Dick Clark: Who is the head-man of the group?
Tommy Hall: Well, we’re all heads.
Dick Clark: Alright. Well let me just stay loose with you for a second.
In all my 50 years, I’d never given much thought to those in legal jeopardy for cannabis. In California in the 1970s and 1980s the penalty for simple possession was a misdemeanor citation and a fine, and I didn’t know anyone risking more than that. Then at some point in the last decade I read Eye Mind, the superb oral history of the 1960s Texas psych-punk band, 13th Floor Elevators, written by Paul Drummond. While the Elevators’ contemporaries in New York (Velvet Underground, for example) and California (The Doors, etc.) never faced a truly existential crisis over simple marijuana use or possession, the Elevators were constantly harassed by Texas law enforcement, specifically for cannabis. Ironically, marijuana was not the band’s main psychoactive indulgence, as they were more notably passionate believers in LSD’s potential for spiritual enlightenment and elevated consciousness. Marijuana simply kept the guys prepared to act upon their psychedelic ambitions as they created and performed their soul stirring music. As Paul Drummond discusses in Eye Mind, “all of the members of the band, minus [drummer] John Ike, would ceremonially take LSD and ‘play the acid’” (PD, 31).
Led by Roky Erickson on vocals and by jug-blowing spirit guide, Tommy Hall, on all matters esoteric, the 13th Floor Elevators synchronized their ambitions as musicians with their individual and collective yearnings for spiritual enlightenment. Tommy and Roky together midwifed a vision for the band’s purpose: Channel the elevated consciousness and cosmic spirituality of an acid trip into the listening audience though music, especially when performing live. As Jon Savage notes in 1966, his exhaustive analysis of the cultural and social transformations happening in that pivotal year, the 13th Floor Elevators “explicitly formed to broadcast LSD consciousness” (JS, 110) and their first LP was “designed to act as an acid guide” (JS, 518). Although acid became the band’s modus operandi vis a vis their art and their audience, cannabis remained the drug of choice in their day to day activities as it did for many of their counter-culture peers. For the Elevators’ generation, marijuana signified a rebellion against their parents’ clumsy, conformist boozing, and became for them and their peers the drug of choice for daily use.
Cannabis was a training ground that readied the band for a new perspective on life and opened the musicians’ minds to Tommy Hall’s calls to explore the intellectually esoteric and spiritually sublime underpinnings of acid. Their first album, The Psychedelic Sounds of…, included liner notes written by Tommy that reflected his vision of “using a hallucinogenic catalyst to transcend the barrier of the stage and evoke synesthesia…with the intention of extending the effect to the audience through their performance” (PD, 31). The Psychedelic Sounds of… achieves this in both form and substance, featuring a wildly colorful cover containing occult images (pyramid, third eye) and a manifesto penned by the band’s jug-blowing philosopher that reads in part:
Recently it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view (that is, his own basic relation with the outside world which determines how he stores his information). He then can restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.
It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album.(Tommy Hall, Psychedelic Sounds of back cover notes)
Hall’s liner notes continue track by track, as he describes each song’s particular function in addressing transformation in consciousness. Tommy’s comments on the track “Reverberation” underscore the confidence he had in the album’s potential to illuminate a path to enlightenment:
REVERBERATION is the root of all inability to cope with environment. Doubt causes negative emotions, which reverberate and hamper all constructive thought. If a person learns and organizes his knowledge in the right way — with perfect cross-reference — he need not experience doubt or hesitation.(Tommy Hall, Psychedelic Sounds of back cover notes)
The 13th Floor Elevators’ close association with LSD and use of heavy psychedelics in the creation and performance of its music would seem to suggest that hallucinogens had the most profound influence on the band’s trajectory and ultimate fate. In one sense, particularly when considering the band members as individuals, this is true. It was clear in the end that chronic ingestion of hallucinogens took a toll on Roky, Tommy and the rest (except for drummer, John Ike), though it was Roky, institutionalized as the band disintegrated, who was the most damaged. As a group, existentially speaking, the Elevators faced a much more imminent and severe threat than LSD could ever pose. After all, LSD was legal until the end of October 1968. The band members might have lost their minds, but for the majority of the time the group was together, acid trips weren’t going to get them busted by the overzealous Texas detectives and prosecutors. Cannabis use, on the contrary, did get them busted on several occasions. Notably, LSD was made illegal at about the same time Roky was committed and the band imploded.
