Memories of Roky, from those who held him up high
Troy Campbell, Eve Monsees and more reflect on Austin music genius
Troy Campbell still vividly remembers the night Roky Erickson took the stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2005, a big step in a late-career comeback that Campbell came to consider Erickson’s “third act.”
“Up until that moment, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” said Campbell, a longtime Austin musician who’d been helping to keep the legendary psychedelic rocker grounded after Erickson’s family and friends enlisted his aid. Campbell had worked to get Roky on the ACL Fest bill. How it would go was anybody’s guess.
“But he absolutely shredded the crowd,” Campbell said. “He just went from one song into the next, and you could tell the guy was a pro.”
Campbell served as Roky’s tour manager for the next half-dozen years before helping to prepare Roky’s son, Jegar, to take over that role in 2012. Other memories from that stretch included hearing tens of thousands of fans chanting Roky’s name before a show in Sweden.
Not sure how Erickson would react, “I asked Roky, ‘What do you think about all this?’” Campbell recalled. “He said, ‘I expected it.’ Then he put on his guitar and he walked out and he just killed it.”
Similar stories and tributes poured in from others who had experiences with Roky over the decades in the wake of Erickson’s death Friday at 71. Cause of death has not officially been released, but Erickson’s manager, Darren Hill, said Tuesday, “Basically, his big beautiful heart gave out.”
An earlier statement from management noted that “the family asks for privacy while they deal with the loss of a son, brother, husband and father.” Public memorial events have not yet been announced, though it seems likely some will take shape in the coming days and weeks. Hill said one possibility could be an event July 15, which would have been Erickson’s 72nd birthday.
The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas recently unveiled a new music exhibit that includes some Erickson artifacts, including a Kerry Awn painting of Erickson’s 1960s band, the 13th Floor Elevators. The center recently acquired more Erickson-related materials as part of the Jack Ortman collection.
Tributes from those who knew and loved Roky flooded social media over the weekend. On Instagram, blues guitarist and Antone’s Record Shop co-owner Eve Monsees posted a photo of her husband, Mike Buck, playing with Roky at Liberty Lunch decades ago.
“When I was 12 years old I took guitar lessons from Brian Salvador Curley, who started showing me several basic open chords," the caption read. "Once I was able to play those chords, he taught me how to play a song: ‘Starry Eyes’ by Roky Erickson. As I learned more chords and got a little better, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ became the lesson of the day. … I don’t even know how to explain the magnitude of Roky’s music and influence.”
A mid-1970s single produced by Doug Sahm featured longtime Austin musician and lawyer Bobby Earl Smith as a studio assistant. Smith recounted memories of the session in a public Facebook post.
“Most likely it was the very day of the ‘Starry Eyes’/‘Two Headed Dog’ recording session at Pecan Street Studios that Doug called and asked me to come down and give him a hand. … I had seen Doug work wonders on so many occasions, creating magic out of seeming disarray and confusion, that the Roky session didn't seem particularly unusual. When I walked into the studio the mood was upbeat, buoyant. The band and Roky were happy, not giddy or nervous. They were clearly overjoyed, joyous really, to be in each other's company. … In the small studio with the band playing at stun level ‘Two Headed Dog’ hit me like a closed fist in the chest. Roky nailed the vocal on ‘Starry Eyes.’ Doug Sahm was the Texas master of ‘the groove’ and Roky put it right in the pocket on this cut. Rest in peace, Roky.”
READ MORE: Roky Erickson, the man who made Austin weird
Bill Bentley, who produced the 1990 Erickson tribute album "Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye," shared by email a memory that detailed the inspiration for, and completion of, that tribute:
"The first band I asked to record a song was ZZ Top. The band's Billy Gibbons had been a good friend since high school days in Houston, and we both were total 13th Floor Elevators acolytes. So I called Billy, told him about the album and asked if the band would join in. He said yes before I even finished the question. Flash forward a few months after the 22 songs had all been recorded … and it was time to master the album. But I still hadn't gotten ZZ Top's song. I made all the calls but still no tape. It was radio silence from manager Bill Ham's office.
"On the afternoon before going to the mastering lab after work, I figured, well, the band wasn't going to be included, which broke my heart a little since that's where this collection had begun. Then, around 5 o'clock, Ham walked into my office. It was more like making an entrance, since Ham was always dressed to the nines and carried a regalness with him. We'd first met in 1969 when ZZ Top was brand new, and Bill would sit in the Branding Iron hamburger place on Westheimer in Houston, making lists of who he thought could help get his new group off the ground. But that day he squinted at me from the doorway, so I knew I'd broken a Bill Ham rule. There were many. But since we'd been friends for over 20 years I didn't think he'd explode on me.
"He succinctly said, "I understand you asked my band to record a Roky Erickson song," implying I'd pulled a no-no by not asking him first. I admitted guilt, apologized and explained my enthusiasm had gotten the best of me. Still, Bill was still leering at me. In his most senatorial voice, he said, "I've got just one word for you: 'consistency.'" With that he put his hand in his perfectly-tailored tan silk blazer, pulled out a small DAT (digital audio tape) and tossed it across the room to me. Luckily, I caught it, looked at the spine, which said "Reverberation," and almost broke into tears. Bill turned on his heels and walked out of my office. I put the tape in my bag, got in my car and drove to K-Disc and watched while 'Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye' was mastered. The circle remained unbroken."
Scott Newton, longtime photographer for the “Austin City Limits” TV show (on which Erickson appeared during the 2007-2008 season), shared some of his many photos over the decades on his professional Facebook page. One of particular interest: a shot of Roky with Willie Nelson and Gibby Haynes.
“First, Roky wouldn't move or take direction, literally," Newton wrote in the post. "He would turn, but not move. Then, Willie quietly asked us who Roky Erickson was. Later, Roky asked if Willie Nelson was there yet, while standing next to him. Gibby Haynes was, well, Gibby. Willie is good for maybe 2 willing cooperative minutes before he's on to the next thing. I wasted 5 minutes trying to get Roky to move and Willie announced my 5 minutes were up! I dropped trying to get Roky to do anything other than just stand and chat (‘How do I look now?’), and managed to get off two very quick rolls of 120 film with the Hasselblad; the actual shooting took 2 minutes.”
Haynes’ longtime Butthole Surfers bandmate King Coffey chimed in on social media with his own thoughts: “When I began discovering punk rock, I realized that there was already a deep Texas tradition we could draw upon. The 13th Floor Elevators were so undeniable. So out there. So Texan. … In the early '90s, I started a record label to support Texas artists that I loved. By a fluke, I was asked if I wanted to do a new Roky Erickson record. I never had an easier question to answer in all my life. Yes, oh my God, yes. He was why I was even in this position in the first place. … I've never been so close to a genius. Yet, it came with a trade-off. At that point in his life, he was dealing with untreated schizophrenia. It was grueling. A complete, worse than you can imagine, monster. And he was struggling. My friends and I spent a lot of time with him, however. We did our best. As did he. Those times together are some of the favorite moments in this life, even as hard as they were. … I'm so glad he was able to share his gift with us for as long as he could.”
LISTEN — American-Statesman's Joe Gross and Peter Blackstock talk about Roky on Austin360 Radio: