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'True Love' Revives Singer Roky Erickson

The 13th Floor Elevators recorded one of the great underground rock songs of the 1960s. The scream in "You're Gonna Miss Me" seemed to mark the band's lead singer, Roky Erickson, for fame and fortune. But it didn't work out that way. Instead, Erickson is mostly famous as a cautionary tale: a man who took too many psychedelic drugs, then struggled with mental illness. Now, Erickson has released a new record he made with the help of an indie-rock band he inspired, Okkervil River.

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

"You know, I'd grown up in Texas," filmmaker Keven McAlester says. "And in Texas, if you're a music fan, Roky Erickson is sort of like the Loch Ness monster. There are all these myths about him. You're not sure which was true and which were apocryphal."

McAlester spent six years filming Erickson and his family for his documentary You're Gonna Miss Me. By the time McAlester found him, Erickson was living in seclusion, his mental illness 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.

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

"He seemed to have so little interest in even talking about his music or acknowledging that he had done it," McAlester says. "The idea that he could perform again in public and get into a studio and record again -- I would've said it was impossible."

Pleading Insanity

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

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

Gimarc: This was on the marijuana charge, I guess, what was that, '69?

Erickson: Yeah, I probably would've been in prison about four years.

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, he started recording again. But his music sounded different.

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 his mental state. But if he'd intended them that way, he never said so. Here's another excerpt from that 1981 interview:

Gimarc: Do you consider yourself a demonic, possessed, evil person?

Erickson: Yes.

Gimarc: You really do?

Erickson: Yes, I do. It's my religion. Music is evil to me.

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

Meeting Okkervil River

In 2001, a court awarded legal custody of Erickson to his younger brother. Now 63, 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.

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.

"I was interested, but I didn't want to -- I wanted to make sure that I felt like I could make a good record," Sheff says. "It was when I heard those songs that I completely sort of lunged after the project."

The songs on True Love Cast Out All Evil are based on demo recordings Erickson made throughout his career. Some were recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine inside Rusk State Hospital.

For other songs on the album, Sheff added 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.

"There's an aspect of recording that's kind of banging your head against a wall, stressful" Sheff says.

"Oh, I tell, yeah," Erickson says. "You have to be careful about that, don't you?"

"You do," Sheff says. "And I think that Roky's sort of feeling about keeping things moving and about keeping things fun really kept us on our toes."

"That's right," Erickson says. "Well, I appreciate being able to take it easy, you know? It was really fun. It was fun. I don't know how much money it cost, you know?"

"Heh. You don't want to know how much money it cost," Sheff says, laughing.

Finding A Weathered Voice

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.

"Roky would settle into this way of doing it that I think of as this very wise, weathered voice," Sheff says. "Like a priceless antique that's been passed down, that's kind of got its texture to it."

Erickson and Okkervil River are planning to perform songs from their new album on May 24 in Austin, followed by shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. McAlester says Erickson's unlikely comeback gives the whole story a new twist.

"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 that he's pretty much the last man standing from that era who's still making relevant records," McAlester says.

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

"You know, I'm really enjoying what I do," Erickson says. "They're good songs and everything, you know?"

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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