Roky Rocks For The Devil

If you're rocking for Satan, you really don't want to let him down.

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,

1926–1984: 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.

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

to Madness."