On the recording of Roky Erickson’s “True Love Cast Out All Evil”

December 4, 2012
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Being asked to produce Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil was the greatest honor of my career, and the work that followed was the most intense and rewarding I’ve ever done. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the liner notes of the finished record to tell Roky’s story in depth, and very early in the process we floated a lot of names of respected writers we might hit up for the job. Soon I had other things to worry about and was buried in the work of just making the record, picking the songs, sifting through the versions, changing keys up and down and then back again, mixing and re-mixing.  As I was finishing up, and with a release date looming, it was getting late to get an outside writer and everybody I was working with said I should just do the notes. In the end, the record was nominated for a Grammy…for the liner notes. It’s funny that the most afterthought-y part of the record was the part people wanted to give it an award for. But the whole experience of making that record was incredible and humbling, even life-changing. Roky’s work on True Love Cast Out All Evil was heroic – not just the performances he gave and the transformation he underwent during the recording, but the decades of work and writing and experience that led up it it. He should have gone to the Grammys himself, not that he would have wanted to in a million years.

******

True Love Cast Out All Evil, liner notes

Ten years ago, Roky Erickson’s legacy as one of rock n roll’s most tragic figures had already been written. Once regarded as a spectacularly gifted singer and one of psychedelic music’s founding fathers, Erickson had watched his career fall apart while locked in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane. He had eventually retreated to a housing project in South Austin where he kept multiple TVs and radios on at full volume to drown out the voices in his head. No one had heard from him in over a decade. His friends and fans had all given up hope. They assumed he would simply fade away.

Instead, Roky has shocked everyone with a recovery that’s nothing short of miraculous. At the age of 63, he has emerged from debilitating mental illness and self-imposed isolation. He has given up drugs and alcohol, reconnected with his son and first wife, bought his first house and made his first new album in over a decade.

True Love Cast Out All Evil introduces thirteen songs written at various points in Roky’s life but largely abandoned due to the violent twists and turns that life took. In these songs, Roky narrates his own incredible story in his own unique voice. It’s a story of agonizing pain and irretrievable loss, but it’s also a story of the optimism and hope that has allowed him to overcome. And it’s all true.

******

On an early Saturday morning in the spring of 1969, an Austin, TX patrolman named Vernon Sigler decided to tail a car that he’d seen driving down Mount Bonnell road. When the car window opened and a hand tossed a small object out the window, Sigler pulled the vehicle over. Lying in the weeds behind the car, Sigler found the object that had been thrown from the window: a single marijuana joint. In the car he found Roky Erickson, the former lead singer for a band called The 13th Floor Elevators.

To Austin music fans, The 13th Floor Elevators were legendary – commonly credited as the inventors of psychedelic rock. To the law enforcement community, though, they were notorious as counterculture celebrities who openly advocated drug use. It had been a long-held opinion in the Austin police department that if the Elevators – and especially their charismatic lead singer – were successfully convicted on drug charges, their severe punishment might serve as an example to impressionable young people. Police had been trying to catch them for years, but had been evaded or had their cases thrown out due to technicalities. More recently, though, the band’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse, and Roky had been rumored to be suffering psychological problems.  He was a walking target.

A month after his arrest, Roky was brought to trial before Austin judge Mace Thurman. He had no money to hire legal representation, so the court appointed him an attorney who – in a desperate bid to avoid his client being sent to a state prison – advised him to plead insanity. He was sent to the Austin State Hospital and diagnosed with “acute and undifferentiated” schizophrenia.  Upon his diagnosis, Judge Thurman ordered the 22-year-old to be indefinitely incarcerated at the Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane.

At Rusk, intake staff shaved Roky and cropped off his hair and took him to meet his fellow inmates, most of whom had been imprisoned for murder, assault and rape. Over the two years he spent at Rusk, Roky was repeatedly subjected to shock treatment and kept sedated with heavy doses of Thorazine. His days were spent mopping the prison hallways and doing fieldwork supervised by guards on horseback. Before long, he decided to block out all memory of his past career as a musician. As he said in a later interview:

I would just forget. I would say, ‘Roky, you’re in here forever, you might as well not remember any kind of success you’ve had or anything. You’re a talented rock and roll singer? Forget it!…Just forget it, man, because you don’t have a chance.’

******

Roky Erickson was born in 1947, to Roger Erickson and Evelyn Kynard. They dubbed him “Roky” after the first two letters in their first and last names. Though his father was emotionally distant, Roky was the favorite of his mother Evelyn, a gifted singer who had once auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s TV talent show and who enrolled her son in music and acting lessons at age four.

Roky as the Mad Hatter, 1958

Roky grew up in a household filled with opera and the sacred music his devoutly religious mother listened to; when rock and roll first hit the airwaves of his hometown of Austin, TX, it opened a door into another world. Inspired by the raunchy swagger of Bo Diddley, the sweet love songs of fellow Texan Buddy Holly, and, most of all, the unhinged scream of Little Richard (Roky’s favorite singer to this day), the teenage Roky sat at the family piano, obsessively bashing out whatever chords and melodies he could pick up off the radio. Alone in his room, Roky applied the classical vocal-projection techniques he’d learned from Evelyn’s lessons to reproduce Little Richard’s signature scream. His doting mother, impressed, bought him an electric guitar and an amp.

Roky was only fifteen when he wrote the tune that would become his lifelong signature, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a snotty kiss-off of a song, set to a nasty guitar riff that anticipated punk rock by over a decade. Armed with “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and another song he’d written called “We Sell Soul,” Roky started putting bands together with friends from his South Austin neighborhood. First came the Roulettes, who wore band uniforms of red-and-black to match their name. After the Roulettes came The Missing Links, and, after them, The Spades.

In 10th grade, administrators at Austin’s Travis high school told Roky they thought his hair was too long and asked him to cut it. He responded by dropping out of school. The Spades had become a modestly successful Austin band by this point, touring central Texas doing a set of Buddy Holly and Kinks covers interspersed with originals like “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which had garnered some airplay from an Austin radio station.

One night the Spades were running through their usual set at an Austin dive called The Jade Room when a group of older kids walked in, their scruffy beards and long hair immediately setting them apart from the straighter styles adopted by most young people in Texas in 1965. Egged on by the oldest in the group – a cerebral and charismatic University of Texas philosophy student named Tommy Hall – everybody in the party had taken a little-known and then-legal drug called LSD. After the set, the strangers walked up to Roky and introduced themselves as a band called The Lingsmen. They invited Roky back to the house shared by Hall and his wife Clementine, where everybody got stoned and jammed until the cops showed up.

Before long, Roky had ditched The Spades and started a new band with his new friends. Over Tommy and Clementine Hall’s kitchen table, they chose a band name: The 13th Floor Elevators. To advertise their services, Hall printed up business cards that coined a new phrase no one had heard before: “Psychedelic Rock.”

A self-styled spiritual guru who is often described as the “svengali” of the band, Hall believed that, beyond monetary or commercial success, the Elevators’ central mission should be to instruct their listeners in attaining higher consciousness through psychedelic drugs. He insisted that the members drop acid before every show, and (aside from drummer John Ike Walton who renounced the drug after a bad trip) they all obeyed. Roky, an impressionable eighteen-year-old, immediately fell under Hall’s sway, ingesting whatever he handed to him.  The two started writing songs together, Hall overlaying Roky’s garagey chord progressions and winsome melodies with lyrics about Eastern religion, Gnostic Christianity, and the benefits of acid, marijuana and DMT.

