Culturespill » 2008 » March

Roky Erickson: He’s Comin’ Home After All

31st March

Roky

“I’ve gone through three changes: first I thought I was a Christian, then I was the devil, and then a third one where I know who I am, and I feel like an alien.”
– Roky Erickson

Call him “The great lost vocalist of Rock ‘N Roll.” Call him “The Unknown hero of Rock ‘N Roll.” Around here, though, we call him the haunted howling wolf of psychedelia. These are just a few of the countless expressions of praise rightfully lavished upon underground legend Roky Erickson, the man responsible for the skull-cracking mayhem known as The 13th Floor Elevator back in the 1960s and, for a far less memorable minute, in the early 1970s after Roky was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Austin, Texas.

The band’s demise in 1973 was hardly surprising; they had hit a few minor snags along the way. A couple of members had to be booted for doing too much speed. Then their lead guitarist, Stacy Sutherland, became hooked on heroin and was subsequently murdered by his wife–that there’s a snag if I’ve ever heard one. If that seems like a harsh penalty for pumping the magic juice, though, you might want to keep reading.

The tragic B-movie horror flick that is the life of Roky Erickson, truly one of Rock ‘N Roll’s unsung pioneers whose influence has been explicitly noted by an array of bands that includes R.E.M., The White Stripes, Patti Smith, ZZ Top, The Butthole Surfers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and goth-rock Gods The Cramps, among many others, reads like a page torn out of the bible your grandpa keeps in a drawer by the bed with his gun. I’d say that it sounds like a movie, but rumors of a biopic about Roky were dashed when Jack Black literally called him to say that he “couldn’t handle the part.” No shit, jack. That’s why he’s Roky fucking Erickson.

More Roky

No one’s really sure exactly what turned Jack Black off to the role, but there are plenty of possibilities. Maybe it was the electro-shock treatment forced on Roky at Rusk. Maybe it was the mind-numbing doses of Thorazine they choked him with, or those beatings at the hands of assholes in uniform there. Black was a sensible choice for the role, though, given that Roky’s anthem, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was featured in the film that Black made his name in, the brilliant John Cusak flick Hi-Fidelity. If you think you’ve never heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” by the way, please kindly come out from under your rock and turn on the radio. Or watch this video (cheater).

So what foul offense did he commit to be beaten, electrocuted, drugged and caged, you ask? Simple: he took a single twist of weed on a drive through Mount Bonnell in Austin one day in 1969. Given the band’s aforementioned propensities for speed, heroin and murder, the cops, naturally, took an interest (can’t those bastards take a joke?), and then they took Roky in. Varying reports exist on exactly how many joints he’d packed that day, actually, but in a 2005 interview with Paul Drummond, Erickson insists the Cops’ story that he tossed a vial of pot out the window of his car was a load of horseshit and that they planted the evidence:

Erickson: Well it doesn’t seem right that I would through out a vial of grass into the weeds and a Policeman would stop and set his flashlight on it and get it .

Drummond: Are you saying he planted it?

Erickson: That sounds real good.

We’re sure it does, Roky. Real, real good. Just as it sounded good when he was busted loose from Rusk the night an “electric jug player” named Tommy Hall “took the door off the hinges with a screwdriver and snook me out of the hospital,” as Roky puts it (and all this time you thought “snook” was a fish!). And that’s where the nightmare began, really: the torture inflicted from the outside became the more inescapable torture within him: a prolonged bout with acute schizophrenia that left him to drown out “the awful noises” in his head by sitting at home amid a multitude of blasting televisions. Soon he was publicly announcing that a Martian inhabited his body, a claim that actually begins to make sense when you watch the documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which premiered at the 2005 SXSW Film festival, and listen to friends of his say things like “anyone who tried to have a conversation with him understood that he was not of this world.” Maybe Roky wasn’t kidding.

Roky & The Explosives

And neither are the legions of loyalists who shower him in thunderous ovations at his many recent live shows, particularly at the sizzling performances he’s been putting on with veteran garage rockers The Explosives. It’s clear that Erickson has no interest in cashing in on dated glories, as he rocks just as hard on signature tunes like the scorching metal rant “Two Headed Dog” or “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators” as he does on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” gems he produced despite the crippling onslaught of mental illness. For a guy who dropped out of high school rather than conform to code by cutting his hair, such willful defiance of a condition that has silenced so many great voices is characteristic of the kind of determination that enabled him to write hundreds of songs while cooped up at the State Home.

Not to be confined by any particular sound or label, Roky explores a range his hard-nosed rock reputation doesn’t always credit, as gorgeous ballads like “Starry Eyes” or “You Don’t Love Me Yet” elicit as many sing-alongs from crowds as anything else he’s done. With The Explosives, though, even the gentlest ballad is transformed into the most sneering rocker, as on this rendition of “Starry Eyes” from a gig in Stockholm last year. But it’s the banalities of Roky’s new life after schizophrenia and a disastrous deterioration under the care of his mother that might be the grandest miracle of all: he has a driver’s license for the first time in decades, owns a car, and even votes.

 

Trailer for “You’re Gonna Miss Me” Documentary

Much of his comeback–both on stage and off–is in thanks to his younger brother Sumner, who won legal guardianship of him in 2001 and reversed his mother’s support of Roky’s refusal to take prescriptions for his paranoid schizophrenia. His teeth had undergone severe decay and he was living in federally-subsidized housing, depending largely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get by (especially for those sweet cream ice cream malts he loves so dearly–he once traded the rights for several songs with Doug Sahm for nothing more than a milkshake, exactly the reason why his brother had to help him dig out of a tangle of grossly exploitative royalty deals that left him penniless). Then the cops came back to bust him on a bogus charge of mail fraud; yes, Rocky was taping neighbors’ mail to his walls, but furious.com reports that “He had been collecting and distributing mail for two neighbors, but when they moved away Roky continued to collect but no longer distribute. When police came to his home they found it all unopened and some of it taped to his walls.”

Roky & His Bro

Roky & His Bro

Only since Sumner’s lucky day in court has his brother Roky really taken back his life, keeping his mind in check with medication he should have been taking all along, delivering more public performances than he’d done in decades, and even recording new music. Now Roky’s got a web site and tour dates (a gig in new Orleans is coming up on April 30), and the web is abuzz with reports of the most unlikely rock ‘n roll resurrection since the last Jim Morrison sighting. Hell, you can even find the guy on MySpace. Chicago Public Radio reported last year that long time 13th Floor devotee Billy Gibbons, singer and guitarist of ZZ Top, is rumored to be doing an album with Roky that may see the light of day this year, further confirming that what would be the twilight of any other rocker’s career is actually Roky’s second dawn.

Meet the Spartans (no, not the stupid movie)

30th March

Spartans!

For those interested in simulating the sound of Porcelain or Threes, Sparta’s latest and most focused outing to date, we’ve devised the following recipe: take two supernovas, one-and-a-half thunderstorms, any song from U2′s October, a flock of gazelles being shot at by a band of rabid man-eaters, any song from Radiohead’s The Bends, and one teenage girl who has just learned that her boyfriend’s been sleeping with her sister. Throw all ingredients down the stairs at once. Garnish with a dusting of speed and serve dangerously hot. Yields infinite servings.

Of course, you can always go for the old fashioned approach and just listen to the albums. But be warned: approximately 90 seconds into songs like “Taking Back Control,” the band’s most radio-ready single to date, you may begin to feel as though you’re trying to drink down a comet. Do not be alarmed. This is normal. You’re listening to Sparta, the second in Culturespill’s new series of “The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of.”

If you’ve heard anything about this rising bunch of slingers and singers from El Paso, then you might know that they’re half of what used to be known as At the Drive In, those now-defunct sorcerers of distortion-soaked hardcore punk. But don’t let that fool you. Sparta’s sound boasts as much testosterone but less of the angst of their famously afroed forefathers. OK, so maybe only one of them sported the whole let’s-be-white-dudes-with-afros thing, but Jesus, Cedric, that hair was really frickin’ big.

