Stu Cook, bassist in Creedence Clearwater Revival, produced a couple albums' worth of material for Roky Erickson in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here he reflects on the positive and negative experiences of working with one of cult rock's most renowned eccentrics.
Did you know much about Roky before you produced him?
The 13th Floor Elevators was one of the bands that Chet Helms brought from Texas to play at the Avalon Ballroom. It was just sort of that Texas-Brownsville-San Francisco connection, I guess. They played the Avalon all the time, In the period just before I started working with him, I think he did some stuff with Doug Sahm, "Bermuda," some of those tunes were originally recorded in the late '70s. I started working with him about '79 or '80.
The first one was on Columbia UK. The second one was called "The Evil One" on 415. There's 15 songs, I believe, between the two albums. So there's five songs overlap between the two. That's my best recollection.
How did you end up getting involved as producer?
I was a friend of Craig Luckin. The kind of music that Roky and the Aliens were playing at the time was pretty crunchy rock and roll, Rolling Stonesish kind of groove. Pretty straightahead stuff. Craig thought that I might be a good guy to bring on the team. Craig was thinking about putting Roky in the studio, and thought I'd be a good guy. We talked about it, I met Rock, thought I could work with him. So we gave it a go. We just started cutting songs, really.
I took the approach that, since Roky was so, shall we say, unpredictable--mercurial is a good word--there's no telling where he was going to be at in terms of his desire to work on any given day at any given time during the day. Initially, when I started working with him, he was incarcerated in a Texas State mental hospital in Austin. The task at hand was to get him strung from there to take him to recording sessions (laughs).
I went actually down to the hospital with Craig. I was going to go out and meet Roky's doctor and explain to him what was going on. That I needed to get him for a while and bring him back at the end of the day. I'll never forget this--I had to wear a tie. I didn't have one at the time, so I borrowed one from Craig. I was wearing this tie, I went into the mental hospital, and all the inmates, the patients, started acting weird to me. Because I had a tie on, they thought I was a doctor. I walk into this room, and there's just all this people drooling and popping the walls. It's like bedlam. Then we got Rock, and Rock was calm, he's on his medication. When he takes his medication, as bad as that stuff is in the long term, it definitely works in the short term. He was cooperative, inquisitive, alert. But not really focused on the recording.
I finally figured out, the way to do it is to just get him in the studio and just keep coming at him. Don't let him have a chance to start talking about his apartment or dinner. Just keep him with flooded with musical paths. That way, I found I could keep his attention. And whenever he started to lose it, I'd use my bag of tricks. The plan was to just get him out of there right away, don't keep him in the studio, don't keep him in the environment once he's lost his attention for the work. Kind of a black and white approach I had to develop, because I worked with a lot of other artists, and Roky'd come in, he'd want to sing, he'd have his stuff, and he'd want to do this. Once it started to slow down, he would start to wander. So I developed a plan where I just had to strike when the poker was hot, at all times. Had to have everything ready to go for him, and when he got tired of doing one song, I'd have to immediately move on to another song. I'd have to have an assembly line to set up to maximize the amount of time that I had with him.
When he later moved out to California, he was living in Marin near the bottom somewhere, there was more opportunity to work with him. So we'd bring him into the studio. He was getting more into recording again, and he was writing pretty amazing stuff. We could work with him for longer times. But the same general things applied--he had to get to work right away, it wasn't the place to hang, smoke cigarettes, use drugs or anything. It was a place to come in and work. And when he was done, get him out of there, because there was plenty stuff more to do, working on the record.
Whenever we were recording, I would just let him go. Whenever that red light was on, I'd let him go. When we'd get to the end of the song, I'd rewind it, and we'd just do another take. I would fill up every track practically on the tape with Roky's singing. When I ran out of tracks, I would just run another tape, a tape just recording, like a recorded vocal, always always always record anything Roky said or did. We'd be in the control room talking, I'd have the button on the talkback mike--I'd have it taped down so that anything that was said in the control room went to tape. So that anything he said, any inspiration he got, any comment he made, we would always have it to refer to or in fact edit it in, use it, in a song.
So I ended up with reels and reels and reels of wild, unsynced Roky stuff. A lot of which, later, when he wasn't in the studio, I'd sit there with the engineer, and we'd fly it onto the tape. When we ran out of empty tracks on the tape on the multitrack, I would then, if I needed a line or a phrase and I had it, I'd catalogued all the stuff I had on the two-track tape that was constantly running. Then I would fly it in. It was like trial and error--start one tape and start the other one, and just see where it fell in terms of timing with the rest of the band. If it was early, I'd back it up and start it a little bit later. It's called wild synching, the technique. No longer need to do it with multitrack digital hard disc recording and all that stuff, it can all be done real easy. We'd spend hours and hours assembling songs.
