To hell and back for psychedelic rock icon

Roky rocks on despite mental illness

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Story highlights

  • Roky Erickson's career spans nearly half a century
  • He has battled mental illness for years after being diagnosed with schizophrenia
  • He currently is back on tour and plays alongside his son

He was born Roger Kynard Erickson in 1947 in Dallas, but his fans know him as Roky (pronounced Rocky).

For a career that spans nearly half a century, Erickson has spent little time actually performing, but he still has a loyal following and is on tour again.

Music, he says, has been a lifelong part of him. He learned to play piano as a child, taught himself acoustic guitar at 12 and then learned the electric guitar.

"It was just something that I would also look forward to," he says. " If I could, I would get out of school, then I would go home and play the guitar."

In an interview posted on YouTube, part of a documentary, Erickson says he listened to the radio a lot, which inspired him to be a rock 'n' roll star.

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He rose to the occasion as a teenager, when he dropped out of 11th grade and soon wrote his most famous composition "You're Gonna Miss Me," which he first recorded with a band called the Spades.

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He says his influences include Little Richard, Bob Dylan, James Brown and the Beatles, but he is credited with influencing other groups as well, many of which describe him as a psychedelic rock icon.

"In 1990, a tribute album had R.E.M, the Butthole Surfers and the Jesus and Mary Chain performing Erickson's songs," the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2006.

"In the film (a documentary) ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons sounds like he's still in awe of Erickson and the Elevators, with whom he shared stages several times in the '60s," the article says, referring to Erickson's band, the 13th Floor Elevators.

With the Elevators, Erickson recorded "You're Gonna Miss Me" again, which landed him on the pop charts in 1966. He went on to become an influential singer and songwriter during the psychedelic rock era of the 1960s. He also had an affinity for marijuana and LSD.

In 1969, he was arrested for possession of a joint. He pleaded insanity, hoping that being in a mental institution would be better than going to prison, although it only cut his confinement from four years to three. While he was institutionalized, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent various treatments including shock therapy.

After his release, his career was never the same. What followed was many difficult years of battling mental illness, often untreated. The problems that kept Erickson from success in music also took a toll on his family life, leading to a separation from his wife and son.

His life began to turn around when his brother took over guardianship for him in 2001. "From June 2001 until July 2002, Roky lived with his brother in Pittsburgh, where he finally began to receive the treatment and care he needs," according to his website.

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In 2005, Erickson emerged at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and began performing again. In recent years, he has found his way back to touring with the help of his son, Jegar. Jegar Erickson says he may never know his dad as a father, "but if I have a chance to help a man get to a better place, I'm in."

"I've been working with him for about five years now," Jegar Erickson said of his father last fall. "He's amazing. ... It doesn't even matter what kind of day he's had. I mean he could have had like everything go wrong and then he walks on that stage and it's like a switch.

"It just turns on and it's magic and you feed off of it and anyone who gets a chance to be around him, it's truly incredible," the younger Erickson said. "There (are) no words to describe what it's like to have the chance to play on a stage with him or to understand what it's like to approach music the way that he approaches it."

He says playing alongside his father "teaches me so much," and that no matter how bad things get for the elder Erickson, "he's still positive."

At 65, Roky Erickson has simple advice: "Just to find the things that you love and are important and ... make sure you have them with you."

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