A QUEST FOR PURE SANITY
The Psychedelic Poetry of Tommy Hall
by Patrick Lundborg
A slightly different version of this essay was published in BULT Magazine, Spring 2000
I. THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS
The 13th Floor Elevators formed in late 1965 as a merger of members from two obscure Texas bands, the Lingsmen and the Spades. The Lingsmen were a club band that had played with some success in the coastal resort Port Aransas area, though two members were from Kerrville, a small town in the wilds of West-Central Texas, and a third was from Austin.
Among the Lingsmen's friends was one Tommy (Thomas James) Hall, a student at the University of Texas in Austin. Originally a chemical engineering major, Hall had abandoned theses studies for Psychology and Literature. He took an active part in campus life, which had a strong bohemian undercurrent, including drug experiments, underground newspapers and literary parties. A young Janis Joplin, Gilbert Shelton and Powell St John were also part of this set.
Seeing how the second big wave of rock'n'roll was sweeping the nation in the wake of Beatle-mania, with even the smart set's hero Bob Dylan jumping aboard on "Subterranean Homesick Blues", Tommy Hall figured the popular music could be used as a vehicle for his ideas. Not a musician himself, he understood the importance of hits and teen appeal.
Roky (Roger Kynard) Erickson, an 18 year-old Austin high school dropout, was riding high in the Fall of 1965 as the frontman of the Spades, a "garage" combo that had a recent local 45 release with "You're Gonna Miss Me" and held a residency at Austin's Jade Room club. He had caught the attention of Tommy Hall who had come to see the band play a few times. Hall introduced himself and invited Erickson to meet and jam with some of the Lingsmen. The meeting was a success and plans to form a new "super-group" took shape. Tommy Hall then added the X factor: a collective LSD trip where the agenda for the new band was outlined. Erickson and Lingsmen lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland were impressed enough to agree, and two more members, bass player Bennie Thurman and drummer John Ike Walton, joined in somewhat reluctantly. A few days later an appropriately clever and enigmatic band name was selected, and the 13th Floor Elevators were born.
The group was an instant success in the Austin area. They played their first gig in early December '65, and were soon offered a one-off recording contract for a 45. The 45 - a re-recording of "You're Gonna Miss Me" with an unusual "electric jug" sound added by Hall - was a smash hit in Austin, reaching #2. Throughout the Spring 1966 the group toured extensively in Texas, making TV appearances and building a growing cult inspired by energetic live shows and a mysterious image.
In the Summer the 45 was picked up by the International Artists (I A) label and distributed across USA. It was a respectable national hit, peaking at #55 on Billboard and doing extremely well in Detroit, Miami, and the San Francisco area. The group set off on a successful west coast tour where they made two appearances on national TV and played several times at the famous San Francisco Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. Their self-confessed "psychedelic" music - the term was used by the group as early as January 1966 - inspired several of the Bay Area bands who opened for them, including pre-Jefferson Airplane Great Society, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Janis Joplin's Big Brother & the Holding Company.
The Elevators stayed longer than planned on the west coast. As the 45 was peaking on the charts, the group was forced to return to Texas to record an album in order to capitalize on the hit. After recording the LP in Dallas, the group returned to spend yet another month in California. The debut album was released in November 1966.
II. "PSYCHEDELIC SOUNDS"
With 6 of the 11 tracks recording during one single, LSD-fuelled session, and housed in an eye-popping red/green sleeve, "The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators" is widely regarded as the first psychedelic album, rivalled only by New York group the Deep's "Psychedelic Moods" which appeared around the same time. The Elevators' LP met with lots of interest, especially in underground circles, and went on to sell a remarkable 140 000 copies. It remains to this day their most wellknown record.
While the hit 45 was essentially a Roky Erickson vehicle, the LP has Tommy Hall's signature all over it. It is the first fully realized incarnation of his philosophy, as expressed in the sleeve design, liner notes, track sequencing and much of the lyrics. It is to some extent a concept LP before there were concept LPs. Only the two 45 tracks sound somewhat out of place.
