Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Each and every Friday, we deliver songs by local artists. Today’s selection, featured on the Midday Show with Cheryl Waters, is “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” by Roky Erickson with Okkervil River from his 2010 album True Love Cast Out All Evil on Anti-.
Roky Erickson has lived an innovative, unusual and often heartbreaking life. Erickson got his storied start in Austin, Texas, first with The Spades and in 1965 forming the seminal psychedelic rock outfit 13th Floor Elevators. Rooted in the blues as opposed to acoustic folk 13th Floor Elevators quickly separated themselves from up and coming psychedelic hippy outfits like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Together with Tommy Hall, Erickson (at the ripe old age of 19) began writing electric blues rock that would unconsciously configure a whole new genre of music and lead to the inspiration of countless future musicians from Robert Plant and Mike Watt to The Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. Erickson’s uniquely influential compositions have been featured in countless films including Drugstore Cowboy, High Fidelity and Boys Don’t Cry.
In 1968, Erickson’s life took a turn for the worse. Always an outspoken proponent of hallucinogenics, Roky suddenly began spouting gibberish on stage and was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he was ultimately diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Given the then-uncharted waters of psychotherapy, the late 60’s was not a particularly good time to receive this type of diagnosis. For treatment, Erickson was subjected to regular Electroconvulsive Shock / Thorazine therapies. These treatments continued, against his will, until his release four years later.
Sadly the “treatment” he received only made matters worse for Erickson. Following his release the man known for groundbreaking hits like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Slip Inside this House” formed a new band called Bleib Alien (later Roky Erickson and the Aliens) and started singing songs constructed around horror and science fiction themes. So yeah, his mental state continued to plummet until he hit rock bottom in 1982 when he became convinced a Martian had inhabited his body. The years that followed found Erickson at the mercy of unscrupulous business partners (read: crooked managers), eventually landing him in the streets.
In 2001, Roky’s younger brother (and fellow musician), Sumner Erickson, took him in and established a monetary trust that would properly address his older brother’s splintered mental state. Eventually, things started getting better.
In March of 2005, Roky Erickson made his first public appearance in over ten years playing three songs as part of The Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social in his home city of Austin. Today’s song of the day, “Goodbye Sweet Dreams,” comes from Roky Erickson’s first album in fourteen years, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Produced by fellow Austin boy Will Sheff, and backed by his band Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil marks Erickson’s triumphant return from some of the darkest corners this life can offer. In many ways an exercise in catharsis, this new offering features archival “found-sound from Erickson’s home movies and recordings made during his institutionalization at The Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane[initially charged with the possession of a single joint].” That said, the album is quite polished with hints of the aforementioned noise peppered throughout. “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” is most easily described as a haunting farewell to simpler, clearer times. The song is initially quite fragile, slowly building in vocal intensity and instrumental density until the echoes of Erickson’s tormented past are ringing in your ears as if they were your own.
Roky and the River performed a handful of shows during SXSW this year and plan to play a few more coming up this month, including a show at New York’s Webster Hall on May 25th. The other two dates, listed on his MySpace page, are in San Francisco and L.A., so you might want to grab a plane ticket for one of these rare chances to see them. Fortunately, we were able to catch them at the Brooklyn Vegan/M for Montreal day party at the Galaxy Room in Austin. Here’s “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” a song from his Bleib Alien years, from that set: