go now." He ignores her. Evelyn eventually calls a plumber, who agrees to come out to Roky's place in the morning.

As Evelyn talks on the phone, Roky sits in a thick recliner and picks up a guitar, idly and loudly strumming as his mother tries to speak into the receiver.

"You gonna play something?" Stewart asks Roky.
"I guess I could," Roky says, though he complains he doesn't have a pick. His mother hands him a plastic bag filled with blue guitar picks, from which Roky takes one, then mumbles something about it being too hard to use.

But he manages just fine and launches into a version of Richie Valens' "Donna"; as he does so, Evelyn sets up the recording device. The guitar is slightly out of tune, but Erickson's voice is perfect--in-key and beautiful. He recalls every single word, never missing a note as his fingers glide effortlessly up and down the guitar's neck. If the guitar were in tune, the performance would be amazing, but because the instrument is just a bit off, it's haunting--like the music of ghosts, of another world.

The impromptu performance hints at the origins of songs such as "I Have Always Been Here Before," a sweet and gorgeous song he recorded in 1981 that would be later echoed in the best of R.E.M. But what comes through clearly, despite the untuned guitar, is the talent that made Roky Erickson one of the most important figures in rock and roll in the past 40 years.

"Ya like that?" Erickson wonders when he finishes. "Straaaaange, isn't it? I've got a lot like that." He explains the song was by the Coasters, and that he keeps such songs on a compilation titled "Contortion of Distortion." It's a record that exists only in Roky Erickson's mind.

What is even sadder is that Erickson has performed live only eight times since the mid-'80s--at an annual birthday party at Antone's in Austin, the occasional one-shot during the Austin Music Awards ceremony each March. During this brief four-plus-song performance, he is as thrilling, as aware, as any performer who ever graced a stage. As he sings, he evokes Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and a soul singer whose name is just beyond memory. His voice is a dimmed version of the powerful, gorgeous wail heard on the original versions of "You're Gonna Miss Me," "Starry Eyes," and "Don't Slander Me," but time, age, and mental illness haven't diminished the impact.  

When he's finished and gently puts the guitar down, Evelyn plays back the tape for her son to hear. Afterwards, she will mark the cassette with the date. At least once throughout Roky's on-and-off career, his mother has licensed (actually sold) such cassettes to record companies seeking to capitalize on Erickson's legend. The 1988 Live at the Ritz, released by a French fan club, and a portion of a recently released three-CD Roky compilation on the Collectibles label called The Unreleased Masters came from Evelyn's hands--which she is allowed to do since she has power-of-attorney over his affairs. Evelyn says such deals, however, were made for between $1,000 and $2,000 and before she helped secure trust funds for her son.

Roky has two trust funds that have been established for him--one for income from albums and royalties, including proceeds from a 1990 Warner Bros. tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which features R.E.M., ZZ Top, the Butthole Surfers, and Sahm among those covering Roky's material; another for donations from benefits and fund-raisers.

Evelyn controls the sales trust fund, from which she gives her son about $20 every other day to "buy cigarettes and hamburgers,"she says. The other fund is handled by two of Roky's brothers and a couple of friends.

When I mention that Roky's most devoted fans would kill to have these homemade tapes, Evelyn says, "Maybe someone will make me a good offer on them one day."

Monahan says that watching such transactions is in part what drove him away from Roky.

"This isn't a story of good and evil," Monahan says. "It's a story of gray areas, of inexperience, of familial love being misinterpreted as professional representation.

"Roky was burned out on me because I'm a hard-drivin' person, and I was burned out, frankly, with Evelyn. I spent three years trying to help out Roky, and he's hopefully going to be a little better off now than he was three years ago."

Monahan also says he and Roky parted ways because Evelyn would not allow her son to begin taking the prescription anti-psychotic medication he was on in 1981 and 1982, during a period when he was most productive and recording. Roky had apparently told his mother Monahan wanted him to start taking drugs again, and that Monahan had given him a bottle of something. Monahan says nothing like that happened.

Such clashes are magnified because Roky has a penchant for exaggerating truths and manufacturing elaborate fictions. At best, those around him often misunderstand what he says and means. Underneath the haze and so-called madness, there's a sometimes manipulative sanity.