Opening with the observation that "Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically", the famous liner notes differ markedly from the juvenile poetry/hype that made up the average 1966 rock LP back covers. Written, though uncredited, by Tommy Hall, the liner notes go on to observe that our language has been used primarily to identify - and consequently distinguish between - objects, rather than to focus on the relationship between them. Such a way of thinking, Hall states, is keeping man from enjoying the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with life in its entirety.
A key source for Hall's philosophy is "Science And Sanity", the major work of the Polish-born mathematician Alfred Korzybski. The basic ideas and most of the terminology above is derived directly from Korzybski. Though he is nowhere mentioned in the Elevators works, Hall has testified that he was "very much into Korzybski" at the time, and people who met the the Elevators at the time recall the great zeal with which Hall promoted the mathematician's ideas. Originally published in 1933, "Science And Sanity" is now available in its 5th edition (Institute Of General Semantics, New Jersey) and has become something of a cult work. As outlined in the 800-page book Korzybski's philosophy covers all aspects of the human experience - science, religion, psychology, everyday life - and insists that they must be reevaluated and reapproached through a non-Aristotelian perspective, escaping the "unsane" condition man is currently in. Much of the book deals with mathematic and semantic issues on an advanced technical level.
Tommy Hall did not limit himself to rehashing Korzybski. In an intellectual quantum leap he suggested a modern and tangible way to effectuate the non-Aristotelian lifestyle that remains painfully abstract in Korzybski - psychedelic drugs. The second half of Halls liner notes point out that "Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state". Through psychedelics like LSD he can "restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therfore approaching them more sanely." The terminology is Korzybskian, but the implementation is new.
The Huxleyan school of psychedelics, as presented in "The Doors Of Perception" and "Heaven And Hell", was standard fare at a hip mid-60s college like the UT in Austin. The various Leary/Alpert projects like IFIF and Millbrook had been well-chronicled in the mass media, and one can assume Hall, who had been experimenting with peyote and morning glory seeds at an early stage, read it with interest. Perhaps even word of the legendary experiment initiated by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' Bus Trip in 1964 and the subsequent Acid Tests in 1965-66 got around on the UT Campus. The psychedelic movement was underway - you didn't have to wait for a "Summer Of Love" or British pop music to understand that. Hall and the Elevators saw the acid revolution coming and eagerly jumped into the first line.
It's interesting to note that a combination of General Semantics and emerging psychedelia, much like the one Tommy Hall proposes, was the subject of an entire issue of ETC Magazine. The magazine appeared shortly before the Elevators formed, and may have influenced Hall, although we have no confirmation of this. A presentation of the ETC Magazine issue in question can be found here.
(Another likely source of influence is Gurdjieff, who both Hall and Erickson have referred to when looking back upon the Elevators era, although I've been unable to find any direct references or quotes from Gurdjieff's works in Hall's lyrics.)
After the introduction Hall explains how each track on the LP corresponds to the non-Aristotelian LSD reevaluation. A process, or "quest" is outlined, in which a protagonist passes from the "old system" into a new state of awareness. Each song corresponds to a certain stage or aspect of the process. "Fire Engine" is said to deal with "the pleasures of the quest", while "I've Seen Your Face Before" describes "a meeting with a person who radiates the essence of the quest". The 45 track, "You're Gonna Miss Me", written by Roky Erickson well before the Elevators formed, is squeezed somewhat uncomfortably into the concept.
Much has been written about the music on "Psychedelic Sounds". Though given a psychedelic twist through Hall's otherworldly jug and an echo-laden production, most of it can be described as "garage" or "60s punk" with influences from the British beat and R'n'B scene - particularly the Kinks and the Yardbirds - as well as Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. The LP contains one of the Elevators key masterpieces, "Roller Coaster". Written by Erickson and Hall as early as December 1965, it is a spellbinding 5-minute travelogue with adventurous tempo changes and lyrics that define psychedelia:
After your trip life opens up
You start doing what you want to do
And you find out that the world
That you once feared
Gets what it has from you
This is not the advanced lyricism of Hall's later works. The words do not read as well on paper as they sound on the record. They are straightforward and instantly comprehensible, almost sermonizing. With a few exceptions, this is true of the rest of the LP. "Thru The Rhythm", another early song with lyrics written by Hall as a "protest song against school" on request of Stacy Sutherland, has a Dylanesque word-stacking quality - "You follow all the teachings they taught you to digest/They may be hard to swallow but they'll keep your tongue depressed" - note the brilliant wordplay on "depressed" - with Hall sneaking in references to the Quest ("On my stilts I'm above the slime") as well. Tracks like "Reverberation" and "Fire Engine" deal very explicitly with the LSD experience, while others seem like typical, though beautifully written, love songs.
One more track on "Psychedelic Sounds" deserve special mention: Powell St John's "Kingdom Of Heaven". St John was a close friend of the band and a buddening songwriter himself he later turned up in the marginally successful San Francisco band Mother Earth. The Elevators recorded half a dozen of St Johns songs through their career, of which no less than three are found on "Psychedelic Sounds". The intelligent and independent St John obviously influenced the band in many ways, and some of his lyrics clearly point to the richer and more advanced poetry that Tommy Hall would develop on the groups second LP. From the aforementioned "Kingdom Of Heaven":
Through the stained glass window
Moonlight flashes on the choir
And splashes on the altar
In glows of liquid fire
It bathes you with its glory
And you begin life anew
And the kingdom of heaven is within you
III. SLIP INSIDE THIS HOUSE
After a line-up switch in July 1967, the Elevators entered the recording studio with a brand new rhythm section and a batch of recently written songs. International Artists were prepared to spend a lot of money on the second LP which was intended to break the group nationally. Almost two months were spent arranging and recording the material in Houstons Andrus Studios, where one of the first 8-track recorders were utilized.
Released in November 1967, "Easter Everywhere" remains to this day an astonishing achievement. Most Elevators fans regard it their masterpiece, and Tommy Hall has referred to it as "our special purpose". The unique soundscape from the first LP has been broadened and elements of folk, Indian music and west coast acidrock have been added. The new rhythm section, featuring bass player Dan Galindo and drummer Danny Thomas, bring a loose, jazz-flavored groove to the tracks. The result is a rich, eclectic tapestry of psychedelia held together by Roky Ericksons intense vocals reciting Tommy Halls lyrics.
The LP opens with "Slip Inside This House". Probably the most influential Elevators song alongside "Youre Gonna Miss Me", it is an 8-minute journey through Eastern-influenced rock and visionary lyrics that remains unparallelled. The song became an instant favorite among fans and critics, and I A edited it for an improvised 45 release, though it was in no sense top 40 material.
Chugging along on top of a raga-influenced guitar riff invented by Roky Erickson, the music is pushed through a series of metamorphoses by Thomas recurring hi hat-kicks and Galindos insistent bass lines. Halfway through the song Stacy Sutherland enters with a beautiful, lyric guitar solo. The songs complex, asymmetric structure (AABACDAABAABCDA) seems to be patterned on Bob Dylans epic "Its Alright Ma (Im Only Bleeding)", where long skillfully rhymed verses are interspersed with shorter refrain-like passages. The ending of each verse with a recurring phrase the song title is recognizable from Dylans "Gates Of Eden" and "Desolation Row", or any number of songs from the folk tradition.
The structural influence aside, Tommy Halls lyrics owe little to Dylan in terms of content and imagery. The whole attitude is different from Dylans surreal street-poetry. Halls writing is solemn, visionary and controlled. Examing the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, it is in fact hard to pin down Halls sources of inspiration. One has to reach far back, beyond modernism and symbolism to the Romantics and Victorians. It is here, in the final incarnations of poetical Classicism, that we find the poetry that most closely resembles "Slip Inside This House":
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
or, some 50 years later:
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Lifes leaden Metal into Gold transmute
These are works from two very different eras, written by two very different poets, Coleridge and Fitzgerald. Yet they have one thing in common: Like Poes "Raven", they are works of poetry read by pupils in every English class. It is in this line of high Classicism that Hall places himself on "Slip Inside This House", whether by accident or by design. One might speculate that he simply reached for the form closest at hand, meaning that the literary aspects were not the most important to him. This disregard of Hall does nothing to diminish the power of his opening lines:
Bedoine in tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples the unending
Subtleties of river power
They slip inside this house as they pass by
In this first verse, some basic themes are established. The song deals primarily with motion, most commonly expressed in metaphors of ascension and birth. The second theme is the group of select individuals. The "you" that recurs throughout the mid-section verses is defined out of this group, a further individualisation. These two themes are brilliantly combined into the one-word metaphor of nomadic "bedoine", and later in the song, "gypsies".
The third theme is mental awareness, referred to through a variety of metaphors. The fourth and final theme is synchreticism, a blending of elements from different belief systems. All four themes reappear in the second verse:
If your limbs begin dissolving
In the waters that you tread
All surroundings are evolving
In the stream that clears your head
Find yourself a caravan
Like Noah must have led
And slip inside this house as you by
The mixing of vegetative and animal in the first verse ("from the egg into the flower") is transformed into a mixing of animal and human ("a caravan/Like Noah must have led"). As part of the groups ascension into higher mental states, the Aristotelian distinctions are breaking down.
The central metaphor of the "house" may seem puzzling in a poem that deals so much with motion and change. This seeming contradiction adds to the enigmatic nature of the song and makes it defy immediate rationalization. The third verse is the one that deals most expressly with the house metaphor:
In this dark we call creation
We can be and feel and know
From an effort-comfort station
Thats surviving on the go
Theres infinite survival in
The high baptismal glow
Slip inside this house as you pass by
In a 1967 interview Hall explained the meaning of the term "Easter Everywhere" which occurs in Gnosticism as a reference to the idea of Christ consciousness and rebirth. The Christian idea of Ascension is merged with the Indo-Vedic concept of rebirth that is, we are repeatedly reborn in a process that brings us closer and closer to "heaven", or perfect mental awareness.
An additional view of the "houses", supported by the drawing on the album back cover, is the idea of chakras, central to hindu and buddhist tantrism. The process of insight moves through a series of chakras, or physio-spiritual spaces inside the meditator. The chakras are often depicted as circular rooms, or houses, aligned along the spine inside the body. The link to Hall's lyrics shouldn't be over-emphasized, but seem natural in the context.
Each "house" is a temporary state on the way to illumination, but a state that should be cherished and accepted slipped into rather than dismissed. Even in everyday life "effort-comfort stations" can be found, and our existence ought to be a celebration. The reference to "baptism" is another example of Halls highly charged one-word metaphors.
In a brief refrain (of type C), all four themes are recounted with great authority, and the human-animal-vegetative triangle is completed:
There is no season when you are grown
You are always risen from the seeds youve sown
There is no reason to rise alone
Other stories given have sages of their own
The river from the first verse returns in the bridge-like verse (type D) that follows:
Live where your heart can be given
And your life starts to unfold
In the forms you envision
In this dream thats ages old
On the river layer
Is the only sayer
You receive all you can hold
Like youve been told
The perspective has now been altered somewhat. In the first verse, the "subtleties of river power" stems from the disciples. Now we see a protagonist, a member of the select group, on the river layer receiving wisdom or instruction from a sayer as he has been promised.
This verse is the one closest in theme to the drug-related songs on the first LP, "Roller Coaster" in particular. The LSD experience a dream that is ages old, like the Vedic Soma or Aztec Teonanacatl makes you envision forms, from which your life starts to unfold. This process is the responsibility of each individual member of the group. The sayer is oneself the "only" sayer under the influence of psychedelic drugs. After it has been done, one becomes part of the river, rather than standing on the river layer. In chronological terms, this verse describes the very first stage of the ascension. No reference to a "house" occurs, because this is not a state, but an initiation.
We return to the original verse format (type A) in the beautiful fifth verse, which may describe the morning after the initiation:
Every days another dawning
Give the morning winds a chance
Always catch your thunder yawning
Lift your mind into the dance
Sweep the shadows from your awning
Shrink the four-fold circumstance
That lies outside this house
Dont pass it by
No group exists yet. The single protagonist is urged to enjoy his new mental state and to set his house now given a completely new meaning - in order, to sweep away and shrink whatever residuals there may be from his earlier existence. The "four-fold circumstance" is obscure, but may simply refer to the four cardinal points and to the immediate, possibly urban, surroundings of the protagonist, that may detract him from his new-found vision. He is urged to stay focused.
The verse that follows has a strong Indo-Vedic undercurrent:
Higher worlds that you uncover
Light the path you want to roam
You compare there and discover
You wont need a shell of foam
Twice-born Gypsies care and keep
The nowhere of their former home
They slip inside this house as they pass by
The phrase "shell of foam", referring to the physical body, is typical of ancient Indian and Chinese literature and occurs in both the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. "Twice-born" is a title originally given to Brahmins in Northern India, though today the term is used for anyone belonging to the higher castes. Hall may have been interested in the literal meaning of the word as well.
The nomadic Gypsies echo the Bedoine in the first verse, but are seen here as an example for the single protagonist to follow. He is not yet member of their group, but passing through stages of illumination and learning, perhaps through meditation. The protagonist is informed that the redundancy of the physical body does not mean that it is useless the "former home" may be kept and cared for and visited once in a while. This is an example set by the highly evolved Twice-born Gypsies. The verse could in fact be seen as an advise against suicide, and in any event an urging not to forget the physical pleasures of life.
The eclectic elements are even stronger in the next verse:
Four and twenty birds of Maya
Baked into an atom you
Polarized into existence
Magnet heart from red to blue
To such extent the realm of dark
Within the picture it seems true
But slip inside this house and then decide
Central American and Indo-Vedic elements are mixed with references to modern science and meditation. The "birds of Maya" combines images of Central American religion with the unrelated Sanskrit word for the veil of illusion. "Four and twenty" is an enumeration that occurs in Indian mythology Ramakrishna refers to the "four and twenty cosmic principles" in his famous autobiography as well as for the Elder of the Book Of Revelations, and in Occidental folklore such as sea shanties. The "polarization" seems to be a merging of ideas from modern physics, familiar ground for a former engineering student like Hall, and the ancient Chinese book "Secret Of The Golden Flower", which Hall has cited as an inspiration. In this book the term polarization and non-polarity is used to describe aspects of meditation. The mind, or "heart", is thought of as a compass which should be directed towards the proper points.
With this background, an attempt at interpretation could be made. The verse, like the previous one, seems to warn of the pitfalls of meditation. Numerous illusions and false gods may be created by the mind as it passes through states of awareness. The magnetic compass may be turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction and falseness may appear as truth. However, these are still stages that must be passed and tested by the protagonist.
The Blake-Milton like prophesies of the next verse are more straight-forward:
All your lightning waits inside you
Travel it along your spine
Seven stars receive your vision
Seven seals remain divine
Seven churches filled with spirit
Treasure from the angel mine
Slip inside this house as you pass by
The synchretistic strain is ever-present. The "lightning" along your spine echoing the "thunder" from a previous verse recalls not only Kundalini yoga but a physical sensation that psychedelic drugs may produce. In Kundalini light is to be made to travel from the base of the spine and upwards, passing the chakras as it goes along. This light travels from the eyes or third eye chakra the wordplay on "vision" is typical of Hall to the seven stars of The Book Of Revelations.
Other elements from the Revelations are summoned up, but the Seals remain "divine" rather than causing apocalypse. The churches filled with spirit again a wordplay may recall the Gospel churches of Memphis where Hall grew up, as much as the seven Congregations or Vials Of Wrath in John. A "treasure" is brought up from the "angel mine", rather than the smoke and human locusts of the Fifth Angel. A jubilant, triumphant mood emerges, and the mass destruction of Johns prophecy is replaced by a single persons visionary fulfilment.
The individual process of illumination that was begun in the fourth verse is now completed. In the short refrain (type B) that follows, the consequences are presented:
The space you make has your own laws
No longer human Gods are cause
The center of this House will never die
By transcending religion and finding his eternal center the protagonist has made himself ready to approach the group. The second refrain (type C) that was heard before the "initiation" verse appears again, as if to signal that the retrospective cycle is complete and we can move forward. This is followed by another bridge-like verse (type D):
Draw from the well of unchanging
And its union nourishes on
In the right rearranging
Til the last confusion is gone
Water brothers trust in the ultimust
Of the always singing song
They pass along
The "you" has again disappeared. Like the previous bridge-verse, this passage speaks of an initiation. "Water brothers" is a phrase from Robert Heinleins famous novel Stranger In A Strange Land, and refers to an initiation ritual (Heinlein's novel is also quoted in "Dust", below). The well of unchanging echoes both the "angel mine" and the eternal center of the House. The final illumination is to be found deep down, inside. Metaphors of permanence rather than change are now used the well replaces the river.
The neologism "ultimust" may recall the "ultimateless" of the "Secret Of The Golden Flower"; a finite state beyond dualism. The trust in the validity of the union as described in the "always singing song" completes the journey of the protagonist, and we are back among the fully enlightened bedoine of the first verse.
A summation of sorts completes the song:
One-eyed men arent really reigning
They just march in place until
Two-eyed men with mystery training
Finally feel the power fill
Three-eyed men are not complaining
They can yoyo where they will
They slip inside this house as you pass by
Dont pass it by
The passage is fairly straightforward. The aspects of the process are broadened and applied to society in general. This is reminiscent of the liner notes of the first LP, in which the psychedelically enlightened "new man" is discussed. Apart from the extraordinary evolvement of his poetical craftmanship, the Korzybski-Huxleyan philosophy remains present in Halls lyrics.
The rest of "Easter Everywhere" covers a broad spectrum of human experience love, friendship, sex, alienation, drugs all skillfully explored and presented. From a lyric perspective, two more tracks require special attention.
The folk-influenced "Dust" is perhaps the most beautiful song the Elevators recorded. Tommy Halls poetry here differs markedly from "Slip Inside This House":
Scents and perfumes
Your higher fragrance
Is memory incense
And never destroyed
Clay that we print
As we mold it
But well never hold it
To promises long
The complex emotional imagery deals with love and loss, but beyond these classic themes a sense of celebration of human existence takes over:
Taste past our thirst
With so many juices
Were filled to the brim
Many of the beautiful images may be best understood as concrete visual-emotional experiences derived from experiments with psychedelic drugs:
Every stop weve taken
Is now a wondrous shrine
The trees in our gaze
Will show us the love that we bring them
These are not metaphors in the classic sense, but remembrances of actual visual impressions. The altered awareness of the passing of time, the rich, sometimes synaesthetic, input from all five senses, and the blending of the sensory and the emotional like the anthropomorfic nature - are all typical of the LSD experience.
The song is written from a perspective of awestruck love for the human experience. The "I" is no more important than the "you" or "us" the words are used interchangedly. The "you" may be a lover as well as a beloved friend; it is not important for the meaning of the words.
In "Dust", the group of select individuals from "Slip Inside This House" is seen through the eyes of a protagonist and member of the group. They reside in a paradisical rural setting, the river bend from the earlier song is there, as are trees and animals. It is not a wildlife scene, but a nurtured and tilled environment, where nature "is in order" and we "cultivate our bend". The group has found a permanent "house". The house is also a final resting-place for their physical bodies, a place to wait for definite transcendence, which may be physical death, or nirvana:
The faith that we build
Will strengthen our close growing closer
Till waiting is filled
We simply remember we are
Wherever we are
Within this setting, the protagonist contemplates aspects of physical existence dust from the skin, scents, tastes, facial expressions. These are things of beauty that will be lost when the journey is completed, as it must be. A sense of mourning, mixed with wonder and love, emerges. It is hard for humans to abandon such things:
Till were complete
We still need attention
To help us along
The 6-minute "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)" is one of the Elevators most advanced songs musically. The song has no clear verse-refrain structure and on first hearing may seem almost improvised. It is clearly influenced by jazz grooves and the emerging funk scene. On top of this slow, suggestive musical backdrop Roky Erickson sings and moans Halls lyrics:
If youre wondering whats on your mind
Its the one keystone people keep trying to find
The state of mind that puts you there
In evolutions everywhere
Is creeping back from the affair
"Postures" is to a certain extent a return to the clear, instruction-like lyrics of "Roller Coaster" and "Reverberation" from the first LP. It deals with meditation, rather than psychedelic drugs, using the Taoist classic "Secret Of The Golden Flower" as a main source. The protagonist is urged to "move your energies higher". As with "Slip Inside This House", the pitfalls and phases of the meditative illumination are described:
Yes, yes, yes attention comes back
You focus on anchors to have what you lack
Live the love each thought form returns
And weighs in the judgment in the ether that burns
As always, Hall refuses to dismiss the physical world as others may. Instead he urges the meditator to "feeling more love for the sense-world your seeing" as part of the contemplative ascension.