Roky a lot of times would have the words to the songs. But I think he's a tremendous songwriter myself. I think he cuts to it, he has this vision that unlike any other artist that I've worked with or even many that I've heard. But he would not be organized at all in his approach. Every time he'd sing a song, he'd sing it differently--different lyrics. He had an idea of what he wanted to do, but because of his condition, he was not able to repeat himself, like most singers--each take is the same, you're just looking for a special performance, or you're trying to correct the flat singing, the sharp singing. With Roky, it was much more abstract than that. What we would have to do--I would have to help him write the song in the sense that I would have to assemble, from everything that he said or sang, I'd have to assemble it into verses or choruses. How I thought, if I was writing a song, this is how I'd do it.
Did he have a lot of the songs worked out before he went into the studio?
He hadn't. Not at all. He'd have titles, he'd have lyrics. But a lot of times, it was really disjointed, broken stream of thought throughout. It was my job--I enjoyed it. I didn't have to sit there. But I sat there and assembled the song--like this was a good verse, I think this verse should be second, using the wild synch technique and combining with the way he actually sang it, I was able to rearrange the lyrics and the verses and so on to make pop-structured songs, rock and roll song structures of what Roky would bring into the studio.
I would hear him rehearse, and I would see him with his band. I would figure out, well, this is how he sings this song usually most of the time. So then I would get the band to do the song, they'd do the arrangements quite well. Then I would get Roky to come in and put the vocals on at a separate time. If the vocals were getting kind of phased out, disjointed, then I would come in with a razor blade and wild synch and punching in and punching out, I would make the whole thing into a song. The real test of the whole thing was when Roky heard the album when it was done (laughs). To watch his reactions to how his songs had come out. But he liked it. Which gave a great relief to me that he felt proud of the project, and I of course felt very proud of the project. I played bass on a few tracks on the 415 release.
How did you think his music had changed since the start of his career?
Musically, it hadn't changed much at all. I think his approach is the same. This three-chord rock and roll song, drums and electric guitar. In that sense, it's like the Rolling Stones, classic rock and roll approach. I think his material, his topics, have changed quite a bit from "You're Gonna Miss Me" and the earlier three or four Elevators albums. The particular set of material that he presented to me is more along the lines of a comic book nightmare in subject matter.
But the lyrical focus seems to have changed substantially.
It's a mixture. He's very concerned about aliens and things like that, other life forms, interplanetary invasion and stuff like that. His darkest psychosis--there's that fear, and all that concern about that. "Creature With the Atom Brain," "Night of the Vampire," "Two-Headed Dog." One of my favorite songs by him, and I think I consider it a love song, is "I Think of Demons." "I think of demons for you" is the hookline for the chorus. That's one of the ones where I had to sit and extensively try and figure out what he was trying to do. I wasn't writing his songs for him or arranging him in a vacuum. I was trying to achieve what I thought he was going for. In the true sense, I was a producer. Because I was trying to help him achieve, in some kind of coherent way that other people could relate to as well, what I thought to be his artistic vision for this particular set of songs.
But the subject matter , a lot of times, you really couldn't tell, the way Roky'd look at you, he'd give you one of those looks, and wonder, well, is he putting me on? Or is he too serious? Craig would be in the studio most all the time. From time to time I had to rely on Craig to be the bad guy--I had to be the good guy, Craig had to be the bad guy in dealing with Rock. We'd look at each other and go, my gosh, are we on another level now? Are we all on the same level here? There was constantly reality checks for me, just to make sure that I wasn't getting too serious along with Roky about it. I wanted to keep it light, even though the subject matter was at times kind of nightmarish, ghoulish.
But Roky never struck me as a violent person. He certainly did a lot of chemicals, I think. Not only LSD, but I think he was heavily involved with pretty serious use of--I think this is where most of his problems came from--meth amphetamines. People would give it to him. It's a common thing, when you're a well known singer-writer, your hometown, people would, hey Rock, let's get loaded. Roky'd go, okay. He never knew what he was taking, how much, how strong it was. He was just getting turned on from a wide variety of sources.
His stays in mental institutions must have affected him a lot.
Once you're inside, it's the same as being in a prison. Roky used to say, man, I can't stand it, man, everybody's nuts! I thought, that's a pretty lucid statement. I agree with you, Rock. We gotta do what we can to keep you out. Well he got married, and he had another kid. He would have very stable periods, and then he would have really Roky periods.
What were the best things about working with Roky?
The fun things. When we'd really
be getting some great stuff in the studio. I mean, Roky knew
Roky knew what was going on, when he allowed himself to be consumed and
taken over by the music, he could have fun with it. And we had a
lot of fun with it. He gave me a nickname, he called me Buzzy
I was always buzzing around.
That's how he knew me, as Buzzy. I don't even think he knew my name after a while.
