Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the American-Statesman in 2003.
Roky Erickson sat at a corner table at Curra's Grill, eating carne guisada and watching a lightning storm flash above the Austin skies.
He scooped up the last of his black beans and rice, sipped his saccharin-sweetened iced tea through a clear plastic straw, then nodded at a nearby waiter.
"That was real good," he said.
For most people, this is mundane stuff, the routine rituals of daily life. But for Roky, an Austin rock legend who has struggled for decades with paranoid schizophrenia, these small public moments are big private victories.
A little more than a year ago, Roky rarely ventured from his Del Valle home. His hair grew wild, his beard scraggly. Rotting teeth and obesity threatened his health.
That was then.
Today, 18 months after a Travis County judge deemed him incapable of caring for himself and named his brother his legal guardian, 55-year-old Roky is a different man. He takes medication for his schizophrenia. His dark hair is tame and his face clean-shaven. His wide smile reveals perfect teeth.
"Every little part of this is profound," brother Sumner Erickson said. "You've got a man who was a recluse and didn't want to be touched. Now he's going out and socializing and going to parties where it's advertised he's going to be there. It's just amazing."
Roger Kynard Erickson was born in Dallas. The eldest of five boys, he was named after his father. To avoid confusion between the two Rogers, the Ericksons nicknamed their son Roky (pronounced Rocky), combining the first two letters of his first and middle names.
From an early age, the South Austin boy who played piano and guitar wanted to be just like the rock 'n' roll musicians on the radio, a feeling that was cemented after he and his friends performed in a Travis High School talent show.
"We played one of the Rolling Stones' songs at the school, and they flipped out," Roky said.
In 1965, Roky helped found what many consider the world's first psychedelic band: the 13th Floor Elevators. Roky's piercing screams and a blues-rock sound propelled the band's 1966 single "You're Gonna Miss Me" into the Billboard 100, and the group quickly developed a devoted following.
What happened next is nothing new in the annals of rock 'n' roll. Roky took drugs, got caught and faced legal charges. He spent several years at Rusk State Hospital, which had a maximum-security unit for the criminally insane. While he was there, doctors gave him mood-stabilizing drugs and administered electroshock therapy.
Roky spent the next three decades drifting between reality and insanity. During the good times, he married, had children and produced music. The bad times left him paralyzed by auditory hallucinations and paranoia.
Meanwhile, critics and a cultish following adored him. Bands such as ZZ Top and R.E.M. called him an inspiration, a musical genius who never received the fame he deserved.
"He's one of those artists who was very influential but has not gotten his due," said Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. "He has written some achingly beautiful songs. The music he writes about relationships and human emotion are as good as any out there."
But bad business deals left Roky virtually penniless. By 2001, he was living in government-subsidized housing, scraping by on monthly Social Security benefit checks of less than $200.
In June 2001, over the objections of some family members, Sumner Erickson -- the principal tuba player with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra -- was awarded guardianship of his older brother. Roky was declared incapacitated and taken to Pittsburgh.
Those early days of recovery weren't easy. "It was a leap of faith," Sumner Erickson said.
Roky began seeing a therapist three times a week. He took medication for his schizophrenia. A dentist was unable to salvage Roky's decaying teeth and pulled every one. Musician Henry Rollins paid $7,000 for dental work and a pair of handmade false teeth for Roky.
These were big changes for a man who for years lived in a self-imposed exile, said Jegar Erickson, Roky's son. One day, his father was sweet. The next, he was angry.
"It was just confusion," Jegar said. "He was trying to deal with everything that was going on."
Slowly, Roky emerged from his emotional cocoon. Instead of retreating to the television after dinner, he talked to his brother at the table. He dined out every Thursday with friends. He played miniature golf.
"I won every time," he said proudly.
Roky bonded with Jegar and met his 18-year-old daughter, Cydne Shull, for the first time. It was a restrained reunion with only a quiet "hi" from Roky and a stiff hug, but the pair eventually developed a deeper relationship. On Christmas Eve, the father who once had a hard time expressing his emotions called his daughter and told her he missed her.
"I was like, 'Oh, my God,' " Shull said. "It was amazing."
Ask Roky about his past and he'll likely flash a childlike smile, narrow his wide blue eyes and offer a one-word response. He rarely speaks of those days, even to comment on the dozens of stories about his illness that have been published over the years.
"I was only thinking about it when I read about it," he said.
In August 2002, 13 months after he moved to Pittsburgh, Roky returned to Austin. He's been the guest of honor at several parties, happily greeting fans and signing autographs. He occasionally plays the piano or picks up the guitar. Conversations are less forced and provide more information. It's an enormous transformation, friend Stuart Sullivan said.
"It's the difference between wanting to hide and willing to be engaged," he said. "That's the fundamental difference in Roky."
Now supporters are focusing on the future. Family and friends have established the Roger Kynard Erickson Trust to secure the musician's future. All donations directly benefit Roky, board member Peyton Wimmer said.
"It's basically to take care of Roky's living expenses so that he does not have to be at the mercy of others," he said.
So far, several benefit concerts have been held. A homeowner on 37th Street, noted for its Christmas lights, recently collected money for Roky. Legal action over the rights to his music is in progress. Meanwhile, a book, documentary and Hollywood movie about Roky's life are all in the works.
Admirers say they'd love to see him making music again someday. But the important thing is for Roky to be happy and healthy, Sumner Erickson said.
"He's one of Austin's gifts to the artistic world, but he was also one of Austin's greatest tragedies," he said. "People celebrated him, but he wasn't in a place where he could celebrate himself. Now he can."