A Fan Remembers the Butthole Surfers
When I first opened the cassette there were no titles on the insert or cassette itself, just stick figures drawn in assorted contortions and obscene poses. I put the cassette in my tape deck and pressed play. A low slow voice growled, “Oh My God!” to a caveman-like stomp of drums and bass that almost blew up my speakers. A high-pitched, hard wavering guitar weaved a line of notes as I strained to hear what else the voice was saying; something like, “What do you know about reality? I AM REALITY! What do you know about death? I AM DEATH!” This song, the first track from the album Hairway To Steven, went on for twelve minutes. I was nineteen years old, and that was the first Butthole Surfers I ever bought.
I had heard them before. In my rebellious teens, I took great relish in half-singing–half-yelling the lyrics, “There’s a time to fuck! / and a time to pray! / and the Shad sleeps / in Lee Harvey’s Grave!”—a line from a song on their first record that my friends showed me. But this new album was something else. Even “regular” hardcore punk didn’t have the kind of texture, for lack of a better word, that this had. The music wasn’t always hard and fast, not that there’s anything wrong with hard and fast—that’s half of my record collection, even the jazz. And it took me places when I was stoned, some of which weren’t too pretty. I suppose I should have been prepared for what I was about to witness at the show I saw in the worn dark hole of a rock club known as the Channel in Boston in 1988.
My journal entry from that night contains the line: “It was like a seagull flying through a jet engine with time slowed down. I’m not exactly sure what happened.” And I can still remember that when the lights went down, it suddenly sounded like someone was landing a jumbo airplane on the roof of the club. The two drummers (whom I found out later had the great names of King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa) came on stage as a strobe light started flashing, and they began to whack the shit out of their drums. Before the crowd could get into it, two or three people wearing the pig masks that Pink Floyd’s The Wall had made popular ran in from the back, spun around, and rammed into people, pushing them forward and surging over them. Another dude launched himself into the crowd from my shoulder and came close to clocking my jaw with his foot. And I thought, “This is kind of strange . . .”
Then the movies came on. They were projected onto the band and the stage wall like the Velvet Underground used to do in the late 1960s with Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But those films weren’t close-ups of ant farms or genital reconstructions of men who had mangled their penises in threshers and other sorts of farm equipment. It was hard to watch. Gibby Haynes, the lead singer, sang through a bullhorn and had all sorts of other effects on his voice to make it sound like Beelzebub or a baby. Haynes, Paul Leary, Jeff Pincus, and the drummers might have had some kind of paint and costume on, but it was hard to tell through the movies, fog, and strobes. Sometimes it seemed like the band was the soundtrack to the movie, and sometimes it was too loud and stomping to tell. Meanwhile, I was being flung about by the crowd, slam dancing in the pit. Later I heard that the movies would make audience members vomit and I wasn’t surprised. It was wild and completely overwhelming—sensory overload with a high level of creepiness. In the last line from that journal entry I wrote, “I was blown away.”
The Butthole Surfers are my measure of how out there it can get. (Basically, if it’s not as weird as the Butthole Surfers, it isn’t that weird.) They were Edge City, loaded with a potential for total gonzo. Those nights when they lit firecrackers onstage, and the simmering of total chaos became kinetic energy of total chaos, things would happen. They’d set their equipment on fire. The naked dancer who sometimes toured with them (whom, alas, was not at the show I saw) shit onstage. In Michael Azerrad’s chronicle of 1980s indie and underground music, Our Band Could Be Your Life, there is a description of Haynes filling a wiffle bat full of urine and swinging it over the crowd, blessing them. Butthole Surfers fans will not find this strange. When King Coffey was asked in 1984 if they tried to be deliberately outrageous, he said with tongue not necessarily in cheek, “I think the word is literally outrageous; we’re a reflection of a deliberately outrageous society.”
The Butthole Surfers are now a permanent part of the way I evaluate the world. They also give me insight into what goes on inside my and everybody else’s head—in those parts of the brain that usually remain dormant except during ecstatic experiences, like near death encounters or when you’re on hallucinogens. A Butthole Surfers show was like tripping in the hidden desert laboratory of Ed Gein, Doctor Kermit Gosnell, and an army of clowns living next to space shuttle engine testing facility. And often the band was as high as the audience.
I’ve seen them since then and, although the experience has never been as intense as that first time, they have not lost that aesthetic. The movies are different, but still as disgusting. There are more breaks between songs and there’s less jamming, but the band is still full of full-on hardcore art terrorist punk rockers. I mean, this is a band that begins one of their best records with an exchange that starts out like a Leave It To Beaver moment, but with washed out synthesized strings accompanying this inspired piece of dialog between a kid and his dad:
Kid (about 6 years old): Daddy, what does regret mean?
Dad: Well, son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven't done. And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend, tell her “SATAN SATAN SATAN!”
