Keven McAlester’s You’re Gonna Miss Me is a documentary about Roky Erickson, a singer whose career started in the 1960s and whose most prominent gig was as the front man for the 13th Floor Elevators, a band that apparently was a lot more influential than famous.
The 13th Floor Elevators were one of the first bands to venture into what became known as “psychedelic rock”–in fact some claim they “invented” it. They became fairly big in Texas and surrounding areas for a few years in the ’60s. Janis Joplin was heavily influenced by Erickson’s emotional wailing singing style and there was talk of adding her to the band, but she went in a different direction. But their music is regarded as an important part of the foundation for acid rock and punk rock and a lot of what came after them. Interviewees in the movie such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top say that this was a “can’t miss” band that everyone assumed was on the verge of breaking through as one of the top bands in the world.
But it never happened, largely because the band members got heavily into drugs and Erickson went crazy, if he wasn’t already. Though it wasn’t entirely clear to me, if Erickson was really as phenomenal a talent and as highly regarded by his peers as the movie says, why didn’t he ever return to equal or greater prominence as he’d achieved in the ’60s? Because, although he didn’t recover his sanity, he apparently was able to hold things together well enough to bounce back and return to performing and recording in the ’70s and into the ’80s, but evidently not with any notable success.
The movie shows us the present day Erickson–alarmingly bloated and shuffling through a semi-reclusive existence in his ratty apartment in Texas. His mother, who “cares” for him, or hangs around him a lot and dominates his life in any case, gets as much or more screen time. His three younger brothers, one of whom eventually is granted guardianship over him, are also present, and we meet his father fairly briefly late in the film.
So what’s wrong with him? Why did he go crazy? It’s no strain coming up with a reason. The only difficulty is singling out just one. Pretty clearly his mental problems are overdetermined.
His mother is not as blatantly, dramatically crazy as he is, but you can make a case that she’s at least as disturbed. She’s not a completely unsympathetic character, as she seems sincere, and in her own way she really is doing her best by her son. But her whole life so revolves around him, and her whole identity is so based on being his caretaker, that despite her protestations that her efforts have all been directed toward enabling him to live independently, it’s clear almost the exact opposite is true.
She’s batty, with plenty of idiosyncratic beliefs and habits, among them a deep distrust of psychiatry, which she supports by pointing out as one example that Frasier and Niles Crane both have failed marriages and no spiritual or religious side. (She recognizes that they’re fictitious; she just thinks in that respect their characterization is very accurate as to real psychiatrists and their messed up lives.) She convinces her son not to bother taking any medication for his condition.
The father is less “off” than the mother perhaps (they’re divorced), but he doesn’t seem all there either. According to the mother at least, he’s an alcoholic with plenty of problems of his own. His brothers have evidently had issues too; the one who gains custody of him has been seeing an unconventional New Age sort of therapist for over a decade, and another grimly insists he’s determined not to let this movie open with Roky’s descent into insanity, and end with his own.
So heredity may well be a significant factor.
There’s also the heavy drug use, including LSD and heroin, which his contemporaries agree he just couldn’t handle and made him worse and worse.
Then in the late ’60s, having already been diagnosed as schizophrenic, he was arrested on a trivial marijuana charge. Evidently the authorities were looking to make an example of him, so his lawyer had him plead insanity to try to sidestep that. All that did, however, was get him committed to an asylum that was 95% punitive and 5% treatment for several years.
So another contributing factor to his deterioration is likely the hopeless years he spent in that environment, surrounded by people even crazier than himself, and receiving shock treatment.
After he got out, if anything he was more consistently detached from reality, though as I mentioned, he did resume a music career for a time. He was hearing voices, for a time populated his worldview with plenty of devils and demons, and then moved more toward concern about aliens coming after him. He swore a statement in front of a notary that he was an alien himself, in the hopes that when they came they’d recognize him as one of their own and so attack the humans instead. Ultimately he lost himself in the cocoon of his apartment and mother, obsessively collecting, reading, rereading, and even posting all over his walls all the junk mail he received, and keeping his home filled with the noise of the TV, radio, and whatever he could turn on that had plenty of electronic screeching and feedback to drown out or distract him from the voices in his head.
The movie wants to be Crumb, but it’s never anywhere near as fascinating as that. But Crumb is a big favorite of mine, so that’s a really high standard.
Maybe a fairer comparison is with the documentary Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. And I’d say it held my interest slightly more than that film. One reason maybe is Fischer is so unambiguously a novelty act, but there seems to be a lot more to Erickson and to his music. When they show the clips of the 13th Floor Elevators, they actually seem pretty good to me. I’m not a good enough judge of such things to know how accurate is the high praise for their music and for Erickson specifically offered in the movie, but it doesn’t strike me as far-fetched.
There’s precious little actual interview footage with Erickson himself in the movie. (That’s in contrast to Crumb, one of the strengths of which is that both Robert Crumb and his brothers address at length their mental issues and how their bizarre upbringing contributed to making them what they are as adults.) It doesn’t seem to be because he’s particularly reluctant to be on camera. Despite his allegedly reclusive ways he appears to have no problem with the filmmakers filming him puttering around his apartment and chatting with his mother and such. But whereas we get plenty of his mother and his brothers talking about him and his condition, the filmmakers observe him rather than directly engaging him.
Still, while I would have been interested to hear him talk more about himself and how he sees himself and the world, observing him is fairly interesting in itself. It’s funny, they talk about him being off his medication, but he’s actually got a very gentle, mellow, unemotional way about him, like someone who has had his highs and lows taken away by medication.
Maybe the shock therapy way back when did that, but the people who knew him back in the ’60s, including his ex-wife, describe him as always having had a gentle, childlike quality. You can see that to some extent in the historical clips too. Even when he was deepest into drugs and acid rock and talking about the Devil and all that, he was really just not a dark character.
Down to the present, he has an approval seeking verbal style, and just a kind of literalness and innocence to him. When his brother hooks him up with his therapist, he answers every question in a minimalist but sincere and literal way, never with a tone like he objects to the question, or is trying to analyze it to understand why it’s being asked, or is being strategic in his answer. He’s like a small child being drilled by a friendly teacher, wanting to be as cooperative as he can.
In that way he’s kind of a likable guy. Which is not to say I’d want him in my life or anything. The movie makes allusions, as in the Derailroaded movie about Fischer, to how his mental illness drives people away, makes it harder for them to deal with him, and that’s certainly believable.
His brother insists at the close of the movie, which is a year after he gained custody, that now that Erickson is free of his mother’s dominance, and is taking medicine for schizophrenia, and is seeing his therapist regularly, it’s like night and day and he’s all but back to normal. Judging from what we see of Erickson, this is surely overstated, but probably there is at least a little improvement.
And subsequent to that, as I read online after watching the movie, he’s resumed his career on at least a small scale, having already performed multiple times in public. And reportedly while he did take the medication for awhile, he gradually was weaned off of it, and so far has not relapsed and if anything is doing better than when he was on the medication. So there does seem to have been a happy ending of sorts.
The subject matter and the filmmaking are just good enough to have kept me interested more than not in this movie, but I can’t say it was one that really engrossed me or that I’d rate real high. It’s an OK study of mental illness.