Judge Erich Asperschlager thinks that having himself legally declared an alien sounds like a good way to avoid paying income taxes.
"I, Roger (Roky) Erickson, do hereby declare that I am not a member of the human race (not an earthling) and am, in fact, an alien from a planet other than Earth."
Unlike most rock documentaries, You're Gonna Miss Me is less about the influential music of cult-rocker Roky Erickson than his mental decline and inspiring recovery.
Facts of the Case
Back in the '60s, Roger Kynard "Roky" Erickson was the lead singer and songwriter for the 13th Floor Elevators, the Austin-based rock band often credited with first using the term "psychedelic music." The Elevators had only one big hit—1966's "You're Gonna Miss Me"—they influenced musicians from Janis Joplin (who nearly joined the group) to Sonic Youth. A heavy drug-user and diagnosed schizophrenic, Roky was arrested for marijuana possession in 1969, and—in a misguided attempt to keep him out of prison—ended up in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he endured three years of experimental treatments. After his release, Roky began a solo career marked by increasing paranoia and detachment (in 1975, he had himself legally declared an alien to stop earthlings from zapping his brain). By the late '80s, he had stopped performing altogether. Under the guardianship of his mother, Evelyn—a religious woman who didn't pursue medical or psychiatric treatment for her son's illness—he became a recluse, living in government-subsidized housing with little outside contact.
You're Gonna Miss Me begins with a 1999 custody hearing in which Roky's brother, Sumner—a professional musician with the Pittsburgh Symphony—is trying to have himself declared Roky's guardian, to get his brother proper care.
This film shifts between the story of Roky's past—told through interviews, home movies, live performances, and still photos—and footage of Roky in 1999 and 2000. Director Keven McAlester allows us to listen and observe, inviting the audience to draw its own conclusions about the causes of mental illness, the public and private life of an artist, and what it means to take care of family.
Rock and roll has had its share of famous breakdowns. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is an example of a success story—after a mental collapse in the late '60s, his gradual return to music led up to the 2004 release of his long-awaited masterpiece SMiLE. Syd Barrett, on the other hand, is someone who never really recovered—drug use and psychological problems pulled this founding member of Pink Floyd out of the public eye, away from music, and into a seclusion that lasted until his recent death.
The first time we see the modern-day Roky, he brings Barrett's final years to mind: overweight, with long fingernails and matted hair, living as a near-hermit. Coincidentally, there are eerie similarities between the title of this film and Wouldn't You Miss Me?, the Syd Barrett greatest hits collection (not to mention the album Barrett's former bandmates wrote as a tribute to him: Wish You Were Here).
The drug culture of the '60s is often romanticized to the point where even the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are seen less as cautionary tales than tragic accidents. The irony of the film is that while Roky's past hammers home the dangers of drugs, psychiatric medication could have helped Roky's condition—though chemicals helped destroy Roky, they're his chance for recovery. While Roky's case makes it hard to argue against medical help, it's not hard to sympathize with his mother's belief—considering society's over-reliance on medication—that drugs aren't the answer.
Evelyn Erickson uses this film as an opportunity to tell her side of the story, partly with a series of collages—photos and hand-written recollections pasted to large sheets of cardboard, comprising a visual family history—she's made to reassure herself she's been a good mother. As demonized as she must have been for her decisions regarding Roky, this film shows her as she really is—a woman of faith who loves her sons and raised them the best she knew how, absent help from her emotionally unavailable husband.
You're Gonna Miss Me, like other rock star profiles, examines Roky within the context of his musical peers. Since Roky spends most of the film unable to speak coherently for himself, musicians like Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Patti Smith, and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) fill in the gaps—sharing their love for his music and its influence. Though the film makes a strong case for his musical genius, the interviews and performance footage ultimately serve the story of Roky and his family.
The cinematography manages to be unobtrusive, even as the camera moves from shot to shot—edited with such fluidity it feels scripted. Because the Ericksons are so unguarded and willing to be filmed, you almost forget the camera is there (no mean feat considering there's barely enough room in the junkyard-clutter of Roky's house for people, let alone filmmaking equipment).
Roky's music is essential to telling his story, and it's handled beautifully. The audio is presented in stereo and a Dolby 5.1 surround mix. Roky's proto-punk garage rock may not be for everyone, but if you dig it, there's plenty in this film to dig. Don't be surprised if the music hooks you: after watching the film I went straight out and bought a 13th Floor Elevators best-of collection that's been on heavy rotation all week.
The special features do a great job of fleshing out—and, in some cases, telling the rest of—the story. Sifting through the nearly one-and-a-half hours of extras has the feeling of discovery, like exploring bins in a used record store. There's something for everyone: longtime Roky fans will drool over the collection of rare live performances. For those who want more of Roky's story, there are deleted scenes, and two "Postscript" featurettes that catch up with Roky since the film's release. For the completist, there's Evelyn Erickson's "Collected Works"—three of her short, scripted (completely bizarre) home movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When production on this documentary began, the filmmakers had to know there was a good chance Roky's story wouldn't have a happy ending. Thankfully, for the most part it does; while the 2001 follow-up finds Roky having made great progress, he's far from completely recovered. It's too bad the cameras stopped rolling when they did, though, because this DVD's "Postscript" extras—including a performance at the Austin City Limits 2005 Music Festival, and a February 2007 addendum filmed by his brother, Sumner—show a Roky so remarkably transformed it changes the story, giving what is essentially a bittersweet film the happy ending it deserves.
There's no reason the filmmakers should be expected to have updated the finished documentary. The fact they included extras to tell the "rest of the story" shows how committed they are to celebrating Roky's recovery. I worry, though, that some viewers—because they rent the DVD, or simply don't watch extras—will miss out.
This film took me by surprise. I went into it knowing next to nothing about Roky Erickson, and ended up loving his music and cheering for his recovery. You're Gonna Miss Me is nothing like the traditional Hollywood underdog story—and I mean that as a compliment. The world may not have realized it was gonna miss Roky, but we can be grateful he's back.
Hasn't he been through enough? Not guilty!
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