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Roky and the Elevators

David Brown

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13th Floor Elevators Poster
(www.rokyerickson.net)
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This weekend Austin, Texas hosts the final mega-music festival of the summer season: Austin City Limits. There will be some sixty thousand music fans, three stages, and 130 bands, including Beck, Manu Chao, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. But the most surprising appearance will be by one of Austin's own, Roky Erikson. Roky formed a band called the 13th Floor Elevators more than 40 years ago, but they got stuck on their way to the top. But like that other Rocky, there's always one more chance at a comeback.

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When people think of psychedelic music, the city that most often comes to mind is San Francisco. In fact, psychedelic music was born in one of the unlikeliest of places - a place far better known for redneck rock than acid rock. Nearly a decade before the hippies and the cowboys joined hands to put the music of Austin on the map, a 16-year-old named Roky Erickson and his garage band the 13th Floor Elevators started turning rock music inside-out.

"Roky Erickson is the greatest musician Austin's ever produced, without a doubt," says Michael Corcoran, music writer for the Austin American Statesman. "When you think about coming up with the idea of psychedelic music, Roky Erickson was a 16-year-old kid, writing 'You're Gonna Miss Me.'"

In 1965, Roky and the Elevators started making such a racket on the regional music scene, Dick Clark invited them onto American Bandstand. In 1966, the Elevators traveled to San Francisco in support of their debut album, "Psychedelic Sounds" - this was well before the release of such psychedelic classics as "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother and the Holding Company or Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced." When Erickson returned to Texas, he went to Houston to play a series of shows. In the crowd was a teenager named Bill Bentley. These days, Bentley's a record company executive in Los Angeles.

"Houston radio started playing 'You're Going to Miss Me,'" Bentley recalls. "And they came to town and played an old church that had become club called La Maison. It was better than the Beatles or The Stones, it went beyond anything we'd ever seen."

Better than the Beatles or the Stones? You've got to understand, Roky was selling more than just music-as-ear-candy. Roky's band was pushing music - together with certain mind altering substances - as a way to blow open the doors of perception. "They also had this belief system that took it into the religious level," says Bentley. "They were promoting psychedelic drugs as a way of expanding consciousness. That's what they were all about".

And the Texas constabulary was none too fond of Roky's musical message. "The police were threatened by the Elevators," says Bentley. "And started following them around and arresting them at any chance they got. And by the second or third time Roky was arrested, he had to go to an insane asylum. He had pled insanity to get out of this marijuana charge. And they did some things to him, and that was the end of him really being together."

When Roky was released from the hospital for the criminally insane, he came out a different person. Erratic. Unstable. Admirers and fellow musicians - like Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet - tried to get Roky back into the studio, and their efforts succeeded to a point.

But the glimmers of genius in those recordings didn't quite add up to a comeback, and by the early 80s, Roky was in a long slow dive. He became isolated, papering the walls of his home with bizarre clippings and letters. He was again committed to a mental institution. Roky reached a point where he could barely function. By all indications, Roky was another acid casualty; another rock and roll tragedy in the making.

"I know Roky doesn't have regrets," says Sumner Erickson, Roky's youngest brother. "And one thing that's amazing is that he never got depressed. He's living in poverty, had massive dental problems, no royalties. Internationally famous. And he lives in Section 8, in a dangerous little part of town"

Sumner decided to come home and made it his mission to help Roky. He launched a trust fund with support from local musicians. Found some good doctors to work with, and took careful steps to get Roky off the sofa, and back behind a guitar. The real test would come before a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2005.

Music writer Michael Corcoran was there, watching the performance in amazement. "You know, he was basically just a homeless psychotic person," he says. "And you would cross the street if you saw him come your way. But with the right psychiatric help, medication, the care of his brother - to see him elevated to almost Brian Wilson status in Autsin is very nice"

When Roky sings, it's as if nothing ever happened. But when he speaks, it's in short, halting bursts. "Well…I'm just real excited about what's happening so far," Roky says. "And probably doing some more of it and everything."

Since his triumphant return, Roky's been doing lots more, in fact. He's the subject of a long-form documentary called "You're Gonna Miss Me." He's taped an episode of public television's "Austin City Limits," where he was joined by admirers including Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. And this weekend, Roky will return to the stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Some will be there for the music and the memories; others, to witness firsthand one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of rock and roll.

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  • By Bob Moulton

    From Naples, FL, 09/27/2008

    Having been lucky enough to meet and hang out with Roky for a couple of days in 1995 and to meet him again in 2006 I can say without fear of contradiction that Roky Erickson is one of THE nicest people that anyone would ever want to meet. Just a lovely, lovely guy and my all-time musical hero. A true poet and a genius.

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