2005, 91 minutes, documentary, directed by Keven McAlester, US
The 13th Floor Elevators are one of those storied sixties bands who make me nostalgic for an era that I didn’t live through. Probably the only psychedelic rock band with a jug player, most of their titillating back story centers on charismatic lead singer Roky Erickson. You’re Gonna Miss Me (also the name of the band’s only hit single) chronicles Erickson’s descent into drug addiction and mental illness and the schism it creates in his family.
There’s plenty of fodder for biographical cliché in Erickson’s life. He was an acid-gobbling hedonist in the sixties whose drug use blossomed into a heroin habit. Diagnosed as schizophrenic he spent time in mental institutions, got arrested, and eventual became a recluse. Yet, filmmaker Keven McAlester brings so much intelligence and sensitivity to his subject that Erickson never slips into a stereotype. Anecdotes of his wild past—a band mate breaking him out of a mental hospital, for one—are given just enough time and are interwoven into the larger and ultimately more interesting story about Erickson’s relationship with Evelyn, his co-dependent mother and caretaker. Evelyn's refusal to see the seriousness of her son's condition comes disguised in a kind of forced naivety. “I thought name calling went out with the dark ages,” she says regarding Roky's diagnosis of schizophrenia. Her lack of trust in psychiatry and doctors in general hints at some past trauma of her own and it's easy to imagine her at least in part as a victim of the psychiatric “cures” that were inflicted on so many women of her day. That she also saw her son suffer greatly at the hands of the state mental health system in the sixties and seventies makes her behavior if not defensible, at least somewhat explainable. The film opens with Erickson’s brother Sumner, who fought his mother for guardianship of Erickson, testifying in court that, “My brother should not be living in poverty had my mother been doing the right thing. He needs psychiatric medicine. He needs his life back after thirty-five years of tragedy.” Later he claims that under Evelyn's watch Erickson doesn't even receive basic medical care. It’s clear that at some point Evelyn became unglued and was never entirely able to piece herself back together and while the disservice she’s doing her son is evident, she’s more a sad figure than a villainous one—someone who for forgivable reasons can’t face up to reality. She opposes medication, saying she’d “rather see the psychiatrists be more humane and use holistic methods like teaching yoga, which get you in touch with your mind and body and spirit and just good healthy living.” At one point she creepily recalls a religious experience she had and her vow to give all of her five sons to god.
If McAlester was smart to cast this as a family story, he was also smart not to adopt the “talent plus madness equals genius” point of view. Erickson’s mental illness is shown for the unromantic tragedy that it is and this keeps the film from seeming exploitive in any way, unlike some of the more recent recording and publishing ventures that have involved him.
Of course this is a movie about a musician and it’s full of great archival footage and photos of The 13th Floor Elevators and Erickson performing some of his solo stuff. As a band there was an innocence and a lack of self-consciousness about The 13th Floor Elevators that makes their music seem sweeter as it ages (or maybe as I age), and after the movie I promptly downloaded the first volume of “Easter Everywhere” from iTunes. You should do the same.