In January 1966, the Elevators all dropped acid (except for Walton) and went into a Houston studio to cut their first song, a remake of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” The strange resulting single – kicking off with a bloodcurdling scream from Roky followed by the bizarre sounds of non-musician Hall huffing into a giant clay jug in emulation of old string and jug bands of the 1930s – became a major regional hit. Its success attracted the attention of a shoestring Houston label ostentatiously calling themselves “International Artists,” and A&R Man Lelan Rogers – the brother of Kenny Rogers – decided to release it throughout the United States.

In an era in which small independent releases could still make it onto national commercial radio, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” became a surprise hit in San Francisco, Miami, and Detroit. By the end of the year, it had landed on the national Billboard charts. Elevators shows began to draw adoring crowds, and Roky became a local celebrity. He was forcibly pulled offstage by a group of female fans at one show; after another, he went back to his apartment to find a naked girl waiting for him in his bed. In less than a year, The 13th Floor Elevators had gone from unknowns to the band everyone was talking about.

1967 (Photo by Bob Snider)

But the attention wasn’t always positive, and the Elevators hadn’t been famous in Austin long before the authorities noticed them too. In early 1966, just a couple days after a release party for “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” an Austin police lieutenant placed three Vice Squad officers on surveillance detail for the band and, a couple weeks later, police brought a search warrant to Tommy and Clementine Hall’s house, where they found two pounds of marijuana and the 13th Floor Elevators high on mescaline.

When the band members were brought to trial, most of the charges against them ended up being dropped due to technicalities with the warrant. The Elevators walked, and Roky got away because of further technicalities. All Judge Mace Thurman could do was put Tommy Hall and guitarist Stacy Sutherland on a probation that prohibited them from entering Texas bars or rock clubs and stipulated that their employment had to be “suitable” and “subject to the approval of the court.” Effectively legally barred from playing music in the state of Texas – and now tailed by undercover police everywhere they went – the band decided to light out for California.

In San Francisco, they fell in with their old college friend Janis Joplin, who had been enjoying local success in her band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Joplin introduced them to the Grateful Dead. It was looking like The 13th Floor Elevators’ success would only keep growing. With “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” still on the Billboard charts, International Artists was able to secure them some prominent gigs and small tours around California and the Southwest, along with two appearances on Dick Clark’s TV shows Where The Action Is and American Bandstand. The touring lifestyle proved hard on the band, though – Tommy Hall’s insistence that they take LSD before every show led to weeks straight where almost every member was cooped up in a van or cheap motel or a dingy backstage dressing room, engulfed in a perpetual acid trip.

Near the end of the year, International Artists released their debut album. Unbeknownst to the Elevators, though, the nervous and penny-pinching label had remixed all the songs and then mastered and pressed the record as cheaply as possible. Inexperienced with large-scale distribution of an album – and fearful of bad press linked to the Elevators’ Texas drug bust – International Artists took out no ads for the record, set up no interviews for the band, and did nothing to promote The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.  Now recognized as a defining album of the psychedelic genre, the record flopped shortly after its release in November 1966.

******

The Elevators retreated to Texas. There were no more national TV appearances, no more shows at the Fillmore or the Avalon Ballroom. They released two more records – including their masterpiece Easter Everywhere – but by the end of 1968 everything had fallen apart. John Ike Walton quit the band in frustration over International Artists’ alternately inept and exploitative business practices (Roky’s suggestion for a replacement bassist – his roommate Townes Van Zandt – was turned down summarily by Tommy Hall). Bassist Ronnie Leatherman was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Hall split with his wife Clementine and took up with a fifteen-year-old named Gay Jones. Disconnected from the group, he spent most of his time holding court in his Houston apartment, lecturing on spiritual matters to an audience of teenage pupils who sat at his feet, attended by a monkey he kept dosed on LSD.  Feeling isolated from his bandmates, their talented and underappreciated lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland had moved from LSD to speed before eventually becoming addicted to heroin.

