BY MIN CHEN
The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators went the title of The 13th Floor Elevators’ 1966 debut album—heralding the Austin, Texas group’s sound and entrance, and marking one of the earliest instances that the word psychedelic was used in the context of popular music. But one didn’t have to drop the needle on this record to enter the presence of a rich, kaleidoscopic, and altered state. Behold: its cover, depicting an eye swimming in contrasting greens and reds, further surrounded by a pool of radiant globular forms. That hallucinatory art bled into its back cover where, alongside a graphic of a pyramid topped with an eye, lay an acid-tinged epistle by the band’s founding member and jug player Tommy Hall (who also once announced, “Everything I wrote was inspired through my taking LSD”). In his liner notes, he rejected Aristotelian reasoning, arguing in favor of what he termed a horizontal system of knowledge to achieve “the perfect sanity.” And fortunately, “it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view,” Hall wrote. “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.”
The Elevators were not alone in that Rimbaudian rearrangement of senses. The California scene, reeling from an injection of LSD, was duly generating an equally psychedelic soundtrack, fostered by The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and the like. Along with the raga accents, reverb, drones, and surreal lyrical content came a billowy bohemian wardrobe and a surge of polychromatic graphics. Back in Austin, the Elevators were no scarf-draped hippies, but their workmanlike wardrobe of button-downs belied a raw, cosmic-reaching sound that, according to bassist Ronnie Leatherman, was “a little more free-form” than the Californian bands. Even their abstract, trippy visuals were rarely equal to those of their West Coast peers; the Elevators opting instead to lean earnestly and heavily into wide-eyed symbolism.
At live gigs (which they often played whilst on acid), the band’s bass drum proudly displayed a pyramid logo, designed by graphic artist John Cleveland and centered by a blazing all-seeing eye, or Eye of Providence. Most notably depicted on the back of the American one-dollar bill, the emblem has come to harbor disparate meanings, from divine omniscience (or as the Illuminati will have it, surveillance) to a defense against evil to an awakened consciousness. The Elevators, as was their wont, tended toward the latter. As “Slip Inside This House,” their 1967 tour de force of a track, would later relate, “True conception, knowing why / Brings even more than meets the eye.” And as Hall explained in 2015, of the band’s pyramid: “As you go up in levels of abstraction, it has the tendency of leading to one idea. That’s why the pyramid works as a model for consciousness… With the eye, it leads to perception.”
Which explains the multitude of eyes on the sleeve of the band’s first record, also created by Cleveland. It may have lacked the sheen of other ‘60s psychedelic covers such as, say, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love (art by David King) or Cream’s Disraeli Gears (Martin Sharp), but its childlike, hypnotic aura still casts a spell all of its own. Said drummer John Ike in Eye Mind, “How could you turn that down in a record store? Everything else has a photograph of somebody on it, you know? And you come across that. You’d buy it.” True enough: in line with its eye-centric theme, the cover does house a wealth of retinal-popping pleasures.
Those electric colors, undulating lines, and nested eyes parallel the album’s contents—“The neon from your eyes is splashing into mine,” goes “Splash 1”—but also, epitomize the band’s (or specifically, Tommy Hall’s) push toward chemically assisted points of view. In fact, Hall had intended for the album’s songs to act as a guide to ultimate consciousness; thus his brief commentaries that accompanied the track listing. A sample: “‘Roller Coaster’” describes the discovery of the new direction and purpose to man’s life, the movement in that direction, and the results.” Printed underneath Hall’s anti-Aristotelian missive, these notes hardly formed the most sophisticated of mission statements, but like their front cover, they retain in their unworldly articulation, a sense of artless wonder and advocacy. The seekers at the foot of the pyramid gaze upward.
“We were just trying to give another view besides just the ‘get as high as you can’ view,” Hall explained recently. “We represented the psychedelic way that you get ideas and advance your consciousness.” For a band named after a form of vertical transportation (“It was like, if you want to get to the 13th floor, ride our elevator,” lead singer Roky Erickson once declared), and for all their pyramidal imagery, there left no doubt that it was always headed for higher planes. While Hall’s often turgid philosophical wax (soon to be polished up for “Slip Inside This House”) perhaps lent flesh to those intentions, Cleveland’s arresting and symbol-heavy design for the band’s debut has said it better, more concisely, and with vibrant immediacy. It’s a cover meant to jolt the senses. Not for nothing does it illustrate that mythical moment where, as Erickson famously put it, “the pyramid meets the eye.”