Roger Kynard "Roky" Erickson was originally the lead singer of the 13th Floor Elevators, the celebrated '60s acid-punk band that influenced everyone from fellow Texan Janis Joplin to Patti Smith, but never reached a mainstream audience with their electric jug-driven tracks like "Rollercoaster," "Reverberation" and "You're Gonna Miss Me." Led by early drug enthusiast Tommy Hall, the band barely held it together long enough to record three albums, during which time Erickson consumed enough acid (courtesy, many allege, of Hall) to kick-start a life-long battle with schizophrenia. In 1968 his mother, Eveyln, had Erickson committed to a mental institution, but he busted out with the help of Hall and escaped to San Francisco. A year later he was back in Texas with serum hepatitis and a serious heroin habit; after being placed under intense surveillance by the Austin police department (just what a raging schizophrenic needs), Roky was arrested in 1969 for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Instead of prison, his lawyer had Roky committed to the Rusk State Hospital, a hellish Texas asylum filled with the criminally insane, where Erickson received numerous rounds of electroshock treatment. He also continued to write music: Rusk's recreational director even arranged for Roky to play in a band, along with musically inclined child rapists and murderers. When he emerged from Rusk in the early '70s, Erickson was ready to start recording again, and began his career as a solo artist. Convinced that he was actually an alien — he even obtained a notarized affidavit from his lawyer confirming the fact — Roky recorded some of the most bizarre, and at times, most poignant, pop songs of the era: "Two Headed Dog," "I Walked with a Zombie," "Creature with the Atom Brain" and the heartbreaking "You Don't Love Me Yet." But continued drug use and lack of proper care insured that Roky's mental condition would worsen before he disappeared almost completely into his own private hell.
This film will come as a shock to anyone who thinks there's anything remotely cool about what happened to legendary musical madmen like Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Erickson. McAlester doesn't shy away from the physical and emotional devastation caused by Erickson's illness — his appearance alone is terribly upsetting — or Roky's brothers' attempts to free him from their domineering mother. Evelyn comes across as a damaged but fascinatingly creative woman who distrusts doctors and the medication that might help her son, and she clearly has a deep emotional investment in keeping Roky dependent upon her. But rather than engage in easy mom-bashing, McAlester takes the trouble to tell Evelyn's story, a life worn out early by five sons and a marriage to a silent, emotionally reserved alcoholic. The one criticism that could be leveled at the film will probably come from the Elevators fans who feel McAlester breezes too quickly through the band's history. But in all fairness, that's not what the movie is about. Besides, there's some terrific early footage of the Elevators wailing on American Bandstand (!) and a rare clip of Erickson reading his chilling "I Know the Hole in Baby's Head," a stunning spoken-word piece written by the artist at his maddest about the terrors of his youth, many of which can only be hinted at in this remarkable and evenhanded film. leave a comment --Ken Fox
Like Terry Zwigoff's CRUMB (1994) or the recent THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005), Keven McAlester's superb documentary about Texas singer-songwriter Roky Erickson scratches the surface of an artist's life only to find a welter of insanity, secrets and family dysfunction.