In three years, Roky’s band had gone from being an overnight success to a stalled-out commercial failure. To young and hip Austinites, though, Roky Erickson was still a psychedelic icon, having notoriously dropped acid an estimated 300 times. Everyone that Roky met wanted to give him drugs so they could tell their friends about the experience. By mid-1967 he had begun behaving erratically. Acquaintances from that time remember a paranoid Roky wearing a bandage on his forehead to cover up unwanted broadcasts to his “third eye.” He began to go missing at Elevators gigs, and the band’s draw dwindled as fans started wondering if Roky would even show up.  Finally, desperate for some kind of consistency, International Artists hired a Roky impersonator and put together a fake version of The 13th Floor Elevators to play at local clubs.

In the summer of 1968, the real 13th Floor Elevators secured a lucrative gig at a club called Love Street, right across the street from the San Antonio world’s fair exhibition, with plans to play the fair afterwards.  When the rest of the Elevators walked onstage to start the set, Roky refused to follow them. The band decided to play without him in hopes that he would join in, but Roky disappeared. He was last seen climbing into a hearse, which disappeared into the night.

A couple weeks later, Roky’s mother found him standing in her backyard in the early hours of the morning, “talking gibberish.” She checked him in for two weeks of psychiatric evaluation. When the two weeks were up, Evelyn Erickson claims the doctor pronounced Roky “a vegetable,” so she took him to a second doctor, known around town as “Crazy Harry” Hermon, who was notorious for prescribing LSD to his patients.

A month later, International Artists committed Roky to the Hedgecroft Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Houston, where he was locked in his room, heavily drugged, and subjected to electroconvulsive shock treatment. On July 21st, 1968, Tommy Hall broke into Hedgecroft, snuck Roky out, and the two went into hiding.

The last remaining original member of the 13th Floor Elevators, Stacy Sutherland soldiered on, recording their last record Bull of the Woods mostly by himself. Like the Elevators records before it, Bull of the Woods was a commercial failure. Aside from a few abortive attempts to put the band back together with all-new members, Sutherland tried to move on, but had multiple run-ins with the authorities and spent most of the 1970s in and out of jail and prison. In 1978, he was shot to death by his wife during a domestic dispute.

After laying low with Roky in Houston, Tommy Hall decided to return to San Francisco. Once there, he left Roky with his ex-wife and moved around California, sleeping on floors and – for awhile – in a cave on Laguna Beach, selling drugs before becoming a street-cleaner and a janitor for an Oakland kindergarten. Dana Morris -Roky’s girlfriend on and off for some time, who first him at the Jade Room show where Roky met the Elevators – traveled up to San Francisco, and he two moved in together. Eventually, though, Roky’s mental condition deteriorated further. When he began telling people that Russian transmissions he was picking up through his teeth were ordering him to kill Jacqueline Kennedy, some of his friends decided to bring him home to his family. On the drive home, they gave him acid.  When he started insisting that his body had been possessed by demons, some other friends gave him heroin. They delivered him to his mother in an “incoherent” state, where she bathed him with Tide and ammoniated mercury.

Two months later, Vernon Sigler pulled Roky over on Mt. Bonnell road and arrested him for possession of one joint.

******

I was talking with Roky about being in prison at Rusk one afternoon while making this record. We had been recording “Please, Judge,” and were taking a break between takes of the vocal. During the vocal takes, Roky would close his eyes or look down at the carpet. His body would go tense, and sometimes he’d hold his arms down extended at his sides and stretch all his fingers out as if some kind of electricity was shooting from his fingertips into the floor. During one part of the song, he balled his right hand into a tight, white-knuckled fist and, over the course of a couple minutes, very slowly raised it defiantly from his side up into the air next to the microphone.  His voice, cracking with emotion, was almost distressing to listen to.  When the take was over, it was like a storm had instantly passed. Roky’s face brightened. He looked at me with a cheery expression on his face and said, “How’s that?”