But the times when Roky wouldn't want to focus, he'd come there, and we'd really need to get the work down because the budget was running thin and we were trying to make the release date, and we still had to mix the whole thing. There was a lot of work to be done, but it was just frustrating that because of his condition, that he just wasn't there all the time. Sometimes it would be like night and day. One time he'd be just great, and you'd go, man, maybe Roky's really starting to tune into this, he's really digging it. The next time it would be like, come in, and he'd be ornery, and he'd just want to pick a fight with Craig, or immediately go off on some tangent, want to go eat. Come to work, and he'd immediately want to go eat or something. I guess there are the same frustrations with any artist. But Roky's were just amplified by the condition and the chemistry.
His medication seems to have been causing problems as well as helping to regulate his condition?
For whatever reason, he'd skip it, or his wife would forget to remind him or something. His mother's a piece of work too, a nasty piece of work. But Roky, it's a shame, 'cause he has a great musical feel. He's lost some of the edge on his voice, but I think he still has a fantastic...he doesn't have the range, but he's got the emotion in the voice. I consider him one of the best straightahead rock and roll singers. At the time, it was a real pleasure for me to work with him.
The first album got a great review in Rolling Stone. I think everyone that's aware of Roky really appreciates that there's a really fine gem there, just in really rough form. Unfortunately, it's become harder and harder to polish it at all because of the descending spiral of his ability to stay focused on his work.
So the stuff that you did with him, was there frustration on your part in not being able to work on it as much or coherently as you would have liked?
We had a pretty good-sized budget. I spent a lot of time with Roky. So I was able to feel satisfied and proud of the work that we'd done together. I have seen quicker attempts at doing it, and it's sort of as you described, it's down a level or two from what I would have liked to see. When we were working together, he was stable enough to appreciate that I was trying to do a great job for him. He helped me as much as he cared to. He was that lucid. It was an interesting experience. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I wasn't fully aware of Roky's situation going into it.
He had these little speeches. Like in one song, "Creature with the Atom Brain," he had this whole little speech, "I told you I'd come back." And it's basically from a movie, "The Creature with the Atom Brain." He sort of wrote that song about the movie. He had this little speech, saying that we'd work on that, and we'd work together on stuff. I think Roky liked those albums. At this point, I'd doubt if he'd remember. But at the time, it was a good thing. I felt it was a privilege to work with him. I thought we did good work together. I hope that he gets another shot.
I was in a band called Southern Pacific in the second half of the '80s, I guess it right about 1989 or 1990. Bill Bennett down at Warner Brothers, he practically singlehandedly put together that tribute to Roky. My band, Southern Pacific, re-recorded "Cold Night Alligator" for that album. ZZTop, R.E.M.--Roky's got fans throughout the spectrum.
Since then Roky's hasn't recorded much, and seems to have his share of problems just living day-to-day.
He can't do anything. He gets hauled in for anything. If he's on his medication, he gets into a street altercation with somebody, yelling or screaming you know. Next thing you know, Roky's arrested, right? For what? Public nuisance, really. But you get arrested for that six times, seven times or whatever, then they lock you up for a while. Well, that doesn't do him any good at all. He needs the stability, he needs the regimen to keep himself out of trouble, so he doesn't have these minor problems that lead to larger things. He gets arrested six or seven times, next thing you know, he's back in the hospital for a 120-day evaluation. The guy is in a potential of being locked into the downward spiral pretty hard. Through really no fault of his own.
He doesn't like taking the medication, because it gives him the shakes, he wobbles when he talks. You know how people are when they take Prozac or those powerful drugs. They don't freak out, but they're not all there either. Roky would often say that he'd rather be nuts, he'd rather have the out-of-control problems than the way he felt taking the medication. But he just really didn't have the choice, 'cause if he doesn't take it, he ends up back on in the inside again.
What do you think of what Roky's done since you worked with him?
Craig did a couple more albums with Roky. Other producers worked with him after I worked with him. They weren't nearly as focused. It was a lot of quick stuff, some live stuff. I don't think anyone that's ever been able to work with him gets as much good stuff out of him as I have been. I know I'm tooting my horn, but we developed a plan, a method of working together, Craig and I developed a plan. Because he had a lot of insight into Roky's behavior and his problems. The plan was able to work, and we were able to get, I think, a lot of really good stuff out of Rock--in terms of songs and performances. It made doing the project not terribly different than working with some other difficult artists I could name. But I always knew that he could be great, but there was just too great a toll already to expect great stuff. So we worked with what he gave us.
I think those two records are markers of a good time in Roky's life, compared to some of the rougher times he's had. He was happily married, had a kid or a kid on the way. His wife Dana was taking care of him. So we had a lot of help. His mom was out of the picture when he was in California. That was one of the reasons for moving to California actually, to remove one more destabilizing factor. Sometimes I think about it, it sounds like a military campaign in a lot of ways.
But actually, it was about the
I wouldn't have done the project if I didn't think Roky's music was
I occasionally still listen to those. Several of the songs that
recorded together have ended up on pretty good compilation CDs of
I think they held up. I don't cringe at all. I remember
on it and thinking, maybe someday, everyone else will enjoy it as much
as I do.
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