End of the Roky road

 

© Sumet Sound Studios

 

Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art.  Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.

 

Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with.  By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him.  Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls.  Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.

 

No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music.  It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist.  Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)

 

Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators.  That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged.  Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs.  But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out.  Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet.  It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug.  The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.

 

Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven.  Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.

 

You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989).  “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards.  “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.”  And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019).  It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.

 

The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems.  Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.

 

And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.

 

Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage.  Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation.  (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.)  And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.

 

Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news.  Rest in peace Roky.”  Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.

 

From boingboinb.net

 

Put away the bloody phones and listen to the music

 

Forget the potential political upheavals that could be shaking the United Kingdom very soon — like the fact that on September 18th Scots will be voting on whether or not they want their country to remain part of the UK, or the fact that, after the defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP may shortly have its very first Member of Parliament.  No, forget all these things because there’s only one issue at the moment that matters in the UK and that people are talking about.  The issue is Kate-mania.

 

Kate Bush, the divine singer-songwriter responsible for Wuthering Heights, The Man with the Child in his Eyes, Babushka, Cloudbusting, Running up that Hill and countless other tunes that were background music during the formative years of Britain’s now middle-aged demographic, is in the midst of a run of 22 concerts at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, with her final gig scheduled for October 1st.  These are Kate’s first live performances in a couple of centuries – well, since 1979 – and when they became available online all the tickets were snapped up within a nanosecond.  (Mind you, my old friend Mark Sansom managed to get one – the spawny git.)  And the opening concerts were greeted with joyous acclaim, if not out-and-out rapture, by the UK media’s crack elite of music journalists, who are usually such cynical, hard-hearted bastards that they make the Lee Van Cleef character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly look cuddly.

 

In the run-up to the concerts, one thing that raised eyebrows was Ms Bush’s request that her audience-members don’t bring along smartphones and attempt to film her while she struts her stuff onstage.  This prompted the Guardian’s John Harris to pen a piece the other week in which he pondered the gulf between people who simply want to experience and lose themselves in a live-music performance and those who want to stand with one arm permanently raised in the air, like a kid at the back of a classroom who’s desperate to go to the loo but who can’t get the teacher’s attention, with the latest slab of technology from Motorola, Sony or Nokia clutched in their hand, capturing a few tiny figures on an distant stage in a digital clip that’ll be shortly dispatched to their mates as a desperate, attention-seeking exclamation of “Look at where I am now!”

 

Harris is an unapologetic member of the former camp, the low-fi one.  “Transcendence…” he notes, “should be a pretty basic part of human experience: seven or eight pints of lager might do it for some people, but I’ve always felt that standing in among a crowd and soaking up the right kind of music (either played live or via a DJ) takes some beating.”  But Harris feels his is an increasingly minority attitude in an age “in which life too often resolves itself as the endless obligation to commune with one’s iPhone” and concerts are regarded as “a kind of massed film shoot”.  Here’s a link to his article.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/kate-bush-transcendence-v-smartphones

 

I agree.  Back in early March I went to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall to see a performance by the Scottish ‘post-rock’ band Mogwai and I found myself sitting in the Upper Circle, in Row K.  That’s the very highest row of seats in the Usher Hall, where you sit with your head about two metres below the roof.  (Not that this was a problem aurally – the noise of the dense, rumbling instrumentals that Mogwai specialise in effortlessly filled the building to its brim.)  However, up there in that vertiginous position, I felt a bit like an egg in a refrigerator, slotted into the egg-rack at the top of the inside of the fridge-door.

 

But then, once the lights dimmed and the concert got going, and as I peered down at the stalls, I realised I’d rather be sitting up in Row J and not standing below, level with the stage.  The crowd in the stalls was flecked with countless little dots of white light, which were coming from people’s smartphones, and I realised that anyone down there trying to achieve some of that transcendence that Harris wrote about would have to do so amid a forest of arms and a galaxy of glinting phone-screens.  I’d have been extremely pissed off about that.

 

In fact, as a fairly regular concert-goer, this phenomenon has pissed me off for a long time now.  A few years ago, as an act of revenge against all those annoying arms-in-the-air phone-filmers, I penned a 1000-word short story called Mr Gilchrist’s Handler, in which an audience-member at a gig by a grizzled old blues musician chooses to ignore the performer’s ban on people taking pictures of and filming him.  This wretch raises his phone above the crowd, and then…  Something unpleasant happens.  It was a horror story, so I stuck the name Jim Mountfield – the pseudonym I use when I write macabre fiction – on it and had it published in Flashes in the Dark, a web-zine that specialises in such stories.  I checked recently and the story is still available on the zine’s website, here:

 

http://flashesinthedark.com/2010/12/24/mr-gilchrist%E2%80%99s-handler-by-jim-mountfield/

 

It’s a bit out of date, actually.  In the story I used the term ‘camera-phone’ because that was then the parlance, rather than ‘smartphone’.  (At least it was in my fairly old-fashioned head.)

 

If the blues musician in Mr Gilchrist’s Handler sounds familiar, it’s because I borrowed – okay, I nicked – the physical description of him from Boogie Man, the celebrated biography of the late, great John Lee Hooker by the veteran music critic Charles Shaar Murray.  Yes, those references to Homburg hats, wraparound shades, etc, all come from John Lee Hooker.  Well, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.

 

(c) Viking