By Chris Gray
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Tommy Hall is nursing a Coke at a corner table at San Francisco's Hemlock Tavern. The guru of '60s psychedelic rock doesn't drink alcohol. Booze brings you down, and Hall believes you should always be working on a high.
The jukebox is playing "You're Gonna Miss Me," the biggest hit by Hall's band, the 13th Floor Elevators. The 1966 single made it onto the soundtrack of the film High Fidelity and the prized garage-rock box set Nuggets, helping the group gain massive cred with young garage-rock fiends.
The Elevators' jug player, philosopher and lifetime LSD devotee either pretends not to notice his song or genuinely can't hear it over the din of early arrivers for the club's headliners, Mammatus. The metal band is one of many contemporary artists (Black Angels, The Black Lips) whose stoned sound has ancestral ties to Hall's sonic ideology.
For many of his 66 years, Hall has been pursuing intellectual enlightenment through acid. He began that quest with the Elevators in the mid-'60s. Music scholars now note that the Elevators pushed an aggressive psychedelia that stood out against the feel-good artists of the time, predating both punk and new wave. The band combined lingering, futuristic garage-rock jams with propulsive rock-and-roll rhythms, grooving well with the counterculture's burgeoning drug experimentation.
Three elements made the Elevators truly transcendent: singer Roky Erickson's manic, mercurial vocals; Hall's invention of the electric jug — which made inexplicably cool sound effects based on the reverberations of his voice; and Hall's beautiful, image-rich lyricism promoting the spirituality of getting high.
"We were trying to get into the results of acid," he says, "to get into the results of the universe."
With the Elevators, Hall made it a rule to drop acid every time someone picked up an instrument. From all reports, he didn't stop dosing regularly until very recently, when he lost his LSD connection and had to stick with pot. Hall says he's holding a bag of mushrooms at his efficiency apartment in a sketchy San Francisco residential hotel, saving that stash for the final breakthrough on his current project — a book revealing divine patterns in the solar system he's been working out in his head for years.
Talking with Hall is like flipping on multiple public-affairs programs midway through the discussion. It's challenging to comprehend everything he's saying. Pay attention, though, and you can sort salient points and philosophical nuggets from the sometimes intolerant — and occasionally racist — ramblings.
With his ravenous appetite for higher learning, Hall could have been a flawed yet significant cultural signpost, a rock-and-roll Timothy Leary. Instead, his lifestyle teeters closer to another visionary — Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett.
"Most bands are just in it for entertainment," Houston native, music-industry vet and Elevators advocate Bill Bentley says, "but the Elevators gambled on it with their lives and they got squashed."
Erickson had already written "You're Gonna Miss Me" when Hall discovered him in 1965. The pair quickly formed a bond and traveled into deep hallucinatory space, setting Hall up as a psychotropic prophet on a vision quest from which he has never returned.
The need to understand humans was coded into Tommy Hall's DNA. He was born in Memphis, to nurse Margaret "Perky" Perkins and doctor Thomas James Hall. But music was also in his blood. He spent his formative years in jug-band country with an ear to the progressive-jazz station and a record-collecting habit.
In 1961, Hall enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where, fascinated with how the mind works, he studied philosophy and psychology. At night, he continued his musical education, hitting blues bars with songwriter and future Elevators contributor Powell St. John.
Austin introduced Hall to two future loves: an English major named Clementine Tausch and the drug lysergic acid diethylamide. For years they were a tightly knit trio, but it wasn't love at first sight. Hall's slicked-back hair and long beard were a turnoff for Tausch, added to what she calls his terrific arrogance: "He was pretentious and always making pronunciamentos."
A shave, new suit and Hall's genuine affection helped change her mind; they married in 1964.
It's impossible to pinpoint Hall's first LSD trip; he estimated to Elevators biographer Paul Drummond that he dosed 317 times between 1966 and 1970. One of Hall's initial experiences was profoundly negative. He was given the drug as part of a study at the UT lab, where he freaked out about all the scientists testing his paranoia levels.
Hall found a better vessel for his lysergic prophecies when a friend invited him to a concert by the Spades, featuring 18-year-old front man Roky Erickson. He heard the future in Erickson's ravaged, bluesy screams — his singular voice is said to have influenced Texas pal Janis Joplin — and Erickson easily fell under Hall's mentorship. Hall poached him from the Spades, matching him with a local group he liked called the Lingsmen.
Their first jam session took place at Hall's residence in November 1965. Tommy doled out the LSD and grabbed a clay whiskey jug, eager to be part of the action. He ushered the instrument into the electric age, holding a mike in one hand and making noises into the interior, the echoes of his voice producing the Elevators' ghostly je ne sais quoi. Hall's primitive sound effects alternately came off like pigeons mating ("Earthquake"), emergency sirens ("Fire Engine") and carnival rides ("Roller Coaster").