The Los Angeles Beat is pleased to welcome veteran rock scribe Shirley Pena to our music writing staff. Shirley’s introducing herself with a series of interviews with rock legends, which will appear here every Wednesday. The following exclusive interview was conducted in 2010, during Roky Erickson’s tour with Okkervil River, to support Roky’s just-released True Love Cast Out All Evil (Epitaph).
“I really like to read, and I like a good story” says Roky Erickson. Few, if any, would argue that Roky Erickson’s life has been one really good story. It’s a comeback story of such epic proportion that it isn’t so much a comeback as a resurrection of one of Rock’s greatest casualties.
Roky Erickson (born Roger Kynard Erickson on July 15, 1947) has the unique distinction of having fathered not one but two distinct genres of Rock: Psychedelic and Horror. Known as “The Evil One” Roky created music that was totally original and truly unforgettable, punctuated with his soaring, searing vocals that have influenced countless singers who have followed him. With his band the 13th Floor Elevators, he pioneered a sound that took Rock to a whole new level of creativity and freedom of expression it had never before experienced. The band traveled from their native Texas to San Francisco California in the mid 1960s, and overnight changed the sunny California Sound from Surf Music, Folk-Rock and sweet Pop to one that excited many young people and alarmed many more parents and the status quo in general. Coined “Psychedelic” music by the band’s co-founder Tommy Hall, it brought Erickson and his bandmates overnight acclaim, and with the success of their first single, the iconic “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, the band began a whirlwind of television appearances on such music programs as American Bandstand, Where The Action Is and a slew of others, as well as gaining a reputation as vocal proponents of LSD, mescaline, DMT and marijuana.
By the time the band returned to their native Austin, Texas, they were already subject to extra attention from the police, culminating in Erickson’s arrest in 1969 for possession of one marijuana joint in Austin. Facing a ten-year prison term, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. First sent to the Austin State Hospital, following several escapes he was sent to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy “treatments” and given thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic drug. He remained there in custody until 1972.
Since then, Erickson’s life has been a harrowing series of ups and downs, chronicled in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. Starting in 2001, with his younger brother Sumner being granted legal custody of Roky, and establishment of a legal trust to aid his brother in providing care of Roky both physically and financially, Roky began to finally receive effective medical and legal aid to help pull his shattered life back together again, the latter being especially helpful in sorting out the complicated tangle of contracts, which had subsequently reduced Roky’s royalty payments to almost nothing for his recorded works. He also started taking medication to control his schizophrenia.
In 2010, Roky released his first new album in 15 years: True Love Cast Out All Evil, to glowing reviews. Produced by Will Sheff, with songs culled over decades-going all the way back to Roky’s days at Rusk-the album explores the themes of spirituality, redemption, love and the pain of incarceration and mental illness. Ultimately, it’s nothing less than an uplifting, life-affirming testament to Erickson’s sheer genius. Sheff’s band, Okkervil River, provide sparse, understated accompaniment that matches Sheff’s production, bringing the focus back to the songs themselves, where it rightly belongs.
Roky, relaxing backstage at Austin’s SXSW Festival in 2010 (with Will Sheff) shared with LA Beat his thoughts about “That good old music!” and how it’s helping him to finally cast out his personal demons…for good.
SP: Roky, how are you doing?
RE: Howdy! I’m doin’ real good!
SP: Let’s start with discussing your career from the beginning. I understand you began playing guitar at age ten, after your mother taught you your first chords.
RE: I started on piano, I picked up a little bit of it, then they asked me if I wanted to play guitar. I thought I might do that too, so I taught myself to play on a really big one, maybe too big for my age! It was really hard work, but it was at a time when I really wanted to do it, wanted to learn.
SP: How influential was Little Richard’s primal scream to what you later incorporated into your own unique vocal style?
