Music

Musical Genius & Its Discontents (i): American Style

F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. Artists as various as Roky Erickson, Brian Wilson and Shuggie Otis prove there are second acts in American popular music.

Roky's Birthday Cake (7/15/09) Photo by G. E. Light

F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. Nowhere was this more self-evident than the night of Wednesday July 15th at Antone’s in Austin Texas, around 10:30 pm when headliner and birthday boy Roky Erickson strode to the stage and burned through a pounding 90-minute set of rock and psychedelia, necessarily concluding with his first big hit: The 13th Floor Elevator’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me”:

Roky launches into "You're Gonna Miss Me" Photo by G.E. Light

Much of Roky’s early 15 minutes on American Bandstand:

There was a long period of inactivity for Roky In 1968 Roky was diagnosed with schizphrenia and spent some time in a Houston psychiatric hospital. Between 1969 and 1972, he was actually committed to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane over possession of a single marijuana cigarette. Treated with a number of experimental therapies (electroconvulsion and Thorazine for starters), he was never the same really and then in and out of various asylums for almost two decades.

This 1985 performance finds Roky at a nadir but also points proudly to his fight to come back from the mental illness with which he was unhappily afflicted and for which there are now viable chemical therapies.

"Don't Slander Me" (1985):

In 1990 Sire and Warner Borthers released a tribute album Where the Pyramid meets the Eye, which introduced Roky’s songs to a whole new generation of fans featuring covers by The Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope, and Primal Scream amongst others. By 2001, Sumner Erickson was granted custody of his older brother, had begun to untangle the royalties contracts for Roky’s classic 1960s work and Roky himself was on medication which helps control his schizophrenia. A documentary of this comeback was shown at the 2005 SXSW film festival. In September of that year twenty years on he performed his first full-length concert since the 1985 date above at Austin City Limits' annual music festival in Zilker Park, home to the closing kegger in Dazed and Confused.

Roky Erickson trailer (2005):

Roky certainly is not the only American musical genius to suffer through such a period of fallow inactivity. Nor is he the most famous. That would be the Beach Boys’ primary songwriter and the architect of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson who apparently “just wasn’t made for these times.”

“God Only Knows,” Brian Wilson’s masterpiece from Pet Sounds:

Wilson’s role with the band began diminishing in 1968–9. From 1970–73, he basically lived “in [his] room”: sleeping, overeating, and taking various drugs. Next came his falling under the care of controversial therapist Eugene Landy. A familial legal battle ensued. Only during his second marriage was Wilson finally diagnosed properly to have either bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia.

In 1995 he released two new albums including the soundtrack to the Don Was-produced documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. Next came the triumphant reworking of the abandoned Smile project, a famous debut of said work at London’s Royal festival Hall, and a sold-out tour to follow. In 2007, he received a lifetime achievement award for “contributions to American culture through the performing arts in music” at the annual Kennedy Center Honors.

Another lost man/drug casualty from the psychedelic era was Sylvester “Sly” Stone. Bursting out of a church music tradition in Oakland and crossing the Bay Bridge to become part of the Haight Ashberry scene. Sly and the Family Stone made a series of great radio friendly singles that producd a Greatest Hits LP Robert Christgau calls

among the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time. The rhythms, the arrangements, the singing, the playing, the production, and--can't forget this one--the rhythms are inspirational, good-humored, and trenchant throughout.

And then they made their political masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, including the brilliant song of experience, “Family Affair”:

Sly soldiered on with solo project and collaborations even while n a deeper and deeper drug haze until 1983. In 1984 after an intervention by his old friend Bobby Womack, he entered drug rehabilitation. Yet he relapsed and was arrested and convicted for cocaine possession in 1987. At this point he stopped making music altogether until early in 2001.

There was a problematic Grammy’s appearance in 2006, but by this 2008 radio interview he is clearly all back with us:

The youngest of our exemplars, Shuggie Otis, is also different from the three previous artists, because his time away from the limelight involved personal choices not overwhelming drug use or personal mental illness. Furthermore, his youthful genius was far more about promise than actual achievement. The “comeback” is really also hyping the belated 2001 re-release of 1974’s Inspiration Information with 4 extra tracks from Freedom Flight (1971) by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label:

Personally I always liked the harder-edged 1977 funk cover of his classic by the Brothers Johnson to Shuggie’s own lemon jelly psychedelic tendencies:

After all remember what Q said about the BJ:

7" 45 rpm from the collection of G. E. Light

The second part of this essay will examine the very different tradition of musical genius and its discontents in the UK; there the endings are not nearly so triumphant!

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image