Ex-13th Floor Elevator Tommy Hall Is Still Psychedelic

A Long, Strange Trip

"The first thing you notice, before anything really, is Tommy Hall's electric jug sound," notes Elevators fan Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain. "Never could quite work out how that sound was made."

Second to Erickson's soul-wrecked wail, that jug stamped the Elevators' signature on the burgeoning mid-'60s psych scene. The group's third charm was guitarist Stacy Sutherland, whose heavy reverb gave the group its acid-drenched garage-blues style.

Tausch claims she named the band, joining an "elevating" word with her lucky number 13. But the Elevators were nonetheless a remarkably unlucky act during their brief three-year run. Every time they'd catch a break (1967: lip-synching on Dick Clark's American Bandstand!), something negative would counter the streak (Dick Clark steals their manager!).

The old man down the road: Tommy Hall
Jaime Soja
The old man down the road: Tommy Hall

Their biggest problems, however, came from their record label and the law. The Elevators signed to Houston-based International Artists, a company many say kept the group in the poorhouse. In 1966, "Miss Me" rose to No. 55 on the Billboard charts, and the Elevators put their mark on a movement by titling their first official LP The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. It became one of a string of records for which the band saw minuscule royalties.

In his lyrics, Hall penned elegant lines about trust ("Don't fall down as you lift her / Don't fall down / She believes in you") and spiritual bonds: "She's been always in your ear / Her voice sounds a tone within you / Listen to the words you hear." There were also, of course, plenty of encouragements to take a magic blotter ride: "You finally find your helpless mind is trapped inside your skin / You want to leave, but you believe you won't get back again."

This new musical mysticism attracted a following in Texas. Elevators bassist Ronnie Leatherman remembers Hall hosting weeknight sessions in Houston where he'd play records and deliver his divine philosophies to gathered flocks.

As the band started touring Texas, though, young idealists weren't the only ones listening. The Elevators lived in a conservative hotbed when, as drummer John Ike Walton tells it, rednecks were really red. The Elevators were seen as threatening to the very moral fabric of the state; their arrests were broadcast on television.

The band decamped to the Bay Area's more supportive environs in 1966. With connections to Joplin and other transplanted Texans, they were quickly playing venues like the legendary Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Their audiences grew exponentially as the Elevators shared stages with the era's popular acts: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape. The locals embraced them, despite their much shorter hair (a consequence of enduring so many drug trials) and Hall occasionally getting smacked around for taking Richard Nixon's side in political debates.

They were barely scraping by, though, getting paid $100 each for Avalon gigs, and by the beginning of 1967 they moved back to Texas. Deeper fractures also plagued the group. Hall's insistence that the band "play the acid" every time they picked up an instrument was at odds with the members who didn't enjoy the drug, and it was taking its toll on the ones who did.

The Elevators' last hurrah came with 1967's Easter Everywhere, a landmark album littered with allusions to Hall's Eastern religious studies. The songs were ethereal love ballads lifted by exquisite harmonies ("She Lives (in a Time of Her Own)"), and parables with heavy visual imagery ("If your limbs begin dissolving / In the water that you tread / All surroundings are evolving / In the stream that clears your head"). The record's lo-fi production added to its eerie aesthetic, as did Hall holding a finger to his lips on the back cover, in a warning to handle the mysteries of the universe cautiously.

From that minor peak the band fell mightily, with Erickson's story perhaps the most tragic. After becoming increasingly irrational on- and offstage, he cycled through mental institutions and in 1969 was locked up in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane on drug charges, the final patch of dirt on the Elevators' grave.

Sutherland also entered dark times: He battled for years with hard-drug addiction before being shot to death in Houston by his wife, Bunni, in 1978.

Hall's path became more difficult to trace.

Hall and Tausch divorced in 1973. He'd been bouncing between California and Texas for years, and the distance took its toll on the couple. (They remain close friends and dine together once a month.)

Hall spent decades out of touch with his Elevators family, the gaps dotted with drug convictions he doesn't like to talk about. But after the Elevators scattered, they became more than a cautionary narrative about fried trippers.

Serious music fans dug them out of history's annals. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck once joked that his band name stood for "Roky Erickson's Music." Bill Bentley organized a 1990 Erickson tribute album, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, featuring R.E.M., ZZ Top and the Butt­hole Surfers, who rode the Elevators' early wave of Texas psych into the punk era.

Surfers front man Gibby Haynes calls the Elevators the most important Texas psychedelic band, adding that Texas was a ground zero for psychedelic garage rock. An entire movement of druggy British music enthusiasts, from Spaceman 3 to Primal Scream, sang the group's praises and covered its songs. This spring, a ten-disc box set of Elevators music will be released online through the International Artists Web site.

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