. . . and the band careens into Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” (which they’ve renamed “Sweat Loaf”) with a collective yell that builds into a force. It’s one of the best moments in rock & roll with one of the most slamming riffs around played with total abandon in a kind of music that celebrates that very idea. They play like they simply do not give a fuck and are having a blast doing it. Every time I hear that scream of “Satan” go into the riff, I cannot help but yell along. Every time.
Somehow the Butthole Surfers have managed neither to explode nor become rock & roll carcasses. Their hard work paid off, and in the Nineties the music industry came around to them and their ilk and they signed to Capitol Records. It was during this time that their sound became less extreme and more tuneful, but at that point popular music had moved closer to their sound. They got some attention with “Who Was In My Room Last Night,” which meshes between grunge and industrial music. In 1996 they had a hit that had real radio airplay, “Pepper.” It wasn’t the demented laughing and slide guitar of “Lady Sniff,” but it was undeniably the Butthole Surfers. Haynes’s voice sounds like it’s coming through a landline from another dimension. Some instruments are tracked backwards, and they play the bass with a bow. The lyrics concern the fates of a certain friend group that includes Tommy who “played the piano like a kid out in the rain / and then he lost his leg in Dallas / he was dancing with a train” and Mikey who “got with Sharon / Sharon got Sherise / she was sharing Sharon’s outlook on the topic of disease.” In a decade of memorable lyrics, it was the line “They were all in love with dying / they were doing it in Texas” that stuck in my head for months. Rumor has it that this was a favorite song for Texas strippers.
And in a time when Pearl Jam, Nirvana, REM, and so many other great bands were dealing with heavy issues, the Butthole Surfers never took themselves too seriously. (With a name like that, really, how could they?) This is a band that, while living in Athens in the late 1980s, allegedly stalked REM and parked a van spray-painted with the line, “Michael Stipe, despite the hype, I still want to suck your big long pipe” in front of his house. In interviews Gibby and Paul have quoted the line, “Art is merely the last three letters in ‘Fart’.”
I discovered recently that when they started the band in San Antonio in 1981, Gibby was an accountant and Paul Leary had been a semester away from completing his masters in finance. I also found out more about their hand-to-mouth living in the late 1980s when they toured for three years without stopping, wildly performing multimedia multimedia shows while ingesting gargantuan amounts of chemicals and liquor. A Spin magazine article from 1990 details them getting a Motel 6 room once a week and sleeping for twenty-four hours straight. According to the same article, they didn’t come up with the idea of buying sleeping bags until after the first year. Azzerad explains that they were scavenging for cans and bottles to return for the nickel deposit. And there is something uniquely Texan in all of this. Texas is a place where the punk rock of the late 1970s and the 1980s was transgressive within its own society as well as the greater musical and cultural world. Austin bands such as Big Boys and the Skunks brought funk and jazz influences into their music and dressed in costumes and tutus and invited audience members on stage. Both the Big Boys and the Skunks had openly gay band members, and both in the mainstream world and the punk rock scene with its very male and macho tendencies, this went against the grain, and it was not always appreciated.
The Butthole Surfers became a part of this creative transgression and arty presentation but they pushed it further with each tour and record, each new set of lights or strange projection of a gender-reassignment instructional movie. This made them different from the slamming-yet-simple rock & roll of the Sex Pistols or the downtown androgynous chic of the New York Dolls. Even bands with national followings like Dead Kennedys or Hüsker Dü didn’t have the same kind of anything-goes experience, nor the variety of songs, sounds, and subject matter that the Butthole Surfers did.
In terms of the music and the arts, it’s not just the Texas punk bands that have this Do-It-Yourself ambition, the same credo the Butthole Surfers shared, the ambition to make something wild and big on their terms. Part of the Texas attitude is to do what you want, and to do it bigger, crazier, and gaudier that anyone else. Texas is a place where the movie Slacker and the Dallas Cowboys’ monstrous new AT&T Stadium coexist. Artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Robert Rauschenberg made this attitude—that of brazenly creating art despite an initial dearth of both critical understanding and popular appeal—a part of their aesthetics. Roky Erickson, who pushed his music and himself so far that he couldn’t come back, had that attitude. The entire town of Marfa is a home for strange and unique art that people strain to comprehend.
There is a certain degree of impunity in that commitment both to individuality and to the gargantuan. If you live by that creed, the rest of the world’s rules are secondary. And the Butthole Surfers did not live by the rules. On the Alamo website (and is there anything more Texan than the Alamo?), it says: “People worldwide continue to remember the Alamo as a heroic struggle against impossible odds—a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For this reason, the Alamo remains hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.” I think that this could be used to describe the Butthole Surfers and what they accomplished, only with their shrine reimagined as a flashing, hallucinating, feedback “T” that rhymes with pee and stands for Texas.
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