Sometimes genius is inseparable from madness. Often times though madness can destroy genius - even those who are merely talented. When Will Sheff of Okkervil River "rescued" Roky Erickson (formerly of the psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators) from oblivion by producing his album True Love Cast Out All Evil, Kevin Courrier examined how.
For those who miss albums that are conceived as albums (rather than merely a collection of songs), True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautifully crafted one with a suggestively stirring arc. It's an informal anthropological portrait of an artist trying to re-connect all the broken pieces of memory and truth and finding out how elusive that process can be. Produced by Will Sheff and featuring his band Okkervil River, True Love is a song cycle that attempts to provide a chronicle of a life that has been blasted apart. To his credit, however, Sheff doesn't solemnize the process, nor does he create an inspirational tribute to Erickson's survival. He rather lets Erickson's songs tell the story, an elliptical series of parables about one man testing his faith against an unforgiving world where fate had cast him. Roky Erickson learned his love of music from his mother, a woman who was both religiously devotional and righteously mad. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a haunting evocation of a parent's gift to her son, a present that shares equal portions of inspiration and insanity. (As he says in "Bring Back the Past": "Moody tunes whistle in my ears/And throw me up and down/Dreams and scenes from joy to tears/Could screw me to the ground.")
The 13th Floor Elevators originally hailed from Austin, Texas before finding a home in the counter-culture of San Fransisco in the late sixties. It was there that they reached their peak musically, just as they reached some scary heights as devotees of LSD. (The band would drop acid before every live gig.) Within a couple of years, the drug began taking its toll on Erickson. He began hearing voices, not coming to gigs and eventually, in 1969, getting picked up back home by the Austin police for possession of grass. While facing a ten-year sentence in prison, Erickson was advised by his lawyer to plead guilty by reason of insanity. As a result of his questionable plea, he did time in the Austin State Hospital and the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. While there he was subjected to electric shock therapy and massive doses of Thorazine. He remained in their custody until 1972. (While in Rusk, he wrote many of the songs heard on True Love Cast Out All Evil.)
True Love Cast Out All Evil isn't the first collection of music that also serves as social anthropology. In 1968, Frank Zappa produced An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, a double-album featuring a paranoid schizophrenic street busker from Los Angeles who made up songs for money, which formed an unsettling portrait of a savant artist. The work of the equally disturbed Daniel Johnston holds endless fascination for many pop groups, including Sonic Youth, for similar reasons to Fischer. But Roky Erickson (like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd) isn't an outsider artist, but instead a casualty of both the drug culture and mental illness. So Erickson's album is his effort to find the self he once possessed rather than exhibit the art of the lost self.
True Love Cast Out All Evil, which features some of the best and insightful liner notes (by Will Sheff) ever to grace a CD, doesn't offer any easy answers, nor does it guarantee any follow-up album. The CD is a series of glimpsed moments, time seized for what those moments might yield. In particular, the final track, "God is Everywhere," another early field recording, which provides no clear path for the unsettled road of Roky Erickson. In the end, he's left singing with a fragile, uncertain hope, "also, also, thoughts lost and never-known treasures coming back to we." True Love Cast Out All Evil is a treasure map to a lost treasure, one that's gathered in like gems blowing in the wind, pieces shattered but still not broken.