Mind’s Eye: Art & Mental Illness

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Scientists are increasingly focusing on whether there’s a common gene that predisposes people to creativity and mental illness. The Crisis Center’s Kelley Hewitt explains.

“Bipolar disorder, it used to be called manic depression. And so, from that depression there’s an inward looking. There’s a constant inward focus on sometimes negative things, but also just a melancholy. And the idea that from that inward looking focus, that there’s some instance into the divine, maybe. And some of that, during a manic phase, becomes creation.”

But the mental illness can make it difficult to focus creativity.

“People frequently have a flight of ideas. It’s just a constant bombardment of ideas. And a lot of the time they’re very grandiose and their persona is just huge at that point and to think I can do anything. I’m the 10-foot tall, bullet-proof man, which can be a good think if you’re in a productive and healthy way. But at the same time, not being able to focus or function in a work environment because there’s so many other things to do and I have all these ideas and I can’t get a grasp on them because there’s just so much and I’m bombarded constantly with these ideas and things I could do. The intention is good. It’s just that sometimes they’re not feasible in the real world.”

Hewitt says often, people with untreated mental illness “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol in hopes of controlling their disease. In the 1960s, many artists and musicians turned to psychedelic substances like mescaline, peyote, and LSD to explore the inner depths of the human mind. Reporter Adam Allington brings us the story of Roky Erickson. As an early pioneer of psychedelic music Roky entered a brave new world of “Better Living Through Chemistry” that changed his life forever.

“Turn on, tune in and drop out”

These are the words of the emblematic LSD guru Timothy Leary. In the early and mid 1960’s the word on LSD was still out. Was it a dangerous and wicked drug — Or, was it the key to a new world of self aware-ness — a better way of living? In America, San Francisco seemed the perfect place to incubate this bohemian revolutions. But the seeds of psychedelia were actually sown in perhaps the least psychedelic of state — Texas.

In 1965 an Austin-based group called the 13th Floor Elevator’s formed behind an 18-year-old guitarist with a hell-fire holler named Roky Erickson. The Elevators are considered by most historians to be the first true psychedelic band. At a time when the Beatles where still singing about holding girls hands Roky and Elevators were beckoning listeners to??open up your mind and let everything come through!

(Roky)”If you listen to our music in an acceptable point of you, could actually open up your mind to accepting yourself in a greater way then maybe you had before. It would elevator your mind to the 13th floor and you would be able to love yourself more.”

Shortly after forming the Elevators released their first record, the now legendary “Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators”. The first song on the album, a blistering 4-chord salvo wrote by Roky called “You’re Gonna Miss Me” charted across the country but most notably in California, earning the band several appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

As it turned out, all this “mind elevating” came at a price. In Texas the Elevators faced near constant harassment from police. So, in an effort to escape the heat Roky and the group relocated to San Francisco. In California they found acceptance but the near constant use of psychedelics was starting to take a toll on the young singer. Former Elevator’s Drummer, John Ike Walton.

“They were taking a whole lot of acid, they had a whole bunch of it. And one night I got out to the Avalon Ballroom and Roky freaked out and he turned around to his amplifier, and started a note which was just feedback and just set there, he was terrified, he was freaking out. Roky got so far out that people couldn’t communicate with him.”

Some people suggest that Roky’s use of LSD activated the schizophrenic tendencies that he would plague him for the rest of his life. Still, the event that actually pushed him over the edge had nothing to do with a bad trip. During a return visit to Austin in the late sixties Roky was busted for possession of a lone joint. Rather then due time, on the advice of his lawyer Roky pleaded insanity and was committed to Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane.

“The Austin State Hospital is no cookie. You just can’t believe a place like that exists… They would give me Prolixen and Meloril, it just made your life unbearably hard. (Adam: How did it make it hard) Because these drugs would take you to a halfway place in your mind and then it would stop and you would have withdrawal symptoms from them.”

In addition to the medication, Roky was also given extensive shock therapy. When released from the hospital in 1973, he was never the same person; he returned to performing with a new band, the Aliens, but his songs — a series of horror film-influenced records found little mainstream success.

Over the decades, Roky slowly spiraled out of control. His continued drug use, coupled with his increasing sense of paranoia and detachment from reality landed him on welfare in state-subsidized apartment, which he refused to leave.

“I don’t say that oh its too bad that he went to Rusk because that took away some of his life, it could have actually saved his life.”

Roky’s younger brother Sumner Erickson.

“Who knows, had he been on the streets during the psychedelic 60’s, Janis Joplin died, Jimi Hendrix died, Roky lives!, but there was noting good being done for him while he was there and he came out of there certainly worse off.”

The use of psychedelics and other drugs did open a lot of doors for artists in the 1960’s, but for some it was a doorway to a world that they could never leave. These days, with the help of a devoted circle of family and friends, Roky has made a dramatic comeback. He takes improved medication and attends regular sessions with a psychiatrist. He even has his drivers license. This past month Roky and the Elevators were inducted into the Texas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Roky Erickson has a new anthology of his music entitled “I Have Always Been Here Before” which is available for purchase from Shout Factory Records. For WBHM, I’m Adam Allington.