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!





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.