The Movie Binge

You're Gonna Miss Me

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Roky Erickson is crazy. Or is he? No, just kidding. He's nuts.

The first half of the Keven McAlester directed bio-documentary focuses on the rise of Erickson's prominence in psychedelic music, a genre his band The 13th Floor Elevators had a large part in creating. Then, as predictably as any VH1 Behind the Music, Erickson and his cabal descend, in this case unintentionally humorously, into a nightmare of LSD and heroin abuse. After taking 300 or so hits of acid, he is declared legally insane by the U. S. government and, incidentally, also shows symptoms of schizophrenia around the same time. After being caught with a single joint before the de-regulation of marijuana, Roky's faced with a 10-year prison sentence. He opts, due to his legal status, to plead insanity. He spends the next three years in Rusk, a Texan maximum security asylum, with convicted rapists and murderers. He also receives a fair amount of shock therapy there, which only exacerbates his mental illness. Now, did he have latent schizophrenia which was manifested by the LSD, or was it purely a drug-induced psychosis? The question is never raised by the filmmakers. The only sufficient evidence to answer such a question would be to see if similar psychoses are present in his family.

And what a family! The film's main focus, once we get past the VH1 bits and the slew of encomia from rock and roll's finest (Billy Gibbons, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore in what is possibly his most pretentious and condescending 15 seconds of screen time) is on the legal battle between Roky's mom and his brother Sumner, both of whom are fighting for custody of the obviously damaged, "great lost singer of rock and roll" (Kurt Loder's quote). His mother is a devout Christian who doesn't believe in a clinical approach to mental illness. She spends her time pasting family photos to cardboard and doing approximations of yoga. She shares videos of the Bible stories she's staged in the woods around their home, most of which feature a very distant, clueless Roky. His brother Sumner, on the other hand, wants Roky to get his meds. He spends his days playing tuba, fuming over his mother, and crying while his "therapist" spoons him. It's really creepy. Also, Roky's father is presented as a witholding, angry drunk, and one of his brothers attempted suicide. The film becomes more engaging as the bizarre character of the Erickson family is gradually revealed, and it's plain to see that, even if Roky is the crazy one, no one in his family can pass for normal.

That's the thing, though. Yes, Roky appears to clean up after Sumner wins custody. He takes his meds, he sees Sumner's "therapist," and he picks a guitar back up. However, he's still completely detached. It seems that McAlester wants to suggest that Roky's much better off now, but Roky himself is just as unreadable as ever. His demeanor is unchanged, and even though he's started touring again (he just played NYC for the first time a few weeks ago), I get the feeling that it would be little difference to him whether he keeps touring or goes back to his mother's to absorb hours of daily cartoons. Like a lot of "great lost singers" (Sly Stone, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, Syd Barrett . . . Wesley Willis?) it's disturbing that interest in their work now seems as much an attempt to witness their mental instability as to appreciate their contribution to music. Erickson is a perfect example. His voice is powerful and distinctive, and he has a genuine gift for songwriting. If he didn't go bonkers, though, would he have documentaries made about him?

Comments

I was thinking it took a lot less than 300 hits to be declared insane. Haven't you met quite a few people who quit somewhere between 20 and 50 trips? I wanted to be declared insane and get a disability cheque, but my family says it's better if I work. I can't play the guitar either. I have this movie but haven't watched it yet.

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