Psych pioneer completes unlikely comeback with new music and national tour

Roky Erickson, who performs at the Hi-Tone.Credit: Todd Wolfson

Roky Erickson, who performs at the Hi-Tone.Credit: Todd Wolfson

Since the 2007 documentary film "You're Gonna Miss Me," Roky Erickson has purchased a home of his own.

Since the 2007 documentary film "You're Gonna Miss Me," Roky Erickson has purchased a home of his own.

Roky Erickson is going to perform for the first time in Memphis at the Hi-Tone.

Photo by Mike Cerrano

Roky Erickson is going to perform for the first time in Memphis at the Hi-Tone.

Roky Erickson, Nude Beach

Doors open at 9 p.m. Friday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Tickets: $20, available at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.

When Roky Erickson steps on the stage of Midtown's Hi-Tone Café on Friday night, fans in attendance will witness one of the more remarkable resurrection stories in rock and roll.

Leader of one of the world's first psychedelic rock groups, Austin's 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson's career was cut short in the late-'60s. Arrested in 1969 for possession of a single joint, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to the draconian Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Subsequently diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he began what would become a lifelong battle with mental illness.

In the '70s, Erickson reemerged a changed man, and a damaged soul. His solo work during the era — obsessed with demons and aliens — was a brilliant and disturbing reflection of his state of mind. Despite the efforts of his many fans and friends, by the late '80s it appeared Erickson was completely lost to the world and to himself.

In the past five years, however, Erickson's life and career have turned around. He's been the subject of an award-winning documentary, a-full scale biography, and an exhaustive box set. More important, he's recovered after decades of mental issues and financial problems.

Now, Erickson is healthy and happy on his most ambitious tour ever. The three-week, 14-date excursion will bring him to Memphis — among many other cities — for the first time in his career.

A graying Buddha-like presence, the 65-year-old signer and guitarist is a man of few words, on stage and off. But his personal story was vividly documented in director Keven McAlester's 2007 film "You're Gonna Miss Me." The mesmerizing, sometimes painful documentary — which was five years in the making — chronicled Erickson, his eccentric family, and the struggles to keep him sane and stable. At the time, it seemed like a battle that would be lost. Music was the furthest thing from Erickson's mind. As McAlester would note, "The idea that he could perform again in public and get into a studio and record again -- I would've said it was impossible."

Since the film was released, however, Erickson's life has undergone dramatic and welcome changes.

In 2010, he recorded his first new album in 14 years. The critically acclaimed True Love Cast Out All Evil — released on hip Los Angeles label Anti- — found the singer backed by Texas combo Okkervil River on a set of wistful, skewed folk songs that Erickson had written during his wilderness years.

Erickson's personal life has also provided a source of healing: he's reunited with his ex-wife Dana and his son Jegar, who is now part of his father's touring band. "Where the film left off, he was still living in Section 8 housing," says Erickson's manager Darren Hill, who's helped guide his comeback. "Last year, Roky was able to buy a house in Austin. He paid cash, and bought it outright. He's come a long way in every respect."

Recent years have also seen a full-scale reappraisal of Erickson's work, particularly with the 13th Floor Elevators. British author Paul Drummond's biography of the band, "Eye Mind," made a compelling case for the group as one of the most influential outfits in rock and roll. Drummond also spent years helping compile and produce a massive 10-disc Elevators box set.

"Paul really scoured the Earth for unreleased recordings and live recordings," Hill says. "It's the definitive Elevators release. I don't think there's anything else out there." The box set — released in a limited 5,000-edition run in 2009 — quickly sold out.

Drummond and Hill have discussed giving the same exhaustive reissue treatment to Erickson's solo work — though that may prove more challenging as the rights to his post-Elevators catalog are "all over the place."

More likely, the next effort from Erickson will be another new studio album. The project will once again pair Erickson with younger musicians. "We're talking to different artists about backing Roky on various tracks," says Hill, who adds that he expects the album to have a "more rock/psych slant to it." The proposed follow-up to True Love would likely be in stores by late 2013.

The new disc will once again mine a batch of nearly 60 unrecorded songs Erickson wrote during his decades out of the spotlight. Though he hasn't written any new songs lately, Hill adds that he does play keyboards everyday and is composing what might be described as instrumental suites. "What I've heard is really interesting stuff," says Hill. "They're not fleshed-out songs, per se. I don't if we'll ever get to that point. But, who knows?"

Given the peculiar arc of Erickson's life so far, it's a good bet that further surprises may still await.

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