A Brown Reason To Read: An exclusive excerpt from James Burns’s new book on the Butthole Surfers

By on February 26, 2016

The always outrageously controversial and provocative Butthole Surfers (who came along sometime in 1982) could be described as the very spearpoint of what came to be called “alternative rock” in the early 90s, but a more accurate description might be that these Texas psych-punks built a sturdy bridge linking punk rock and grunge…and then dynamited the fucking bridge!

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 4

They were one of the first bands to fully incorporate seemingly disparate influences — including, but certainly not limited to, country to garage to psychedelia to classic rock — curiously blending mind-bending acid rock and psychedelic freak power movement of the sixties, with the hardcore anger of Dead Kennedys, a band whose diatribes against the so-called “Moral Majority” were hugely important.

The Butthole Surfers did all this in the context of 80s-era punk, which in turn, influenced the bands that followed immediately after them (and sometimes opened shows for them too), bands like Nirvana (the Butthole Surfers’s Gibby Haynes even did a stint in rehab with Kurt Cobain) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Their importance should really not be underestimated: if there was ever a band who deserved a heady tome like Let’s Go to Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers — it’s the Butthole Surfers (had to be them, really, or otherwise the title wouldn’t make any sense!).

Burns was originally going to be call it A Brown Reason to Read, after the track called “A Brown Reason to Live,” their very first release, from 1983, then Scattered Memories, before he went with Let’s Go To Hell.

In July 1993, the Butthole Surfers — called “B.H. Surfers” in this TV report — co-headlined the “Bar-B-Q Mitzvah” tour with Stone Temple Pilots. In this clip, showing the band onstage at an outdoor show at Castaic Lake (near Magic Mountain, north of L.A.), Gibby Haynes can be seen turning his back to the audience after someone threw a bottle at his face, chipping a tooth. He later started a fire onstage and the band ended the show by letting off fireworks.

With a name like the Butthole Surfers, however, you can imagine how difficult it was for them to make any headway, coming along at a time during a program directors sometimes referred to them as the “B.H. Surfers” lest they get into trouble with the FCC, who were fining college and commercial stations for indecency.

The Butthole Surfers’s very own Gibby Haynes found out firsthand what it was like trying to keep the airwaves clean and safe of profanity when he became the co-host (along with Robbie Jacks, a local actor/singer/writer and longtime friend), of a morning show on Austin’s “New Rock Alternative” radio station 101 KROX, which went on the air in 1995.

The job gave him an open mic and the opportunity to vent about some of the “alternative” modern rock dreck of the mid-90s that he openly despised but was being forced to play, and when the show’s listeners called up KROX to request something he obviously hated, he’d punch over to the next phone caller, sometimes spewing out a string of non sequiturs verging on glossolalia (the station eventually moved Haynes to a 10pm to 2am weeknight time slot because, as just about everyone knows by now, rock ‘n’ roll and early morning jobs don’t always mix).

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 6

James Burns

Writer James Burns — who has been running the Butthole Surfers Anal Obsession archive for more years than he wants to admit — began working on his Butthole Surfers history book after years of just having been a huge fan of theirs, accumulating their recordings, and talking to former band members.

Burns goes deep into their story, emphasizing the importance of the Butthole Surfers as one of the bands — maybe the only one — responsible “keeping alive the last vestiges of independence long after many of the old punk bands had imploded or fizzled out; and while the music industry floundered and wallowed in stagnation.”

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 2

At close to 500 pages, Let’s Go To Hell is a massively expansive historical document of record that features just about everything you’d want to know about the band: here’s where you’ll find anecdotes and exclusive interviews with punk rock luminaries sharing their views about the Butthole Surfers, tons of rare and unpublished photographs, and an analysis of the band’s vast recorded (and unrecorded) efforts. The last 200 pages, in fact, are dedicated to the band’s music: discography, songs, live dates, fan stuff.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 8

Photo by William McConnell

As you will see in this exclusive excerpt that James Burns has kindly provided to Night Flight — from pages 78-83 in the book, which comes from the middle of Chapter 5 — he also captures the sociopolitical climate of the Ronald Reagan-led era of creeping U.S. imperialism and fascism, which is an important part of telling the Butthole Surfers’s story if you’re going to do it right:

Upon release of their first record, punks finally got to know some of the songs in their set, and the Butthole Surfers began getting some decent support from the crowds. They had some of the first gigs as headliners outside of the state of Texas, and were even co-billed for a New Year’s Eve gig with DKs [Dead Kennedys], proving in just a few short months that they could be placed alongside even the premier punk acts in the country.

