The first time Roky Erickson performed in San Francisco was in the summer of 1966, fronting his Austin, Texas, band the 13th Floor Elevators, whose garage rock classic "You're Gonna Miss Me" was rising up the national charts. Sharing the bill at the Fillmore with Grace Slick's first band, the Great Society, Erickson sang of psychedelic reverberations and reincarnations in both sagely reassuring croons and blood-curdling yelps. The Elevators' name shows up on Fillmore-Avalon posters so often that even today they're still thought of as an honorary San Francisco psychedelic band of sorts.
The last time Roky performed in the city was in the early 1980s, and he was singing of two-headed dogs and aliens from the most tawdry of B-grade horror films. Times had changed, yes, but Erickson had changed more, irreversibly fried by a three-year stint in a maximum-security Texas state hospital after he was declared insane in 1969. The one thing undeniably the same was that one-of-a-kind voice, crushing Little Richard, James Brown, and Buddy Holly through the blender of a particularly Texan brand of acid-baked dementia.
Performers from GWAR to Marilyn Manson have made a lucrative career by fashioning an act from gothic horror. Erickson, to all appearances, has actually lived it, and if his record sales have been tiny in comparison to those of others, the fervor of his cult following is second to few. "Roky's aesthetic rings true with younger music-media fans," says Billy Angel, who played autoharp as part of Erickson's backup band the Aliens when Erickson reemerged in the late 1970s. "He brought to vision many years ago the now-contemporary experience of rock music coming through the sound system while film noir beams from the video screen."
Erickson's first San Francisco appearance in about 25 years as part of Noise Pop on March 1 comes at a time when most fans had given up hope of seeing him onstage. Withdrawing from music entirely for about a decade, he began performing again in late 2005 after a bitter fight for his custody between his mother and his brother Sumner the latter also a renowned musician but quite a different one: a tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. You couldn't make it up, but we know it's true because the whole battle was caught on film, in the mesmerizing and disturbing documentary You're Gonna Miss Me (screening at the Roxie Film Center on Feb. 28).
As his family feuds over what's best for its prodigal son and praise pours in from such interviewees as Patti Smith, Erickson wanders through the film like a ghostly observer. Apparently neither gratified nor agitated by the attention of either fanatical fans or would-be caretakers, he's more interested in adjusting his army of televisions and stereos to just the right impossibly painful, cacophonous loudness. As much as most everyone on camera gushes over his genius and tragedy, what Erickson thinks about his cult and incapacitation remains a mystery.
There's just one scene in the 90-minute film in which he seems at ease and makes one suspect his upcoming show might not be the psychodrama we fear. A therapist asks him to play a song; Erickson starts to strum an acoustic guitar and sing with folky, gentle tenderness, his vocal chops fully intact. Suddenly, he doesn't seem like a nearly inert burnout fawned and fought over like a familial football. Music courses through his system his thoughts and voice are clear and calm. It might be the only psychic skin he has left, but he wears it well. *
YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME