Thursday, August 30, 2007

Petri Dish 101: Roky Erickson, Psychedelic Pioneer

In the great opening credits sequence of the John Cusack music-nerd vehicle High Fidelity, we see a good old-fashioned LP player, its needle dropped purposefully on a record. Underneath the homey crackle and pop of the ancient vinyl, the garage rock classic "You're Gonna Miss Me," by the 13th Floor Elevators, begins.

Three guitar chords pound through. Then, on cue, the drums and a bizarre alien hum (actually an electrified jug) kick in. After a few bars comes the vocal, a snarling, soaring, utterly out-of-control wail that suggests a bobcat on mescaline fighting for its life. The antiquity of that sputtering vinyl only intensifies the feeling that the voice you're hearing emanates from somewhere gloriously, chillingly not of this earth.

It's the kind of tooth-rattling rock and roll howl from which cult worship is born, and the possessor of that magnificent instrument, Roky Erickson, is playing Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival on Labor Day. Such an announcement means way more than just another sixties rocker hitting the comeback/revival trail: It's nothing short of a bloody miracle.

Erickson's rise, fall, and rebirth have been the stuff of rock and roll legend. Erickson and his fellow musical explorers in The 13th Floor Elevators burst onto the mid-60's rock scene with a sound that infused straightahead rock with a heady dose of lysergic anarchy. Erickson's unhinged singing style and wild charisma shone a heavy influence on fellow rock and roll hellion Janis Joplin, and the Elevators' visceral sound goosed the Haight-Ashbury scene. It's likely no coincidence that erstwhile folkies like the Jefferson Airplane begin cranking up their guitars and diving into uncharted psychedelic waters after the Texas-spawned Elevators rolled through California for the first time.

Such trailblazing came at a heavy cost, particulary for Roky Erickson. Drugs--LSD in particular--were key ingredients in the Elevators' psychedelic stew, and Erickson himself purportedly dropped some 300 hits of acid during those heady years. The band's active endorsement of said drugs put local authorities on the warpath. Then in 1969 the singer/guitarist was busted for possession of a single marijuana joint, and rather than face the Draconian prison time exacted for a criminal charge, Erickson's attorney copped an insanity plea. It was a decision that would wreak havoc on an already-fragile psyche. Erickson was committed to Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, subjected to daily shock treatments and Thorazine doses, and housed in a nightmarish environment alongside child rapists and murderers. After his discharge in 1973, he was never the same.

A diagnosed schizophrenic, Roky Erickson spent the next two decades in a state of abject psychosis, in and out of mental institutions and eventually living in abject poverty in a tiny hovel of an apartment in Austin, Texas. His mother Evelyn became his de facto guardian, and her (not-entirely-unfounded, given Roky's sad past) extreme phobia over psychiatrists, drugs, or chemical treatment of any kind put an indefinite hold on any sort of therapy for her eldest son. Happily, Roky's youngest brother Sumner (a principal tuba player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) fought for--and won--guardianship of his older brother, and a carefully-controlled regimen of drug-and-psychiatric therapy has done wonders.

Today, the atomic fireball frontman of the 13th Floor Elevators is on the road again with a new band, The Explosives, and he's reputedly in fine form. His coming Bumber-gig on Monday September 3 promises to be a treat, and one more step towards Roky Erickson's redemption. If you give a damn about rock and roll and live within a hundred-mile radius, you best be in attendance.

Essential Recordings:

In addition to his work with the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson sporadically recorded as a solo artist, and as frontman for Roky Erickson and the Aliens in the late seventies and early eighties before discarding music outright for many years.

Several of his solo releases came when he was at his most unstable, and many of the labels who put out those records effectively took advantage of Erickson's mental state and stiffed him out of any royalty money. As such, the quality of a lot of his solo catalog is pretty erratic. It's helpful to have some guidance navigating through the morass of half-baked outtakes and cynical repackagings to get to the man's finest musical moments.

You're Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson (Restless Records, 1991) and I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (Shout Factory, 2005) provide the best shared starting points. The latter, a two-disc set, is the more exhaustive, including almost a dozen 13th Floor Elevators tracks as well as copious selections from his finer solo efforts (plus, most importantly, Roky gets royalties from the proceeds). The former, older collection, however, provides a more consistent sampling of his solo work, favoring stronger recordings of some of his best songs with the Aliens and alone: The haunting acoustic take of "I Have Always Been Here Before" on You're Gonna Miss Me, for one, totally blows the version on the 2005 Anthology away (and captures the song's ruminations on memory and deja vu with greater fidelity).

