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").
"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!).
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.
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.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.