My Breakfast with Roky Erickson
We remember the psych rock pioneer with an interview originally published in the March 1995 issue of Ray Gun Magazine.
With the passing of the 13th Floor Elevators’ leader Roky Erickson on May 31, 2019, the psychedelic rock innovator left behind a rock ’n’ roll legacy like no other. For over fifty years, Erickson remained one of music’s true enigmas, battling years of mental illness and poverty, while making some of the most electrifying and transcendent sounds ever recorded. Born Roger Kynard Erickson in Dallas, TX in 1947, his career was a series of disappearances and resurrections. In 1995, Erickson’s well-being was notoriously fragile, with nearly a decade of musical inactivity and very little knowledge of his whereabouts. Then seemingly out of nowhere came the news that a new album was being issued by Trance Syndicate Records (King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers’ label), along with a book of lyrics through Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 Publications. It was during this time that music industry executive/writer/producer Bill Bentley reached out to me at Ray Gun, the magazine I edited throughout the ’90s, with the idea of catching up with Erickson for a feature in the magazine.
Bentley was not only a longtime friend and follower of Erickson’s career—witnessing many 13th Floor Elevators shows in Texas throughout the late ’60s—he was singlehandedly responsible for introducing a new generation of music fans to his music in 1990 by producing the tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, featuring covers of Erickson’s songs by R.E.M., The Jesus and Mary Chain, ZZ Top, and Julian Cope, among others. Bentley warned that “an orthodox interview was out of the question…Erickson answers to no man,” but he was able to capture an incredibly touching, surreal, and truly unique portrait of him during this mysterious time. I was honored to feature it. Over a decade after this interview, Erickson’s career would be resurrected again, with new music and tours backed by The Black Angels and Okkervil River, finding Erickson at peace and delivering his psychedelic gospel around the world for the last years of his life.
Published for the first time online—with Bentley’s blessing—here’s the entire interview from Ray Gun’s pages in 1995.
The front door knob at Roky Erickson’s house has a sign on it: Danger! Do Not Operate! I don’t take this as a warning, because for over thirty years, there has been an aura of caution around the forty-seven-year-old Texan. In 1964, he founded a band called the Spades, writing under the pseudonym Emile Schwartz. A year later, he became the frontman for Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, and within a year the group had invented psychedelic music. In 1969, following two marijuana arrests, the cherubic teenager was headed for Texas’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane. When he was released three years later, Erickson’s schizophrenia was full blown, thanks, no doubt, to numerous shock treatments and drug experiments while he was hospitalized. It was as if to punish him for flaunting his uniqueness, they tried to strip Erickson of his soul.
While his mental state is obviously beyond repair, Roky is the essence of what it means to believe in rock ‘n’ roll so religiously that paying with your mind isn’t all that great a price.
What the Texas authorities couldn’t foresee was that Rocky would not be stopped. Within a year after being released from the crazy bin, Erickson published a book of poetry, calling himself the Rev. Roger Roky Kynard Erickson. Shortly after that, he was back on wax, recording “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” and “Starry Eyes” for Mars Records. Never mind that it was the only music that ever came out on Mars; the endearing Erickson was back, as possessed as ever.
It’s been that way ever since. Singles, albums, poetry, and run-ins with the law: Roky Erickson will not disappear. For me, he remains the single most charismatic rocker I’ve ever encountered, and while his mental state is obviously beyond repair, Roky is the essence of what it means to believe in rock ‘n’ roll so religiously that paying with your mind isn’t all that great a price.
Five years ago, concerned that Erickson was once again inside an institution, I helped produce a tribute album for Roky. Titled Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, it included twenty-two bands covering a Roky original. That it died a quick, commercial death now seems insignificant, because in some ways it helped alert the world that this national treasure was something to be cherished. An album of half new Roky recordings on Trance Syndicate Records, All That May Do My Rhyme, and a book of Erickson’s lyrics on Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 Publications called Openers II are now out, and Erickson is being seen as a man with a lot more to offer than a loony legacy. How long it lasts is anyone’s guess, but for now, Roky Erickson is among the living.
I thought 1995 would be a good time to go see Roky and maybe grab a bite to eat. I knew that an orthodox interview was out of the question. Erickson answers to no man. When I arrived at Erickson’s house, located behind an adult video store five miles outside of Austin, the white noise din could be heard a half block away. A dozen stereos, radios, televisions, and a police scanner or two were cranked full blast, all on different channels, leaving me little choice but to pound on the door like a process server.
Lucky for me, a friend had slipped me a key. Letting yourself in to the kind of racket that immediately makes your mouth go dry and reminds your brain of nothing but a bad amphetamine run. I found Roky sleeping peacefully in his bedroom with a huge smile on his face. Shaking the bed, Erickson immediately jumped up and acted like he’d been expecting me. I hadn’t seen him in almost a year.
Roky Erickson: Is everything all right? Are we relaxed? Did you have a nice holiday?
Bill Bentley: Real good. How about you?
RE: Pretty good. Is that your car?
BB: For a few days.
RE: Can we go to the post office? They’ll help me get my mail. We’ll have a good time. What kind of car is this? A Buick Chevrolent? What color is it?
RE: I’ve just been taking it easy. Does the car have cable? I bet we could get some shows in here.
BB: Not yet. Was making the new record fun?
RE: I didn’t have to do much. I just relaxed and tried not to worry. I didn’t have any money, but I had a lot of milk. If you’ve got a little milk you can make it. This car smells good! The post office is that way. This is great. I’ll just relax and let you handle everything. Where did you want to eat today? We could go get Leonard and do that. We’ll call him after we get my mail. The people there have been helping me with my mail. I’m just going to go on in there and get it. Will you come in with me? I can’t believe you came all the way from California to help me with my mail! So I’ll just relax; I’m all right.
BB: Not a problem, Roky.
I started to sweat, remembering that in 1989 Erickson had been arrested for mail fraud, specifically collecting his neighbors’ mail and nailing it to his wall. The second we stepped inside the post office, I could sense something was wrong. The clerks started throwing each other furtive glances, and I suspected a set-up. I also remembered right then I’d left my wallet at the hotel and had no identification. Add in the fact I had a couple of blips on my legal record in Texas, and all of a sudden I began to believe I’d be in jail in a matter of moments. But it was not to be. Once the postal workers realized I was shepherding Roky that day, they started piling up boxes upon boxes on the counter. When I asked if that was all, they just laughed and brought out a mail sack with at least two hundred letters in it. It seems Erickson has an obsession with not only mail order but also filling out every single application or stray subscription card he can find. For Roky, the post office is his sole comfort and security: a warm, clean place where it seems the people are glad to see you and they give you mountains of goods.
RE: Hi, everybody! Is there anything from Montgomery Ward in here? I really like their things. My house is really dirty compared to here. Is there someone from the Austin Cable Company we could call? I get cable, but I think there’s a lot of channels that I can only get while I’m asleep. Can you fix that for me?
BB: I’ll try.
RE: I stayed up last night watching War of the Worlds and Call of the Wild. For a while, both of the movies were on at the same time. It was great! Do you want to go by my mother’s house? So you’ve heard about my record. You look like you’ve been doing calisthenics. Do you feel good? It’s my turn. Will you give her my letter? I’ve got a bunch of help today, don’t I? And I’ve got a huge package coming from Van Schroeder. Is it here? I got it with my Visa. Do you want us to pick everything up over here? Are there any cable cars that come here? I had to take five aspirin last night. That movie got to me. Everything’s going to be all right. I’ll stick with you, Bill. We’ll do fine. Where did you get that little thing [my tape recorder]? Is that something that monitors Home Box Office or something?
BB: You get a lot of stuff in the mail.
RE: It just looks like it. What’s in that box, I wonder? Do you want to put that in the back seat? I’ll get in the trunk. Don’t you just love the people who work at the post office? We’ll be real careful. I promise.
BB: Let’s go get some breakfast.
RE: Let’s take all this stuff to my house and call Leonard. Was it good to meet those people in there?
BB: They’re very nice.
RE: What do you think is in that box? They wouldn’t send me a person in there, would they? I don’t really have enough room in my house for anybody else to live there. I guess I could get a bigger place, but then I might not get the same kind of cable. What’s in that box?
BB: Maybe we’ll find out. It’s nice having a post office so close to your house.
RE: That’s why I don’t want to move. Where did you get your shoes?
BB: In California.
RE: Maybe I could send off for some.
BB: Do you want to open that big box?
RE: No, I don’t think so. I’ll just stick with you. If there’s someone in there, we’ll let him out after we eat. I want to call Leonard. Have you been out of town or have you been here?
BB: I moved about fifteen years ago.
RE: That’s why we better relax, then. I just can’t figure out what’s in that big box. It looks heavy. Maybe Leoanrd can help me open it later. I’ll call him now.
When Roky gets Leonard on the phone, he hands it to me to get directions to Leonard’s house. I speak with a voice I’m not really familiar with, acting like we’re old friends. It’s only later, when we get to Leonard’s house, that I discover Leonard is really Austin writer Rob Patterson.
