Thursday, September 16, 2010

You're Gonna Miss Me: The Music and Plight of Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson stood out amongst his peers of rock and roll lions like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and Jim Morrison. In his high pitched, southern twanged voice roared the soul of a transgressive artist. Here was a singer/songwriter, head of the Austin, Texas group the 13th Floor Elevators, who pioneered psychedelic rock and paid the price for bravely spearheading it's inception. He got in constant trouble with the police for marijuana and LSD possession and instead of jail time, was put into a mental institution where he emerged a damaged man suffering from the misunderstood cerebral monster that is schizophrenia.

This documentary about his life and battles with his mental health and family issues, shows him living a solitary and sheltered life supervised by his controlling mother Evelyn, who has a penchant for therapeutic practices like yoga and scotch taping collages of herself and her sons to illustrate her sense of pride as a mother. This is a woman who quietly and desperately clings onto a troubled past in order to survive a troubled present. She also won't let go of her adult son who according to his younger brother, Sumner, needs to get away from their mother and get real psychiatric care and medicine.

The custody battle hovers over the film and in between is the story of Roky's musical career which began with the wonderfully inventive and primitive garage rock of the Elevators and progressed into darker territory in the 70s and 80s where his personal demons and obsessions with horror movies and Satanic subject matter were ferociously thrown into his lyrics. Driving and fervently alive songs like "Mine Mine Mind" "Two Headed Dog" and "The Wind and More" are prime examples of this.

"Your Gonna Miss Me" shows a sad and wistful life and talent that has blessed American rock but was a casualty of it's drug milieu. But it's not without redemption. Sumner stands by his big brother faithfully and bravely out of love but also out of respect and admiration for his music. The movie also deeply focuses on Sumner's emotional struggles as he visits weekly with a therapist at a place called the Somatic Institute in Pittsburgh. Music has also provided solace and escape for him as he plays tuba with an orchestra. Both men are product of a sorrowful childhood that has left dark shadows in their adult life.

This film seems more about mental health and different ways one creates a survival method against it's horrors than it is a documentary about a rock and roll career. The filmmaker, Kevin McAlester, has amazing access and captures some real candid and private moments that display the power struggle between his mother and little brother that harbours resentment and hurt between them that has haunted the family for decades. We even meet their father, a man of very few words, who has a look about him that suggests someone who has survived a traumatic accident.

But if you've followed Roky Erickson's progress as of late, you'll know that he has prevailed. He has resumed recording, touring and playing music festivals. He has released a new album with The Okkervil River as his backing band. Roky has luckily survived his strife and the great music continues.

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