Before we leave, Roky finally decides to use the bathroom; when he's done, he yells, "Here I come!" from around the corner. He is still washing his hands, obsessed with ridding himself of the germs.

As we climb into Stewart's Jeep, Evelyn waves and yells to her son, "Love you."

Roky doesn't answer, but as we pull away, he says, "You think she'll be all right?"

Dana Gaines recalls the moment she decided to leave Roky. It was in 1979, when she and Erickson and their two-year-old son, Jager, were living in California. It was a time, she says, when things were going well--Roky was performing and recording, money was coming in, and they were not hungry or homeless, as they had been often throughout their stormy 13-year relationship.

She recalls driving down the Los Angeles freeway, on her way to the psychiatrist's office (Roky and Dana were undergoing family counseling at the time), when she noticed the sky turning black. She thought a storm was coming in or maybe an earthquake was tearing apart the road; she looked around at the other cars, to see if they were pulling off the road and seeking shelter.

"But I realized the sky wasn't turning black for everyone else," she says now. "Just for me."

She pulled off the road and drove to a building that was under construction. She got out of her car, ran toward a construction worker, and asked him to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. She asked the worker if he would take her to the psychiatrist's office. He said yes, and as they rode to the doctor's, Dana lay on the floorboard of the car, cowering in fear. She began reciting the Lord's Prayer, sure this was the end.

"I thought I was going to poof out of the world," she says. "And as I came to the end of the Lord's Prayer, a calm came over me and the darkness lifted."

When she told the psychiatrist what had happened, she says, he explained to her she had had an emotional breakdown, the result of years of stress built up as she tried to keep Roky and her family together. He told her if Jager were to be around Roky for much longer he would begin to mimic his father's erratic behavior, she recalls.  

So Dana packed up the car and drove Roky and Jager back to Austin.
"We drove up to Evelyn's house, and I told Roky to go see if his mother was home," Dana says, her voice cracking at the recollection. "And as he walked in the door, I drove off. I know that sounds cruel, but I knew there was food there, his mom was there, he'd be warm, and that was more than we had."

Dana was married to Roky from 1973 to 1979; they dated even longer, as far back as 1966. (Erickson has two more children--a daughter from his second wife, Holly, to whom he was married till 1982; and a daughter from a woman he had a brief affair with in 1972.) Though Jager, who still lives in Austin, has limited contact with his father, Dana still sees her ex-husband.

She refers to him as a "contradiction in his environment"--a genius exiled to a life of loneliness and garbage, a grown man unable to do anything for himself. For years, she has fought with Evelyn Erickson to get Roky back on his prescription medication and admitted to a hospital on an outpatient basis, she says. At least, she figures, he might be able to live a more productive life, one he controls. But Evelyn has long been opposed to allowing Roky to get back on medication, scared of the side effects (including a palsy) it creates.

"He's gotten better in the last couple of years," Evelyn says. "It's just the little things--being able to cope with the day, knowing what year it is, simple things we take for granted. He knows what's going on. He knows who is for or against him."

"When I went to visit Evelyn, she said he's getting better," Gaines recalls of a recent visit, "I said, 'For being out on his own and with the disease he's been battling all these years, he's doing great, but he could do so much better.' He's a recluse, he's got this obsession with the mail, his house is filthy, his teeth are rotting. I said, 'Before something happens, let's do something to take care of him.'

"I mean, I miss him. His son misses him, his daughters miss him, his friends miss him. And he misses him."

As it draws toward 11 o'clock, Stewart and I decide to call it a night and drop Roky back at his house after our quick drive to Bastrop. As Stewart feeds the cats that haunt the property, Roky opens the door to his home; it's unlocked. We haul in the groceries from a nearby H-E-B--some soft drinks, chocolate milk, two packs of cigarettes, cat food.

"So, what y'all gonna do now?" Erickson wonders as we say our goodbyes. "Y'all gonna get something to eat? Y'all gonna get some steaks?"

Stewart explains he's tired and will probably just go to bed.
"Well, if y'all go get something, you'll let me know, right?" Roky says. "OK. I'm just gonna go lie down now. Y'all gonna be OK?"

"Sure, Roky," we say as we head out the door. But neither us can bear to ask the obvious question: are you gonna be OK, Roky?

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