The discomfort and sadness in the auditorium was palpable that Texas night in 1993, when the destitute rock legend stood on stage with his arms crossed and his gaze pointed far beyond the crowd. Bandleader Will Sexton lovingly tried to cajole the scruffy figure up to the microphone, but he wouldn’t budge. They finished “Starry Eyes” without him and left it at that.
The latest in a long string of Roky Erickson revivals had ended as messily as all the rest.
Eighteen years later, Erickson took the stage at the same event, the Austin Music Awards, backed by Curt and Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets. This time he didn’t need any prodding. On perfect cue, he delivered the otherworldly howl that kicks off his signature 1966 tune. One of rock’s greatest comeback stories was confirmed.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me” was the song, a pioneering psychedelic-rock classic by Erickson’s former band the 13th Floor Elevators. They played it on “American Bandstand,” and it has since appeared everywhere from the movie “High Fidelity” to an NBC Olympics special — hand-picked by snowboarder Shaun White, a Roky fan — to a recent Dell Computer commercial.
Erickson himself went missing, though, during nearly 40 years of mistreated mental illness that left him living in squalor until the mid-’00s.
A monthlong tour, which includes his first-ever Minnesota concert Monday at First Avenue, is the latest small victory among the enormous steps he has taken to return to the stage. And something of a personal victory for this writer — I once had an unforgettable conversation with Erickson in the mid-’90s but thought it impossible to ever truly talk to him — the 66-year-old singer recently sat for a half-hour phone interview, patched through by his wife, Dana, with whom he reunited a few years ago after decades apart.
“We just make sure we take it easy,” Erickson said a few times during our chat, talking excitedly in his friendly, nasal drawl about the bit of touring he has done. “We stop a whole lot, at restaurants and shops with little knick-knacks. And then I like to try to relax at the shows and take it easy, because that way I can sing more smoothly.”
As I was forewarned by Erickson’s manager, Darren Hill — who also happens to manage Paul Westerberg — he understandably doesn’t like to talk about the worst parts of his past. Sadly, that’s a lot of parts.
While still a teen, Erickson started showing symptoms of schizophrenia, a condition worsened by the Elevators’ heavy use of LSD. In 1968, he was arrested on drug charges for possession of a single joint. He pleaded insanity and was sent to Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane in East Texas, where he was given shock therapy and played in prison bands with murderers during a four-year stay.
In the late ’80s, while living in public housing outside Austin, he was arrested for stealing neighbors’ mail (not to open, but rather to tape to his walls). That’s when Warner Bros. Records put together a benefit album of Erickson songs re-recorded by some of the many bands influenced by the Elevators, including R.E.M., ZZ Top and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Just last week, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl announced a new EP with a version of Roky’s “If You Have Ghosts.”
Anytime I got anywhere near a rough topic, Erickson veered into unclear tangents, but with the clear intent of changing the subject. Like when I asked about the notoriously unfair deal he and the Elevators signed with International Artists, a Houston label run by Kenny Rogers’ brother Lelan. To this day, Erickson’s overseers struggle to bring in royalties from the widespread use of his songs.
“They were always good friends of mine at International Artists. I always had faith in them,” he said simply, and then started talking about how Wells Fargo “looks out for my money.” Asked whether he gets paid when his songs are used on TV, he started talking about his Time-Warner Cable service.
“I have it hooked up on a lot of television sets all over my house, so wherever I go, I’m watching them on the TV,” he said, noting that the Cartoon Network was turned on as we talked.
Much to Erickson’s delight, Matthew McConaughey’s dark HBO miniseries “True Detective” prominently featured the Elevators’ song “Kingdom of Heaven.”
“We watched that several times,” Roky beamed. “I really liked that. It was really done right, wasn’t it? They were out in some strange place, and then all of a sudden you could hear it. It was like somebody was listening to a radio or something like that.”
In 2010, Erickson released his first real new album in about 15 years, “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” with help from Austin indie rockers Okkervil River, whose frontman Will Sheff fittingly called Erickson “the most blessed and cursed person” he’d ever met. This winter’s tour is with another reputable Austin band, the Black Angels, who hew closer to the dark, fantastical garage-rock sound of Erickson’s best-known music.
“They talk about them on the radio a lot — the Black Angels and the Black Crowes,” he said.
Erickson has a new backing band, the Hounds of Baskerville, featuring his son, Jegar, who reportedly is culling unrecorded songs from his dad’s old tapes and notebooks for a new album.
“He plays whatever there is, harmonica and stuff like that, and he blows a jug,” Roky said of his son. “I always make sure I have good guidance and help when I’m playing, and I try to keep it quiet [in the crowd] and thank the audience for grinning and bearing it with me.”
Thankfully, that was only a joke, and you could even hear him grinning as he said it. Here are some other parts of the interview where Erickson sounded happy to talk.
On playing “American Bandstand” in 1966: “Dick [Clark] was just real nice and everything. I told him I’m supposed to say, ‘We’re all heads,’ so I asked him to ask me, ‘Who’s the head of the group?’ and then I replied, ‘Why, Dick, we’re all heads!’ You know, like that [laughs].”
Listening to his old songs: “No, it’s never [painful]. It’s always good. I’m glad I own copies of all the records. I like them all and listen to them all the time. I really like [1966’s] ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators,’ that’s kind of a mental giant of what I like to listen to. Every once in a while I’ll hear one on the radio, too, and I’ll say to Dana, ‘Hey, they’re playing my song!’ ”
His favorite musician to join him on stage: “I’ve played with one of ZZ Top, Bill, you know him [Billy Gibbons]. He’s played electric lead for me. He always gets so nervous when he gets up there with me, because he says he wants it to be so right, and it’s important that he gets to do that. It’s always a tense situation.”
The musicians he really wishes he could perform with: “I like REO Speedwagon an awful lot. I’ve never had the good fortune of [meeting them], but I feel like I know them. They’re really far out, and they have intellectual and conceptual music.”