“Daddy, what does regret mean?
Well, son, the funny thing about regret is,
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,
Be sure and tell her, SATAN, SATAN, SATAN!”
~”Sweat Loaf,” Locust Abortion Technician, 1987
There are a few ways fans appreciate the Butthole Surfers. Most of them regard the Surfers as an early-’90s Top 40 alternative rock band; they may have “Pepper” on their iPod or heard “Who Was in My Room Last Night?” only on Guitar Hero 2. The second kind of fan is informed but foolish, those who know about the band’s music in the ’80s but don’t really get it. They get caught up in the craziness of the band, in its singing about rape and using crazy voice distortion, but don’t consider if there is any actual significance attached to the crazy.
But what true Butthole Surfers fan hears is not just the weirdness but also the genius that came along with it. The Butthole Surfers may be crazy, but they’re not stupid. They back up the rape talk with muscular, pulsating guitar riffs and brilliant utilization of Texas mythology. In case the whole enterprise wasn’t enough to beat you into submission, they pummel your brains out with two drummers.
The Butthole Surfers are touring for the first time in since 2002 (and had not toured since 1996 before then), and it’s high time for more fans to recognize the Surfers for what they are: arguably the most extreme form of the negative energy inherent in rock ‘n’ roll to have ever held an instrument in one hand and a bag of pills in another.
I’ll fully admit that at first, I was the second type of fan. The first Butthole Surfers album I bought was Hairway to Steven, and it took me a good month to get over the impact of the 12-minute opening track, “Jimi.” If the full-fledged Gibbytronix and lyrics about child molestation weren’t enough to convince me how insane the band was, I’d heard that Hairway was the band’s tamest album to date. I appreciated the band’s novelty factor and thought they were the weirdest, most hilarious product of the ’80s underground. I’m pretty sure most fans just leave it at that.
Yet I kept coming back to the band, purchasing new albums, desperately searching for every interview and fact about the band I could find, and the reason was that something about the music transcended the weirdness. I quickly realized that while Gibby Haynes gets most of the accolades in Surfers appraisals, the real star is guitarist Paul Leary.
Leary, the straightest member of the band (the term “straight” being applied very loosely here), grounded the band in a musical and virtuosic intensity to match the band’s reputation. Leary plays with as much range as just about any guitarist who has ever graced the earth, and only a handful have ever played as fiercely. Everything great about the Butthole Surfers flows from Leary, whether it’s the bizarro harmonies with Gibby’s singing, the rare but crucial use of acoustic guitar, or the rhythmic opportunities provided with the two-drummer approach.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect about the band was the consistency of brilliance in the ’80s. There’s nary a bad track to be found on the first four main albums — Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac (1985), Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986), Locust Abortion Technician (1987), and Hariway to Steven (1988) — and four EPs. Each album builds upon the precedent set by its predecessor while still finding a room to add a new direction, and the EPs served the ideal purpose of any EP: to showcase a side of the band that can only be displayed in a shorter format. The EPs happened to have particularly inspired titles like Widowermaker and Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis, the latter of which took its name from an aborted album cover involving Sammy Davis without his glass eye.
The band have often been labeled sellouts for their major-label work in the ’90s, and their creativity did tail off by the time they reached the majors. But considering that they were lucky to be alive after their combination of poverty, dumpster diving for food and heavy drug use in the ’80s, they were more than a little entitled to cash in.
In fact, if you want to find the influence of the Surfers on mainstream alternative rock, look no further than the golden pinnacle of the movement: Nirvana. Although Kurt Cobain’s guitar tone and songwriting were more heavily influenced by Frank Black by the time of Nevermind, the majority of the guitar tracks in that band’s first album, Bleach, are vintage Paul Leary. Listen to “Swamp Meet,” “Sifting,” “Scoff” and “Negative Creep” after listening to any classic Surfers album and you won’t have trouble seeing the connection. Nirvana would never fully shed the influence; perhaps unsurprisingly, it would later show up in some of the band’s less popular tracks, like the B-sides “Curmudgeon” and “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.”
Without a doubt, the most entertaining portion of Our Band Could Be Your Life is Michael Azzerrad’s description of the Surfers’ infamous appearance at the Pandora’s Box festival in Holland, with Gibby naked, harassing Nick Cave, and screaming “Dutch faggots! Goddamn fucking Dutch faggots! A whole fucking country filled with nothing but fucking turd burgling faggots! I fuck your ass in heaven and hell! Fuck you!” But as hilarious as that passage is, there’s another section of the book that’s more fascinating: the description of Greil Marcus’ use of the term “negation.”
“Negation,” said Marcus, “is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems.” Bands fascinated with negation, which in addition to the Surfers included early Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore and the Big Black, focus on areas of humanity that are always present in our consciousness but don’t dare explore more thoroughly.
This was not always as fascinating as we now see it. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, an early opponent the indie underground who only later came around to the movement, eloquently dubbed the negation-seeking bands of the mid-80s “pigfuckers.” In reality, rock ‘n’ roll has always had a little negation. It started as a method of breaking through conformity in the ’50s, and its traces are apparent across the board. Metal thrives on an often kiddie pool-shallow version of negation. The Stooges and the Velvet Underground practically invented its modern form. The Butthole Surfers, however, may have been the purest form of negation rock ‘n’ roll has ever seen.
Everything the Surfers did, musically or otherwise, was about exploring the underbelly of the human psyche, where ideas lingered that no one dares consider, but everyone passively knows. The Surfer’s greatest accomplishment was to make that underbelly come to the surface in a brutal and agonizing but often cathartic form. The Surfers discovered a lot about negation that you wouldn’t expect — for one, that negation could be hilarious. The Surfers could also maintain musical and songwriting skill without sacrificing style.
But more than anything else, the Butthole Surfers showed that their music, as horrifying, soul-wrenching, and ethereal it could be, may not be that far removed from our own reality. They were the id without the superego, but they were also very human. Never has rock made our shit stank so foul.