In 2005 I had the surreal pleasure of meeting one of rock music’s greatest enigmas, Roky Erickson, shortly after he performed for the first time in over a decade at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin. I thought this was simply a one-time deal — the city dusting off a local legend and carting the eccentric genius to the stage to play a bit of “Two-Headed Dog” for old-time’s sake. Little did I know about the trials and tribulations Erickson went through to arrive at this point again. I knew his back-story (an acid casualty sentenced to a maximum security state mental hospital, where shock treatment further fried his former self), but had no knowledge of the germ of a life he led after becoming ward to his mother Evelyn.
You’re Gonna Miss Me, a new documentary by Keven McAllester, is a rather poetic attempt to connect those dots. From Erickson’s heady beginnings inventing psychedelic music with the 13th Floor Elevators to his recent road to recovery sponsored by his youngest brother Sumner, and all the highs and low in between, the film explores his life from within the family drama that exists in the present. Who has the best intentions for Roky?
At the start we find “a 53 year-old man sleeping to the melody of four radios, three televisions, two amps, a radio scanner, and a Casio keyboard, all playing at the same time. Loudly. He has three teeth, and his hair is matted into one huge dreadlock.” Locked up in a low-rent apartment in Austin, Roky is at the mercy of his mother, who has let her son rot without proper health care, human interaction, and the psychiatric treatment we later find he dearly needs. On the other hand, Sumner is convinced Roky was never schizophrenic, treats him with new-age therapy, fixes his teeth, and sends him out on a tour with a recently released retrospective of his body of work to hoc. Both sides come across as sympathetic to Roky’s well-being, but both have motives. It’s this uncertainty that lends the movie it’s emotional weight. Even the casual Elevators fan will be intrigued by the oedipal pushing and pulling involved (in a brief, but vital, scene we see that Father Erickson lives next door to Sumner in Pittsburgh).
Besides the familial plot, resulting in a happy ending as Roky becomes emancipated from any type of guardianship (found in the dvd’s bonus section), You’re Gonna Miss Me showcases his life as an artist. There’s plenty of archival footage from his time in the Elevators (including an odd stint on American Bandstand), anecdotes from a number of reputable people in his life (and Thurston Moore), and home video of Roky reading poetry or starring in creepy shorts produced by his mother. If you’re wanting the standard “behind the music” exposition, it is provided, though my only beef comes with the blur over his Alien days (which I consider his most fertile period). Surely though it would be a three-hour film if McAllester would’ve detailed Roky’s life in and out of institutions in the 80’s and recording studios in the 90’s (though it’s legend that the Butthole Surfer’s King Coffey is the first person to ever give Roky an actual royalty check for his 1995 album All That May Do My Rhyme).
Fortunately, while other tortured cult heroes are dead (Skip Spence, Syd Barrett) or still in hiding, Roky Erickson is experiencing a revival of sorts. One year after seeing him perform only three songs with little guitar work, I witnessed him perform a greatest hits set with a blazing new back-up band, the Explosives (that included Kinky Friedman), his voice and rhythm more than could be expected from the Rolling Stones this day in age. It remains to be seen if Roky will indulge his legion with new material, but for now digging through his back catalog, turning others on to his mysticism, and re-evaluating his impact on popular culture, is enough to keep him alive.