Sparta performing “Taking Back Control”

But if the only thing At the Drive-In is remembered for is big hair and, well, maybe that one time they pretended to be a polka chapel band just to score a live spot on a TV show (I’m still waiting to hear the polka-punk rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”–I would give my first-born child for that bootleg–hell, take ALL my kids–no, I’m serious. Please.), they’ve got Sparta to thank for it. Trading the slash-yourself-and-sing-about-it abandon of ATDI’s Acrobatic Tenement for the softened but still-present edges of their own Porcelain, Sparta has found a way to risk the leap from ATDI’s adolescent mania to a sound that some might be tempted to describe with the word that has driven a steak through the hearts of many careers in music–hold your nose now–”mature.” I know, I know. Here–take this barf bag.

But that’s just the thing about Sparta–if we must call them “mature” in our useless comparisons with their predecessors, they find a way to do it without sounding so bored you think they’re just singing along to their grandpa’s record collection. In fact, the lush, sonic roller coaster of “The Guns of Memorial Park” or the gorgeously trippy “Syncope” burst from the stereo like exploding stars, the blistering hooks of Keeley Davis’s guitar riding Jim Ward’s soaring vocals into the unexplored reaches of your dreams. Now with the searing single “Taking Back Control” climbing as high as #24 on US Rock charts, Sparta threatens to make a quick transition from “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of” to “The Best Band You’ve Heard Too Much About,” especially with their relentless touring of Europe recently with bands like Lola Ray, Lovedrug and My Chemical Romance (hey, don’t judge a band by the company they keep–Sparta’s got to make a living too.)

In the meantime, if you’re in Texas, you’re also in luck. Check out their website for the slew of dates they’ve got coming up in Lonestar country starting with an April 14th gig in Austin.

MGMT: Surf Jungle Country is Born!

30th March

mgmt.jpg

“I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars”

– MGMT

If it already feels like you’ve taken one too many sips of hallucinogenic mushroom tea while stepping inside another episode of VH1′s “Where Are They Now,” especially the part where the featured “artists” do lots of drugs, get fat and completely forgotten by the world, and then try to not be forgotten anymore by making really terrible music in their middle age for a “comeback” tour attended by thirteen-and-a-half people worldwide, that’s as it should be: You’re reading an article about MGMT, a duo of self-described “mystic paganists” devoted to “opening the third eye of the world” with their debut LP Oracular Spectacular. The album’s first track, “Time to Pretend,” which is featured in the new movie 21 about some MIT kids who took Vegas to the cleaners by learning to count cards, takes aim at every one of those VH1 cliches with the sharp arrow of the band’s notorious sarcasm:

I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life.
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars.
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.

This is our decision, to live fast and die young.
We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do.
Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute.

Forget about our mothers and our friends
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend . . .

There’s really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.
The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce
We’ll find some more models, everything must run it’s course.

We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end
We were fated to pretend
To pretend
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

“We were really sarcastic when we met them,” Van Wyngarden tells Rolling Stone of his first meeting with Columbia Records execs, who soon signed MGMT to a four-album deal worth six figures, “They asked us for a list of dream producers, so we made one: Prince, Barack Obama, Nigel Godrich and ‘Not Sheryl Crow.’ ” Culturespill’s vote, for what it’s worth, is for “Not Sheryl Crow”–not EVER, in fact.


MGMT: “Electric Feel,” Oracular Spectacular (2008)

Oracular, a collection of psychadelic synth-pop jams in which Andrew Van Wyngarden sounds like he’s singing from under water and inside the sun simultaneously, at turns Mick Jagger and Andy Gibb, is an easy choice as Culturespill’s inaugural “Best Band You’ve Never Heard of” installment. But you’ll be hearing plenty about them soon. The album debuted on UK charts at the 12 spot, and the band’s core members, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, have graced just about every major magazine’s “artists to watch” reports in the past year, including feature coverage in Spin, BBC and Rolling Stone.

