A Long, Strange Trip

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

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.

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