BY JONATHAN VALANIA First thing you should know is that what I am about to tell you violates a solemn pact that was made by all involved: Whatever happens in 1987 stays in 1987. I grew up in Pennsyltucky — Allentown, PA, to be exact — and by the time I was getting to the be the age where you just WANNA GET THE FUCK OUT OF DODGE, a shiny new superhighway literally appeared out of thin air, connecting the hinterlands of the Keystone State to New York City with a directness and efficiency that was heretofore unimaginable. You could now go door-to-door from Allentown to NYC in one hour and 20 minutes. Me and my pals would make regular pilgrimages to the Big Apple to see all the great underground rock shows of the day: The Replacements circa Let It Be, when Bob Stinson played in a dress and afterwards threw a phone out of his high-rise hotel room window, got arrested and subsequently fired from the band; REM circa Reckoning with the Dream Syndicate opening, when Michael Stipe still had those long pre-Raphaelite locks; Green On Red circa Gas, Food, Lodging; Meat Puppets circa Up On The Sun; Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation. But the one band that kept us coming back for more was the Butthole Surfers. Between 1986 and 1989, if the Butthole Surfers they were playing anywhere within a 100-mile radius, we were there come hell or high water — no ifs, ands, or, um, buts.
It was a weird time. Independent rock was in a lull: all the old school punk bands had imploded, exploded or some variation of the two; the Great White Hopes of Amerindie — REM, Husker Du and The Replacements — had moved up to the Big House of major labeldom, a grand bargain that two thirds of those bands wouldn’t survive; and all the skinhead hardcore bands either got killed in fights, O.D.’d or went to jail. But an important minority grew their hair out long, started smoking dope and began experimenting with the notion that rock music could be more than just a sledgehammer of noisy aggression, it could also be a portal into heretofore unexplored realms of experience and sensation, and the narrator of a million private mythologies. Wayne Coyne was there, too, and he would later describe that period to me as the time when “the acid hit the punk rock.” Indeed.
Filling this vacuum was an unlikely quartet of Texas freakniks traveling around the country in the back of an old van — along with their trusty dog, Mark Farner (named after the guy from Grand Funk Railroad) — defoliating entire mountainsides of sinsemilla with just a Bic lighter and sheer lung power and eating mescaline right out of the cactus. They were called the Butthole Surfers — the name being picked back when they were just trying to be the most noisy, grating and annoying band in the great state of Texas — and while they were initially punk-identified, their music was increasingly morphing into something much more paganistic than pogo-worthy, evoking the third-eye altered states soundtracks of legendary Lone Star acid-punks like the Moving Sidewalks and the 13th Floor Elevators.
By the mid-’80s, the nihilistic anti-establishmentarianism of punk had evolved into taste for the transgressive in all its most toxic and sociopathic forms: serial killers and Illuminati conspiracy theories were all the rage; a stocky bald man named GG Allin, who performed naked and covered in his own feces became a must-see live spectacle; Dope, Guns & Fucking In The Streets was the name of popular label sampler series by the then-important Amphetamine Reptile label; Big Black called their second album Songs About Fucking; there was a band called Millions Of Dead Cops. This was a very hospitable climate for a band like the Butthole Surfers, given that they had a certain scatological genius and a proven willingness venture into the dark side of bad taste in the pursuit of sick kicks, alchemizing surprise into horror and generally being a rude thumb up the rectum of the mainstream. They gave their albums outrageous titles like Rembrandt Pussyhorse and Cream Corn From The Socket of Davis, and wrote songs called “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave” and “I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas.” In short, the Butthole Surfers were to transgressive what Belle & Sebastian are to twee.