Of course, getting feature coverage in Rolling Stone can be a bit like getting a sharp stick to the eye–the magazine wreaks of perfume ads and spends more time endorsing politicians and pop wannabes these days than it does talking about something called “music”–you know, the stuff it was founded for. But while obsolete rags like Rolling Stone strive desperately for a contrived coolness–kind of like that scrawny white boy in high school who came to class with a lunch packed by mom and boasted of many untrue sexcapades in his best Ebonics to fit in–the boys of MGMT do their damnedest to fit nowhere at all.

They got their start doing “these obnoxious, noisy live electronic shows . . . where we would write these weird techno loops and arrangements that we could play with live.” Remarking on “these weird California Credence-style songs” they wrote to perform live a while back, Andrew and Ben explain that “A lot of people hated it. That used to be the goal of our shows. We were still trying to be obnoxious and somehow people got into it.”


MGMT: “Time to Pretend,” Oracular Spectacular (2008)

Drenched in addictive hooks that marry Prince and The Flaming Lips in a union of space-funk and soul that somehow captures exactly the sound the band describes on their MySpace page–”surf jungle country”–Oracular delivers a sound that’s as fresh in 2008 as Beck’s was in 1994, leaping onto the scene with the same “we don’t care” abandon that “Loser” brought to the biz back then. And people are “getting into it”–lots of them. It’s no accident that the album vaguely echoes The Flaming Lips. Oracular IS produced, after all, by David Fridmann, the captain at the console for many a Flaming Lips album. Roll Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with some speed-laced nicotine and you’ve got the addictive mindfuck that is Oracular Spectacular.

Apart from their music, though, what’s refreshing about Ben and Andrew is their indifference to the punk-rock disdain for corporate influence that has itself become one of the cliches they expose, claiming instead to have “talked a lot about selling out as soon as possible” before anyone but their buddies knew who they were. Touché! Nonetheless, here’s to hoping that next year’s Grammy Awards completely ignore this masterpiece deserving of universal adoration, a neglect that has become a seal of approval for bands too good to be caught on TV with Brittney and Beyonce–and let’s hope it stays that way, for the sake of both the band and their growing number of fans.

And keep your eyes peeled for a curious little LP rumored to be out “in early 2009,” featuring an indie supergroup of sorts that emerged from MGMT’s recent tour with indie pop prodigies, Of Montreal. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s frontman, has teamed up with Andrew VanWyngarden to form a side project called Blikk Fang. Judging from the certainty with which Spin projects an LP release due next year, the two of them seem pretty serious about it.

Culturespill’s Plea to Electric Six: Ease the Seat Back!

29th March

E6

 

In light of troubling news that Electric Six has has hit the studio to record their fifth album in as many years, we at Culturespill thought we’d pose a question their most recent album begs us to ask: what’s the rush, dude? The uncharacteristically boring I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Becoming the Master, out last year from Metropolis Records, made an even more convincing case than its timid predecessor (Switzerland, 2006) for the need to, as Dick Valentine might put it, “ease the seat back.”

It would seem that Valentine, the band’s brainchild, agrees. “Our feet hurt. We need to soak our feet in salt water,” he confessed on the band’s website earlier this year, “We have to address our pediatric issues first and then we’ll worry about the release date of our next record on Metropolis Records. We have begun recording though. It has already begun.” OK–funny funny ha-ha. But as reviews of their latest–and easily their most forgettable–album indicate, a nice warm epsom bath and a cool year off might not be such a bad idea.

Just a few short years ago, we didn’t hesitate for a second before calling E6 the best band currently walking the face of the Earth. There was a ferocious abandon about the band’s debut, Fire–how its stinging combo-pack of punk, disco, arena rock and grade-school sex puns so wholly dismantled the cliches of ’70s rock excess that you loathed yourself for ever pondering that Styx album in your iPod. Even the deeply flawed follow-up, Senor Smoke, which was released in England long before it hit American stores due to distribution snags, evinced a sporadic brilliance that kindled widely-held hopes that the band would find a way back to the addictive blaze and boom of their debut.