The State of Texas had been battling the scourge of cannabis for fifty years and featured the first city in the United States to pass an anti-cannabis law, which was in effect when the Elevators hit the scene. According to Martin A. Lee in his detailed history of cannabis, Smoke Signals, “Smoking grass became commonplace among dispossessed Mexicans in border towns such as El Paso, Texas, which passed the first city ordinance banning the sale and possession of cannabis in 1914” (ML, 41). Texas was caught up in a nativist, anti-immigration fever at the time and many of its lawmakers blamed Mexican immigrants for trafficking marijuana into the state. In fact, it may have been cannabis’s association with Mexican immigrants that fueled popular anti-marijuana animus, rather than having much to do with marijuana per se. As Lee notes, “Public officials and newspaper reports depicted marijuana, the Mexican loco weed, as a dangerous, vice, an alien intrusion into American life” (ML, 41). Texans viewed anti-cannabis legislation as one of many legal means to regulate the lives of Mexican immigrants and “keep the newcomers in their place” (ML, 41).
Cannabis had been unregulated for much of American history and hemp was viewed ubiquitously as a strong, reliable, adaptable, fibrous material ideal for use in clothing, tents, sails, and a myriad of other products. Its seeds could be used to make oil or consumed as a nutritious dietary supplement. Marijuana was widely smoked during the Jazz Age and seemed to reach a high point in recreational use, which is what probably caught the attention of authorities seeking a soberer society who viewed marijuana as “a dangerous drug with no therapeutic value” (ML, 54). By 1937, the U.S. Congress had been convinced by anti-cannabis crusaders that marijuana’s medicinal benefits were outweighed by its potential for corrupting American society and thus needed to be placed out of public reach. Consequently, in 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt duly signed, effectively taxing all forms of cannabis and hemp out of public reach.
The Federal government has continued to classify cannabis as a schedule 1 narcotic over the decades, deeming it devoid of any medical use, its possession punishable by fines and imprisonment. In spite of legalization in a number of states, cannabis continues to be criminalized at the Federal level, and remains illegal in Texas. The only difference between the 1960s and today vis a vis cannabis law in Texas, is that today medical CBD use is allowed. There are still enough who view marijuana with the same moral indignation as their forebears, however, to keep anti-cannabis laws on the books. Possession of marijuana in Texas still carries with it legal ramifications if caught, but there is reason to hope that eventually Texas will join in decriminalizing herb. The generation gap is so much narrower than it was when the Elevators were an active band that it is safe to assume that many lawmakers have had some experience with cannabis, even if only indirectly. It is far too clear that cannabis is not the scourge so much propaganda sought to make it out to be.
Medical marijuana has been “legal” in California for so long that it is hard to remember what it was like to buy cannabis in the pre-legalization days, let alone attempt to fathom what it was like in Texas in the mid-1960s. Cannabis became the Elevators’ cause célèbre in large part because Tommy and his wife, Clementine, regularly smuggled ounces of sinsemilla from Mexico, supplying themselves and their friends with abundant, potent herb. It earned the band respect and adulation from their cannabis smoking fans, increasing their profile in a competitive regional teen garage-rock scene. That was the positive effect of their smuggling operation. Unfortunately the operation played an equal role in attracting attention from the authorities, who had been after them before they’d even become the 13th Floor Elevators, and who would not cease their pursuit until Roky’s last days as a free man.
Clementine was Tommy’s wife and smuggling partner. The pair routinely drove across the border to score ounces of potent Mexican sinsemilla which they would share with their many friends and fellow travelers in Texas.
One might argue that Eye Mind is both a band biography and a recitation of cannabis bust after cannabis bust, and further, that the Elevators’ story could be told simply in terms of those busts. Paul Drummond takes great pains to excavate each of these incidents and contextualizes them in terms of how they affected the band dynamic. It beggars belief that the band was able to create and record so much groundbreaking material while constantly under the watchful eye of the fuzz. There are far too many busts recounted in Eye Mind to include in a single blog post, so best to start at the beginning and move on from there in future articles. The first bust of note was actually a near-bust resulting in no arrests, but it set the tone for the ensuing years and the unavoidable paranoia that would take hold as a result. This was their first cannabis-related encounter with Texas law enforcement, and they hadn’t even formed the Elevators yet!!
