Houston native Bill Bentley pays tribute to great Texas musician Roky Erickson with new tribute album
Singer-songwriter Roky Erickson performs in concert during the Maverick Music Festival at Maverick Plaza on March 21, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.
Photo: Photo by Rick Kern / WireImage, MBO / Associated Press
At his current rate, Bill Bentley believes he will put on a third tribute album to Texas psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson by the time Bentley is 100 years old.
“I guess we’re on the beat of one every 30 years now,” he jokes.
Bentley courted a group of musicians including Billy Gibbons, Neko Case, Jeff Tweedy, Gary Clark Jr., Margo Price and others to record songs written by Erickson for the new “May the Circle Remain Unbroken”, released on July 16th. . The album serves as a companion to “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye”, which Bentley hosted in 1990 with REM, ZZ Top, the Jesus & Mary Channel, the Butthole Surfers and others. A recording was created to help Erickson while he was in a difficult situation physically and financially. The other circulated his songs two years after his death.
The two have roots in Texas, although Erickson and Bentley have taken different paths through the music industry over the decades, often crossing paths. Erickson was born in Dallas in 1947; Bentley in Houston three years later.
Both were drawn to music as a teenager. But Bentley committed to playing music only for a short time because polio compromised the use of an arm, limiting his ability to be a successful drummer. Erickson was one of the founders of the 13th Floor Elevators, a group which formed in Austin in 1965 and became the gold standard of psych-rock in Texas, creating soulful and meditative songs as Erickson and the group have created an avant-garde sound for lyrics illuminated by earthly concerns and lofty spiritual contemplations, too. They were the crown jewel of the Houston-based International Artists label, which released several influential psychedelic albums in the late 1960s.
Bentley, 70, was won over by the group as soon as he heard them for the first time at 15. “Roky and the Elevators inspired me so much as a kid,” he recalls. “They grew up listening to all kinds of music. Being in Texas we had country and soul music, black music like early rock ‘n roll Little Richard. Roky has it all, man. It wasn’t just in his music, but in the way he looked at the world. I also remember this openness to him that the others on stage didn’t have. He was never distant when people watched. He did not have a star trip. He looked more like a scholar who didn’t care to take airs. It was a beautiful thing for us Houston teens. He felt like one of us. He was an inspiration that will extend beyond this lifetime.
Legal, medical issues
Among other parallels, Bentley and Erickson also both broke the law as young men. In Bentley’s case, he got five years probation for possession of marijuana, which ultimately kicked him out of Texas. He moved to Los Angeles, where he became a music writer before working in the music industry. Erickson in 1969 was arrested for a joint and pleaded insanity to avoid jail. Instead, he found himself placed in institutions that practiced electroconvulsive therapy. He left Rusk Hospital changed and, unlike Bentley, not for the better.
Erickson came out in 1974. He formed a new band, performed and recorded. But his health – mental and physical – in the 1980s was on a downward spiral. An obsession with the mail led Erickson to steal letters from his neighbors in Austin, which he would put on the walls of his apartment. He was arrested in 1989, but the charges were later dropped. Shortly after the arrest, Bentley – at this point enjoying a career at Warner Bros. – organized “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye”, hoping to raise funds to help.
“I’m not sure the album made a lot of money,” Bentley says. “But there was money for publishing that came out of it.”
Erickson received renewed attention, which likely contributed to a legitimate turnaround in 2001 when his brother, Sumner, took over the management of his life and career. Erickson’s schizophrenia was eventually treated properly and he started performing to worship crowds and release recordings that actually made him money.
The group Okkervil River backed him up for “True Love Cast Out All Evil”, a gorgeous 2010 comeback album that would be his last.
Bentley traveled from his home in Los Angeles to San Francisco in April 2019 to watch Erickson perform the Elevators’ album “Easter Everywhere” in its entirety along with half a dozen other Elevators songs.
“He was sitting down, you could tell he was having trouble breathing,” says Bentley. “I told my son, who was with me, that I think Roky is getting ready to leave. I could feel it.
Five weeks later, Erickson passed away.
“I knew in San Francisco I had to pay another tribute,” Bentley says.
He knew he had to reach out to younger artists to illustrate Erickson’s continued reach. But he also knew he needed links to the past. Gibbons – a friend since the ’60s – was crucial, the only artist heard on both albums. Bentley points out that Gibbons on “(I’ve Got) Levitation” tried to make his guitar sound like a jug, an homage to Tommy Hall from the elevators, who created weird sounds by adding a microphone to an old ceramic jug and by blowing into it.
“I felt so honored to do it,” Gibbons says. “It’s no secret that elevators – then and now – were such an inspiring thread.”
Bentley adds, “Billy felt like the guys from Houston and the guys from Austin were arm in arm. He knew elevators were popular and important in Houston. And he thought they were the best band alive at the time. They had this power that came from this alien belief in something bigger than us. “
Case recorded “Be and Bring Me Home”, a song that connects the peaks and valleys of Erickson. He wrote it while he was in Rusk, and the song is an almost frantic word sequence that speaks to Erickson’s painful desires for control, family and freedom, which are all presented as sparkling as a ” diamond shore ‘temporarily out of reach. Erickson didn’t have time to release a version of the song until 2010. Case’s Take is a sublime rendition, more ethereal than bruised but deep with nostalgia.
“Circle” is the fifth tribute album Bentley has made – Texan Doug Sahm was the subject of it – and he calls them “spiritually amazing things.” I believe they are a good way to keep spirits going so the next person will come and hear a song and think, “Oh this that’s it.'”
Bentley’s long distinguished career has made him one of the few people in the music industry beloved by artists. Her wishlists for both albums were, understandably, longer than the album’s tracklist. Twice he threw the net as wide as he could.
“I thought Lou Reed could have done a good job with Roky’s song ‘The Beast’,” he says. “I asked if he would consider it. He called me up and said, ‘Billy, not from Billy B, but I’m going to give you one of my songs for the album.’ I didn’t try to explain it to him. In this life, I haven’t worked with Lou on a Roky album. But maybe in the next one. . . “
“If the elevators have taught me anything, it’s that life never really ends.”