RE: Don’t you like Leonard? Put that mail in the ice chest and put the top on it.
BB: Looks safe to me.
RE: Should I put my cat Black outside? It’s good to see him, isn’t it? Should we see if the heat’s on?
BB: I think it’s fine.
RE: I’m relaxed and everything. I’ve been watching the Cartoon Network. You’re really hungry, huh? I’ve never seen a car like this. Are there any secrets in it? Should I roll down the window? Do you want to turn on the radio? Is it easy to drive? I like this color. But when they deliver the mail, they never get mad at me, or something like that.
BB: You sure get a lot of mail. It must be fun.
RE: I win contests, and they give me all this cleaning material so I can do my work. Yesterday I didn’t have anything to eat so I just relaxed until I got some cheese, and I ate a whole package of cheese. I ate that kind of slowly.
BB: You should eat something every day.
RE: I’ve been trying to get food stamps, Medi-Care, and Social Security. That stuff is hard.
BB: So this new record, was it fun for you to do? Did you know the songs?
RE: I haven’t heard it. What’ve you been up to, man?
BB: Working. And I wanted to see you.
RE: I didn’t even know that. That’s great. I read a lot. It’s like Christmas. Boy, this is an automatic car.
BB: A long time ago, you had a Mustang, didn’t you?
RE: I could have.
BB: Because back when I used to see the Elevators, I thought you had a Mustang. I remember how many Bob Dylan songs your band did back then. Did you always like Dylan?
RE: Well, he was in the rodeo, wasn’t he?
BB: Might have been, but he was also a singer.
RE: I’m not saying he wasn’t good in the rodeo, that’s just how I remember him.
BB: Do you ever think about the 13th Floor Elevators?
RE: Somebody said they heard them once, but I think it was like a big joke, because it made me laugh a lot.
BB: So they’re not anything you remember?
RE: I don’t think so, but maybe I do. You’re not smoking, are you?
RE: I still handle it and everything, but not right now.
BB: Have you lived in Austin your whole life?
RE: In a way. Are you going to record us?
BB: If that’s okay.
RE: It’s fine, it’s just I’ve never seen anything like that. It looks like it could pick up some cable channels. It’s so small.
Arriving at Leonard’s, I’m relieved to see it really is Rob Patterson. We head off to a Mexican restaurant called Guerro’s, but Roky isn’t sure that maybe Denny’s would be better. Leonard/Rob convinces him they’ll be glad to see us at Guerro’s, and in a few minutes, the three of us are settled into a corner booth.
RE: What would you suggest to eat?
RP: Everything is good here. Would you like some eggs?
RE: I think I’ll have milk, if that’s all right.
RP: You had the spinach enchiladas the other day, Roky. This is my favorite restaurant.
RE: How did we get way out here? I’ve just been taking it easy. Today is Saturday.
BB: A good day to take it easy.
RE: Well, we’re just gonna eat something or something. I watch the preview channel all the time, and all these things come on, so I’ll just relax.
RP: Don’t you want to eat, Roky? Some breakfast tacos or migas?
RE: I’d just rather have an American thing. Would you ask them if they have that here? Are you still feeling bad, Leonard?
RP: I’m always feeling bad, Roky, you know that.
RE: But you’re healthy. I told you and promised you that you’ve got to take it easy.
BB: We are taking it easy today.
RP: How about scrambled eggs or fried eggs, Roky?
RE:That sounds good, like something like that. Or should I get what I got the other day? Is it all right to get that? Both of them?
RP: Whatever you want.
BB: Tomorrow is Elvis Presley’s birthday. Did you ever see Elvis sing, Roky?
RE: I could have, but I think he was more recent. I wonder if that TV works over there.
BB: How many channels did you say you have?
RE: Well, right now all my channels are scanned out. I get Pay Per View, but I try not to watch too much of that. They’ve got some weird stuff on there. Me and Leonard watched some at his house. They had a guy coming out of his house, and a girl coming out of her house and this guy walking up to both of them. That was crazy stuff. I really enjoyed that.
RP: Once you came over and we were watching the George Strait movie. The other day, Roky was giving a treatise: George Strait. The Singer. The Actor. The Human Being.
BB: They have a movie out on Roky now, right? Demon Angel.
RE: Well, I wouldn’t know about that. I think it was an accident. Like a Rambo thing, I think.
BB: Do you remember playing in San Francisco at the Avalon and Fillmore?
RE: I don’t really know if I can remember that or not. San Francisco, that’s a long word, isn’t it? I’d like to go back out there.
BB: Are you still friends with any of the Elevators?