During the break, we listened to the Rolling Stones album Aftermath and Roky sang along happily to the song “Doncha Bother Me.”  Our conversation turned to Rusk, and I asked Roky – who has no problem discussing that part of his life – if anybody he’d met at Rusk especially stood out in his mind. He casually mentioed a friend of his named John, a musician who had “played the bones.” I later found out that the “John” Roky had mentioned was a man named John Walcott, who had been imprisoned at Rusk for murdering his sister and both his parents while high on glue.

As his time locked in Rusk crawled by, Roky’s natural optimism slowly returned. Gradually, he became determined to win the staff over by demonstrating his good behavior and his religious convictions. He spent much of his free time in the prison chapel and through diligent study received his minister’s card and became a reverend. As his reputation improved with the prison staff, some of them learned he was a musician and he was given a beaten-up acoustic guitar. He began writing again, introspective spiritual poems that doubled as songs. It was at Rusk that Roky wrote many of the songs on this record, including the title track, along with “Be and Bring Me Home,” “Please, Judge,” “Devotional Number One,” “Forever,” “Birds’d Crash,” and “God Is Everywhere.” In his cell at night, Roky would stay awake writing after everyone had gone to bed. He wrote a poem for his friend John Walcott called “To Jimmy.” It begins with the line “Let me be the bearer of preventing bad places.”

Roky at Rusk, recording with the help of a friend imprisoned for matricide.

Eventually, Roky put together a band in Rusk, with John Walcott playing rhythm guitar. They were accompanied by a bassist who had stabbed a policeman’s daughter to death with a screwdriver before throwing her two infant children off a bridge, a drummer who had killed the impound clerk who towed his car, and a deaf tambourine player who had participated in the rape and murder of a twelve-year old boy and then hidden his body in a refrigerator.  Taking a page from his high-school music experiences, Roky named the band The Missing Links. I’ve heard a recording of them, made by Roky’s brother Mikel on visiting day. The band runs through a set of mostly Stones covers because Roky was reportedly uncomfortable with having their energy get in the songs he’d been writing at the time, songs which are often fixated on Christ and redemption.

Eventually, the authorities at Rusk allowed Roky’s mother to come in and record some of Roky’s newmaterial on a reel-to-reel machine.  I believe that this is where “Devotional Number One” was recorded, and I think that’s probably one of the Missing Links on background guitar.

******

Roky and Dana

On November 27, 1972, a trial was held in Austin, concluding with the jury pronouncing that Roky Erickson “at the present time is sane.” Roky was released into the custody of his mother, who was dismayed when he left home again and moved in with his longtime girlfriend Dana. In 1974, they married; their son Jegar was born two years later.

After a half-hearted attempt to reunite the Elevators, Roky, embarked on a solo career. His songwriting had entered a new phase, leaving behind the garage-psych of the Elevators in favor of a theatrical and musically hard-edged style he called “horror-rock.” In horror-rock songs like “Creature with the Atom Brain” and “I Walked with a Zombie,” Roky addressed his traumatic experiences in prison and his struggles with mental illness in a veiled way, using metaphors borrowed from the comforting, shlocky B movies he’d adored as a kid. He began going through drafts of his old lyrics and crossing out any reference to “God” or “Jesus,” replacing them with “Satan” and “Lucifer,” and he hired a lawyer to draw up a legal declaration addressed “to the person who is putting electric shocks to my head,” testifying that he was “NOT a member of the human race and in fact from a planet other than earth.”

Most of Roky’s new horror-rock material didn’t make it into a proper studio until the later part of the decade, during the florescence of punk rock. The year in which Elevators fan Patti Smith released her debut Horses while Television was regularly covering the Elevators’ “Fire Engine” saw the release of the Roky Erickson EP Sponge,followed by the singles for “Bermuda” and “The Interpreter.” Not long after that came the first Roky Erickson full-length solo record, produced by Stu Cook, bassist for Creedence Clearwater Revival.

