"We have a clear signal!"
Roky Erickson beams over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, where he recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Everyone was invited. "We did have a good time," he says. A July concert at the American Legion Charles Johnson House honored Erickson, widely revered in his hometown as a rock 'n' roll hero, a living legend to whom countless bands are indebted for his 13th Floor Elevators — propelled by wavy, trebly riffs, chugging bass lines, an electric jug and Erickson's unmistakable howl.
A phone call with Erickson is a brief, cheerful ramble through the psychedelic rock progenitor's faded memories, and a gentle but excited window into his quiet life away from the stage: reading, sending mail, drawing in notebooks.
He doesn't want to dwell on darkness, which shrouds a great deal of his story — his time at Rusk State Hospital, where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, his battles with schizophrenia and mental health issues, and his long road to recovery and gradual return to the stage, captured in the 2005 documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, named for the Elevators' signature hit.
Erickson performs Elevators material at the 2017 Ponderosa Stomp Oct. 6, part of a weekend of concerts starring cult heroes of rock 'n' roll at the Orpheum Theater. His Friday performance is part of a showcase including The Gories, Archie Bell, Barbara Lynn, Roy Head and others. The Saturday concert features The Mummies, Gary U.S. Bonds, Don Bryant and The Bo-Keys, a Texas honky tonk revue and more. There's also a record show and music conference at the Ace Hotel.
At the Orpheum, Erickson will be backed by The Hounds of Baskerville, featuring his son, Jegar Erickson.
"All I had to do was learn one song at a time for each gig and be comfortable and have it under my belt by the time it got there," Erickson says. "I'm real pleased with my voice. I like to sing to my [Amazon] Echo. Jegar gave me an Echo, and I get to listen to all the songs on it and everything. I haven't learned how to work it completely, but, you know."
Erickson was inspired to sing as a kid listening to early rock 'n' roll screamers on the radio. "All the people I listened to late at night on the radio, like Little Richard Penniman, you know, Elvis Presley, James Brown, people like that," he says. "They played the same song every time. It was really, really exciting to hear."
2010's True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-), his first album in 14 years, backed by Austin's Okkervil River, collected a dozen songs from nearly 70 that Erickson had written over the last five decades, "a bunch of songs I had been wanting to record, and we did."
He keeps his songwriting ideas — often inspired by classic horror films and novels, particularly on early '80s albums I Think of Demons and The Evil One, as Roky Erickson and the Aliens — in notebooks along with his drawings.
"I love to paint," he says. "I draw little pictures and everything in my sketchbooks and things, I write and everything. I love to do that. Mostly cartoons and things like that, pictures of people I'm with."
He watches horror films on HBO, Chiller and Fearnet (though his favorites remain Universal Pictures monsters like Dracula and the Werewolf), and he's currently reading F. Paul Wilson's World War II-based horror novel The Keep.
"I enjoy reading, getting ideas throughout books and everything," he says. "I'm reading one right here in front of me called Is It All in Your Head? by Dr. O'Sullivan: True Stories of Imaginary Illnesses. She loves to tell you that people have these things and he knows they really don't, you know. She's diagnosed them as well."
Erickson also keeps up with a mail obsession by writing to classified ads placed in Shore to Shore magazine and other mail-order magazines. "You can find out if they have things they can barter with you for certain prices, like an auction, you know, like contests."
His manager Darren Hill (formerly of New Orleans band the Red Rockers) recently sent him a fire and police scanner radio.
But Erickson's excited to be performing again, though he admits he's more careful onstage these days.
"They've been real good to me, letting me sit in a chair, you know, and just taking it easy," he says. "I just take it a lot easier, because I have a real heavy guitar, made by Gibson, and I really prefer it. The other guitars, you really need someone to be with you while you play them, to kind of influence you on it, and help you with it. A Fender is custom-made, or what you call it, a profile guitar. It's made for your figure. So it has the curves on it, the smooth lines, whereas the Gibson has the square heel, like Bo Diddley."
Erickson asks about the weather and radio stations in New Orleans — his memories here are “all good ones,” he says. “My wife was really dazzled by it. She thought the place was extremely fast-paced. Well, I sure enjoyed it.”
His voice is bright and buoyant before he disconnects, repeating his assurance that he's feeling well and eager to sing.
"I've been feeling real good," he says. "Taking it easy and everything, feeling real normal. ... We're all experiencing a lot of excitement here."