I have to wonder if someone’s going to make this movie about DMX in twenty years
I skipped The Devil and Daniel Johnston, mostly because the persistent interest surrounding Johnston always struck me as being sort of vampiric, more about the spectacle of an unstable innocent holy fool who can’t keep his shit together than it is about the music that that holy fool makes, which generally sounds thin and uncommitted, not childlike and beatific, to me. But I did make time for Roky Erickson’s similarly themed bio-doc, party because someone sent me the DVD for free and partly because I’ve never heard an Erickson song I don’t like. The one Erickson song I really know is the same one nearly everyone else really knows, the one which got him on American Bandstand and which gave this movie its title. As a brutal bit of stomping, preening, sneering garage-rock, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” doesn’t sound like the work of a troubled and unappreciated genius. It sounds like a fierce and vengeful pop song, one that doesn’t need a context of psychedelic burnout and electroshock therapy to scan as a classic, and that’s something I can’t really say about “Speeding Motorcycle.” And Erickson’s post-institution 70s music, or at least what little of it I’ve heard, is nearly as bloody and purposeful as the stuff he made when he still had a legitimate shot at rock stardom. It’d be fun someday to see a doc that really focuses on Erickson’s music and its aftershocks, but that’s not really what You’re Gonna Miss Me is. Instead, the movie, which is just now coming to DVD after a quick limited theatrical run last month, is all about how mental illness completely came to dominate Erickson’s life and how his brother is trying to pull him out of it.
The most exciting parts of the movie, predictably enough, are the early bits. The 13th Floor Elevators, the band that Erickson fronted, flirted a bit with stardom in the mid-to-late 60s and made some seriously gnarled and damaged rock music that somehow never sacrificed stomp for spazzout. Much is made of Erickson’s scratchy yowl; one talking head even goes so far as to call him a precedent for Janis Joplin, something I don’t hear at all. Director Kevin McAlester gets a ton of mileage from transposing footage of a fresh-faced 60s Erickson with his latter-day self, his hair matted into an enormous clump and his fingernails way too long. The disconnect between the two Ericksons is pretty seriously jarring, even as we find out that the younger Erickson certainly had some problems (chiefly a voracious appetite for acid, which one old bandmate blames on another old bandmate). A whole lot of musicians show up to enthuse about his music, including a loopy Patti Smith and a rhapsodic Thurston Moore, but ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, improbably enough, totally steals the movie’s best part, gravely and articulately laying out everything that made the Elevators important without ever lapsing into gushing hyperbole or floating off into starry-eyed nostalgia. Honestly, an hour and a half of just Gibbons talking about music would have a very real shot at being the best music documentary ever made.
The latter-day Erickson certainly does look fucked in the head, playing with a Mr. Potato Head and enthusing about a letter from Publishers Clearing House. But mental illness itself is actually pretty sad and banal; all we really see is an image of a guy who seems completely defeated, unable to function in a world that makes no sense to him. We only get one really troubling image: apparently to fall asleep, Erickson needed to blast like three TVs and two radios at top volume, creating an ungodly chaotic din. After establishing the difference between young vital Erickson and old crazy Erickson, the movie spends a whole lot of time teasing out how he got there, dwelling way more on that descent than on the brief period when he was actually OK. There’s a lot going on there, and some of it certainly seems to be Erickson’s own fault; he seemed to be well on his way to checking out before the law and the institution got their hands on him. A few ex-police basically admit on camera to wanting to make an example out of such a known acidhead, which is why Erickson ends up getting arrested for weed. Then his lawyer, trying to keep him out of prison, gets him off on an insanity plea. But he keeps escaping from custody, which leads to him spending a whole lot of time in a maximum-security institution where he spends all his time with psycho-killers and undergoes electroshock therapy. When he gets out, he’s still capable of recording good music, but he thinks he’s an alien. Footage of a 1979 local TV documentary finds him scraggly but relatively lucid; the interviewer’s reaction when he mentions his big alien brain is funny despite itself. And so then he goes into the custody of his mother, who doesn’t want him taking psychiatric medication, which leads to his total dissolution. McAlester seems to want to make the mother the movie’s villain, and her pinched face and flat intonation certainly fit the role, but she just comes off as being as clueless as everyone else in the movie. When Erickson’s brothers go to court to wrest custody away from her, we get a long segment on their own mental problems, and the movie really grinds to a halt. It’s hard to stay invested in a movie where everyone seems to be nearly unable to cope with the world, especially when Erickson’s music finally takes a backseat to the freakshow aspect of the proceedings.
Late in the movie, there’s a moment from Erickson’s last live show before the movie wrapped, playing with the Butthole Surfers in Austin in 1987. According to Gibby Haynes, Erickson didn’t want to do the show, so they got him into a car by saying they were going to a candy store. When they pulled up to the venue, they just shoved him out onstage. In the footage, Erickson’s backing band tries to coax him to sing while he just sheepishly smiles and pushes the mic away. I had to wonder, if he obviously didn’t want to play a show, then why did they try to force him to do it? And could they really have been surprised by the result? I get the same sort of vibe from the movie. It’s one of those documentaries where you question the impulses at work when all these people allow key moments of their lives to be taped, when they seem like they’d all be better off without attention. But I still watched the thing, so maybe now I’m part of the problem.
Voice review: Aaron Hillis on You’re Gonna Miss Me
Voice review: Jason Gross on Roky Erickson at Southpaw
Voice review: Robert Christgau on I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology