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 Hall’s 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 John’s 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 group’s 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 Houston’s 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 Erickson’s intense vocals reciting Tommy Hall’s lyrics.

The LP opens with "Slip Inside This House". Probably the most influential Elevators song alongside "You’re 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 Galindo’s insistent bass lines. Halfway through the song Stacy Sutherland enters with a beautiful, lyric guitar solo. The song’s complex, asymmetric structure (AABACDAABAABCDA) seems to be patterned on Bob Dylan’s epic "It’s Alright Ma (I’m 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 Dylan’s "Gates Of Eden" and "Desolation Row", or any number of songs from the folk tradition.

The structural influence aside, Tommy Hall’s lyrics owe little to Dylan in terms of content and imagery. The whole attitude is different from Dylan’s surreal street-poetry. Hall’s writing is solemn, visionary and controlled. Examing the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, it is in fact hard to pin down Hall’s 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

Life’s 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 Poe’s "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

That’s surviving on the go

There’s 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 Hall’s 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 you’ve 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 that’s ages old

On the river layer

Is the only sayer

You receive all you can hold

Like you’ve 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 day’s 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

Don’t 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 won’t 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 John’s prophecy is replaced by a single person’s 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 Heinlein’s 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 aren’t 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

Don’t 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 Hall’s lyrics.


IV. DUST

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 Hall’s poetry here differs markedly from "Slip Inside This House":

Scents and perfumes

Wince, since

Your higher fragrance

Is memory incense

And never destroyed

But, later:

Clay that we print

May stay

As we mold it

But we’ll 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

Faced, waste

Beyond uses

With so many juices

We’re 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 we’ve taken

Is now a wondrous shrine

Or:

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 we’re complete

Will, still

Is intention

We still need attention

To help us along




V. POSTURES



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 Hall’s lyrics:

If you’re wondering what’s on your mind

It’s 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 Hall’s best poetry resides.

An attempt at consolation is presented in these superior lines:

Remember we’re 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

You’re 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 Erickson’s 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 isn’t 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

Walrus harpoons

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

You’re only poppin’ spit

Or:

Don’t be taken what I say

If it’s too rigid then go away

You are never really gone

You’re 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:

I’m catching all I can

In the steady watching

Of the prophet’s 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

What’s ugly is it’s wrong

So I’m just living on


"Dr Doom" is an answer song to "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest" on Bob Dylan’s "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 Dylan’s 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 Hall’s later lyrics, with references to cartoons and King Kong – unfortunately he never got the opportunity to develop this side. There’s a certain amount of humor to the choice, not dissimilar to the manner in which Dylan never would let himself become too serious.

Still, it’s 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 shouldn’t be overstated, but it’s clear that Hall was going through some significant changes and had begun reconsidering some of his earlier viewpoints:

We won’t join in sameness

We are each one different

We won’t join in oneness

When we’re each one whole

But even if the communal mind of the Elevators is splintering apart, the idea of "Easter Everywhere" still holds:

Know you can’t 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:

We’ll 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, Hall’s 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. It’s an intense, almost chaotic song, recalling the youthful energy of the group’s 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 Hall’s wife Clementine, who was a close friend of the band and also wrote strong lyrics to two of Roky Erickson’s 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. We’re 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:

It’s 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 Erickson’s "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 Hall’s lyrics, is the realization that it wasn’t a rock’n’roll band as much as an experiment in life.


Patrick Lundborg 1999-2008


13th Floor Elevators        The Lama Workshop