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San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.

March 3, 2007

Still Standing
Saturday. The “15th Annual Noise Pop Festival” is playing this week in the Bay Area and the poster event is apparently the appearance of Roky Erickson, who is playing for the first time in public in 25 years. Roky Erickson, the founder of the Texas band The 13th Floor Elevators, was busted in 1969 in Texas for possession of a small amount of marijuana and opted to take an insanity plea rather than serve a ten year prison sentence. Ten years for a couple of joints. It's not just the man in Crawford that makes us thank god for Austin.

The years Erickson was incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane and subjected to massive doses of tranquilizers and shock “therapy” give you a pretty good idea why you don't want to fall into the hands of the State for a “transgression” that's currently scaring the shit out of the populace. Remember this was two years after the Summer of Love and the lewd and decadent rock and roll of the fifties - Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry - that had tied our elders into such a snit seemed to be morphing into something even more ominous where young children of previously sterling character were now smoking dope and listening to amplified music in rooms filled with flashing lights, subversive ideas and Lysergic acid.

Anyway, when I came to San Francisco in the summer of 1969, I met a wave of Texans who'd come to San Francisco from Austin, most of them associated with the music scene and the underground press, but all of them with a mythic story or two to tell about Roky Erickson.

An aside: I'd read about “oral traditions” when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest and then in a suburb outside New York City, but I realized I had no idea what it meant until I'd spent a couple of nights sitting around a kitchen table with Texas practitioners of the art who'd become mellow over an evening of whiskey, marijuana and other mind altering stimulants. Story telling, I realized, is an art and like all art it's developed through practice: the more the better, the earlier the better, and these folks had grown up immersed in it since they'd uttered their first syllable.

The Texans I met told stories at the table and if you were labeled a teller of good tales in Texas, you knew you'd received the highest of compliments. You could be the fighter everyone looked up to and admired, the maker of money and fame, but: as a noted teller of tales, even if you were dead broke, had no girlfriend, couldn't handle a bedtime pillow fight with a Playboy bunny with her arm in a sling; you could still walk down the street under a Texas sun and folks would tip their hat in passing and mean it. Which brings us back somehow to Roky Erickson. End of aside.

A story I heard told late one 1969 night was of a gig played in a school auditorium in Texas. Roky, pretty blasted on acid, suddenly realized with a certainty equivalent to a personal revelation from God that the world was about to end, probably in the next few minutes. This knowledge led Roky to lose focus on the gig and distracted, he climbed with his guitar down from the stage and walked up the aisle of the auditorium, the Elevators pounding it out behind him.

I recall the narrator was either working the sound system or associated with the band in a way that made Roky not finishing the gig a problem, so he scrambled after him asking what was happening? The end of the world in the next couple of minutes being Roky's reply, spoken not out of fear so much as amusement and wonder.

Well, my narrator replied, if the world is going to end it might as well end with you up on stage playing as down here in the aisle with the audience. This, making infinite sense, Roky climbed back on the stage and finished the concert.

Now understand this was related to me by a Texan of no small story telling talent at two in the morning after a long night of partying and my pale recapitulation here leaves much to be desired, but I'm finding it odd to read about Roky Erickson in the Chronicle forty years later this morning: still relevant (and playing), still a legend (even here) and even now (I would imagine) the subject of tales, stories and yarns of varying truth and proportion. I'm sure many of the Texans from those San Francisco days who are now living in Austin have the occasional summer barbecue where they sit and swap stories; some of them, I suspect, about Roky Erickson. Those, at least, who are still standing. There in Austin.

The photograph was taken at the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade with a Nikon D2Xs mounted with a 105mm f 2.8 Nikkor VR lens at 1/80th second, f 2.8, ISO 100.