Monday, November 29, 2010

Songs My Mother Taught Me: Roky Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil

In 1966, the 13th Floor Elevators launched what came to be known as psychedelic rock with their hit single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." It's quite likely that the band's lead singer/songwriter Roky Erickson had no idea that the song's title would end up overshadowing the future that lay ahead of him. I also doubt that given the horrors of what did lay ahead, he (and the legion of fans who followed him) ever considered a day when a record would come out of that experience with the power and emotional force of True Love Cast Out All Evil (released last April). It's one of the strongest and strangely affecting CDs of the year.

For those who miss albums that are conceived as albums (rather than merely a collection of songs), True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautifully crafted one with a suggestively stirring arc. It's an informal anthropological portrait of an artist trying to re-connect all the broken pieces of memory and truth and finding out how elusive that process can be. Produced by Will Sheff and featuring his band Okkervil River, True Love is a song cycle that attempts to provide a chronicle of a life that has been blasted apart. To his credit, however, Sheff doesn't solemnize the process, nor does he create an inspirational tribute to Erickson's survival. He rather lets Erickson's songs tell the story, an elliptical series of parables about one man testing his faith against an unforgiving world where fate had cast him. Roky Erickson learned his love of music from his mother, a woman who was both religiously devotional and righteously mad. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a haunting evocation of a parent's gift to her son, a present that shares equal portions of inspiration and insanity. (As he says in "Bring Back the Past": "Moody tunes whistle in my ears/And throw me up and down/Dreams and scenes from joy to tears/Could screw me to the ground.")

The 13th Floor Elevators originally hailed from Austin, Texas before finding a home in the counter-culture of San Fransisco in the late sixties. It was there that they reached their peak musically, just as they reached some scary heights as devotees of LSD. (The band would drop acid before every live gig.) Within a couple of years, the drug began taking its toll on Erickson. He began hearing voices, not coming to gigs and eventually, in 1969, getting picked up back home by the Austin police for possession of grass. While facing a ten-year sentence in prison, Erickson was advised by his lawyer to plead guilty by reason of insanity. As a result of his questionable plea, he did time in the Austin State Hospital and the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. While there he was subjected to electric shock therapy and massive doses of Thorazine. He remained in their custody until 1972. (While in Rusk, he wrote many of the songs heard on True Love Cast Out All Evil.)

When released, he attempted a return to music, but now in his unmedicated state, his psychosis became worse. By 1988, Erickson began living in Del Valle, Texas, in government housing where (unattended) he began to deteriorate mentally and physically. When Roky's lost son from a failed relationship entered his life in 2001, Erickson began steps to connect again with the outside world. True Love is about the path taken to get there. Sheff has organized the songs not to tell a linear tale, but to pose random observations that attempt to solve existential riddles. The opening track, "Devotional Number One," a field recording done at Rusk and taped by Erickson's mother, is a short parable about Moses and Jesus that sets the table that the album then decorates. Along the way, Erickson (in an unrecognizably gruff voice) touches on his own spiritual death and rebirth in "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" and "Please Judge," while resurrecting (for the only time on the powerfully sparse "John Lawman"), the recognizable Little Richard shriek Erickson once displayed on "You're Gonna Miss Me." It is a spine-tingling moment.

True Love Cast Out All Evil isn't the first collection of music that also serves as social anthropology. In 1968, Frank Zappa produced An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, a double-album featuring a paranoid schizophrenic street  busker from Los Angeles who made up songs for money, which formed an unsettling portrait of a savant artist. The work of the equally disturbed Daniel Johnston holds endless fascination for many pop groups, including Sonic Youth, for similar reasons to Fischer. But Roky Erickson (like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd) isn't an outsider artist, but instead a casualty of both the drug culture and mental illness. So Erickson's album is his effort to find the self he once possessed rather than exhibit the art of the lost self.

True Love Cast Out All Evil, which features some of the best and insightful liner notes (by Will Sheff) ever to grace a CD, doesn't offer any easy answers, nor does it guarantee any follow-up album. The CD is a series of glimpsed moments, time seized for what those moments might yield. In particular, the final track, "God is Everywhere," another early field recording, which provides no clear path for the unsettled road of Roky Erickson. In the end, he's left singing with a fragile, uncertain hope, "also, also, thoughts lost and never-known treasures coming back to we." True Love Cast Out All Evil is a treasure map to a lost treasure, one that's gathered in like gems blowing in the wind, pieces shattered but still not broken.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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