Wednesday last was Roky Erickson’s birthday, and although Gov. Rick Perry once again failed to order state offices closed in observance we our own self did pause briefly during the hard turning of the day to consider the resiliency, the durability, the sheer Faulknerian indomitability of the human spirit, in particular the ragged-but-right spirit that we and a couple of hundred other Houstonians witnessed radiating outward last month at a downtown venue we will always know as the Former Site of Guy’s Newsstand.
We had stayed up way (way) past our bedtime, assisted by no stimulant other than a large iced coffee (makes Gramps “frisky”) to take in Roky’s Return to Houston—fittingly, on the night following the day when the temperature hit a brain-frying 106. According to this advance of the show by the daily newspaper’s learned rock critic, it was the first time the erstwhile Erickson had visited Houston, at least in a strumming-and-singing capacity, since 1984. (We caught that show, at the long-gone Consolidated Arts Warehouse on Montrose, and while we do not remember whether Erickson played guitar that night or not, we do clearly recall how he looked: He had shaved his muzzle but sported large, bristly muttonchops, not the height of fashion in the godforsaken ’80s, and wore a pair of madras bell bottoms, the kind of pantaloons that were fashionable for a few months in 1966 among young American males whose daddies could afford to buy them Mustangs, along with a tight-fitting pinkish or orange-ish Disco Era shirt that must have come off a Goodwill rack. He apparently did not dress “up” for the performance.)
All of the news concerning Erickson has been good for the past few years—how, with care and attentiveness and modern medication, he’s been able to return to performing, semi-regularly and triumphantly. But you never know. Roky fandom is not an entirely comfortable seat: On the one hand you dig all those churning, hard-charging goofs on horror and sci-fi movies and comics of the ’50s—centered, we presume, in that place where we go to “scare” our self, the place where Count Floyd stages his 3-D House of Schlock and E. A. Poe filches from the day’s take—and on the other you’re keenly aware of the guy’s recurrent bouts of deep mental illness. As the unflinching 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me suggests, Erickson hit the Trifecta of mental imbalance: a genetic disposition thereto, courtesy of a distant, hard-ass daddy and a hothouse-flower of a mama who appears to have been the yoga-besotted Blanche Dubois of Austin; one too many acid trips as well as go-rounds with heroin and crystal meth in the 1970s and, apparently, well into the ’80s; and, probably most devastatingly, confinement at Rusk State Hospital in the late ’60s-early ’70s after his bust by the Austin cops for one sorry matchbox of dope. (Imagine what it must have been like to be in Rusk State Hospital in 1969; hell, imagine what it was like to be in Rusk in 1969. According to a Rusk State doctor interviewed [while, for some reason, sitting at a pedal steel guitar] for the documentary, Erickson’s fellow musicians in a hospital pick-up band included notorious murderers and child killer-rapists.) So when Erickson sings about working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog and not being shaken by Lucifer and walking with a zombie (the best part of that great Holly-inflected tune being the tacked-on time specificity of the walk: last night) a reasonable person might wonder whether these are songs of experience or imagination, and whether by whooping it up for Night of the Vampire you’re inadvertently encouraging another psychic break. If you’re, y’know, the sensitive type.
But there was no cause to fret. Erickson, backed by a youngish band whose name we missed, put on a astoundingly good show—“heroic,” in the estimation of our colleague and fellow Roky idolater Il Pinguino. The mere fact that Erickson can stand on his hind legs and bark before an audience, much less perform at such a flawlessly high level for an hour and a half or so, is indeed heroic. His voice—it’s one of the great voices in rock ’n’ roll, sounding always as if something inside him is tearing and clawing to get out and he’s exercising great concentration to keep it under control—was in fine, supple form. (Erickson has a way with a song that’s at least equal in its naturalness to Van Morrison’s, who came out of basically the same mid-’60s musical milieu, so it’s not so absurd to wonder whether, if things had gone another way for Erickson, he’d be playing Vegas, or wherever it is Van plays these days, instead of the Continental Club on a Thursday night.) He even played a crackling lead guitar on some numbers, with his back to the audience at first but turning to face it later in his set. Between numbers he looked tentative and a little lost, turning to the other band members for directions, but when the music began he was transformed, an entirely other person. He tore that place up and burned it down.
Our favorite moment of the evening came during the spoken-word interlude to Creature with the Atom Brain, when Roky reported that atomic power has not only given the undead superhuman strength but has rendered them “impervious” to bullets. There was something about the way he pronounced impervious … but guess you woulda had to have been there.