Don’t be surprised if the opening song on Roky Erickson’s new album True Love Cast Out All Evil sounds somewhat lo-fi. And certainly don’t complain to Will Sheff, singer with much acclaimed rockers Okkervil River, who produced the the 62-year-old singer’s first album in a decade and a half. The track, a haunting lament called “Devotional Number One,” is based on a recording made by Erickson four decades ago, while he was incarcerated at Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane in East Texas.
Thankfully, while the origin of the song is a reminder that Erickson is one of rock’s more troubled and plain unlucky souls, the album itself—which officially comes out April 20, but which can currently be previewed at Relix.com —is testament to both his talents and his recovering mental health. The CD features nearly all new performances by the Okkervil River-backed singer of previously unreleased, Erickson-penned tracks. “Roky’s manager sent me 60 songs after we had played a show together at the Austin Music Awards,” says Sheff of the project’s genesis. “When I heard the songs, I just fell in love. I knew I had to do the record.”
The Dallas-born Erickson is, of course, famous—and infamous—for his ‘60s band, the 13th Floor Elevators. The Texan outfit scored just one minor hit, 1966’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” yet were hugely influential on a wide variety of musicians and musical genres, from garage rock to punk. Elevators devotees include Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Television, Peter Buck, and ZZ Top’s Bill Gibbons who once, correctly, described the band’s raw, psychedelically-inclined, blues-rock as possessing a “frightening intensity.”
Back in the day, Erickson was an enthusiastic drug-taker and frequently performed while under the influence of acid, which the singer estimates he took over 300 times. In 1969, Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession and pleaded insanity to avoid jail. Ultimately, he was sent to Rusk where he would live for three years in the company of murderers and rapists, some of whom he played with in a band. Several other songs on True Love Cast Out All Evil also date from this period, including the heartbreaking “Please Judge,” in which Erickson pleads with the magistrate of the title not to “send or keep that boy away.” Speaking today, Erickson says of his time at Rusk that he felt like he was trapped by, “something like Big Brother. I just didn’t know what to make of it. It was all new to me.”
Following his release in 1972, Erickson embarked on a solo career and released a number of horror-rock albums, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1975, he persuaded a lawyer to draw up a bizarre declaration in which he insisted that he was not a member of the human race. Three years later he canceled a show at L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go club because, he claimed, his brain had fallen out when he tried to escape from a swarm of bees.
The exact nature, and causes, of Erickson’s mental problems have been much debated over the years. However, there is no debate about the fact that his condition in the ‘80s and ‘90s grew steadily worse. By the time director Keven McAlester began to film footage of Erickson for his gripping, and often horrifying, 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, the singer was living with his mother and appeared to have prematurely, and permanently, entered a second childhood. Certainly, he didn’t look a man who was about to resume his abandoned musical career anytime soon. Erickson describes the film as “a very strange thing. A lot of people say it should be collected and made into maybe a cable or television thing.” Does Roky think they should have George Clooney play him? “Maybe so!” he chuckles. “I tell you, yeah!”
McAlester’s film concludes on a happy note, with Erickson in the care of his younger brother and his mental condition clearly improved. But the real Cinderella ending is to be found on the excellent True Love Cast Out All Evil, even if the CD’s melancholic, ballad-heavy, vibe may surprise many Erickson followers. “I set out to reference and comment on Roky’s earlier material, but also to distinguish the new record from that,” says Sheff. “I think certain people might have a limited conception of what he’s done. They might only know the horror-rock stuff. Or the might only know the Elevators stuff. I wanted to show that there’s more to it that that.”
Even now, Erickson isn’t what you’d call much of a conversationalist. But his fine vocal performances on True Love Cast Out All Evil would seem to speak volumes about his comparative well being. Erickson himself says he’s “doing real good. Just relaxing a lot, you know,” and that he had a “laid back good time,” recording the album. He also says that he’s “looking forward to actually having a copy of it, you know.”
Wait, no one’s given Roky a finished copy yet? Then again, he has been waiting 40 years to hear some of the tracks get completed. Another few days probably won’t do him any harm.
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