******

I was curious about other peoples’ experiences producing Roky’s records in the past, so I went online one day during the basic-tracking for True Love Cast Out All Evil and found an interview with Stu Cook where he talks about recording Roky:

I developed a plan where I just had to strike when the poker was hot, at all times.  Had to have everything ready to go for him, and when he got tired of doing one song, I’d have to immediately move on to another song.  I’d have to have an assembly line to set up to maximize the amount of time that I had with him…. Every time he’d sing a song, he’d sing it differently–different lyrics.  He had an idea of what he wanted to do, but because of his condition, he was not able to repeat himself.

I was shocked at how much that interview – referring to a session that had happened over two decades before – meshed with my experience of recording Roky. In the moment of performing a song, Roky is completely engaged. His performances are immediate and energetic, as he gives himself over to the emotion of the song. Once the music stops, though, the moment for the song has passed, and he’s not interested in trying it again. As a result, the band’s approach with basic-tracking was to set all the mics and amps up, keep them on, and learn every song on the fly, switching back and forth from song to song like a live set rather than trying one song repeatedly until we got it right. Between takes, the engineers in the control room would have to scramble frantically, trying to shuttle between takes of totally different tracks.

Roky’s classic “The Evil One,” 1981.

Later in the same interview, Cook talks about the medication Roky was on at the time, an antipsychotic called fluphenazine.  Commonly observed side-effects of fluphenazine include tremors and jitters – as Cook says, “He doesn’t like taking the medication, because it gives him the shakes, he wobbles when he talks.”

By the mid-80s, Roky’s use of fluphenazine had left him with such a violent shaking condition that he couldn’t walk without wobbling, so he decided to stop taking it. In 1986, overwhelmed by the considerable demands his mental state imposed on the family, Dana left Roky. Unmedicated, Roky’s mental condition worsened. He started spending most of his time at his childhood home with his mother. Evelyn had always lavished Roky with attention and had held onto him as the baby of the family, and she was overjoyed to have him back. On religious grounds, she forbade Roky to go back on any medication.

By 1988, Roky had given up on playing music. Destitute, he moved into government housing, first in Del Valle TX and then into a housing project on Tahoe Trail. He received few visitors aside from Evelyn.  Unwashed, his hair clumped into a dirty mass on the back of his head. His teeth fell out, and he developed a life-threatening dental abscess that Evelyn refused to allow him to treat. Completely unmedicated, he had several radios and televisions in the house – as well as a radio-channel scanner and a Casio keyboard – and would keep them all turned on at full volume simultaneously to drown out the voices in his head. His old Elevators bandmate John Ike Walton went on a rare visit and reported:

He was listening to all these TVs and radios that were all tuned to different stations. It was madness. I don’t know how he could stand it, and we cut out, and he had a bunch of radio sets and televisions going, and we could hardly talk…it was disturbing for me to be there.

Roky developed an obsession with his neighbors’ mail and began taking it from their mailboxes and taping it, unopened, to his wall. Eventually, one of his neighbors complained and he was arrested again. Roky’s son Jegar once described to me going in to look at Roky’s apartment around the time he was being moved out: “Every wall was completely covered in mail except for one wall that just had one single envelope right in the middle of it that said, ‘Roky Erickson, you could have won 10 million dollars.’”

******

Jegar Erickson’s father had drifted out of his life while he was still a child, and he grew up knowing Roky mainly by reputation and through the Austin lore which painted his father as a cartoon caricature of the damaged, reclusive artist. He had given up hope of ever knowing the real Roky until, in May 2001, he was contacted by Roky’s youngest brother Sumner Erickson. Sumner told Jegar that he believed the conditions in which Roky was living – including the abscess in his mouth – gave him cause enough to challenge his mother’s legal guardianship. Together, Jegar and Sumner brought the police to the Roky’s apartment, and in the subsequent trial the judge granted Sumner custody of his brother. Sumner took Roky to live with him in Pittsburgh, with Jegar flying up to take over whenever Sumner – a tuba player for the Pittsburgh symphony orchestra – had to go on tour. Roky was finally given the prescription drugs he had been denied for years and underwent intensive physical and psychological therapy. Longtime fan Henry Rollins paid for Roky’s dental surgery and a new set of dentures.

