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."