A Long, Strange Trip

An originator of acid rock in the '60s, Tommy Hall used LSD to expand his consciousness. He’s still psychedelic.

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."

Roky Erickson played the Great American Music Hall in November.
Jamie Soja
Roky Erickson played the Great American Music Hall in November.
Fillmore poster for a show with Grace Slick’s band, the Great Society.
Fillmore poster for a show with Grace Slick’s band, the Great Society.

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."

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