RE: I haven’t seen any of them in a long time. Maybe we should make commercials for ants.
RP: Let’s get a newspaper and read our horoscopes.
RE: Like Joe Pesci, you said?
RP: No—horoscopes. Today’s my birthday. Let’s see: “Loyal pals bring you good luck of a monetary nature.” Roky, you’re going to make me some money!
RE: Oh, really? How am I going to do that?
RP: I don’t know. But it says, “Snap up a deal once you’ve satisfied your better judgment of the circumstances.”
RE: Are you having a nice holiday, Leonard?
RP: Not really. All the depression I didn’t have in 1994 came through on New Year’s Day. Roky, you’re a Cancer, aren’t you?
RE: My birthday is July 15th.
RP: Okay. “A romantic tie could be strengthened. You are in control of key love relationships today.”
RE: Of what?
RP: “Including those of children. Teach caring by providing a nurturing example.”
RE: Are you reading Dear Abby or something like that? Those things are very strange, aren’t they?
RP: What are you, Bill?
RP: “You have a terrific chance to see and be seen. You will be bowled over by a new acquaintance made quite accidentally. Prepare yourself for a special smile and a nice warm chat.” Wow!
BB: I’m glad we called you, Leonard. I’m glad we got away from Roky’s neighborhood. It’s kind of cowboy out there, low tolerance.
RP: Yeah, but Roky’s charmed ’em all.
BB: Especially at the post office. They had a lot of mail waiting. Including an offer to be a mortgage broker.
RE: What’s that? Should I do that? Did I have to sign for that?
BB: No, but there was a little postage due.
RE:Was that for me? Maybe I should call them now.
BB: Rob, did you bring your cellular phone?
RE: What do they do?
BB: You can call using satellite link-ups?
RE: I want that. Do you think we could get one after we leave here? Is that like X-rays?
BB: In a way, I guess.
RE: I wanted to get some glasses that would let me see things, but I learned how to do it without them.
BB: Good for you.
RE: Maybe I could go up on a satellite someday.
RP: You never know.
BB: I’m just glad that Leonard turned out to be Rob.
RE: Who is Leo?
RP: One day we were out having barbecue, and we came out of the place, and Roky said, “You know what you are, you’re Leonard.”
RE: Why not?
BB: Just have faith, and Leonard will turn out to be someone you know.
RP: You have to trust Roky.
BB: Do you like your eggs, Roky?
RE: Are you sure they’re all right? Who did that for me?
BB: The cook. They look great.
RE: You sure seemed happy to see me today.
BB: Well, Roky, it’s been a while.
RE: Are you the only one here?
BB: Rob went outside to have a cigarette.
RE: Do you think they’ll let me have a spoon?
BB: We’ll ask.
RE: I think if I had a spoon, I could pick up a new channel for that TV over on the wall.
BB: Maybe try the hot sauce on the spoon, and you’ll get something in Spanish.
RE: I’m not sure anyone would like that.
BB: You’re probably right, Roky.
RE: Could I get a milkshake?
BB: I’ll ask, but I don’t think they have them here. We’ll go somewhere else.
RP: I’m back. Did you ask Roky about his album?
RE: Yeah, but I’ll have to listen to it. Do you want another meal?
RP: Not now, I’m finished. Do you want to leave?
RE: If we could get a milkshake. I’ll be careful. I haven’t eaten breakfast in a long time.
We proceeded next door to the Texicali Cafe, found a milkshake and more old friends of Roky’s. Everywhere he turned, good will seemed to be waiting. Knowing that he wanted to see his mother, and knowing that I had to get out of town, I left Roky with Rob. But I couldn’t leave the memories of thirty years of listening to Roky Erickson sing behind. Walking by the Colorado River in downtown Austin that afternoon, an old lyric from the 13th Floor Elevators swept over me:
“Live where your heart can be given / And your life starts to unfold
In the forms you envision / In this dream that’s ages old
On the river layer is the only sayer / You receive all that you can hold / Like you’ve been told…”
Before I knew it, I was swallowing tears and gulping for breath. But it wasn’t for Roky, it was for me. Maybe I realized that thirty years ago the Elevators had illuminated a spiritual path in front of me. Through their lyrics and Roky’s delivery, I’d seen something brighter than a confused teenager’s life in Texas. And only now did I realize that for a million rotten reasons I’d lost my direction after the Elevators imploded in 1968. When they were gone, so was my journey. It stopped me cold. Thinking about Roky, today, as he lives for his mail and the cable channels he may or may not get, I see that he’s already there, right where he belongs. It’s us, out here in normal land, who are still struggling.