2007 / Movie Reviews / Music

Review: Film Follows Acid-Rocker’s Trip Through Obscurity, Mental Illness

Documentary Examines Forgotten Texas Cult-Rocker, Fractured Family

Everyone knows that August is the start of the year’s slow, sad slide into fall. Besides the loss of warm-weather fun, this summer’s approaching conclusion signals an end to all of the media’s 40th anniversary retrospectives on the great musical and cultural Big Bang known as the Summer of Love.

Photo: Palm Pictures

Photo: Palm Pictures

So, with images, sounds and remembrances of rowdy peace marches, flower-filled San Francisco and LSD-inspired “Sgt. Pepper”-era music still fresh in our (re)expanded consciousness, a new film “You’re Gonna Miss Me” — released on DVD — has just landed on store shelves with the purpose of reintroducing a musical figure typically forgotten amid the flashbacks. The documentary centers on a ’60s rock pioneer deserving of recognition before the history textbooks are definitively written on this tumultuous period.

The subject worth of rediscovery is Roky Erickson, a talented, blues howler who led the Texas acid-rock group 13th Floor Elevators during the very height of Flower Power and who’s often credited with helping introduce the word “psychedelic” into the popular lexicon. After the ’60s, Erickson would, off and on, pursue a solo career as a cult artist and written off as one of rock’s great lost talents alongside Love’s Arthur Lee, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, Moby Grape’s Skip Spence, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and others. While Erickson’s journey would produce some excellent if underappreciated music, fate demanded a tremendous price in return — Erickson battled mental problems. Like its star, the documentary is flawed and doesn’t live up to expectations but is one that proves well-worth experiencing.

The movie, which takes its title from the Elevators’ most famous song, traces Erickson’s life and how drugs, and more crucially, mental illness, deep-six-ed his career, robbed him of wider recognition and taxed his friends and family. While Erickson, now 60, is only lucid enough to offer a few mundane comments on camera (and can be seen puttering around in the background of other shots), his tragic story is mostly left to those around him to tell.

Of course, this film’s release comes on the heels of last year’s remarkable “The Devil And Daniel Johnston,” a documentary that, likewise, focuses on a Texas-based, cult-music songwriter. Johnston, who achieved underground-rock renown in the ’80s after being adopted by the Austin music scene, shares a great deal in common with Erickson. Both men were musical wunderkinds and as they aged, and their mental ailments came to the fore, they would never fulfill their dreams of stardom. Instead, they’d keep writing and performing locally, continuing to fixate on youthful subjects like horror movies, science fiction and comic books as fodder for their songs. Their instantly intuitive, if slightly odd, music would unconsciously blur the lines dividing pop culture, morality, fantasy and religion and invite small but highly dedicated devotees. At the same time, their mental problems put their family members and friends through the wringer because of the constant care they require.

Born Roger Kynard Erickson, the documentary follows Roky (pronounced “Rocky”) as he grows up in a dysfunctional but highly musical family and becomes a budding mid-’60s rocker inspired by Little Richard. His voice — a blues-derived guttural shout — was a rare sound that, along with his songwriting acumen, launched the Elevators to the very cusp of mainstream acceptance. Drugs and Erickson’s decline into mental illness — diagnosed as schizophrenia — eventually crippled the band and Erickson’s dreams. The rest of the film pieces together the next three decades as Erickson and his family struggle to keep him functioning and creative with wildly erratic results.

The movie often spotlights Erickson’s music but doesn’t dwell on anything very long. Although Erickson’s mental issues would forever hamper his ability to break through in a commercial sense, his own peculiar musical sensibilities would do him no favors either. Erickson’s most-loved songs — both solo and with the Elevators — aren’t likely to be found in most Baby Boomers’ record collections, even among those who profess to be Haight-Ashbury escapees. Best described as garage-rock classics, cuts like “Reverberation (Doubt),” “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” or “Starry Eyes” are irresistible, but just deranged enough to scare away neophyte hippies. Even a song like “I Think Up Demons,” which is basically a rewrite of Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl,” takes that ’80s hallmark’s easily digestible melody and turns it into a cartoon-ish love song that could also function as a peppy theme song for Satanism. In fact, Erickson’s closest brush with fame was when the Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was featured in the John Cusack flick, “High Fidelity.” Despite their peculiarities, Erickson’s songs don’t rouse much interest in this movie. They are mentioned and a select few play or are performed but never deeply explored in a meaningful way.

