Roky's Inferno

The unlikeliest (and wildest) of comebacks roars improbably on

Fitting for a guy who spouts the supernatural, Roger Kynard Erickson sported a bright-red shirt for his first-ever East Coast show, held on Friday the 13th. As chilling as his songs are, they're no match for the frightening real life of the Austin singer-guitarist, who's second only to Dante in chronicling the lower depths. "You're Gonna Miss Me," Roky's 1966 garage hit with the 13th Floor Elevators, was followed by a descent into a cycle of prescribed and unprescribed drugs, schizophrenic episodes, and asylum visits. In the mid '70s, he gathered himself up to create graphic and extraordinary songs about demons, aliens, and other strange creatures. Over a decade, he produced a series of singles, two albums, and the occasional local gig before his career ground to a halt in the late '80s. After an '89 mail fraud bust, he lived a secluded life, though a 1990 tribute album (featuring ZZ Top and R.E.M.) furthered his legend. As documented in the recent film named after his Elevators hit, an intra-family court battle let his brother Sumner take over Roky's care in 2001—this got him back to his regular medication regimen and rekindled his interest in music, starting with a series of 2005 shows.

All this drama and history left the packed house in Brooklyn drooling. Backed by his faithful '70s–'80s trio the Explosives, his hour-long set reviewed his solo years, including only two Elevators tunes (what other '60s legend besides Stevie Wonder could rely on his later work without pissing off a crowd?). With Roky only adding a pleasant "thank you" at each song's end, guitarist Cam King played de facto emcee, cramming as many guitar breaks as he could into each song, mugging for both Roky and the audience.

But what made the show was Roky's presence and intensity. When he played a lead, it was simply awe-inspiring—on the (self-referential?) "The Beast Is Coming," he juiced a stinging, sharp line of notes with feedback, and unleashed a wild torrent of Elmore James slide noise at the start of "Before You Accuse Me." Even more penetrating were his grim face and unearthly, shrieking voice. Brimming with conviction like a fire-breathing minister, his cold, hard eyes—topped by thick, menacing brows—peered straight past the audience like they weren't even there. Even if he couldn't communicate much otherwise, Roky shouted the lyrics as if they were permanently burned into his brain. That's what keeps the '50s Cold War paranoia of his self-proclaimed "horror rock" from sounding like corny goth shtick. More like fellow troubled Texan Daniel Johnston and the also troubled Sly Stone (circa "Thank You") than Robert Johnson, Roky savors a good rumble with the devil himself, even if it means he sometimes gets his ass kicked.

Dangerous bravado notwithstanding, his unlikely comeback continues. Cheers greeted the opening riff to "Bermuda" (as in the devil's triangle). Dozens of voices joined him on the chorus of "Creature With the Atom Brain." And the heavily requested "Bloody Hammer" got a smile even out of Roky himself, leading up to the excitement of the inevitable "You're Gonna Miss Me." At show's end, he retreated to the back to graciously sign memorabilia. All in a night's work now for a one-man axis of evil.

 
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