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R.I.P. psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson

Photo: Gabriel Olsen (Getty Images)

Roky Erickson has died. The former frontman of legendary Texas psychedelic rock pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson’s legacy is typically viewed through one of two tightly interwoven threads: His groundbreaking work in the psychedelic music scene, and his life-long struggles with mental illness.

Born in Austin in 1947, Erickson was a quick convert to the city’s music scene and counterculture, famously dropping out of high school a month before graduation because he refused to cut his hair to fit the institution’s dress code. Erickson was only 19 when The Elevators—founded the previous year, with fellow songwriter/jug player Tommy Hall and lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland—released their first album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Elevators. Now considered a classic of the early garage rock scene, the album was a minor hit at the time, with Erickson’s howling vocals on “You’re Gonna Miss Me” drawing the most obvious attention. The group followed Sounds with a more ambitious effort, Easter Everywhere, the following year, before interpersonal and legal problems began to take their toll on the music.

Openly pro-drug use, the members of the Elevators were watched closely by Texas authorities; when Erickson was caught with a small amount of marijuana, he ended up pleading insanity rather than face a potential multi-year prison sentence. Already diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he ended up spending the next five years in Texas mental hospitals, writing music, being subjected to pharmaceutical regimens and electroconvulsive treatments, and frequently trying to escape. He would spend much of the rest of his life dealing with the aftermath of this incarceration; in a famous story, he once generated a notarized affidavit attesting that he was a Martian.

But while Erickson continued to struggle with mental health, his music steadily evolved. Working with a backing band that eventually settled down to the name Roky Erickson And The Aliens, he transitioned into a much harder sound, with lyrics often influenced by science fiction monsters beasts. (This is where we get songs like “Two Headed Dog,” reportedly influenced by stories of Russian organ transplant experiments.) The group ended up producing two LPs, before Erickson’s deteriorating mental state began dominating his creative output. He saw a resurgence of popularity in the mid-90s, though, returning to the studio, playing at festivals, and receiving the praise and support of the numerous groups that his 30 years in the industry had heavily influenced. Back on some kind of stable track, and able to focus on the music that he loved, he produced eight different solo albums between 1995 and now, including live albums, studio albums, and tributes. His battles with mental illness were also chronicled in a documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, in 2007.

Per Variety, Erickson’s death was confirmed today by his brother. He was 71.

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