The 13th Floor Elevators, Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (Collectables, 1966) and Easter Everywhere (Collectables, 1967): The Elevators' first two albums still rock like hell and swirl like the opening credits of a Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe flick. Roky declaims surreal lyrics like the most compellingly zealous of preachers, and puts the wildman's snarl to work on more straightahead garage rockers like the immortal "You're Gonna Miss Me" and "Tried to Hide". Stacy Sutherland's and Erickson's guitars, meantime, lay down the kind of trippy sonic cacophony that'd be explored with more virtuosity (if not impact) by Jimi Hendrix and others. Cosmic yet direct, these two albums impacted everything from the psychedelic revival of the eighties to grunge rock (Kurt Cobain was an avowed Elevators fan) to current keepers of the rock flame The White Stripes (Jack White's whine owes the family farm to Roky).

The Evil One Plus One (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1980/2002): Erickson's post-Rusk output is obsessed with horror-movie and demonic lyrical imagery, but this is no mainstream career rocker name-dropping old chillers a la Rob Zombie or Glenn Danzig: Roky sings songs like "If You Have Ghosts" and "Creature with the Atom Brain" with the manic authority of someone for whom such demons are all too real. The ferocious commitment of his delivery, the feral power of his voice, and the solid playing of his backup band, The Aliens, makes this his strongest rock effort outside of his work with the Elevators. Bauhaus, Black Sabbath, and Marilyn Manson all sound like foppish dilettantes in comparison.

Never Say Goodbye (Emperor Jones Records, 1974/1999): While he languished in Rusk and other mental institutions in the early seventies, Roky Erickson continued to write and play music: Several times, his mom Evelyn snuck in a tape recorder and committed these spare acoustic tracks to cassette. You'd think that the results would be the worst kind of slipshod barrel-scraping, but Never Say Goodbye contains several astonishing, brilliant pop and folk songs. The opener, "Unforced Peace," reaches for universal tranquility with quiet resolve and total lucidity to rival John Lennon at his finest, and you will never hear a love song more luminously beautiful and stirringly honest than "I Love the Living You." That all of the wonderful, moving songs contained here were recorded while Roky endured abject imprisonment in some of the nastiest mental facilities in Texas is alternately heart-breaking and unspeakably inspiring. Hard to find (it's out of print, and will set you back about $40 on Amazon), but infinitely worth seeking out.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

This is Tom Jones: Beg, Borrow, Steal, or Kill to Watch It

It'll come as no surprise to regular Dish visitors that the mighty Tom Jones can do no wrong in these parts. So the arrival on region 1 DVD of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'n' Roll Legends, a three disc set of episodes of Jones' 1969-1971 variety show, is like a spike of pure China white for anyone with a Jones jones.
The series came at a key point in the God of Pump's career. He'd already established himself as a proven hitmaker with three worldwide chart-toppers ("It's Not Unusual", "What's New, Pussycat?", and "Delilah") by the time the show debuted, and it remained to be seen if he'd be accepted into American and British living rooms as a TV star.

Both sides of the pond responded enthusiastically in the affirmative, and it's easy to see why from the evidence at hand. This is Tom Jones skewed closely to the traditional variety-show format of the day, giving the TV audience what it wanted (musical acts and comics as guest stars, and copious screen time for the virile star) and showing off Jones at what was probably the peak of his vocal firepower.

The joys contained on this three-disc DVD set from Time-Life Video runneth over. Even if--God forbid--you're not a fan of the Welsh Wonder, you can drink deep in the heady surrealism of the conceptual musical numbers, where late hippie-era psychedelia and showbiz glitz collide with resounding force. Looking for Tom Jones in circulation-constricting orange bell-bottoms belting out the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out", surrounded by go-go dancers frugging in goofy puzzle-piece patterned jumpsuits? It's here. How about The Man pitching musical woo with a gaggle of mini-skirted cuties who do no more than bob their heads like geese crossing a street in formation? Check.

This is Tom Jones, like all of its variety show brethren, presents a cornucopia of entertainment, from rising comic talent (a very young Richard Pryor waxes hilarious about a local evangelist, and the great Fred Willard cuts his teeth in some winning work with sketch troupe The Ace Trucking Company) to acting greats letting their hair down (Anne Bancroft's bizarre monologue about Women's Lib, delivered in--get this--a bubble bath, must be seen to be believed).

But as the subtitle of the DVD set indicates, the musical numbers stand as the Crown Jewels here. Jones, pro that he is, gives even those absurd concept pieces his all, never once sneering down at the silliness, and the live numbers flat-out hit the stratosphere of real, non-ironic cool. He pulls off a tender duet with Lesley Uggams on the West Side Story chestnut "Somewhere" with unflappable grace, and then matches howling rock pioneer Little Richard slug for slug on a furious rockabilly medley. There's a great, free-wheeling looseness to these pairings: Stevie Wonder playfully inserts a few bars of "It's Not Unusual" into his collaboration with Jones, and old pal Burt Bacharach joins the big-voiced Welshman for an easygoing run-through of some of the former's classic standards. My favorite duet: Jones' sweat-inducing soul workout with the fiery Janis Joplin on "Raise your Hand" (dig this clip on YouTube) .

