Spout Mavens Disc #2: You're Gonna Miss Me (2005)

You're Gonna Miss Me
Director: Keven McAlester // 2005 [Palm Pictures DVD Screener]

Cinema 4 Rating: 6

Why is it the traits that we would find repulsive in an everyday, common person if we passed them by or ran them over in the street -- lack of hygiene, shabby clothes, drug addiction, alcoholism, mad ravings, abusive language, foul temperament, outright insanity -- are perfectly fine if they are contained -- in any combination of column A or B -- in the body of a rock star? Behavior that most would find deplorable or from which most would at least attempt to shield the eyes of their children in public has now turned into a cottage industry on film and television, propping up any number -- hell, half the lineup -- on many stations like MTV, VH1 or their short attention-spanned and money-grubbing ilk. Sure, it makes a nice human interest story if Johnny Bollocks cleans up his act and goes back on the road for the first time in twenty years with the Sex Pickles, but it would be even more fun if he were to flame out halfway through the tour and rape a teenybopper groupie, wouldn't it, MTV? Certainly you would be among the first to wag your finger at the rotter -- he's been a baaaad boy, Abbott! -- but you'd never turn the camera off of him, would you? It's not the media's fault, really... after all, we, the doting audience, are lapping up this crap, absolutely unable to stop watching the bad behavior. Because we know, given the opportunity and given free license to act like a juvenile dickweed, we'd jump on it. We'd smoke that; we'd inhale this; we'd inject whatever you threw at us. And we would have hit that groupie, as well. We're all rock stars in our secret hearts these days, and if we happen to discover that Mr. Raving Lunatic in the park used to Mr. Somebody, well, then suddenly it's OK if he craps on the lawn. After all, he's a rock star.

In 2005, I saw a documentary about a mentally fragile individual who had achieved, by almost sheer force of underground celebrity, a legendary status as a sort of musical idiot savant. A man almost wholly trapped inside a childlike world known only to his inner eye, and he would occasionally grace the world with tender and none-too-revealing slices of his mad vision. Damaged, almost babyish, longing, crystalline pop, as delicate as the animals in the glass menagerie. The film was called The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and the film dealt with attempts to get Daniel to perform again after a long hiatus, and attempts by his family, friends, hangers on and fans to try and capture even a sliver of understanding regarding his vision of the world. There is a payoff of sorts in that film, however small, where it seems like something of a catharsis for the subject, his supporters and the viewers as well.

Take that film, replace the artist with a different cult hero living in his own drug-and-asylum wrought inner hell, take away the relatively feel good ending, and you have You're Gonna Miss Me. The difference in my preference between the two films, for me, is based on the fact that while I have been privy to Mr. Johnston's development and eventual regression as an artist since the mid-'80s in any number of rock magazines on which I have thrived since that time, Roky Erickson, the wildman subject of You're Gonna Miss Me, has been known to me since I was 16. I found a copy of Roky Erickson and the Aliens at my old haunt, Budget Tapes and Records, when I was 19, and at that time, I had already bought the seminal collection of psychedelic rock called Nuggets, which featured this film's titular song by his original band, the 13th Floor Elevators. Unlike Johnston -- a minimalist recluse who re-recorded his album material by himself over and over each time he wanted to give somebody a copy -- Erickson was actually a full-blown rock star, with a rough but soaring voice, an edgy way with rhythm on a guitar, a major record deal, a hit single, and a real band that toured and went on American Bandstand. Erickson was the shit. And his music -- jagged shards of Erickson's blues howl spitting out paranoid tales of vampirism, aliens and the walking haunted of the world -- appealed to me immensely in that latest of my teen years. It approached the same spot in my keening soul as when I found Here Are the Sonics! at a garage sale a couple of years later. It was the music I had been looking for; the music I needed to shoot me out of the Top 40 ghetto in which my ears were raised. Subsequently, I spent years, in the era before the internet made it simple to find anything, fruitlessly trying to locate more of his material.