RE: Yeah, I really do like Little Richard. I had several Little Richard records, and one in particular was a really good one to listen to, a lot like James Brown: “Bama Lama, Lama Loo.” That was a good one to sing to (sings in exaggerated Southern drawl) “I’m goin’ to Alabam’…I’m goin’ to Georgia…”
SP: Buddy Holly was a fellow Texan. Was he an influence too?
RE: Buddy’s records were a lot more expensive and harder to get than Little Richard’s. Holly’s records would be about two or three dollars at GR Reeves. As I recall, I might have sent away for some too. But Little Richard’s records on the Specialty label were cheaper and easier to get.
SP: What was GR Reeves?
RE: It was a real expensive record company, but they were real kind to you when you went there. The prices were real extravagant, but if you had your mom call down there and tell them: “You be nice to him and give him what he wants to get!” then they might give you a bit of a bargain on it.
SP: Now, you were about 15 when you started the Spades.
RE: The Spades came when I started playing piano. They asked me to play piano. I’d thought about, then asked around for, others who played; there were a few there at school. But I really couldn’t get a break there.
SP: How influential for you were the “British Invasion” bands like the Yardbirds or the Animals? Did any of their songs become a part of your early repertoire?
RE: Oh yeah, we played some of their songs. But mostly I just read about them in the magazines.
SP: Was Janis Joplin ever seriously considered for inclusion in the 13th Floor Elevators?
RE: No, that was a real strange story. What happened was during short sets we’d play different, sporadic things, and they thought her scream was alot like mine, so it might be a really good thing if we got up there and screamed together, all the time. (laughs)
SP: During the time in San Francisco, did you personally know or hang out with Jerry Garcia or Grace Slick?
RE: No, I avoided them because I’d heard that they sought out their privacy. They were a very large presence in that town, so I just thought: “Well, since they’re large and everything then I don’t really need to meet them!” (laughs)
SP: How did having a hit record with “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and suddenly being on television change your life?
RE: Well, you know with me, I thought I would be famous before I ever made a record. We would have the same kind of show: very small shows. We would do things like that, and we would feel popular, and it would be enough for us to do it. Then we thought: “Boy, it would be nice to maybe have a record too!” and that’s when we recorded “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
SP: Who owns the Elevators master tapes?
RE: Oh, that’s a real hard one! I don’t know who has those things.
SP: How do you feel when folks refer to you as “The Father of Psychedelic Rock”?
RE: Well, I haven’t heard about that (laughs). But they have said I was maybe the progenitor of it, whatever that means. I’d have to really think about it, ‘cause if they asked me what “psychedelic” means, I’d have to kind of stammer around to figure it out.
SP: Was Tommy Hall the one who first called the Elevators’ music “psychedelic”?
RE: Hmm…let me see. I don’t really know! (laughs)
SP: Wasn’t Tommy also the one who introduced LSD to the band?
RE: Oh yeah.
SP: Is it true that Tommy wanted everyone in the band to drop acid before they went onstage?
RE: Well, that was what we discussed. You see, the Elevators kind of kept their life a secret when they were first together. We wanted to get everything down, you know? We wanted the fine things of life, not just materialistic things.
SP: Do you regret that Tommy encouraged everyone in the band to take LSD, and do you think it contributed to the band breaking up so early on?
RE: People have asked me that several times. No, I don’t really think so.
SP: After living in San Francisco, where drug use was so prevalent at that time, why did you decide to return to Texas, knowing that the police there were aware of you as a high profile celebrity and drug user, and knowing too that getting caught in possession of even one joint could land you in jail?
RE: I don’t remember too much, I think it was all in my mind, what would be there.
SP: Do you think that because you were a local celebrity and stood out from the mere kids who were acting stoned in public, that the police targeted you, thinking “There goes Roky Erickson again, just flagrantly acting like that right in our face!”
RE: Yeah, now that’s the deal. That would be the thing they had against the Elevators. I would think that I was being followed by the police. I would think: “Alright, get my mother, help! Get my mother, HELP! Lions and bears and tigers are coming after me, but just don’t think they’re after me!” So that was the thing.