After three years of constant touring, leaving an enduring rep for shock-and-awe in their wake, the Butts’ music had grown immeasurably, as did their live show. There was impossibly tall Gibby Haynes, stripped down to his boxer shorts and shouting gibberish into a megaphone like the Tasmanian Devil himself before unleashing a fire extinguisher on the audience, Paul Leary pulling retarded faces while dredging up Herculean lava-lamp riffage and stratospheric peals out of his guitar; two drummers, Teresa Nervosa and King Coffey, who looked like inbred twins but they weren’t, and always played standing up, pounding out the exact same hypno-tribal beat. Bass players came and went. For a time, there was a mute woman that used to dance naked in front of the band — she just showed up one day and stayed for a year — while Gibby poured lighter fluid onto a cymbal, then lit it on fire and then repeatedly hit it with a drum stick, sending a great gust of flames 30 feet in the air. You could feel it on your face.
Projected onto the band members and the two giant movie screens behind them were a series of instructional films on loan from the Austin Public Library. These films ranged from the profoundly sublime (mesmerizing oceanic footage) to the deeply disturbing (a farmer undergoing re-constructive penis surgery after a run-in with a corn combine). The songs would seesaw between ecstasy and dread, sludgy bump-and-grind would give way to shimmering, ultra-groovy passages that swelled into these towering, transcendental climaxes, whereupon Gibby would push a few buttons and dial in an infinitely repeating loop of speaking-in-tongues satanic smashmouth, speeding it up to sound like he was huffing helium or slowing it down to sound like he was on an ether binge. Oh, and then the the strobe lights would come on. For, like, 20 minutes. Thankfully the smoke machine deadened their seizure-inducing powers and reduced visibility down to two or three feet in front of you, mercifully blotting out the penis surgery film. And even that was worth suffering through because, even though it may not seem like it on paper, and quite possibly the drugs had something to do with it, but as God is my witness: This was THE greatest show on Earth. I would never hear music the same way again.
END OF PART ONE
EYE SAW AN X-RAY OF A GIRL PASSING GAS Part 2: Remember Son, ‘Better To Regret Something You HAVE Done Than To Regret Something You HAVEN’T Done’
Admittedly it was hard to evangelize about a band called Butthole Surfers – the name itself took a lot of explaining. (“Yeah, I know, I know ‘stupid name,’ but … not gay, no, nothing gay about them … well actually I guess the drummer is gay … but there is a naked chick dancing most of the time.” And that was just with my mother! It didn’t go any easier with the family pastor, let me tell ya.)
But evangelize we did, because brothers and sisters, friends of the revolution, after 20 epileptic minutes under those strobe lights we had quite literally SEEN THE motherfucking LIGHT! [artist’s rendering, above] I guess the one thing I had failed to mention explicitly is that every time we went to see the Butthole Surfers we were blitzed out of our gourds on lysergic acid diethylamide. (Now, I would never recommend that anyone experiment with dangerous hallucinogens, especially under such circumstances — it is against the law, you never know what you get, and psychedelics are wildly unpredictable under even the most experienced of tongues — but at the risk of sounding like every other annoying gonzo-wannabe burnout that reads too much Hunter Thompson, I have to confess that it always worked out for me. Big time, as the vice president would say.)
We weren’t alone. I am pretty sure just about everybody in the audience had made similar preparations for the Butthole Surfers show. All of us were young and mad because of it and all too willing to roll the dice with our psyches, flip our chemical switches and mutate out of the matrix of ordinary lives and make the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, as Allen Ginsberg used to say. In some cultures that would called an ‘epiphany,’ in this country we call it a felony. But that’s a discussion for another day.
More to the point, this shared sacrament was one of the first great breaches in the divide between the hippies and the punks, an unprecedented intersection of alt-rock’s ascendant trajectory and and the emerging jam band nation. It was the time when it first became readily apparent that hippies and punks had the same basic endgame in mind, just different means to reach those ends. Mostly, it just came down to different haircuts and the music and surrounding subculture that went with those haircuts. And when the hippies shaved their heads and the punks grew their hair long, well, things got interesting. Finally, nobody had to keep pretending that music only started after Never Mind The Bollocks. This might seem self-evident now — and I would submit, this simple change of the rules was responsible for a nearly all the great music you have heard in the last 20 years — but back then it seemed like there was always some hulking asshole in a mohawk ready to beat your hippie ass for even suggesting such a thing. And I am not just talking about Henry Rollins.