As in "Dust" and to some extent "Slip Inside This House", a dualistic tension between corporeal existence and mental awareness emerges. It is upon the power of this dichotomy the love for both the physical and the cerebral that much of Tommy Halls best poetry resides.
An attempt at consolation is presented in these superior lines:
Remember were bombarded
The downpour of the world
The outside meanings lock us in
So all else seems absurd
Remember things regarded
Are terminals like you
Thought terminals discharge against each other
And balance siphoning through
In the final verse, Hall quotes directly from the aforementioned "Secret Of The Golden Flower":
Make your body like wood
Your heart like cooled ashes
The lights strains through your near closed eyes
Like ribbons through your lashes
It ripples down with your hearts clear
Youre mixed into the voices ear
The love you feel is the love you hear
As on the first LP, the focus is on instruction and meaning, rather than lyrical beauty. Again, Hall simply chooses the form that suits his purpose. Though unique in the Elevators catalog, "Postures" remains an aural rather than a literary experience.
V. THE FINAL RECORDINGS
"Easter Everywhere" was a critical and to some extent commercial success, but without the draw of a hit 45 the LP failed to reach the sales figures of the debut. Internal tensions in the band were mounting and due to a combination of drug use, legal problems and line-up switches, things began to fall apart during the Spring 1968. International Artists wanted a new LP soon after "Easter Everywhere" and the band had begun working on a third LP, tentatively titled "Beauty & The Beast".
Meanwhile, Roky Ericksons drug abuse and personal problems produced erratic behavior. The live shows were far from the legendary fireworks of 1966, and occasionally he would not show up at the gigs at all. In April and May 1968 he suffered nervous breakdowns and the LP sessions were abandoned. He was temporarily hospitalized where he was subject to electro shock therapy. After this hospital visit in the summer of 1968, Roky was "never the same again" according to a friend of the band.
Tommy Hall helped Roky escape from the hospital and brought him to San Francisco, where they stayed with friends for several months. The original 13th Floor Elevators disbanded in August 1968. Lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland soldiered on with two additional members during the Fall, and in November laid down the final recordings for the abandoned third LP. It was released posthumously in early 1969 as "Bull Of The Woods".
This LP has been reevaluated among Elevators fans and is now considered a worthy swan song. It is a dark and haunting work that shows clearly the circumstances under which it was recorded. Stacy Sutherland dominates the LP and some of his best songs are to be found here. His lyrics are brooding and oddly poetical lines like "the madman is waiting at the station" or "the unknown soldier will come home" tend to stick in memory. The sound is oriented towards a laidback, bluesier attitude, though some tracks are as intense as anything on the first two LPs.
From a lyrical perspective, "Living On", "Never Another" and "Dr Doom" are the most interesting Tommy Hall songs. All these were recorded during the Spring sessions and feature Roky on vocals.
The musically impressive "Living On" is a program declaration not unlike those found on the earlier LPs, and shows clearly the predicament that Hall and the Elevators found themselves in how can one proceed beyond the creative and visionary apex of "Easter Everywhere"? This isnt merely a question of artistic decisions, but of personal development and life as a whole. Hall poses the question, but the lyrics are more difficult than ever, and answers are hard to identify:
Living on past the ice age
Living on past the space age
In the yellow balloons
In the age of the Exit
We are the moving cartoons
Many of the lyrics deal with the process of speaking, and disturbed communication:
I hear you talking
Youre only poppin spit
Dont be taken what I say
If its too rigid then go away
You are never really gone
Youre just living on
Hall sees that he is losing his hold on his auditorium, a realization that is based on the real-life falling-apart of the Elevators. He bids them farewell with a blessing, but also makes it clear that he personally is going to continue the quest:
Im catching all I can
In the steady watching
Of the prophets plan
Whether one chooses to follow him or not,
The spirit of us is living on
Hall has referred to "Living On" as a "song against shooting up", which is another indication of the dead-end he and the group found themselves in after "Easter Everywhere". Lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland began using heroin as early as 1967 and Roky Erickson had tried the drug as well. References to this may be found in lines such as:
It leaves no tracks
Whats ugly is its wrong
So Im just living on
"Dr Doom" is an answer song to "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest" on Bob Dylans "John Wesley Harding" LP, released in December 1967. Tommy Hall felt that Dylan was refuting and to a certain extent mocking the Elevators philosophy, especially "Slip Inside This House". There are some interesting similarities in phrases between Dylans song and "Slip Inside This House", but most will agree that Hall is overstating the case.
