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Roky Road

It wouldn't be fair to say that rock critics confuse mental illness with genius. It's just that when the slightest hint of genius carries with it some history of psychological disorder, they fall in love with the myth. Critics approach Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, and Daniel Johnston with a charity that masks subconscious condescension: as if having a breakdown (and documenting it on record) makes them the genuine article.

Consider the parallel artistic trajectories of Wilson and Paul McCartney. Both had about five or six years of innovation, followed by more than three decades of frequently uninspired fluff. Yet, because Wilson grappled with his sanity, his sappy ballads are viewed as the childlike works of a pure artist, while McCartney's are taken as proof that he's a calculating hack.

In the case of Erickson, much of his devoted cult is deserved. As the maniacal front man for the 13th Floor Elevators, he took blues-based garage rock and soaked it with lysergics. The Elevators were not loaded with instrumental prowess, but they played with the fire of young zealots. With Erickson howling into the ether, and with an electric jug adding the right touch of surrealism, tracks such as "Fire Engine," "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)," and the modest hit "You're Gonna Miss Me" became secret classics that defined a new form of Texas music. But after a 1969 drug bust that resulted in a stint in the state hospital for the criminally insane, Erickson became obsessed with gremlins and ghouls. From most artists, horror-movie scenarios such as "Stand For The Fire Demons" or "Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog)" would be classified as dumb schlock, but from Erickson they've been gingerly received as profound visions from a fragile mind.

I Have Always Been Here Before:
The Roky Erickson Anthology

Roky Erickson
(Shout Factory)
Fortunately, I Have Always Been Here Before is a lovingly compiled, two-disc retrospective that weeds through the morass of Erickson's career and creates the semblance of order: from the soaring pop of "Starry Eyes" to the haunting folk of the title track (which sounds like a blueprint for half of Guided By Voices' output). While much of the second disc degenerates into generic riffs and faux-spooky rants about vampires and such, it's encouraging that several of the collection's finest - and most clear-eyed - tracks are also its most recent.

Gilbert Garcia

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