Friday, August 31, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: ROKY'S ROAD

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 31, 2007


“An explorer of the mind and a pioneer of the heart”

That’s how Kinky Friedman described Roky Erikson, founding member of the ’60s group the 13th Floor Elevators, when introducing the psychedelic warrior at the 2005 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Roky, bless his troubled soul, looked strangely dignified, though not a little bemused, as he ripped into a version of “Cold Night for Alligators,” a powerful song of paranoia and horror from a tumultuous period in his life.

Of course, most of Roky’s life has been tumultuous, as is made clear by director Keven McAlester’s documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, recently released on DVD.

This is a must-have for Roky fans. In addition to the documentary itself, the DVD contains loads of extras, including musical performances (though not nearly enough with full bands); weird poetry readings; and an unbelievable Erikson home movie — made by Roky’s mother, Evelyn — in which Roky is crowned “King of the Beasts.”

This isn’t your typical rockumentary. Sure, it features lots of famous folks — Patti Smith; members of ZZ Top and Sonic Youth; and even Santa Fe’s Angry Samoan, Gregg Turner — praising Erikson’s wild talent and piercing voice. There’s some sentimental gushing over the rise of the 13th Floor Elevators — credited with being the first band to use the word psychedelic to describe itself. And McAlester includes a black-and-white clip from the band’s mid-’60s appearance on American Bandstand, with Roky singing the hit that provided the film’s title.

There’s also an interview with Dick Clark.

“Who is the head man of the group here, gentlemen?” America’s Oldest Teenager asks.
Jug player Tommy Hall doesn’t miss the opportunity. “Well, we’re all heads,” he deadpans.

But the DVD also shows how the psychedelic pipe dream went sour. The drugs got harder, and the trips got crazier. And when Roky got busted for marijuana possession — then a felony in the great state of Texas — he pleaded insanity and ended up in a hospital for the criminally insane. McAlester interviews Roky’s psychiatrist from that stint, who recalls that Roky joined a band made up of patients. The doctor recalls, “one had killed his parents and one of his siblings. ... He played guitar.”

For years after his release, Roky’s mental state was iffy at best. In the late ’70s, he recorded what is hands-down his greatest album, The Evil One, which features frightening lyrics about devils, ghosts, and monsters of the id. Interviews with those who knew him then indicate that such apparitions were very real to Roky.

By the 1990s, Roky had hit bottom. His hair was matted, his teeth were a mess, he was overweight, and he looked dazed and confused. In his small apartment in Austin, he used an array of radios, televisions, and other electronic devices to create a weird cacophony intended to keep the demons away, and he would catalog pieces of junk mail as if they were priceless documents.

McAlester delves into what became a struggle between Evelyn and three of Roky’s brothers. Dead set against giving Roky medication for his mental problems, Evelyn is portrayed as being crazier than her infamous son. She’s a frustrated artist herself — she wrote poetry and filmed her own plays (some of those films are included in the DVD extras). With her scrapbooks, her Hobby Lobby artwork, her maudlin piano playing, and her long-abandoned swimming pool — cracked and overgrown with weeds — the well-meaning Evelyn starts to look like the villain in McAlester’s film.

All sorts of family shadows come to light in the film — depression, drugs, alcoholism, abuse, and other manifestations of dysfunction. Roky’s brother Sumner talks about, as a child, having to yell before going into the kitchen, in order to scare away the rats. A disheveled Roky reads a disturbing poem called “I Know the Hole in Baby’s Head,” which tells the story of a family helpless in the face of constant fighting, crying infants, accumulating garbage, and bad smells.

Sumner got into a court battle with his mother over guardianship of Roky and, in 2001, won the case. Roky moved in with him, started a regimen of medication, and even began to play music again. In one of the film’s final scenes, from 2002, he’s singing a haunting song with the refrain, “Goodbye sweet dreams, goodbye sweet dreams.”

But there are two postscripts. One is about Roky’s performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2005. In the footage, he still looks pretty spacey but seems happy, soaking up the cheer from well-wishers in his hometown. But more surprising is a sequence shot earlier this year. Roky, Sumner, and Evelyn are back in the courtroom, but this time everyone is happy. Roky is off his meds and, according to everyone there, doing great. The judge agrees that Roky is doing better, rules that Roky is “fully capacitated,” and restores all his rights.

Outside the courtroom, Sumner nods adoringly as a new psychologist, one we don’t see in the main film, talks about his philosophy of mental illness.
“This whole concept of mental illness is a metaphor for physical illness, and it doesn’t really exist,” he says. “Schizophrenia is a made-up, garbage term that’s used to describe people who are troubled or troubling or that are in extreme states of mind that we don’t understand and are afraid of. ... Roky’s not mentally ill and never was. His story needs to be reinterpreted, and that’s why I’m here.”

In other words, Sumner has come around to Evelyn’s way of thinking about psychiatric medication.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.

But while watching this part of the DVD, something twisted in me reminded me of one of my favorite songs from The Evil One, and in my head I could hear the voice of the old, haunted Roky: “I am the doctor/I am the psychiatrist. ... I never hammered my mind out/I never had the bloody hammer.”

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