Dr Doom is a character from Marvel comics, a once brilliant scientist who suffered horrible disfiguration through an experiment and since hides his face behind a grim iron mask. This choice of persona reflects an interest in pop culture that appears in some Halls later lyrics, with references to cartoons and King Kong unfortunately he never got the opportunity to develop this side. Theres a certain amount of humor to the choice, not dissimilar to the manner in which Dylan never would let himself become too serious.
Still, its not difficult to see the Dr Doom as Tommy Hall himself rather than Dylan; the engineering student turned acidhead who uses his intellectual brilliance as a shield. The analysis shouldnt be overstated, but its clear that Hall was going through some significant changes and had begun reconsidering some of his earlier viewpoints:
We wont join in sameness
We are each one different
We wont join in oneness
When were each one whole
But even if the communal mind of the Elevators is splintering apart, the idea of "Easter Everywhere" still holds:
Know you cant make Heaven
In the East Nirvana
But you can make certain
The ghost is always there
And the always-presence
You have found in you
Is the same in heaven
Fully made aware
With a new-found humility Hall asks the listener, and Dylan, and the dissembling Elevators, to realize the underlying similarity in their attitudes, no matter what has gone before:
Well be like in feeling
Being of the spirit
Housed in body chrystals
Two minds, one voice
Come up here
And with his philosophical program refined and his lyrical voice repositioned, Halls typical optimism returns:
Love's embracing chalice
Is the light fantastic
"Never Another" is a song originally written for "Easter Everywhere". It was recorded shortly after the 1967 sessions, and recorded again during the 1968 "Beauty & The Beast" sessions. Its an intense, almost chaotic song, recalling the youthful energy of the groups first LP.
The song opens with typical imagery:
The story you are living from
The other symphony
Ensures such coolness in my heart
Of love in harmony
It is perhaps a tribute to Halls wife Clementine, who was a close friend of the band and also wrote strong lyrics to two of Roky Ericksons songs. Aside from the visionary poetry discussed here, Hall could write excellent love songs which, though more in line with typical "rock lyrics", were always original and surprising.
Two beautiful lines follow:
Your simplest gesture echoes out
Your entire destiny
The perspective is altered and the subject generalized. Were back in the psychedelic observations of "Dust", where concepts of time and human presence are blended in complex imagery. This time the temporal aspect is future-oriented.
After a few more lines, an abrupt tempo shift occurs and the mood of the song changes:
Hate to see that our two backs
Cannot make one human
Freedom palace burns our souls
And makes us all the new ones
The song speaks of the difficulty to maintain a relationship between two persons in the process of ascending to new mental states. If we constantly change, who is it that we love? The mood grows increasingly desperate:
Its only, I love you, forgive me
And the genius is all that we share
Never another lie
The words fall short of the complex emotional situation. While apologizing, perhaps for an extra-marital affair, Hall seems also to express a desire to escape these human mistakes once and for all. This state, when "our fates combined will have no end", could be yet another effect of the communal process of illumination. Unfortunately, it was something they could not achieve.
The final song on "Bull Of The Woods" was Roky Ericksons "May The Circle Remain Unbroken". It is a ghostly incantation, almost a prayer, consisting only of the song title repeated over and over. It is a fitting end to a band whose story seems filled with symbolism and meaning.
Perhaps a key to the understanding of the fate of the Elevators, and Tommy Halls lyrics, is the realization that it wasnt a rocknroll band as much as an experiment in life.
© Patrick Lundborg 1999-2008
13th Floor Elevators The Lama Workshop