Very gradually, Roky began to reconnect with the outside world. He started playing music again, and enjoyed being around friends and family for the first time in years. In February 2007 Sumner resigned his legal guardianship of Roky and the Texas court fully restored his rights. One day, Jegar got a message on his answering machine. It was Roky, and he wanted to know Dana’s phone number so he could ask her out on a date.

A couple of weeks later, Roky began showing up every day at the coffee shop where Jegar worked, staying long hours and talking to Jegar at length, catching up on the life of the adult son he’d barely known. It was during one of these visits that Jegar, for the first time in his life, heard his father say “I love you.”

Shortly afterwards, Roky secured slots at the SXSW and Austin City Limits festival, and engagements there led to an appearance at Southern California’s famous Coachella festival and then to a European tour. He bought his first car (a Volvo, which he said he chose because it has the most seatbelts and he wants his friends to be safe) and, after that, he bought his first house.

Today, Roky and Dana live together in his house in South Austin. The walls are hung with old Elevators posters and horror-movie-themed art, lenticular drawings where a sweet old grandmother turns into a screaming zombie when you walk past the picture – and then transforms back into a sweet old grandmother again. Roky spends hours a day reading, and his coffee tables are piled with books he’s bought or that have been mailed to him by fans. When he goes on tour, Dana comes along with him, and Jegar is his tour manager.

******

Ever since I moved to Austin to start Okkervil River in 1998, I’ve found it impossible to ignore or escape the shadow Roky has cast over the music scene.  Austin’s odd but harmonious blend of college town intellectualism, drug culture, hippie good vibes, and redneck individualism is part of what’s made it a world capitol of psychedelia for decades, and to many Austinites Roky is a kind of patron saint. I always felt similarly, of course, and watched Roky’s recovery from the sidelines with the same sense of surprise and joy that the whole town felt. I never had any idea, though, that I’d one day get to work with him.

Recording “True Love Cast Out All Evil” in 2009.

In 2008, a writer for the Austin Chronicle thought it would be fun to put Roky and Okkervil River together to play a short set at the Austin Music Awards. I agreed, and everyone had a great time at the show, but I was surprised several weeks later to get a call from Roky’s manager asking if I wanted to produce a brand-new Roky Erickson album. When I said yes, he mailed me three CDs containing sixty songs written by Roky over the course of his career, from unreleased Elevators material to songs recorded on an old reel-to-reel at Rusk, from cassettes made at Roky’s mother’s house to rough mixes of stalled studio sessions with his 1980s band the Aliens.  Some of this material had been released by small indie labels and still more of it had been leaked on unapproved bootlegs, but almost none of the songs had been given a studio treatment followed by a proper wide release.  I felt incredibly lucky that both Roky and his manager Darren trusted me enough to pick my favorites independently of anyone’s suggestions and I obsessively listened to each song over and over again, trying to choose the very best ones to re-record.  I finally settled on the songs you hear on this album, but ever since I’ve had moments where I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “I should have done ‘@2 Gone and Number!’ Why didn’t we tackle ‘Can’t Be Brought Down?’” I suppose that a cynical part of me had expected the songs I was given to be sub-par in some way, as if they weren’t released for a reason. Instead, I was given a history of Roky’s whole life, rendered in performances and recordings that documented the very situations Roky was singing about. He’d be at Rusk singing about being in prison, or shut up in his lonely room singing about being shut up in his lonely room, or outside and surrounded by a chorus of songbirds and telling the tape recorder that “God is everywhere, everywhere for we, everywhere as all positivity.”

