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Psyched-Out But Rocking On

I was freezing my ass off, standing in front of the stage at the overly air-conditioned Hard Rock Live. But it was OK: The Dictators version of "California Sun" was blaring over the P.A. while a line of Halloween-costumed go-go dancers shook and shimmied their stuff before a giant, carnival-styled backdrop. Yes, it was the latest visit from Little Steven's Underground Garage A Go Go tour. And it was two days before Halloween, so there were a few (though not too many) audience members dressed up. Strange — if you had told me a few years ago I'd be watching girls dance to old punk tunes inside an arena-styled rock club, I'd have looked at you like a two-headed dog. But if you told me I'd be watching that go down moments before a performance by Roky Erickson, well, I would have tried Baker-Acting you (or at least ask where you found the mushrooms). But as it was, I saw all that and more, without the aid of psychedelic drugs — just psychedelic music, courtesy of Erickson, the garage/psych-rock legend, ex-bandleader of the 13th Floor Elevators... and former patient of Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane.

For months, the concert was billed as Cheap Trick, the Romantics, the Shadows of Knight, and the Charms. Then, three days before the show, I got an e-mail saying that Erickson and his band, the Explosives, were added to the bill — eliminating any chance of Fats' flaking on this one.

As the "California Sun" set and the dancers cavorted off the stage, host "Little" Steven Van Zandt took over as MC, fitting a devil mask over his head while audience members shouted "Fuhgeddaboudit!" (Van Zandt plays Silvio Dante on the Sopranos, in case you haven't heard.) When the backdrop lifted, the Explosives started right up, launching into "White Faces," off Erickson's 1981 album, Evil One. The set was short — time was obviously an issue here — but it was enough to sate any Erickson fans in the house. He played the songs I wanted to hear, at least: "Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)," "Creature With the Atom Brain," "I Walked With a Zombie," and the Elevators' big hit, "You're Gonna Miss Me." Again, it was a pleasant surprise. But it didn't end there. While the Romantics were getting things going (and they were great, by the way), I noticed a lone figure in the front row of the seated section. It was Erickson. I wanted to talk with him, but I wasn't sure how he would respond to a stranger hurling questions at him out of the blue. So I waited. And when I went outside to thaw off an hour later, Erickson was there, this time accompanied by his brother, Sumner. Both were supercool, though Sumner did most of the talking, noting that the show I just saw was a rare thing — especially outside the Ericksons' hometown of Austin, Texas, where Roky's made a few appearances over the past couple of years at festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. Of course, the fact that Roky Erickson performs at all these days is astonishing, given his decades-long struggle with mental illness.

From 1966 to 1968, the Elevators put out three studio albums. But then a terribly unfunny thing happened in 1969. After getting nabbed in a marijuana bust, Erickson pleaded insanity to avoid a lengthy jail sentence. He went to Rusk that same year, where his plea became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For three years, Erickson was pumped with Thorazine and given electroshock treatment and other "therapies," according to all biographical accounts. Imagine A Clockwork Orange... but worse. Erickson went through all this because of dope, not violence. And that's only the half of it. The poor guy went down for a single joint. Although he's done his time, Erickson has been paying the cognitive price ever since. And it took its toll on his music career, financially and artistically. Obvious comparisons are made to the late Syd Barrett, though if you look at Erickson's lyrical content — largely about demons and aliens — he seems, in retrospect, more like a precursor of Wesley Willis (another late great of mentally ill rock).

It's with this knowledge that Erickson's fans watched in amazement as he rolled through his set without missing a note or a lyric. One such fan was John, better-known around these parts as "Scooter" — a guy I'd seen around at other Little Steven shows (and every other garage-rock concert, for that matter). I've talked to him only a few times, but it's obvious the dude is a Little Steven aficionado. And because garage-rockers pride themselves on having an encyclopedic knowledge of all things garage, I figured I'd be a wise-ass and quiz Scooter on the nonmusical aspects of the tour — the dancers. Not surprisingly, he schooled me.

"The one on the left is Laurelle," Scooter said. "I met her at the pool party in May, the one the Supersuckers played. She was cool to me then, but now she's ignoring me for some reason."

All right, so she's too cool for school. But what about the dancer in the middle, I asked — the one who kind of looked like she didn't want to be there?

"That's Little Steven's wife," Scooter told me. "I've talked to her on a few different tours. She also plays Silvio's wife in the Sopranos, you know."

I didn't, actually, just like I didn't know Roky Erickson was still musically active. But he is; it wasn't something I imagined. So there's no need to call up Rusk. Besides, Halloween just passed — I've walked with enough "zombies" already, thank you very much.

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Jason Budjinski

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