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Embracing the Weird

A half-century into a wild career, psychedelic legend Roky Erickson hits the road again.



The phrase "roller coaster of a career" is commonly used when describing the endurance of a lifelong performer, but no other term best describes the life and work of Roky Erickson, who plays the Hi-Tone Café this Friday night. A founding member of one of the first American psychedelic rock bands, the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson achieved national attention for his raw vocal delivery on "You're Gonna Miss Me," an attitude-soaked anthem for the free-love generation that made it to number 55 on the Billboard charts in 1966.

Looking for a lifestyle more conducive to their far-out music, the Elevators relocated to San Francisco's drug-induced rock-and-roll scene in the late 1960s. Often mixing heroin and potent liquid LSD before playing live, the Elevators fell apart after one too many bad trips, but things only got weirder for Erickson.

Having already been arrested multiple times for possession of marijuana, Erickson faced up to 10 years in prison in 1969 after being arrested for the possession of one joint. Instead of doing the time, Erickson pleaded guilty by reason of insanity.

That plea sent him to Rusk State Mental Hospital in Texas from 1969 until 1972. While at Rusk, Erickson started the band the Missing Links amid electroconvulsive and Thorazine treatments. Erickson says that he tried to stay as coherent as possible while at Rusk and was able to write music as well as his first book.

"Mostly when I was at Rusk, I just wrote songs. I didn't have to do any strenuous work or anything, but I had to really watch out and make sure I knew what was going on," Erickson says. "I'd be a little weary when they'd ask me to come in and talk about some of the things that they thought was wrong with me."

Much of the 2005 documentary I'm Not There focuses on Erickson's time in Rusk, and one psychiatrist points out that he thought there wasn't a legitimate reason Erickson was admitted to the hospital in the first place. The other members of Erickson's short-lived Missing Links seemed to be more deserving of their sentences: Each had been convicted of rape or murder before being admitted to the hospital.

Even if he wasn't supposed to be there, the damage of being admitted to a mental hospital began to take hold. In the documentary, passages in Erickson's diary reveal that he began to lose hope at Rusk, trying his best to forget his fame as a rock-and-roll singer. Finally, in 1972 Erickson was released back into society.

Two years later, Erickson started another band, Roky & the Aliens. Taking a darker approach than the soulful 13th Floor Elevators, the Aliens wrote hard-rock songs about demonic characters.

The Aliens saw mild success with their two full-length albums, I Think of Demons and The Evil One, but after working with a revolving cast of back-up musicians and producers, Erickson broke up the Aliens and fell back into obscurity for the better part of 20 years, though he did release an album in 1995, All That May Do Rhyme, to coincide with a book of lyrics released by Henry Rollins' publishing company.

By the mid 2000s, Erickson began making a full comeback, playing festivals like South by Southwest and Coachella and also starring in the documentary film, which focused on his battle with schizophrenia and his home life.

In 2010, Erickson released his first album of new material in more than 14 years, with Austin's Okkervil River as his backing band. Although the album received critical acclaim, this year marks the first that Erickson has toured extensively in decades, with stints in Australia and Europe completed before embarking on his current U.S. tour. Now in his mid-60s, Erickson seems to be taking the tours in stride.

"The shows have been great so far, but, boy, they are rough, man. We play about 10 or 15 songs, and after that the band lets me take it real easy," Erickson says. "Gibson has given me about 10 guitars for free, and I have to be real careful that they don't break when I play them."

Not too many 65-year-olds are worried about breaking their guitar during a live performance, but by this point it's pretty clear that Erickson is anything but ordinary.

Roky Erickson, with Nude Beach
Hi-Tone Café
Friday, November 16th
9 p.m.; $20

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