For decades, singer/songwriter Roky Erickson has been a musician’s musician—the name to drop for industry pros and amateurs alike wishing to score serious street cred based on their meticulously researched list of non-mainstream musical influences.
From the get-go, the Austin-based Erickson was a certified cult figure. With his original band, The 13th Floor Elevators, he scored a 1966 hit performing the groundbreaking tune “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” The 13th Floor Elevators served as a major influence to later musicians—most notably fellow Austinite Janis Joplin, who cribbed Erickson’s wailing song style. The group’s dense, trippy sound even gave birth to the term “psychedelic rock.” Not long after the infamous Summer of Love, though, Erickson disappeared under a wave of personal and professional problems. He reemerged in the mid-’70s with a new band, Roky Erickson and the Aliens, and launched a whole new phase of his career, producing a dark and slightly campy form of garage music he christened “horror rock.”
Ultimately, however, Erickson is as noted for his troubled personality as for his pioneering performances. Now, documentary filmmaker Keven McAlester tries and succeeds where so many others have failed—to shed light on this notorious cult figure’s personal and professional life.
You’re Gonna Miss Me is an intimate examination of Roky’s strange present and sordid past. The Roky revealed in McAlester’s film is crazier, weirder and more reclusive than we could ever imagine. Today finds Roky huddled in a tiny apartment crammed with odd electronic junk. His TV blares Cartoon Network 24 hours a day. He obsesses over junk mail. The only way he can relax is to crank up feedback and sound loops from the pile of synthesizers and tape decks that fill his living room, becoming lost in the jumble of raucous white noise. His only companion seems to be his aging mother, who drops by occasionally to cater to his most basic needs.
How did Roky get to such a state? You’re Gonna Miss Me is a bit like an Agatha Christie novel, a mystery with far too many culpable suspects. Could it have been Roky’s dysfunctional family? His alcoholic parents? His 300-plus acid trips? His medically diagnosed schizophrenia? His three-year stint in a maximum-security mental hospital? His repeated shock therapy? “All of the above” seems to be a good enough answer.
McAlester doesn’t exactly interview Erickson, who—despite seeming genial, harmless and mostly happy—isn’t really capable of offering much in the way of lucid personal insight. Still, the filmmaker uncovers a great deal about his subject thanks to some incredible cinematic patience. (The film covers roughly a 1998-2001 period.) Slowly, we get to know Roky’s mother, a failed would-be performer herself who tries to sort through the wreckage of her troubled life by constructing gigantic cardboard collages of family photos, old letters and diary-like confessions.
Woven throughout this dark familial tale of divorce, drug abuse and divisiveness are reminiscences by former bandmates, testimonials from professional admirers (Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Patti Smith among them) and plenty of archival footage. (The most telling of which is an early appearance on “American Bandstand.” Après-performance, Dick Clark asks who the “head man” of the band is, to which electric jug-player Tommy Hall answers—without so much as cracking a smile—“We’re all heads.”)
You’re Gonna Miss Me brings to mind Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2005 music-and-mental-illness documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnson, which chronicled the story of Austin-based oddball Daniel Johnson. (Makes you wonder what they’re putting in Austin’s water supply.) There’s plenty of music to go around, much of it ample proof that Erickson is a musical genius. But the greatest focus is on Erickson’s family and what they’re doing to help/hinder him. The twist in the tale comes when Roky’s brother Sumner Erickson sues his mother to assume custody of the ailing musician. Everyone seems to have Roky’s best interests at heart, but the tangle of prescription drugs, holistic healing, New Age psychology, self-medication and benign neglect really makes you wonder if there’s any clear solution for those suffering from severe mental illness.
Alternately sad and funny, You’re Gonna Miss Me is a fascinating chronicle of a largely lost chapter of musical history, a cautionary testament to the mental and physical aftereffects of the ’60s and a perfect example of why your family isn’t nearly as screwed up as you think.