A Long, Strange Trip

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

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).

Tommy Hall in his Tenderloin apartment.
Jamie Soja
Tommy Hall in his Tenderloin apartment.
The 13th Floor Elevators (Tommy Hall with jug, far right).
Photo courtesy of Bob Simmons
The 13th Floor Elevators (Tommy Hall with jug, far right).

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.

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