Through the '80s, the happy purchase of Don't Slander Me and Gremlins Have Pictures on cassette kept the Erickson train moving for me, but through reviews in Rolling Stone and other magazines, I was starting to hear tales about Erickson that went far beyond what I knew about him through the songs alone. Tales of madness, tales of woe; his wild appearance and his life of relative squalor; that he was another Syd Barrett, another tragic figure of the drug-fueled rock industry, barely hanging onto whatever sanity electroshock therapy hadn't buzzed out of him. Then, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, an Erickson tribute album featuring R.E.M. (amongst others), came out, and since I was an adherent of that band as well, it was a must buy for me. I remember reading about Erickson's proclivity for turning on every appliance in the house to the loudest level possible to create a wall of white noise to which he might fall asleep, and I adapted it into an only-slightly effective means by which to write for a handful of months in the mid-'90s. There I was, a slightly well-adjusted job-holding member of society, and I was seeking to duplicate in my own home the ravings of a man whom I only knew through a couple record covers and a handful of photos in a magazine, of a man whom I would cross the street to avoid based on his appearance alone. And how was I to know whether all of this reportage on Roky was bullshit or not?

Hence the film. The most ironic thing in You're Gonna Miss Me is the title, because truly, how can you miss someone that you don't really know at all? I certainly knew little about the man directly through those albums, record reviews and scant photographic evidence. And much of the film merely corroborates what I knew before, hitting all of the usual touchstones upon his road to paranoid schizophrenia: his old band, the LSD, the electroshock, the marijuana bust that sent him eventually to a maximum-security insane asylum, his release and eventual solo career, and then his virtual seclusion alongside his tree-mother, from which apple-Erickson clearly fell in relatively close proximity. And through the entire film, outside of too-little footage of the man in his true element - the stage - Erickson is practically a cipher, lost deep within his head, blankly staring at everything with a slight smirk, watching far too much television at sound levels that the Who never approached, or merely mumbling a few non-sequiturs to his mother or brother. The brief sound and film clips of his previous life do nothing to convey to us who he really is. We only know what he was at one time, and where he ended up. Unlike Johnston, who may be as trapped in his illness as much as Erickson but who nonetheless still conveys a certain sense of creative activity underneath it all, Roky is all but unknowable.

We are given glimpses of a possible opening up, though, and after he is, via court action, given over to his brother for caretaking, Roky starts attending therapy. It gives us (and his family) hope, but the film leaves us dangling, unlike the Johnston film. Perhaps, in the cliche, it's more like life that way, but for someone who has never had enough of Erickson, the film's ambiguous finish is not enough for me. Maybe the film came out just a little too soon. Erickson is currently performing once more, on his first tour in two decades and even playing at huge festivals like Bumbershoot, but the film gives us no mention of this, not even in a postscript. Perhaps the DVD has some extra mention of his successful therapeutic sessions, but on the screener I saw, we are only left with the possibility that some good may come out of them, even if in the last session they show, he cannot remember what he was told in the previous session. Am I to derive some sense of change from this? Because that is not what I get from it. And the saddest part, for the video company, is that they have lost some money by my receiving this screener. This film was a no-brainer purchase for me -- I am the target audience for this doc -- but now, after seeing it, even if I had to give the screener back, I still wouldn't buy the film for my collection. There is not enough performance in it for me to return (I know the full DVD has a series of them on it, but why couldn't they be in the regular film?). It's just Roky on the rocks, and no real sense that anything has been lost by his absence.

This is the real crime, because the best moments in the film are two instances where he is persuaded -- actually, goaded -- to pick up a guitar and sing. Stunningly, this shambling recluse somehow has it in him to start strumming again like he had never stopped, and then out of his dilapidated three-toothed maw comes that weathered but oddly beautiful voice. And the songs really sting, because we then see the artist inside the wreckage. The man we would otherwise never allow near us. The man we're gonna really miss...


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