In 2010 Roky Erickson released his first album in 14 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil, backed by fellow Texans Okkervil River. Below, Okkervil’s Will Sheff reflects on the iconoclast and his time spent backing him.
As the frontman of the first-ever psych rock band and the author (at age 15) of maybe the most defining psychedelic garage song, Roky Erickson casts a long shadow. At the same time, it feels to me like he remains underrated. The announcement of his death yesterday came as a shock and I found myself angry that the whole world didn’t stop to mourn. Coming up as a band in Roky’s hometown of Austin, TX, it was impossible to be unaware of him, not to feel his influence not only in all the bands but in seemingly unrelated everyday events in the city. Like with Prince in Minneapolis or with Levon Helm in Woodstock, Roky’s spirit seemed to hover over the place. At the same time, as a younger musician I didn’t realize how deep and profound a vein his music tapped into until I stumbled into producing a record for him.
How it happened was that Okkervil River were asked by a wonderful and very well-meaning writer at the Chronicle whose name was Margaret Moser if we’d be interested in backing Roky at a music awards show. She had a vision of it working somehow, and we had no idea why but of course we said yes. The show was hilariously seat-of-the-pants and entertaining and shaky and electrifying for us, and we figured it was a one-off career highlight until I was asked by his management to help put together a kind of comeback record for Roky, who hadn’t made a full album in over a decade. Again, I wasn’t sure why they were asking me and not some member of psych-rock royalty, and I was unconvinced I was the right person for the job. But they sent me the songs they wanted to draw from – a massive career-spanning trove of mostly unreleased material, concentrating on songs Roky wrote at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane where he was incarcerated for two years undergoing shock treatment for the possession of two joints – and they knocked me on my ass. I walking down the street on tour in Chicago checking out the demos and I heard “Devotional Number One” and immediately pictured it being a first song on a record and what I’d do with it, and I was in.
The rehearsal and recording process was incredibly arduous – the kind of thing you could only do in the recent past, the last days of big album recording budgets. It took about a year to make, all told. Roky hadn’t picked up his guitar in a very long time, having only recently been rescued from dire neglect by his brother. And his meds were off. Some days he was incredible and funny and kind and everything he did was musical. Other days he seemed checked out, or angry, obscured behind some kind of curtain. We worked hard to give him a supportive friend group, to help him come through what he was fighting. His son Jegar, who had recently re-entered his life, aided Roky immensely through this time and Jegar and I bonded powerfully over our shared love and concern for Roky – Jegar’s desire for him to continue his healing journey and my desire for him to have an artistic triumph. It consumed us, and it was a beautiful thing to be consumed by. And Roky felt it strongly, and he fought alongside us in his oblique way, all of us stumbling towards something we all needed.
I discovered that all the epic rock lore you hear about Roky – so many stories that he’s taken on a mythical aura – are true, as unbelievable as it sounds. The things he has survived would have annihilated anyone without a vast reserve of inner strength, and yet Roky is one of the gentlest souls you could ever encounter. His family background has the epic tragic sweep of a Tennessee Williams play, and everything in his orbit seemed enchanted and romantic and off. Crazy things happened all around Roky at all times, things you couldn’t fully explain. He occasionally seemed psychic, attuned to some dimension of the present that the rest of us weren’t seeing. And crazy people had always surrounded him, trying to either help or save him or to get close to him so they could bathe in this warm generous loving charismatic poetic light that he gave off even on his worst days and try to pretend they owned some of it.
I figured I’d talk about how the album was made and then I thought better of it. It’s a whole story and I’ll tell it some other time or place. It was intense, and so fun, and exhausting, and frequently devastating and uplifting in the same measure. I did the very best I could, and if you could fault me for anything it was for trying too hard, which has always been my curse. At the same time, Roky changed that about me. He was tapped into this wild and utterly free chaotic energy, completely open musically to anything that might happen, ready to hurl himself into greatness or incoherence. He’d be shut down for a frustratingly long stretch and then he’d improvise two or three whole verses to a song, or take a literally 15-minute guitar solo that culminated with him kicking the amp over and then apologizing with this disarming sincere sweetness he always had. The music he made was so brazen and brave and terrifying, like watching someone swan-dive into a shot glass off the UT tower. I realized that I would never have that kind of bravery, but I also coveted it. And actually I never ever made music the same way again after encountering Roky. I came into the project trying to cast myself as a benign Tommy Hall without the acid mania – the egghead who would give us all a direction and steer us towards greatness. By the end of the project I wanted to dismantle all steering wheels forever. Everything I did I wanted to be guided by faith. I wanted to tap in, in some small way, to that deep vein, whatever it was Roky kept hitting. He’s been a kind of North Star for me ever since.
Roky was larger than life and a beautiful soul and you forgave him when he struggled because he was so open about it. Absolutely everyone loved him, to the point where he once told a promoter who genuflected before him, “I’ll see you die tonight, brother!” and no one’s feelings were hurt. He was hilarious and deep and so kind. Someone told me that the first time he was able buy a car after his rehabilitation he went out and got the car with the highest safety rating so his friends riding with him would be safe (a not-very-Texas thing to do for one of the most Texas dudes you’d ever meet). “Stay safe!” was usually the last thing he’d say to you when you were leaving the studio at the end of the day, or “God bless you!” One of those things was probably the last thing he ever said to me.
There are a lot of people celebrating his life today, but what I’m feeling is harder for me to explain. Roky’s life and work are so complicated because it’s impossible to consider his triumphs independent from his obstacles. Simply put, the things that happened to him are not fair – the hand his brain dealt him that made him a genius but tortured him, the things he experienced when he was too young to process them, the way he was made a target by police, and tortured by prison staff, the people who shoveled drugs his way so they could say they got high with Roky Erickson, the people – even those closest to him – who exploited him. There’s some quote going around about how in another universe Roky would have been Jim Morrison and I like that idea. But more than that there’s some other universe where Roky could have made 12 more utterly brilliant albums, showcasing his range with folk and psychedelic gospel and metal and power pop and blue-eyed soul and country. There’s a universe where he could have been flush with cash instead of spending his last chapter touring relentlessly to pay his medical bills. There’s some universe out there where Roky could have been rewarded with all that he deserved and could have been fully happy and at peace at all times rather than having to fight for it so hard. Let’s all go there. words / will sheff
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