A year after the release of ‘The Evil One’ Erickson took a downward turn, believing that a Martian had taken over his body. His lawyer, Peggy Underwood, had a fake legal contract drawn up for him to sign in public, pledging his official status as being an Alien, that way escaping the attacks he felt he was constantly under from human beings.
Despite things not looking good, Erickson made it through the next few years and got to 1986 to release ‘Don’t Slander Me’. “I’ve never seen him be so together and sober during those sessions,” Luckin tells me.
The album is another masterful accomplishment, if as largely forgotten as ‘The Evil One’, perhaps more polished, with big old nods to classic rock’n’roll and branching out into occasional balladry. Considering its timeline, it sounds remarkably free of garish production – the astonishing ‘Burn the Flames’ feels utterly timeless as does the effortless breeze of ‘Starry Eyes’, a song that sits Erickson alongside the more often celebrated Alex Chilton in his ability to adapt to seemingly any style and still produce pop-smattered, songwriting gold.
Luckin tells me of Erickson’s occasional reticence to discuss his hospital time around this period. “He did never really want to talk about that and wouldn’t, pretty much. The Rusk mental hospital stuff in the ’60s was just a terrible tragedy for him, even while he was there, and when he came out he had a burst of creativity but that must have just been a terrible place. I don’t think there are any mental health facilitates that are like that any more. It was primitive days for mental health, thinking electro shock therapy was the way to treat schizophrenia.”
Is it not a form of torture, instead of treatment?
“That’s what Roky thought about it,” says Luckin. “I think there’s some stuff on ‘Don’t Slander Me’ about that. If you listen to the lyrics there I think that’s about Rusk. He had some real horror stories from there and every once in a while he’d share tales about abusive, torturing electro shock therapy.” In fact, in ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ Erickson goes as far to refer to his time in Rusk as being “like a concentration camp”.
The same year as ‘Don’t Slander Me’, ‘Gremlins Have Pictures’ was also released. A selection of live takes ranging from 1975-82, including everything from a rousing ‘Night of the Vampire’ and a surging ‘Cold Night for Alligators’ to an improvised and unrehearsed (according to Luckin) take on the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’. The coarseness and ramshackle ambiance of the live recordings work as a sweet counter-balance to the wonderfully produced two albums, making the trio of re-releases an all-encompassing, varied and engulfing dive into the wonderful, seemingly neglected world of Roky Erikson in the 1980s.
Sadly, things deteriorated badly towards the end of that decade for the singer, just as interest was picking up again. Erickson had picked up an obsession with the mail, in which he would collect and catalogue junk mail, as well as write countless letters to people (dead or alive). He was arrested (although charges were dropped) for mail theft in 1989. In this period of decline and non-musical activity, 1990 saw the release of ‘Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye’ a tribute album to Roky, featuring R.E.M, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Julian Cope, Bongwater, Butthole Surfers and several others.
“He’d had a really bad spell around there and was back in several mental hospitals,” Luckin recalls. “I don’t know if he knew about it [the tribute album]. By the time I think he came out, I’d not seen him for a year or two and he was in really bad shape. He’d been sent to Missouri or something and that didn’t have anything to do with drugs, he’d just been by himself for so long. I never asked him what he thought of that tribute album actually, I bet he would have liked it.”
After a custody battle Erickson was taken from the care of his mother (who believed firmly in not allowing Roky any drugs, including prescription medication for his schizophrenia) into that of his brother’s (who did), and since the early-to-mid 2000s Roky has been on the up and up, playing music again and also live shows, both solo and also with the Black Angels as his backing band playing 13th Floor Elevators material. In 2008 he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Austin Music Awards and in 2010 he released his first album of new material in 14 years with Okkervil River as his session band. In 2012, at the age of 65, he toured Australia and New Zealand for the first time. Now back with his first wife Dana again it would appear that, for now, as his album title suggested, true love cast out all evil.
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