SP: Over the years, have you thought alot about your incarceration at Rusk?
RE: Well yeah, but I knew I was gonna make it. It was just something that you knew you had to get through, somethin’ else. It’s alright to do it. You know what I mean?
SP: Do you think it was a good idea for your lawyer to ask for an insanity plea for you, to avoid a jail sentence?
RE: Yeah, I do. I don’t know who said that. That’s a complete secret from me. I don’t know who did that.
SP: Was that trial the inspiration for your song “Please, Judge”?
RE: Yeah, it was. That’s when I wrote that.
SP: On your album True Love Cast Out All Evil were “Devotional Number 1”, “God Is Everywhere”, “Forever” and “Birds’d Crash” all written at Rusk?
RE: Yeah, that’s where they were written.
SP: On the new album, were some of the recordings originally done at Rusk?
RE: Some of the songs were recorded there by me, and some were recorded there by my mother. They (the staff at Rusk) were telling me: “Well, we can do this thing when we think you’re ready, whatever it is. You’re just a person that’s trying to stay away from getting in trouble”.
SP: Looking back, it seems like your stay at Rusk was a very creative and productive period for you.
RE: Mostly, I would just do this thing where I would try to lead a very straight life and watch out what I was doin’.
SP: Do you regret all the problems LSD eventually caused in your life?
RE: No, I don’t really think so, because over the years I’ve managed to figure it out and to actually do things. I try to figure things out, and I always try to have a good time at whatever I do.
SP: True Love Cast Out All Evil was your first new album in well over a decade, and it received rave reviews from both critics and your fans. That must have been quite gratifying.
RE: Well, I’m gonna have to listen to it. I have so many records; I don’t know where they came from! But I listen to some of my stuff, and I listen to it for a long time. I really enjoy it.
SP: Do you see this album as something of a “comeback” album for you?
RE: Oh…well, yeah. That’s a thought, isn’t it? (big laugh) I didn’t understand too much about it, but I had plenty of help, you know.
SP: In reflecting back on your life, do you feel that everything that’s happened to you, however traumatic, has ultimately helped to make you a stronger person?
RE: Well, the whole thing is I’m doin’ pretty good about it. You have to restrain yourself from thinking thoughts where you’d have to do some kind of “street” thing to get into what you’re talkin’ about. You know, I like to have fun, you know what I mean, and I tell you I’m doin’ pretty good about it!
SP: So, is your philosophy “Just grin and bear it”?
RE: That’s right! Yeah.
SP: So you’re not angry about anything that’s happened to you?
RE: No, I’m not. I’ve talked it over with acquaintances, and I’ve talked it over with people that I really feel good about being with, and feel good about their ideas. I seem to be doing alright, it’s just something…I have to take it easy, just takin’ it easy.
SP: Roky, are you aware that there is a “campaign” of sorts to get you nominated, and hopefully inducted, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
RE: WHAT?! REALLY?! ME?!
SP: Yes, there is an online petition (http://www.petitiononline.com/roky/petition.html) that your fans are signing world-wide as we speak, requesting that the induction committee please nominate/induct you as soon as possible. There’s even a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=55942073006) that’s been created by your fans to help promote that request for induction.
RE: Ha! Well! (takes a deep breath)
SP: So, if you do get nominated, and selected for induction, would that be something that would appeal to you, do you actually want to be inducted?
RE: Ha! Well…gosh, YEAH!
SP: So, in looking back on your life, what are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished?
RE: Oh, I don’t really know. I guess, just probably, that I study. I enjoy studying. You know, that’s what I do. I read alot and I study alot. I’ve got alot of Stephen King. You know, he’s real hard to read, but his books I really like! I read his book The Stand, and then I read The Shining. I can’t really remember all I’ve read. They’re real hard to read, but real interesting. He uses lots of words, but you would think he’d use lots of stories…or somethin’ like that. You know what I mean?