As a film, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” doesn’t compare with “The Devil And Daniel Johnston.” Despite beginning the project in 1999, director Kevin McAlester hasn’t the abundance of first-person material that “Johnston” director Jeff Feuerzeig had with Johnston’s archive of diary-like audio cassettes and home movies. McAlester also doesn’t see the need for the visual flourishes and the sense of artistry that Feuerzeig employs to brilliant effect on his movie. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is drier, and with only a few home videos and photographs, relies heavily on talking head interviews to drive the story. Fans like Patti Smith, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, MTV News’ Kurt Loder, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Hayes (who also appears in “Johnston”) are featured, but offer little insight beyond lending their voices to the chorus of praise for Erickson’s music.

After Erickson’s breakdown, and as the film progresses, the music increasingly fades into the background to make space for the intra-family conspiring and backbiting that surrounds a disconnected passive Erickson. The movie’s two pivotal personalities are Erickson’s eccentric mother Evelyn and his younger brother Sumner. The two trade tense comments about the care that Erickson requires and what medication he takes.

His mother, flanked by giant collages that she’s created out of family photos, diaries and important papers, insists her son doesn’t need psychiatrists or medication. The cameras follow her around her home, a worrisome, packrat paradise where viewers can draw connections to Erickson’s own overstuffed apartment. She performs around town and has directed a few baffling homemade films starring Roky. Her polar opposite is Erickson’s brother Sumner, a classical musician living in Pittsburgh who believes his mother’s actions as gatekeeper are detrimental to Roky. Sumner eventually seeks and wins custody to get him some professional help. Roky doesn’t seem phased either way.

Eventually, we see Sumner participate in an unusual therapy session that comes across just as disconcerting as his mother’s behavior. When he has guardianship of Roky, he takes his brother to the same therapist, who in one exercise asks to examine the brothers walking around the room.

The film trails off with Roky appearing in better physical shape since his brother began looking after him. He also shows a renewed interest in performing, which is Sumner’s stated goal. We’re offered the hint that new music might be on its way.

In a disturbing turn of events featured in the bonus features, sometime after the cameras stopping rolling, the Erickson family comes together to allow Roky control of his own life. Footage is shown of the court hearing in which Erickson is freed from his brother’s guardianship and pronounced competent to tend to himself. His family pronounces him free of medications and his brother Sumner has now come over to his mother’s previous position to say that the medications were the root of his problem all along. Roky appears just as unmoved as before.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me” is set up to be an allegory on the unsung hero, but loses this point when it’s understandably consumed by the drama and high costs that mental illness takes on a family. Like a child caught between feuding parents, Roky becomes less of a songwriter in need of recognition and more of an object that one side of the family must protect from the other. It humanizes the film and the transfer of custody provides a discernable break from the past that could function like a climax, but this doesn’t make you want to listen to Erickson’s music any more or less. It isn’t helped by McAlester’s streamlined model of storytelling either.

The film attempts to inspire the same feeling that draws small legions of rock fans to these burnouts, mad men and acid casualties: the sense of discovery. The fans share a common belief that the wider masses — perhaps distracted by the events of the day, smoother sounds or even the chemicals prevalent during that fateful summer 40 years ago — missed the boat on brilliant musicians like Erickson. As a result, the public was deprived of years of thrilling tunes. The movie leaves us with the hope that since Erickson is still alive and eager to play, it’s an omission that’s not too late to correct.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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