And Evelyn Danced the Night Away
His entrance onto the stage is without drama, without loud introductions, explosions, lights, or smoke. He merely straps on the guitar, exchanges a few words and knowing looks with the band, and starts to play. A few strummed chords and the rest of the Explosives kick in. "Cold Night for Alligators", propulsive, a driving beat that instantly energizes a crowd that is ready to cut loose.
This is my first visit to Antone's, the legendary club operated by the equally legendary Clifford Antone. I am sure there is an added poignancy for many of the Austin faithful this night, for as they gather in birthday celebration for one local luminary, they are also keenly aware of the recent passing of another. As clubs go, there is not really very much to the place, a couple of bars and only a handful of tables. Artwork depicting the musical elite who have graced this stage is all over the walls. Examples of merchandise for sale cover the wall by the entrance. Show-specific products are set up at a nearby table. At the other end of the long, narrow room are the restrooms and an upstairs area, encased in glass, for the VIPs I presume. And that's about it. Like C.B.G.B.'s, physical appearance belies the musical significance.
The first song ends amid an enthusiastic response. Cam King, the guitar player for the Explosives, calls for "White Faces." Throughout the evening he will be outgoing and demonstrative. Though it may appear that he is just playing to the crowd, it seems to me that he is also playing to Roky, providing a reassuring link to keep one connected to the other. Though apparently at ease and enjoying himself, Roky is reserved, his stage routine appearing almost regimented. Between songs he merely says, "Thank you...this is Don't Shake Me Lucifer," then, "Thank you...this is Creature with the Atom Brain." King keeps it all together, a conduit for energy flowing in both directions.
Roxanne and I had arrived early, before the doors opened. Though we had purchased tickets in advance, we wanted a place to sit, since the summer heat and her pregnancy had made the whole enterprise a little dicey. It was a good thing we did so, because there were very few tables; there were not even stools at the bars. We managed to grab a tall table near the door, and I was delighted to find that there was a waitress on duty to keep up a fairly regular flow of Shiner Bock in my direction. Though we would later abandon the table three songs into Roky's set in favor of a spot near the front of the stage, it served as our base of operations throughout the opening acts.
Though by this time it should be readily apparent, let me make the fact explicit that in no way, shape, or form am I an Austin insider. I feel very much the tourist in a foreign land. There is something akin to a tribal consciousness at work here; people of all ages mill around, vibrating on the same wavelength. Everyone seems to be a part of a single, extended family, generations stretching back into a tie-dyed past peopled by that strange amalgam of redneck and hippie that is uniquely Austin. The scene is laid-back and friendly, a Sixties cliche fully realized if only for one evening. A large part of the crowd seems to be Roky's age or older, and I get the distinct impression that if introduced to some of these people, chances are I would have heard of them. A member of Roky's teenage band, the Spades, is on hand, joining Sumner Erickson and the Texcentrics on stage. Roky's mother brushes against me as she passes by, visiting numerous groups of people she knows throughout the club. I overhear a woman, one of Roky's cousins, discussing the recent documentary about him with one of the guys at the merchandise table. An artist selling his own Roky-related work is passing out party favors he has assembled, telling everyone to wish Roky a happy birthday. Knots of people coalesce and disperse, the mellow energy in the room organizing and reorganizing all these related particles into strange and wonderful configurations.
As the club begins to fill, the temperature rises. Roxanne resorts to the use of her Roky Erickson mister fan. A goofy trinket, to be sure, but it does work, and the proceeds go to the Roky Erickson Trust Fund. So does the money from the sale at the show of T-shirts, posters, CD's, and the like. Though I have come to dislike incessant and excessive consumerism, I see Roxanne's purchase of a handbill and T-shirt as an investment in American culture. In a land where the common religion is the worship of empty celebrity and an almost willful mediocrity, where little of what we spend on purchases furthers our lives in a meaningful way, it seems a worthy act to help support, if only in this small way, deserving genius with a minimum of corporate mediation. No one is pure, and we all contribute in one way or another to the bland and superficial, the untalented and overhyped spokesmodels of our time. Should we not feel pleasure and atonement by dropping a coin in the palm of our forgotten and vagrant creativity?
As showtime rolled around, I was left with that final misgiving about what it was we were all about to witness. After all the lost years, what would be left of the once considerable gifts? Would he croak like Dylan, crack like Sinatra, fail to reach the high notes anymore like Bryan Wilson or Aretha Franklin? Would he forget the lyrics to his own songs as he strummed away on a guitar that wasn't even plugged in? From what I had been reading of his comeback, none of these things seemed likely, but a wave of elation broke over me when it became instantly apparent that none of my fears would be realized. His playing, on "The Beast" for example, still has a raw intensity and directness that one associates with the very best elemental garage rock. His voice, of course, is not the same, but he seems to have no trouble getting it around his words. In fact, I take a certain pleasure in listening to the difference between what he does now with a song as opposed to what he did thirty years ago. "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" for example. Even singing in a slightly lower register, there is a rasp in his voice on the chorus; but it sounds dead-on, the slight vocal stress fitting the song perfectly. Of course, he saves the best for last. "You're Gonna Miss Me": as perfect a rock and roll song as was ever written; as done by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators in 1966, as perfect a rock and roll performance as ever recorded. And when it came time to descend back into the past and summon that teenage prodigy with the ungodly wail one more time, there he is. The performance is stunning, the moment is perfect, and the set ends.
The band comes back for an encore, the laid-back sing-along "I Walked with a Zombie." With its single, repetitive verse, it seems like it could go on forever. It doesn't of course; Guy Forsythe is recording a live album later this evening. But there is time before that starts for Roky to take a seat at a table by the merchandise and meet the fans. When I get up to him I slide my ticket stub across the table for him to autograph. He does not sign with a quick scrawl, but carefully prints his name. "Thank you," I say, to which he replies, "You're welcome." Written this way, it seems a routine, almost meaningless exchange of pleasantries. But there is a true graciousness in his courtesy, infusing superficial rote with the glow of the genuine. I consider it one of the finest conversations I have ever had.