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 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.

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).

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."

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