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Don’t Knock the Rok!

22 Jun

Saw ROKY ERICKSON & THE EXPLOSIVES live earlier this week here in London. Man, it was a long time coming. Let me recount this.


’84: I ride my bike up my road, turn to cruise along the Lunada Bay cliffs, up to where the big mansions lay obscuring the Pacific Ocean view. Up ahead, I spot a dozen or so parked trucks, and folks unloading lots of big equipment: a camera crew. I stop:

Me: hey, what are you guys filming?

Him: A movie.

Me: Really? What’s it called?

Him: The Return of the Living Dead.

Me: Cool!

I hung around for a half hour or so, but left bummed as I didn’t see any zombie-looking guys lingering around. I then waited on baited breath all year for that movie to finally come out. When it did, we went to see it opening night at Del Amo Fashion Mall in Torrance. Turns out, all they were filming in my neighborhood was this short scene at the US military general’s home – far removed from the zombie chowdown sequences. But who cares – it was definitely my favorite movie that year. And Roky’s “Burn the Flame” is the soundtrack to this sad old guy crawling into a crematorium oven! I loved the grim, camp misery of it all.

’89: I’m outta high school now, a full-grown man doncha you know. And so I decide to take a solo roadtrip into the American Southwest in my shitty beatup ’73 Chevy Nova. I pack the glovebox with mixtapes – GERMS (GI), THE ORNETTE COLEMAN QUARTET, alot of early Dangerhouse and What? Records stuff – plus the 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS’ Easter Everywhere record. Out near Gallup, NM a highway sign – Route 666 – catches my evil eye in the dying early evening sun. To the sounds of “Leave Your Body Behind”, I turn off and begin riding 100 miles of that filthy, damned road. I don’t turn it off and never turn back.

’94: I’m sitting around with a couple of grand ol’ Texas hill-country 40-something hippies, smoking DMT for the first and last time in my life. These hippies I’d do just about anything for, but DAMN – they are so luddite, they only listen to 8-track tapes! Seriously. And their favorite being choice ELEVATOR & Roky tracks dubbed from beat-up vinyl copies. Now: there is this point, 4-5 hits in, when I can hear Roky singing and Stacey Sutherland playing, ringing out loud and clear, but I can’t for the life of me figure out if the music is eminating from outside or from deep within my skinny, fucked-up head. I’ve no sense of self, I’m flying and it’s all so heavy and then . . . CLICK! Goes the 8-track. It’s the sound that’s ruined 100,000 trips – in a split second, I’m stone cold sober again. Take Me to the Empty Place, indeed.

’95: I’m at a benefit show in Austin (at Antoine’s maybe?), the proceeds going to pay for some local guy’s medical bills. Roky’s supposedly the headliner, and well-after midnight he does step on stage, with nothing but a gtr and big ol’ fat belly. He says “this one’s called ‘Starry Eyes’ – have you heard it?” The place goes wild. Roky hems and haws and picks and strums for a little while, but apparently, he can’t remember the chords. So he settles into this off-kilter, minor chord dirge over which he sings the refrain of ‘Starry Eyes’ but little else. He looks really unconfortable, panicky actually, says “sorry” and flees the stage. And that’s all she wrote. It was pretty sad – but he still gets a standing ovation.

I could go on and on with little stories like these – you might be able to, too – but oh yeah! You wanna hear about the gig! Read on . . .

1) The venue was this great big posh theatre space made for PHILLIP GLASS symphonies and the like. And the presence of this little bar-band – 3 old guys and 1 really old guy – all huddled together, in the middle of this massive stage, was totally anachronistic. The ticket sales fella told me over the phone: “now if you arrive late, our policy is to let people in, but gradually – during periods of audience applause.” I told him: “yeah man I don’t think you’re gonna have to worry about that tonight – these guys play rock n roll.” He didn’t respond. Yes I do live in London, don’t I.

2) They played the early 80’s horror-rock set in its entirety – “I Walked With A Zombie”, “The Wind And More”, “I Think of Demons” etc. Plus, they did a killer version of “Splash 1” that FINALLY brought this song to life for me. And Roky actually looked slimer, healthier, halfway comfortable – how freaky was that? The Olanzapine must be working.

3) EXPLOSIVE gtrist Cam King looks like yr basic Texas boomer dad, what with his shit-eating grin, gel-styled hair and xpensive cowboy boots – and he plays his licks straight in that StevieRayblooz tradition. He’s precisely the kinda guy you’d stumble across 8 days a week at someplace like the Continental Club in Austin in the 90’s – and the total antithesis of GARAGE, or PUNK, or whatever it was that the hip London indie elite expected/wanted. He even dedicated the set to Paul McCartney: “it’s his birthday, you know.” His uncool was PERFECT. And man – he tore it up, like only them white Texas blues mutherfuckers can. I get homesick when I see that kinda living, breathing soulful string action.

4) The sound BLEW MAJOR CHUNKS. Roky – the man with the best rock and roll voice EVER – wasn’t mic’ed properly for the first few songs, and the entire mix was mud. Just who the fuck was this loser who calls himself a soundman there? Introduce me, please. I’d be happy to point out a few things to this worm.

5) People gave em a standing ovation, but that was preordained. I left wanting to see these guys rip it up in a more natural, friendly environment – like around a backyard bar-B-Q, with little ponies milling about nibbling at my denim fringe. Or in a freakin’ graveyard, surrounded by howling wolves, on the longest goddamn night of the year.

6) Real SOUL music is so, so fucking hard to find these days.

Roky Erickson & the ExplosivesNight of the Vampire (Casting the Runes, Five Hours Back, 1987)

(Thanks to Dan for the great and wiggly shot of Roky on that cold, cold London stage)