One of the great rock and roll singers stood on the stage with his arms crossed. He uncrossed them and crossed them again. He yawned. Then he sang a verse of one of his songs, “Don’t Slander Me.” His once mighty voice was thin and couldn’t quite reach all the notes. He turned his back on the audience between verses. He looked beat. It was 1993, and Roky Erickson and his backing band were performing at the Austin Music Awards. When they played his biggest song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a piece of proto-punk rock that had once been an anthem of mid-sixties teen attitude, it sounded like a rehearsal for retirement. Roky, with his long black hair and thick beard, didn’t look happy. He wasn’t. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic who hadn’t taken any anti-psychotic medicine in several years and who would go home that night to a house where he kept half a dozen radios, TVs, and stereos blasting noise to drown out the voices in his head. It really hadn’t been his idea to be onstage that night. He hadn’t won anything, and he hadn’t made an album in more than a decade. He might as well have had a sign around his neck: “Sixties Nostalgia Act.” But he had said yes when his friends asked him to sing. They were well intentioned—they wanted to give Roky and the crowd a feeling for what had once been, back when psychedelia was young and Roky was a sign of something else entirely.
Back then, in 1966, Roky (pronounced “Rocky”) was a teenage rebel with an electric guitar. He had a sweet, round face and a buzz-saw voice, and sometimes he’d shake his head and scream like a banshee, which drove the kids crazy. He wrote hopeful, yearning melodies like his hero Buddy Holly, who had died only a few years earlier. He and his group, the 13th Floor Elevators, were the best rock and roll band in Texas. Indeed, they were the first psychedelic group ever, and they changed the sound of rock, influencing everyone from Janis Joplin and Billy Gibbons to the Grateful Dead. They sold more than 100,000 records, had a hit song, and appeared on American Bandstand. They had everything that other seminal bands of the era, like the Doors, had: vision, great musicians, and in Roky, star power.
And then he went crazy and the band broke up. At 22, Buddy Holly was dead; at 22, Roky Erickson was in an insane asylum. Drugs, excess, schizophrenia: Roky was a casualty of the times. He got out and made more music, but he always found himself back in some kind of trouble. “Roky’s story is a descent into Dante’s inferno,” says Bill Bentley, a senior vice president of publicity at Warner Bros. Records, who grew up in Houston, saw the Elevators, and became a friend of Roky’s. “I’ve never seen such brilliance accompanied by such a fall, where every wrong thing that could happen happened.” In spite of this, or maybe because of it, over the years Roky kept getting rediscovered by musicians and fans, and he became a cult star, as much for his bizarre life as for his sublime, ferocious music. (In the mid-nineties an Englishman published a fanzine called Roky Erickson and the Secret of the Universe.) “Some artists are able to cut right through everything and get you,” says punk rock icon Henry Rollins. “Brian Wilson, Sam Cooke, Roky Erickson. His voice, lyrics, and then the man himself—a sweet, likable guy who is so mysterious and obviously a genius.”
Everyone who meets Roky comes away with a story that is both funny and horrifying. Mine came when I first interviewed him, in 1984, during one of his periods of decline. I was a cub rock writer, and he had been one of my heroes ever since I’d heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” two and a half minutes of prehistoric garage-rock fury. Roky had long straggly hair, long nails curling out of nicotine-stained fingers, and deep creases in his forehead. After we started our interview that afternoon, he pulled the cellophane from a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket to reveal a bee crawling around inside. He examined it briefly, returned it to his pocket, and continued, rambling on many subjects, making connections between things that weren’t the least bit connected. He said he was the rock messiah. He said he was flattered at being called the first punk rocker but pointed out that true punk was a song by fictional characters Doug and Bob McKenzie of the television show SCTV. He said he had a new song called “I Love the Sound of a Severed Head When It’s Bouncing Down the Staircase.” At one point he started talking about Satan. “The devil is the person who commands the opposite place of God,” he said. “Satan wants to crucify Jesus. I kind of like Jesus. Jesus got crucified, died for our sins. Satan was an angel who was kicked out of heaven. His name was Little Michael, Little Michael Hall …” I stopped taking notes and looked at Roky, waiting for a wink, a chuckle, a pause—anything. He ignored me. “I’m Satan and the devil is the devil,” he went on. “You always want to be the stranger in the woods, the angel Paul … ” Yes, I had heard him correctly, and either I was the Dark Lord or Roky was pulling my leg. He was obviously more in control than I had given him credit for, and all afternoon he did what he has done all his life: He danced along the line between the lucid and the scatterbrained. Perhaps, I thought, he’s crazy. Perhaps he’s pretending. Perhaps he’s both.
I saw him occasionally over the next decade and a half, but Roky became more and more reclusive, and stories about him got more dire. During most of the nineties, he lived alone in the sonic chaos of his