The Roky-less original line-up was called The Lingsmen and included future Elevators Tommy Hall, playing jug, and Stacy Sutherland, the band’s lead guitarist. A quick search of the web doesn’t turn up any Lingsmen recordings and if recollection serves, there may not be any. They were a working band playing gigs in Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast. The earliest Elevators-related recordings that my feeble fingers were able to unearth are the two sides of a 45 by Roky’s first band, The Spades. Their single included an early version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, which would later become the Elevators most well known track. The b-side contained an early version of what was later dubbed “Don’t Fall Down”, called “We Sell Soul”.
Stacy Sutherland would later write or co-write many of the Elevator’s songs, occasionally accompanying Roky on vocals. Stacy had already been smoking cannabis in high school and recalled that “’the easiest way to score grass was to order, from a certain bartender, ‘a brandy, with a little something in it’” (PD, 25). The little something, would be just that – a little. But Stacy did not want a little. Stacy enjoyed smoking marijuana and wanted a big score, something he could hold, that would last, that he could sell to friends to make a little cash (PD, 25). It was on one of these runs, when Stacy was trying to coordinate a score with five university kids in Austin requiring “several exchanges”, when he “ran into [Tommy] at the Shamrock Bar, and we stood there and talked a while, you know, and that was it. I never saw him again” (PD, 25). This was the first crucial link in the Elevators’ chain, taking place in the middle of a score, and would have come and gone unnoticed if the Stacy and Tommy hadn’t run into each other a second time, just as randomly.
Like a year or so later we ran into him on the beach one day and just got talking. And like he had some Acapulco Gold with him, we got stoned, we drank some Romilar (cough syrup with codeine)…and I had a really bum trip. It was too much . . .(PD, 25-26)
This ready willingness to indulge made for quick comradeship even if their first trip together was a bummer. They were still a ways away from starting a band together, but they’d already laid out a blueprint for the Elevators in that one afternoon. Future Elevators’ drummer, John Ike, was along for the ride and recalls meeting Tommy, his wife, Clementine, and her kids, at a gas station. They knew Tommy was hip by his “long hair and Beatle boots” as both groups “knocked each other off as heads” (PD, 26). Ike elaborates on what Stacy felt was a bad trip:
I was ripped beyond belief, man, I was hallucinating, houses were turning into monsters and walking across the land. We went to this stand called ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ but I don’t remember being able to talk, and they asked us if we were from Russia because we were talking like wah, wah, wah, and they couldn’t understand us. We couldn’t understand each other.(PD, 26)
What’s funny about Ike’s telling is the further association of marijuana with an alien, invading culture. Early 20th century anti-marijuana crusaders and the laws they helped pass targeted the drug in part because of its association with Mexico and “alien” Mexican immigrant culture. During the cold war 1950s and 1960s, Russians represented the invading force, with science fiction movies casting them as alien intruders, often to the legato wailing of a theremin. Ike’s casting of the group as speaking in alien-like wah wah language links the Acapulco Gold and communist infiltration with a bizarre musical wah wah code. Ironically, the 13th Elevators guitarists didn’t really utilize wah wah pedals.
In the end, Stacy, Tommy and Clementine were fortunate they weren’t busted. Clementine, perhaps acting on maternal instinct given that her children were with them, knew she had to work fast or they’d all be going to jail. John Ike recalls:
The cops came up, but Clementine jumped out of the car and said, ‘What’s wrong, officers? We’re a family and we’re camped here.’ And they left us alone. If they’d rolled down the window and smelled the Acapulco Gold we’d still be in prison.(PD, 26)
This was only the beginning. The Elevators hadn’t yet been conceived and Roky wasn’t in the picture, yet the narco squad was already hassling future band members about cannabis. This scene would be repeated time and again and again and again . . . ad infinitum. The band would be like a comet, hurtling out of control, propelling itself forward without thought of slowing down, let alone stopping, almost like a scorched earth strategy. The Elevators were a one way force majeur, speeding through Texas with the throttle wide open, fueling themselves with copious amounts of cannabis and LSD. It comes as no surprise then, that the band inevitably would run headlong into the big blue wall. They might bounce off and head in a different direction, but that wall always had a way of arising, to silence the music and stop the fun. It was only a matter of time before the band’s impact on that big blue wall would bring everything crashing down around them.
Watch out for more stories about the 13th Floor Elevators’ marijuana mayhem here at Swedish Flying Saucer.