I tried to put that powerful sense of being there, of sitting next to Roky in those lost moments, onto this record.  I kept the versions of “Devotional Number One,” “God Is Everywhere,” and the radio version “I’ve Never Known this ‘Til Now” as original recordings, snapshots of Roky at different times in his life. I was lucky enough to be lent home videos including footage from Roky’s childhood home, from Roky’s apartment at the Del Valle public housing project, and from a dramatic recitation Roky did at an abandoned Texas Mental Health Center, and I incorporated sounds from these videos into the recordings. The cicadas at the start of the title track are from Roky’s backyard. The guitar feedback in “Please Judge” was played by Roky during a show at the Soap Creek Saloon in the early 1980s. The TVs are from Del Valle.

Most of all, as a producer I was incredibly lucky to have a true, born rock and roll singer in front of the microphone. Roky’s investment in the material, his creativity with the performances, and his guiding energy throughout this project were inspirational. This album is a testament to his musicianship, his heart, and his enduring artistry. But it would not have been possible without Jegar’s help, or Dana’s, or Roky’s archivist Casey Monahan, or his close friend Troy Campbell, or any of the many people who were drawn to Roky’s warmth, talent, and spark. Which means that this album is also a testament to love.

I’m a cynical person, and I generally don’t believe stories about miracles. However, having personally seen what’s happened in Roky’s life, I feel surprised to hear myself vouching that his recovery is real, that nothing in here is made up, and that being inside that story, being a footnote to that story, makes someone like me feel humbled and small, which is a good way to feel. Roky is both the most cursed and the most blessed person I’ve ever met. He’s suffered unimaginably and he’s lost some things that he will never get back. The fact that those things are lost forever is what makes the story so sad, and what makes you know the story is real. But equally real are the facts that Roky’s back with us, that he’s happy, that he’s funny, that he’s kind, that he’s excited about life, that he’s creative, and that, at 63 years old, he’s just made his first record in 15 years. And all of those facts make me stupidly and uncynically and purely happy. And I’m so proud that I could be there to see and hear it.

 

 

Posted in: Published Pieces | Tags:

5 Comments |

5 Responses to “On the recording of Roky Erickson’s “True Love Cast Out All Evil””

  1. Megan

    Hey Will. Thank you for posting the liner notes for Roky’s record. I had downloaded it when it was released a couple years ago, but didn’t have the actual record and so could not read the story of how the record actually came to be. Also, I knew that you had been nominated for a Grammy (which was SO OUTSTANDING!) for your work producing Roky’s album, but I had no idea the depth of the relationship and understanding that you had cultivated with such a legend as Roky Erikson. WoW! What a story! What a life!!! I am shaken, bewildered, saddened, delighted, and completely inspired by the journey that Roky has taken in this life. You know, similar to your reported cynicism, I can really get down on things – petty, stupid, ridiculous things. His story really puts things in perspective…and makes me understand and love his music even more. You, my dear, have a way with words! You revealed his history with the diligence of a ethnographer, but with the sensitivity of a most cherished friend and confidant. so again, thank you for posting this! It was wonderful to read. I am inspired to keep moving forward on the things that I wish for – and nothings gonna stop me either! Namaste – MS

    • Erin Custer

      As someone who has recently stumbled joyfully onto all things Roky Erickson I read the liner notes and cried. As someone who also came out of the darkness of mental illness, his story resonates so strongly with me. I believe Roky’s story IS a miracle and I look forward to seeing that miracle live and in person so I may experience the amazing was that happens when he plays music and to shake his hand and say “thank you”. All he suffered through was not in vain. We love you Roky!!! And I love love LOVE Okkervil River!!! Thank you for your amazing music and production and words Will. You’re awesome!

  2. robin

    this is fantastic. as with a lot of okk-riv related music this record was an introduction to roky for me. ended up trawling through to his Aliens records and his cover of Heroin. brilliant. thanks!

Leave a Reply