Songs I Wish I’d Written: Slip Inside this House
Some bands have an influence on rock all out of proportion to the impact they actually made during their existence. Case in point: The 13th Floor Elevators. Though now somewhat less obscure than they were 20 years ago, they aren’t exactly a household name. Shame, that. But you can hear echoes of the Elevators strewn throughout American alt-rock from 1975 all the way up to the present day.
Television covered the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Fire Engine” on their live album The Blow-Up. Probably about a million bands, including more than one that I’ve been in, have covered the Elevators’ one hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” But I’ve always thought “Slip Inside This House,” the first cut off the Elevators’ second album, Easter Everywhere, was their best moment. Every time I hear it, I wish I’d written it.
There are so many things I love about this song, starting with the slippery Stacy Sutherland guitar riff that starts it off. Then there’s the relentless chug of the Elevators’ rhythm section, and the otherworldly electric jug playing of Tommy Hall (here for once not sounding like a bizarre novelty but rather an integral part of the composition). At last, of course, you hear the inimitable wail of America’s own version of Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson.
But many of the Elevators’ songs combine those powerful elements. What puts this one over the top — way, way over the top — are the lyrics. As detailed extensively in Paul Drummond’s great biography Eye Mind, the band’s psychedelic shaman Tommy Hall tried to put his entire philosophy into this six-minute trip, and goddamn if he doesn’t almost pull it off.
(And by the way, if you haven’t already read Eye Mind, do yourself a favor and pick it up now. Seriously, stop reading this and do it. It’s not just a great rock book, it’s a great book period, full of unforgettable characters, unbelievable-yet-true happenings, and great insight into what psychedelia meant — and just how revolutionary and dangerous that was — in the middle of Texas circa 1966. You don’t have to love or even like the Elevators to get a great deal of pleasure from this book.)
Of course, Tommy Hall’s philosophy was something of an acid-addled mess, and that certainly comes through loud and clear in the lyrics. Especially at first listen, it almost seems like Erickson’s singing at random, throwing out words that barely connect. But he throws them out with such passion, such undeniably honest belief, that you’re compelled to begin paying closer attention.
And when you do, you understand that when Roky, delivering Hall’s lyrics as Hall would never be able to himself, throws out references to Bedouin kings and four and twenty birds of Maya being baked into an atom that you polarize into existence it’s, remarkably, not as nonsensical as it would appear on the surface.
Drummond (and others) already did an excellent job of decoding the symbology that Hall incorporates in every line of the song, so I won’t rehash that here. Suffice it to say that there are layers upon layers of meaning and possible interpretations, all of which and none of which may really matter.
Maybe this song could be the centerpiece of the next Dan Brown novel.
But for all the mystery and portent and references to eastern tradition that Hall’s built into the verses, the chorus couldn’t be more clear: “Slip into this house as you pass by,” Erickson exhorts us. And yeah, it’s clear even without having read Eye Mind that he’s talking specifically about turning on as a shortcut to enlightenment, which is at this remove from 1967 a notion that’s, at best, quaint. Heard only in that light, “Slip Inside This House” is pure anachronism.
But “Slip Inside This House” is also talking, in more general terms, about being open to experience, about not shutting yourself down, about retaining curiosity. About striving for a feeling of connection with others. About finding a purpose. About always moving forward. About being aware that you’re alive and not just going through your days on fucking autopilot. About using your consciousness to differentiate yourself from all the other animals on the planet.
That’s a message that doesn’t get old. So slip inside this house, and then decide.
Don’t pass it by.