Ex-13th Floor Elevator Tommy Hall Is Still Psychedelic

A Long, Strange Trip

To get into Hall's place at the Artmar Hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, you're buzzed in through two sets of gates. He's down a stained hallway from the shared bathroom. He doesn't own a phone, so visitors just show up, avoiding the paranoid glares of the crackhead neighbors. Hall claims he feels safe here. He survives on government assistance, leaving little money for anyone to steal.

Over the years, Hall has created a cozy home-media metropolis as cluttered as his thoughts. The shoebox apartment is populated by skyscrapers of cassettes, CDs and VHS tapes Hall says offer psychedelic training for the future. He's an avid reader, viewer and collector of new ideas. These media high-rises reach toward the thick gray cobwebs that hang from the ceiling like stringy clouds.

It's hard to imagine how Hall lives in an apartment with so little space for movement, but when he's here, he resides primarily in his mind. He sits on his twin bed for hours at a time, getting high and working out the holy secrets of the stars, a thesis he's tagged "the design."

Ask Hall what he's been up to lately and he'll answer that he's been "running the design." The exact nature of this design is something even his close friends cop to not quite understanding. His explanations are dotted with mentions of the fourth dimension, yogic theories and patterns in the universe. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

"Like, right now I'm not even working with galaxies," he says. "I'm just on suns, although I've done those before."

Hall spends $200 a month on new CDs, explaining that the art of creation requires the art of surprise, and you can't be surprised if you play the same old music all the time. He chooses jazz specifically because — despite his racial bias against favorites like Miles Davis or Donald Byrd — he believes it's an evolved art form.

Hall spouts stereotypes that demean his intelligence. Some of these observations are humorous in their hypocrisy, like the fact that he's an acid-rock icon who hates hippies. "What did the hippies do with acid?" he asks. "They were out there throwing bombs. You can't blame Nixon for cracking down." Or that he's a lifelong Republican who supports the very politicians who sponsored the drug war.

But then there are the disturbing diatribes, where this spiritual man's talk of human evolution doesn't extend to specific minority groups. Hall often rants about a "fag agenda," and his high praise of African-American jazz and blues artists is dashed when he makes crass statements like, "The white consciousness is the most evolved. The blacks aren't as evolved as we are."

His racism and homophobia can't, and shouldn't, be overlooked. Even his best friends admit they change the subject when Hall brings up race or sexuality. Tausch says that there are certain subjects he is simply not allowed to discuss with her anymore.

Hall isn't alone in being respected for what he created musically while having beliefs that are at odds with decent society, from Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism to Ike Turner's violent misogyny. But that doesn't alter the history they made musically.

The design won't bring Hall the riches he wishes for, but he will always have his Elevators legacy to stand on. Bay Area music authority Richie Unterberger, who has written extensively on '60s underground legends, compares Hall to contemporaries like Skip Spence and Arthur Lee, artists intent on exploring beyond the conventions of everyday experience. Listeners connect to that quest because it's different from their casual music encounters.

"There's an element of really being on the edge that helped them tap into some very raw and deep emotions," Unterberger says. "They might be disturbing, but they're also the emotions you don't encounter very often in art."

Hall could've been so many things: a prophetic lyricist who explored new bands; a published drug philosopher. Anything but an erratic, mystical mathematician living in a residency hotel beneath so many cobweb chandeliers.

But no one can will this underground legend to turn his stubborn beliefs into anything more tangible than what he's already delivered to this world — those timeless, still-influential Elevators records. Besides, even if you'd asked him for more, the man is simply too busy these days with his galactic habits to work through many earthly tasks.

"All I want to do is expand the universe," Hall says with a half-smile. "That's plenty."

An expanded version of this story first appeared in Houston Press sister paper SF Weekly. For more, see www.sfweekly.com.

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