It was hardly surprising that E6 had trouble finding Senor a distributor in America, where people no longer distinguish between music and bull piss because FM radio continues to force-feed them overproduced treacle that is about as memorable as a slice of processed cheese. It was equally unsurprising that such tepid reviews welcomed the album upon its release, as Fire was so brilliant, fearless and new that Senor Smoke sounded worse than it actually was.

Most rags in England, where the band scored dance-floor hits with “Gay Bar” and “Fire in the Disco,” trashed the album unmercifully because Valentine danced on Freddy Mercury’s grave during a video for a lame cover of “Radio Ga Ga.” Whatever. The song sucked then and it sucks now, and if E6 intended to prove this with their cover, they succeeded brilliantly. And anyway, Valentine concedes that he only included the cover on Senor Smoke to appease the demands of tasteless roadies who heard the band perform it one time. Like the band itself, it was probably meant as an absurd joke that went horribly wrong.

E6 Video: “Danger! High Voltage”

But that’s exactly the point: there was a time when the bad joke that is Electric Six sounded so right. “Devil Nights,” “Rock N’ Roll Evacuation,” “Dance Epidemic” and “Boy or Girl” were unmistakable E6 gems worth the price of the album alone. And then there’s the hideous “dance moves” Valentine employs on stage—especially those sloppy, half-naked push-ups he performs about 7 beers into every setlist. “I do sit-ups, too,” Valentine told Crave in an interview last year, “but nobody wants to talk about those.” Damn right, Dick. I’m sorry, but there’s something about a guy named Dick doing naked calisthenics for public audiences that’s deeply unsettling. But that’s the whole point with these guys; trauma is their currency. Well, it was.

If Senor Smoke as a whole was a damned mess—and it was—the band did have their excuses: record company strife, the loss of E6’s original lineup, and external pressures such as (“Oh, man! Radio Ga Ga! You gotta put that one on there, dude!”) that all came together at the same time to condemn the album to hopeless oblivion. It’s a testament to Valentine’s fortitude that he even scraped enough tunes together to put out a product that at least resembled an E6 LP.

When Switzerland was recorded so quickly on the heels of Senor Smoke–the chaos that distracted those sessions replaced by a combination of urgency and liberty that might have been the stuff of the next great E6 LP–the watery turd they served up as a finished product gave fans as much pause as it should have given the band. Then came that Exterminate Everything blah blah blah stuff, and suddenly each successive E6 album began to feel like the continuation of some agonizingly prolonged gesture of farewell.

Those who, like yours truly, cling to the band for echoes of the Fire-era E6 in pursuit of further elaboration on Valentine’s three favorite subjects–fire, nuclear war, and gay bars–are treated instead to an evolving aesthetic that’s shocking in its self-importance, given the band’s devotion to self-deprecating absurdity. “When you have a couple hits, people automatically assume that just because you have one song, you can’t write any other sort of song,” Valentine whined in another interview last fall, “Like clearly, based on hearing ‘Danger! High Voltage,’ this band is not capable of doing anything but ‘High Voltage.’ Like right out of the gate. ‘Based on this one song, this band will never, ever have another song besides this song.’” Boo-hoo.

There comes a time when every self-confessed “bar-band”–as Valentine himself describes his crew–must decide whether they will continue to be who they are or become “artists.” As so many bands who’ve gone the “artist” route in the past have proven–The Red Hot Chili Peppers come to mind–it might make you more popular at the local wheat-grass bar, but it isn’t worth a drink of water on the dance floor.

Few acts are capable of delivering the narcotic and unthinking thrill of rock and roll with more abandon or abundance than E6. There is nothing shallow about looking to them for something other than the sober lectures of a Billy Brag album. Sometimes it’s OK for a band to have fun and for fans to go looking for it; but with each increasing album and interview, it sounds like the same guys who waged “nuclear war on the dance floor” in 2003 are more likely to wage war on their fans in 2008.