'True Love' Revives Singer Roky Erickson Instead of finding fame with the 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s, Roky Erickson is mostly known as a cautionary tale: a man who took too many psychedelic drugs, then struggled with mental illness. Now he's back, with the indie-rock band Okkervil River in tow.

'True Love' Revives Singer Roky Erickson

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(Soundbite of song, "You're Gonna Miss Me")

GUY RAZ, host:

The band 13th Floor Elevators recorded one of the great underground rock songs of the 1960s.

(Soundbite of song, "You're Gonna Miss Me")

13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS (Rock band): (Singing) You're gonna miss me, baby. You're gonna miss me, baby.

RAZ: That scream came from deep within the chest of lead singer Roky Erickson. At the time, he seemed destined for stardom but didn't quite work out that way. Instead, Roky Erickson became a cautionary tale of a man who took too many drugs and then struggled with mental illness.

Now, he's made a new record with the help of an indie rock band that he inspired. Joel Rose has our story.

JOEL ROSE: No matter how far Roky Erickson retreated from the world, his fans never forgot about him.

Mr. KEVEN MCALESTER (Filmmaker): You know, I'd grown up in Texas. And in Texas, Roky Erickson, if you're a music fan, Roky Erickson was sort of like the Loch Ness Monster. There are all these myths about him. You're not quite sure which was true and which were apocryphal.

ROSE: Filmmaker Keven McAlester spent six years filming Erickson and his family for his documentary called "You're Gonna Miss Me." By the time McAlester found him, Erickson was living in seclusion, his mental illness completely untreated. In one scene from the documentary, Erickson flips on half a dozen radios and televisions and a Casio keyboard before lying down to sleep.

(Soundbite of documentary, "You're Gonna Miss Me")

Mr. ROKY ERICKSON (Musician): I'm just trying to relax or something.

(Soundbite of music and radio sounds)

ROSE: When Keven McAlester met him, he didn't think Erickson would ever record again.

Mr. MCALESTER: He seemed to have so little interest in even talking about his music or acknowledging that he had done it. That the idea that he could perform again in public and then get into a studio and record again, I would've said it was impossible.

ROSE: Roky Erickson's problems date back to the 1960s.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) You finally find your helpless man is trapped inside your skin.

ROSE: The 13th Floor Elevators are sometimes credited with inventing the term psychedelic rock. And to say that Erickson dabbled in LSD would be putting it lightly. Erickson's mental health was already deteriorating in 1969 when he was arrested in Texas for possession of one joint of marijuana. Rather than go to jail, Erickson pleaded insanity, as he told radio interviewer George Gimarc in 1981.

Mr. ERICKSON: I just convinced them that I was insane so I could go to a mental home instead of a prison.

Mr. GEORGE GIMARC: Yeah. This was on the marijuana charge, I guess.

Mr. ERICKSON: Yeah, it was.

Mr. GIMARC: What was it, '69 or '70?

Mr. ERICKSON: Yeah, I probably would've been in prison about four years, you know.

Mr. GIMARC: Yeah.

ROSE: Instead, Erickson spent three years at Rusk State Hospital in Texas. He started a band with other patients, some of whom were incarcerated for rape or murder. When he got out, Erickson started recording again, but his music sounded very different.

(Soundbite of song, "I Think of Demons")

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) I, I, I think of demons we never kill. I, I, I think of demons they never will.

ROSE: Erickson called it horror rock, inspired by the scary films and comics he'd loved since childhood. Some fans read his songs about monsters and demons as metaphors for Erickson's mental state. But if he intended them that way, he never said so. Here's another excerpt from that 1981 interview.

Mr. GIMARC: Do you consider yourself a demonic, possessed, evil person or...


Mr. GIMARC: You really do?

Mr. ERICKSON: Yes, I do.

Mr. GIMARC: Okay. You're a...

Mr. ERICKSON: It's my religion. Music is evil to me.

ROSE: Erickson's mental health continued to slip. He was arrested and briefly institutionalized in 1990 for stealing his neighbor's mail.

Unidentified Man: After listening to the testimony, the court does find that Roger Kynard Erickson is in need of a guardian...

ROSE: In 2001, a court awarded legal custody of Roky to his younger brother. Now 62 years old, Roky Erickson is on medication for the first time in years. He's reunited with his first wife and son and he's willing to sit down for an interview, along with his collaborator, Will Sheff.

Mr. WILL SHEFF: Hey, how are you doing, man?

Mr. ERICKSON: Relaxing in my easy chair, detective style.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Sheff and Erickson first met two years ago when Sheff's band Okkervil River backed up Erickson at the Austin Music Awards. The combination worked, and Erickson's manager invited Sheff to produce a new record.

Mr. SHEFF: I was interested, but I wanted to make sure that I felt like I could make a good record. It was when I heard all those songs that I completely sort of lunged after the project.

ROSE: The songs on the album are based on demo recordings Erickson made throughout his career. Some were recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine inside Rusk State Hospital.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Jesus made Moses, taken from a well...

ROSE: For other songs on the album, producer Will Sheff added additional instruments and found sounds. Erickson was never one to spend a lot of time in the studio playing the same song over and over again, so Sheff took a different approach.

Mr. SHEFF: There's an aspect of recording that's this kind of banging your head against a wall, stressful, where you cease to even...

Mr. ERICKSON: Oh, I tell, you. Yeah. You have to be careful about that, don't you?

Mr. SHEFF: You do. And I think that Roky's sort of feeling about keeping things moving and about keeping things fun really kept us on our toes.

Mr. ERICKSON: That's right, yeah. Well, I appreciate being able to take it easy, you know? And it was really fun. It was fun. I don't know how much money it cost, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEFF: You don't want to know how much money it cost.

ROSE: During the course of recording, Sheff says Erickson seemed to find a new singing voice, one that's a long way from the scream of his youth.

Mr. SHEFF: Roky would sort of settle into this way of doing it that I think of as this very wise, weathered voice. You know, like a priceless antique, you know, that's been passed down, that's just kind of got its texture to it.

(Soundbite of song, "True Love Cast Out All Evil")

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) True love cast out all evil. True love cast out all evil...

ROSE: Roky Erickson and Okkervil River have been touring, performing songs from their new album together. Filmmaker Keven McAlester says Erickson's unlikely comeback gives the whole story a new twist.

Mr. MCALESTER: Now, with the release of this record, what's completely ironic about his sort of stature as the great lost vocalist or the cautionary tale of the psychedelic era is he's pretty much the last man standing from that era who's still making relevant records.

ROSE: But then, McAlester says, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising. Music was always Roky Erickson's primary way of communicating.

Mr. ERICKSON: You know, I'm really enjoying what I do, you know what I mean? They're good songs and everything, you know?

ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Roky Erickson plays New York City on Tuesday. You can hear tracks from his new album. That's at our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Starry eyes, how can I get to you, my true little, starry eyes, what can I say or do for you? My little, starry eyes, starry eyes forever shall be mine. Starry eyes, what can I say to make you listen? Starry eyes, what can I do for your attention...

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