All Roky Erickson Needs Is Love
It's Record Store Day, and Roky Erickson has just finished signing autographs at Waterloo Records in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Now, he's treating himself to ice cream—rocky road!—as his partner, Dana Morris, shows him a book of bumper-sticker photos she just bought. One is written upside-down. "If you can read this," Erickson begins, reciting it word for word, "then you are crazy as a nut."
That's not how the bumper sticker ends—it says something about rolling your SUV—but perhaps this is Erickson's way of acknowledging what he is not. Namely, crazy as a nut.
Most crazy people don't come back from the insane asylum, electroshock treatment, illicit drug use, and alien encounters that have besieged Erickson these past 40 years, as is startlingly conveyed in the 2005 documentary You're Gonna Miss Me. And they certainly don't record a triumphant comeback album at 62, as he has now done with True Love Cast Out All Evil, a glorious new collection of autobiographical numbers culled from his old songbooks and meticulously recast by Will Sheff and his Austin rock band, Okkervil River.
"When I heard the songs," Sheff explains, "there were 60 to choose from, and there are songs like 'Please, Judge' [a broken-down piano ballad with a chorus of cicadas, written by Erickson while at Rusk State Hospital following a drug bust in '69] and 'Be and Bring Me Home' [another incarceration song, with redemptive effects fit for an Irish pub following a wake] . . . I just really fell in love with the songs. I knew that as long as I didn't screw it up, the songs would speak for themselves."
True Love is truly symphonic, with tranquil touches and a rise-and-fall-and-rise completeness. It's a much different feel from when Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators beat the Grateful Dead to psychedelia with 10-plus-minute, peyote-laced jams, later inventing horror rock (heavy metal, really) with songs like "Two Headed Dog" and "Bloody Hammer." True Love is the at-peace Erickson, his voice front and center, shedding his various myths. (Have you heard the one about the time he levitated?)
Sheff asks Erickson to name his favorite song on the album. "Well, the one you like," Erickson replies. "I like 'Fore' [as in "Forever," a dreamy Roy Orbison–inspired song about "the pleasure of knowing one's own name"]. And I like 'I Am'—'I Am Satan's All-Purpose Love,' or something like that."
"Wait, which song is that?" Sheff asks.
"I am," Erickson starts singing softly, "dum, dum, I am Satan's all-purpose love." He then quotes the Greek-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff: "Life is only real, then, when I am."
Erickson drank a lot of vinegar and honey to preserve his voice for these songs, a trick he learned from his mom, a classically trained singer. Sheff also helped him prepare by playing him old r&b music before each session. Indeed, the Okkervil River gang helped him focus. "Sometimes, you just have to make sure that you have guidance," Erickson says. "Because some things can really be, I guess, annoying to people, and so I try to always just have faith that I'm doing the right thing and have patience. If you do it, do it right."
I ask Erickson what love means to him, in reference to True Love's title track, a song he says his mom asked him to write, and whose titular refrain he sings with Elvis-like bravado.
"Well, I like that song by the Beatles," he replies, attempting to sing it: "All you need is . . . help . . . somebody to help you write a song."
"Do you think love is a really important thing to have in your life?" Sheff asks.
"Love is a good thing, yeah." Just then, a little boy comes over, says hi, and grabs Erickson's doughy hand, as if to shake it. Erickson obliges and says, "OK, thank you."
Roky Erickson and Okkervil River play Webster Hall May 25
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