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!

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