Each episode of This is Tom Jones closes with Jones taking the stage on his own, 100% live and backed by his full band . Anyone doubting the man's genius as a performer need look no further than these sequences (handily sectioned-out along with the rest of the musical numbers on each disc's menu if you're so inclined). Gifted with the most elastic hips and pelvis God gave a white man this side of Elvis Presley, and singing each note as though the fate of the universe hinged on it, Jones commands the stage like no one before or since. His synthesis of old-school showbiz and roof-raising soul shouting was never more perfect: Imagine seeing Elvis do a miniature '68 Comeback Special every week, and you're swinging in the right ballpark.

Some of the episodes have experienced some arbitrary-feeling cuts (whether for rights issues, or because some segments weren't deemed interesting enough, I don't know), and the transfers aren't always perfect, but what's there, as Spencer Tracy once deadpanned, is cherce. The generous extras include alternate US/UK versions of the Stevie Wonder episode, a funny vintage TV Season promo trailer, a 1969 television interview with Jones, and newly-taped segments with with the still-robust subject introducing each episode and providing anecdotes. Best of all is the lengthy 2007 interview, in which Jones relates heaps of great stories and insights with almost boyish enthusiasm. The guy's still brimming with energy, probably enough for another disc or two's worth of stories. And yes, Time-Life Video, that is a hint.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Shock Cinema magazine #33 hits newsstands!

...And I'm in it, baby.

My interview with actress Belinda Balaski appears in the newest issue of (seriously, all partisan bias aside) the finest cult cinema magazine on the block.

Belinda made her mark in several memorable genre efforts (including Food of the Gods and the Fred Williamson action flick Black Eye), and was a regular member of director Joe Dante's repertory company, with featured roles in The Howling, Piranha, Amazon Women on the Moon, and lots of others. She's a terrific lady, and full of priceless anecdotes about the last hurrah of truly independent drive-in cinema in the seventies and eighties.

The latest Shock Cinema should show up at finer retailers all across the country in the next week or so. And if you happen to be at a Seattle branch of one of said finer retailers, I'll be the weirdo at the magazine rack pointing at the movie rags, giggling like a schoolgirl with a new Lisa Frank three-ring binder and muttering, "There I am, there I am..." Just saying.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cleanin' the House: A Quinn Martin Production

Oy. I harbored the naive notion that once we were moved out of Stalag West Seattle I'd be able to blog like the living dickens. No such luck.

The new pad is a big, lovely--but resolutely high-maintenance-- old cuss, so most of my/our waking non-wage-earning hours have been spent cleaning, unpacking, organizing, or some combination thereof (I've also earned my Official Membership in the Weekend Warrior Fraternity with an extensive bout of lawn work, all of which was subsumed by weeds again in short order: Gotta love nature).

In between all of the chores and work, I have had time to imbibe from the well of pop culture, in tiny gulps (just haven't had time to write about much of it). Said sips largely come at dinner, when 30 to 45 minutes can be spent taking in some episodic TV before another vault onto the home improvement breach.

This week's dinnertime diversion: The Streets of San Francisco, the early seventies Quinn Martin cop show that launched Michael Douglas's acting career and made the wonderful character mug of Karl Malden into a household fixture.

The first volume of Season One just hit stores a few weeks ago, providing modern viewers (and old fans, of course) with a unique view of TV evolution. SOSF tried to reconcile the social turmoil of its era with the regimented format of network television, and if the end result creaks a little today, it still packs the requisite thrills--and some (not-always-intended) food for thought.

It's pure formula, with Malden's veteran detective Mike Stone and Douglas's college-educated rookie inspector Steve Keller providing the grist for the obligatory buddy-cop mill. And you can bet dollars to donuts that each episode will end with a chase and/or shootout.

But both leads really click, both as individuals and as a team, and awesome guest stars turn up by the bushel. My personal faves so far: the mighty Roscoe Lee Browne as an avuncular beat poet and possible murder suspect in "Trout in the Milk" (love that title), and Edward Mulhare (Michael Knight's fey employer in Knight Rider) as a cultured, obsessive freak in "Tower Beyond Tragedy," among others.

The series also stands as an interesting bridge between the standard TV cop shows of its era and the CSIs and Law and Orders of today. I watched SOSF with none of the nostalgia that uber-fan Rita harbored, so while the action, guest stars, and buddy chemistry made for great entertainment, the show's glimpses into police procedure of the time were what really hooked me (the show tried much harder than most of its ilk to accurately present the minutae of police procedure).

Some of the procedure has stayed reassuringly consistent (who doesn't love to see a perp read their Miranda rights?), but changes in technology make watching The Streets of San Francisco downright surreal for a modern audience. "Where's his cell phone?" my mind cried out more than once as I watched a beat cop forced to run to the nearest pay phone to call in a crime scene, and observing antique equipment like Tele-type machines and, hell, electric typewriters was like peeking in on a living museum. Such stuff makes SOSF more than just fun: It makes it a genuine time capsule.