On all sides, madness fascinates man. ... what is born from the
strangest delirium was already hidden, like a secret, in the bowels of
the earth. When man deploys the arbitrary nature of his madness, he
confronts the dark necessity of the world; the animal that haunts his
nightmares ... is his own nature, which will lay bare hell's pitiless
truth ... Michel Foucault, French philosopher,
19261984: Madness and Civilization
The "madman" has become a rock 'n' roll cliché, of course: we
all know that, for instance, while Ozzy Osbourne may be a bit
drug-damaged, he isn't really mad, what with the wife and kids
and the cunning career calculations. He's merely playing a role
(and playing it well, I might add).
Yet Demon Angel: A Day and Night With Roky Erickson reminds us
that rock does have its true madmen, those whose contact with
certain elemental forces allows them to access truths most of us can't
or won't face. Such figures become peculiarly sacred icons, whispered
about in hushed tones yet kept at a distance. The either disappear
entirely, like Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, or periodically pop their
heads up just long enough to scare us before returning to rule their
own internal infernal realms such is one Roger
Roky Erickson's mythology, from his days fronting legendary '60s Texas
acid garage punks The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, to his incarceration
in a mental institution for possession of a mere joint, can be found
elsewhere including on Amsterdamned's simultaneous video
release of Demon Angel, in which friends of Erickson discuss
his fascination with occult writer H.P. Lovecraft, and on which Roky
himself casually confesses to having signed a pact with Satan.
This aptly titled collection originally cut by Erickson
(with producer Mike Alvarez helping out on guitar) live in an
underground cave in Austin, Texas, on Halloween night in 1984
contains a mesmerizing Dionysian power as channeled by a man only
just able to maintain control over that which he conjures. On
this Plugged/Unplugged session, one can hear the struggle of the
demons and the angels inhabiting the singer.
Occult-themed songs such as "White Faces" and "Stand for the Fire
Demon" offer the hair-raising sounds of a white counterpart to
Robert Johnson, the black hoodoo bluesman who, it is said, sold his
soul to Lucifer at some unspecified rural Southern crossroads.
But Erickson is just as compelling when he give the angels some airtime,
as on the ballads "Starry Eyes," which you'll find yourself humming
for days, and "Right Track Now," performed while sitting in a moving
car and featuring some lovely, mountain-music-styled finger-picking.
On the video, as Erickson sits in the lotus position in his underground
domain singing "Bloody Hammer" (RealAudio excerpt), an eerie depiction of his time in a
mental hospital; his head is adorned with a crown that looks as though
it came from a high-school production of King Lear. One realizes that
the singer has performed what Foucault calls the "inverse exaltation"
of the madman: He is able to "grant himself all the qualities, all the
virtues or powers that he lacks ... Poor, he is rich; ugly, he admires
himself; with chains still on his feet, he takes himself for a God."
And it is through the vehicle of Erickson's music that this
alchemy from social pariah to sovereign takes place.
There are moments here when Roky lives up to his name (pronounced "Rocky")
and just plain kicks ass in a way that few others can
after all, if you're rocking for Satan, you really don't want to let
him down. "Cold Night for Alligators" (RealAudio excerpt) finds Roky burning up the frets
of his electric guitar in a manner that recalls the most speed-soaked
excursions of the Velvet Underground (as on "What Goes On" from their
1969 eponymous album).
The voice, a tremulous high-end tenor, is in fine shape as Roky yowls
his way through the Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" (RealAudio excerpt) as if he'd just
written it, his mannerisms clearly the model for another legendary
Texas rocker, Janis Joplin, who claimed him as an influence.
His compositions bring to mind the late Miles Davis' wish to make music
inspired by the sound of the South's rural back roads after dark, when
the owls come out hooting and the sound of gospel and blues singers
echo in the distance.
The video version of Demon Angel probably won't be airing on
MTV Unplugged anytime soon, which is a shame, since it contains
more moving musical moments than 99% of the "product" that'll be
clogging the airwaves. While Erickson's arcane obsessions may seem an
uncomfortable anomaly in the daytime world of commerce and bourgeois
utility, he is, if one listens closely, a keeper of the flame, a bearer
of the hidden knowledge that Foucault identifies as residing in "the
bowels of the earth." He lives daily with that which so frightens the
rest of us: the secret antidote to the stultifyingly "normal" world of
the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
Indeed, while listening to Demon Angel, one may reach Foucault's
conclusion that "victory is neither God's nor the Devil's: it belongs