Arts » Noise

Reign of error

Expect no redemption for music’s No. 1 assholes


Want to commit career suicide? The Butthole Surfers have already taken that plunge, beyond redemption for most. Their litany of self-inflicted woes comes off like some hokey Hank Williams story—a bubble of hope in the beginning that ultimately implodes with ego and excess. They released the cream of their crop during the ’80s on indie labels Alternative Tentacles and Touch and Go, the latter giving them a steady home. Then Rough Trade took them on for one LP (and got side project the Jackofficers in the bargain), but by the ’90s they had finally settled on Capitol Records. Amidst all the shuffling, they also started their own label, Latino Buggar Veil, to self-release live recordings.

This is where the story goes sour. Butthole Surfers sued for and won the rights to their Touch and Go catalog, to re-process those albums exclusively for their own label. Touch and Go got screwed. The group has since faced continuous scorn in indie circles for their questionable business ethics, the high-water mark coming when they were creatively assessed at No. 1 in Chunklet magazine’s list of the Top 100 Assholes in Music.

But here’s your daily dose of irony: In the ’80s, the Butthole Surfers were king shit—fried-out acid-gobbling Texans whose antics gave rise to an astounding body of unforgettable stories with legendary status. The invention of the piss wand: filling plastic bats with pee, poking tiny holes and swinging them around on stage. A move to Athens, Ga., where they collected three months’ worth of garbage, piled the debris in their van and drove to Michael Stipe’s house to ceremoniously torch it in his driveway.

Their naked dancer who was mute by choice and the intra-band porn they made. To read more, check out their Web site and find the interview from Forced Exposure, one of the best ever written. Their Touch and Go material (Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Locust Abortion Technician—the masterpiece—and Hairway To Steven) and the releases on Alternative Tentacles (Live PCPPEP, Brown Reason To Live and Psychic, Powerless, Another Man’s Sac) were and are supremely messed up offerings of true Dadaist punk rock.

Butthole Surfers had quite a following by the late ’80s, myself included. I went to as many shows as I could for three years from ’88 to ’91. The stage would be filled with smoke and strobe lights, three screens for film (car wreck footage, operations, nuclear explosions), rack mounts from cop cars, weird lasers. Guitarist Paul Leary would don a velvet suit, high heels and a long blond wig. Sometimes there would be two drummers, singer Gibby Haynes playing with his hands on fire, the bassist looking like he just escaped from an institution, the naked dancer tripping her brains out, trying to capture the lights with her hands. It was a freak show par excellence. The word back then was: “They’re gonna be the new Grateful Dead.”

But that all changed with the advent of a shitty new attitude and even shittier attempts at music. Butthole Surfers were at a creative low throughout the 1990s. They peaked commercially with their worst LP ever, Electriclarryland, all thanks to some backwards guitar and the influence of Beck-styled dork rap. And all signs point away from their newest Weird Revolution release.

I’d given them up long ago—until I read the word of underground music sources and respected critics about a new disc called Humpty Dumpty LSD. These are the four-track offerings, songs from long-deleted compilations, different versions, extra tracks, unreleased stuff that was always talked about but impossible to get hold of.

A highlight is their cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Earthquake,” which stole the show from the Roky Erikson tribute disc. And then there are the tunes that go beyond words, which is what I always looked for in a Butthole Surfers selection. Songs at the wrong speed or deliberately traumatized by messed-up remixes. Listening to this brings me right back to those lost and wayward days and the attempts to make art and life coincide through various mind-altering experiments. True innocence, the love of a freak band and their mindless tactics that made us embrace confusion. The memories of listening to Locust Abortion Technician for the first time stoned and being transferred to some weird nonsensical state of mind. There was no rhyme or reason whatsoever, just one purely nihilistic tasteless joke after another.

I won’t lie and say it’s perfect—there are reasons some of these songs were shelved for so long. Regardless, this is as close as it gets to the real deal. The treasure in this loose compilation is in hearing what was always beyond reach or in bootleg form.

Anyway, I’m not the one to judge, nor will I make any proclamations about redemption. But I will venture something about the band’s motivations. I doubt this is an attempt to recapture some past glory, but more likely an attempt to win back some of their old fans. Putting aside their poor treatment of friends, their poor judgment overall, Butthole Surfers still have that thing in them that sets them apart from all others. While some have their brush with existentialism through philosophy, theology, ecology or biology, others come of age through the sheer force of music. The Surfers’ reign was during a period when irrelevance was at an all-time high and cynicism was the real drug on the street. And the coinciding science was to confront, baffle, ridicule, overwhelm and enjoy. All in all an amazing trip, but it’s pretty much over. Thank God they have the balls to give us a taste once again of what it was about back in the day. Humpty Dumpty LSD gets close enough to invoke those needed shivers.

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