AMA #2: Roky Erickson and Okkervil River

“And if you listen to old 13th Floor Elevators stuff—Roky Erickson especially, his voice—and then go back and listen to early Led Zeppelin, you know that Robert Plant absolutely copped everything from Roky Erickson.”

-Johnny Depp, 2005, Esquire Magazine

Janis. Stevie. Willie. Austin music history is full of world-renowned first names. Several contemporary musicians (like Bob, Sahara, and Alejandro) may add their names to that list, but there is only one musician who bridges the gaps. Roky. (With all apologies to Willie, who’s still churning out great shows, but hasn’t put out a truly great album of original material in years.)

Roky Erickson has become an Austin legend without having a charting single or album since 1967 when he was the leader of the 13th Floor Elevators. Yet he’s worked with such Texas luminaries as ZZ Top, Butthole Surfers, and the Black Angels. Bands that have covered him include R.E.M., the Jesus and Mary Chain, John Wesley Harding, T-Bone Burnett, and Primal Scream. He has become a luminary in the Austin music scene, but remains a cult figure outside of it.

Part of his cult status is due, no doubt, to his troubled history. Erickson has battled schizophrenia and drug abuse (particularly LSD and peyote). He was institutionalized in the 1970s where he received electroshock therapy. In the early 1980s, he claimed that a Martian was inhabiting his body, and by the late 80s, he was an avid collector of junk mail who was arrested for mail theft (he was acquitted when he could prove that he never opened any of the mail he stole).

This is all important to know in order to understand Roky Erickson’s collaboration with Austin indie rock mainstays Okkervil River, because it is an autobiographical song cycle. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, who produced True Love Cast Out All Evil, culled these twelve tracks from songs written over the span of Erickson’s life and has arranged them roughly according to the many highs and lows contained therein. While it does help to know this in listening to the record, it is certainly not a requirement.

The album is bookended by two demo tracks recorded in the 1970s while Erickson was in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and “Devotional Number One” is a haunting track to start the album. It’s followed by the too-short lament “Ain’t Blues Too Sad” which introduces Erickson’s unique voice in its current state. The title track is a mid-album highlight that is equal parts painful and plaintive.

Full credit goes to Okkervil River for infusing the record with a sense of modernity and cohesion. These tracks were written across many years, but the arrangements help it sound like an album that belongs in 2010. And if you like latter-day efforts from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, this fits the mold and even perhaps bests some of them. If it’s the last album Erickson has in him, then consider it a fitting close to a remarkable life. But something tells me we’ll continue to see Erickson at it for a long time.

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil