Tommy Hall is nursing a Coke at a corner table at the Hemlock Tavern, a Polk Street music dive. 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 local artists 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 in the mid-'60s with the 13th Floor Elevators. Music scholars now note that the Elevators pushed an aggressive psychedelia that stood out against the feel-good artists of the time, pre-dating both punk and new wave. The band combined lingering, futuristic garage-rock jams with propulsive rock 'n' 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. Of the last, he says now that he was combating the teenybopper attitude prevalent during the British Invasion. "We were trying to get into the results of acid," he says, "to get into the results of the universe."
Four decades after the Elevators collapsed, experimental garage rock and metal have enjoyed a huge resurgence in the Bay Area, and many of the leading acts have been influenced by Hall's band: droning rockers Wooden Shjips, garage punks Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, and pop songwriter Kelley Stoltz, to name a few. The Elevators' cult following is far from regional: Danger Mouse, the producer behind Gnarls Barkley and Beck, told The New York Times that he greatly admired the Elevators' mix of common melodies and left-field sonic adventures.
When he was playing 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 apartment, a one-room efficiency in a sketchy Tenderloin residential hotel. He's 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.
Hall still has very clear ideas about what makes a band psychedelic. That's why he's at the Hemlock to see Mammatus, an underground band he first heard at Amoeba Music, and one he believes is carrying on the tradition of trip music. These musicians "flash" to a higher consciousness, he says, darting a chalky hand across his scraggly Merlin beard. "It's real music," he adds. "The rest is just a bunch of noise."
Hall's offbeat observations about music make him an engrossing conversationalist. He intellectualizes songwriting to levels far beyond the average musician, and gives almost holy meaning to his favorite artists. But he also unleashes a torrent of information independent of whoever is on the listening end, the result of years of sustained drug use. Talking with him 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 a ravenous appetite for higher learning, Hall could have been a flawed yet significant cultural signpost, a rock 'n' roll Timothy Leary. Instead his lifestyle teeters closer to another visionary rock 'n' roll drug casualty, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett.
Despite his struggles, however, Hall is still a fascinating figure in musical history. It's not often that you encounter someone who so fiercely believes rock 'n' roll is a voyage to the beyond. But it's been a difficult journey, one that isn't without its casualties.
"Most bands are just in it for entertainment," music industry vet and Elevators fan Bill Bentley says, "but the Elevators gambled on it with their lives and they got squashed."
If the Great American Music Hall has the equivalent of a VIP section, Tommy Hall is perched in it, a plaid flannel shirt hanging on his hunched frame. It's the day after Halloween, and Roky Erickson is the headliner.
Erickson's career as a solo artist was given new life with the 2005 documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, which propelled the Elevators back into public discourse while showing the damage caused by methodical drug use. Erickson was the group's most serious victim, and his communication skills are delicate these days. Nonetheless, he's a cause célèbre in certain rock circles and has sold out the Great American tonight — in part because this performance promises to be a historic one. Erickson's set list will include 13th Floor Elevators songs, which he hasn't played live since the late '60s, when he started forgetting his lyrics onstage and wearing a Band-Aid over the "third eye" on his forehead.
Upstairs, Hall sits incognito near the soundman, flanked by his closest friends, husband and wife George Ripley and Priscilla Lee, who are wearing their 13th Floor Elevators shirts for the occasion.
Ripley warned earlier that Hall had refused to perform tonight. The Elevators' wordsmith, who invented the electric jug's spectra effects, is strangely dismissive these days about his role in the group. Hall says it was his limited abilities on a musical instrument that forced him to put everything into the Elevators' lyrics and ideology. "I was mainly trying to advance a philosophy so I could take over the whole acid thing," he says. "The jug occupied a position."
A young Austin band called the Black Angels opens the show with Velvet Underground–aping rock. This same group will double as Erickson's backing band; singer Alex Maas has learned the electric jug in preparation. After hearing them perform, Hall believes the Black Angels aren't playing with enough "higher structures." He'll later tell the group that there are other psych bands ahead of them, recommending Mammatus, "so they'll learn."
When the Texans come onstage for the second time, Erickson is at the mike. The portly singer opens with his ghoul oeuvre — goofy songs about vampires and zombies — before turning toward the Elevators with "You're Gonna Miss Me." When he howls, "How could you say you missed my lovin', when you never needed it?" he sounds equally maniacal and naked. His voice remains a powerful weapon.
Erickson had already written "You're Gonna Miss Me" when Hall discovered him in 1965, sparking the idea for the first — and only — band Hall put together. 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, Tennessee, to a nurse named Margaret "Perky" Perkins and a doctor named 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 he studied philosophy and psychology, fascinated with how the mind works. 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 terrific arrogance: "He was pretentious and always making pronunciamentos," she says. A shave, a 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'd 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 realized then that chemicals have a valuable effect on the brain, but he was determined to explore LSD in more welcoming environments. This involved turning on the people closest to him, including his mother. (Perky was apparently ecstatic on acid, playing a Mozart record and repeating that she'd never realized the music had "all those things going on in it.")
Hall was into deep thinkers, including G.I. Gurdjieff, whose philosophical writings had also influenced Bob Dylan. Gurdjieff believed there were four pathways to enlightenment, one of which was interpreted to be paved with drugs. Hall carried the 19th-century writer's books everywhere, eager to spread Gurdjieff's gospel. But by the mid-'60s, rock 'n' roll was doing the heavy proselytizing to the kids — Hall wanted this access to the masses.
Hall found the vessel for his lysergic prophecies when a friend invited him to a concert by the Spades, featuring 18-year-old frontman 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 in November 1965 at the Hall residence. 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 jug's 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 psych scene of the mid-'60s. The group's third charm was guitarist Stacy Sutherland, whose use of 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 International Artists, a company many say kept the group in the poorhouse. Soon after the band formed, International Artists picked up its first single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." In 1966, the song had risen to #55 on the Billboard charts. That same year, 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.
Psychedelic Sounds' artwork was unusual for the time, featuring swirls of color with a pyramid and an eye in the middle, a takeoff of the image on the back of the dollar bill. But most importantly for Hall, the record sleeve gave him space to deliver specific, if unsigned, messages about the philosophical quest for "pure sanity" that informed the album. Song titles came with his explanations, such as the revelation on "Reverberation" that you can reorganize your mind against self-doubt. "Tried to Hide" was a dismissal of superficial trippers. And "Splash 1" — a song written by Erickson and Tausch, who played den mother to the band — described the connection felt between two honest seekers.
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. Walton says the cops wanted to beat them up, cut off their hair, and throw them in jail. Band members spent time behind bars or were threatened with hard labor on the cotton farm for such minor violations as possession of a joint.
The Elevators decamped to the more supportive environs of San Francisco in 1966. With connections to Joplin and other Lone Star State buddies gone West, the group was quickly playing venues like the legendary Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom, its audiences growing exponentially. The Elevators shared stages with the popular acts of the time: Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape. They were embraced by the locals, despite having much shorter hair — a consequence of going through 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 in the form of 1967's Easter Everywhere. The landmark album was 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 value added to its eerie aesthetic, as did Hall's photo on the back cover. He's holding a finger to his lips in a warning to handle the mysteries of the universe cautiously.
From that minor peak the band fell mightily, starting in 1968. Erickson's story became perhaps the most tragic. After becoming increasingly irrational on- and offstage, he cycled through mental institutions and in 1969 was locked up in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Texas 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 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; she lives in San Leandro, and they 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 and random anecdotes noted by a handful of journalists (such as one about his membership in the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Laguna Beach LSD commune linked to Timothy Leary).
After the Elevators members had 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." The Butthole Surfers rode the Elevators' early wave of Texas psych into the punk era. Surfers frontman 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 10-disc box set of Elevators music will be released online through the International Artists Web site.
Perhaps the biggest Tommy Hall fan is longtime music journalist and former Warner Bros. publicist Bill Bentley. He produced the 1990 Erickson tribute, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, featuring Elevators songs covered by Julian Cope, R.E.M., and ZZ Top, among others. The industry insider had attended countless Elevators shows in his native Houston with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. "We'd pore over those lyrics like that was our little religious text," Bentley says.
Bentley calls Hall the most important philosopher in his lifetime, even though Hall sometimes speaks in tangents that make it difficult to follow his logic. Case in point: When Bentley interviewed his idol in 1990, Hall's transistor radio was on the fritz. The LSD enthusiast didn't believe this was the fault of any old wiring, though. He told the reporter that the Japanese had burned it out by sending it too much electricity.
If there's a transistor radio on in Tommy Hall's apartment now, its din has long been drowned out by newer electronics. On a giant flatscreen TV, cable news competes for attention with an Arabic dance CD, both blaring at a volume no sober person could withstand.
To get into Hall's place at the Artmar Hotel, 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 media metropolis at the Artmar, one 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," like he's a supercomputer spinning infinite numbers through complex calculations. 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 is as diligent and yet secretive about working on the design as a nuclear scientist unlocking the mysteries of the first atomic bomb. One day he hopes to publish his findings, and to make enough money off them to travel to England. Since he doesn't write anything down, though, it's doubtful these ideas will end up in book form — and even if they did, it's even less certain that anyone, except Tommy Hall, could comprehend them.
His process is nonetheless fascinating for the rituals it involves. Hall first focuses on a faded Mickey Mouse poster. He imagines the real galaxy looks much like the swirl behind the Disney icon, which reinforces to him that the design is real. While this is going on, he has the television tuned to European golf (he likes the slow-moving sport; you can miss a couple of shots and it's no big deal), and jazz on the CD player.
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 he believes it's an evolved art form. This is despite his racial bias against his favorites like Miles Davis or Donald Byrd.
Hall works off 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" (a convoluted idea involving vampire allusions in pop songs). 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. These topics pop into many of his conversations. 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.
But 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, we have unfortunate examples of artists who hold deplorable beliefs. 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. Local music authority Richie Unterberger, who has written extensively on underground legends of the '60s, compares Hall to other icons of his era 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 of this category of musician. "They might be disturbing, but they're also the emotions you don't encounter very often in art."
The only known homage to Tommy Hall hangs in Bill Bentley's Los Angeles office. It's a painting by Memphis artist Lamar Sorrento, a portrait of Hall with a finger to his lips surrounded by lyrics from Easter Everywhere: "Leave your body behind. Keep on climbing."
Bentley says Hall is a link to a period of hallucinogenic exploration that has more casualties than it does survivors. Yet he keeps the faith in this philosophical mentor. "Tommy's still really in the middle of trying to go to a different place, to find a new reality," he says. He adds that after Hall fought so blindly for his band and his beliefs — against arrest, to the mental destruction of his bandmates, and into a life of poverty — he hopes Hall isn't disappointed in how things have turned out.
Hall seems vulnerable at times, but ask him whether he has any regrets and he'll give a defiant no. "You try to do everything correctly so it's positive," he says. "And what I'm doing now is cool."
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 the Tenderloin 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. And what he's delivered, in the form of 13th Floor Elevators records, is timeless and influential. Besides, even if you'd asked him for more, Tommy Hall 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," he says with a half-smile. "That's plenty."