And let us face the facts for a moment: punk was where it was at musically in the Reagan era. You certainly couldn’t find commercial radio breaking new musical ground in the 1980s. 80’s pop rock was earning big money for major labels and in this pre-Nirvana world, there was little room for punk bands on their rosters, nor on the turntables of many of the commercial radio stations around the country.

Neither were they fed through the cables at MTV. The suits at MTV seemed content to play John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” 20 times a day, or Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Content with the same cash cows the industry had been milking for years, and driving kids into the same mindless complacence they had in the 1970’s. Now with music videos, it was even easier to herd the sheep into their tiny pens.

And yet, all the while, as the U.S. economy wallowed, and our Big Stick foreign policy bred fear into the hearts of children around the globe, there was an underground movement that spoke out against the self-centered egotism of the Me Generation. Our president, the former governor of the fine state of California, had once sent National Guard troops onto the campus of Berkeley College to break up Vietnam war protesters, calling them ‘communists’ and ‘anti-American’.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 9

Live in 1993. Photo by Bev Davies, provided by James Burns.

Now, at the helm of the country, he built up a military industrial complex that stretched around the globe. Ronald Reagan ran the Cold War, as well as his new war on drugs, as if America was in the throes of battle. He had the hubris of the former Hollywood icon he was, and touted how Russia should be outlawed, and that bombing would begin in 5 minutes. The government began enforcing property seizures and mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders, and boasted a 43% increase in defense spending since taking the helm from the Carter administration in 1981; including serious plans for an ICBM missile defense shield in space, dubbed “Star Wars.” Suddenly, American’s paranoia against the counter- culture was amped up, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust seemed again, quite real.

Air raid drills were being practiced in elementary schools, and a seemingly endless tide of conflicts sprang up in the Banana Republics of Central America; between forces backed by both of the reigning Super Powers. TV movies about ‘he Day After garnered huge ratings as people sat back to find out what would actually happen should our President, or the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time, Yuri Andropov, was to have a particularly shitty morning and make one ill-advised and hasty decision.

All this took place while Madonna and Prince sang about “Holidays” and “Little Red Corvettes.” The military complex grew; and the rich began to get a whole lot richer due to Reagan practically eliminating financial regulations on corporations. The poor made slightly more modest gains, as Big Business was given the green light to operate without fear of reprisal. The greedheads began to run the show, and run amok.

It seemed as if these power mongers in charge dealt with the threat of nuclear holocaust as if it was a by-product of having the finer things in life. They strapped on their Walkmen and went jogging to forget about the ‘world outside’: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” But, the kids who were forming punk bands were truly frightened; hurt; paranoid and pissed. They were left feeling betrayed by their parents, whose 60’s ideals had been beaten out of them through endless evenings of frozen dinners and disco dancing. This wasn’t just something happening on the TV news for the kids. They couldn’t tune out or turn off until the next conflict broke out, like their parents had done. This was too real and too scary. The underground scene began to flourish because the residents who resided there felt called into some kind of action.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 10

Live in Voltaire’s basement (1984). Photo by Dixon Edge Coulbourn, provided by James Burns.

As punk rock gained headlines for its “violent nature”, authorities wondered what could be the root cause of America’s troubled youth. The feminist revolution of the ’70s, and a desire to attain a piece of the ever more expensive American Dream meant more and more housewives were entering the workforce. Their own desire for the finer things had created a generation of latch key kids and bored teenagers. The best the president’s First Lady could offer to the youth was a “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.

Punk rock was viewed by the detached elite as being the result of a bunch of troubled youths trying to destroy the fabric of society. Most of the kids saw it as their responsibility. They felt it was their role to try to preserve some semblance of a future: or to create enough havoc to break down their bullshit society, in order to take it back from those who, they felt, were the real tyrants opposed to democratic principles; propagating war and getting fat off the working man.

Punk, at its best, offered vision, focus, drive, and a purpose for these kids. Punks created art, music, and literature and valued higher levels of thought, but punks admired those willing to act even more than think: a gut reaction.

As many of the punk bands of the ’70s slowly began to dissolve, the new hardcore movement that took hold in the U.S. had an agenda, or at least a motive, to act up and speak out. There was a unifying notion that the vapid and insipid bands who were ignoring the impending mushroom clouds on the horizon were accomplices to those who were attempting to create them.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 11

Photo by Macioce, provided by James Burns.

The Dead Kennedys were a lightning rod for the idea of music as a political force. Biafra’s run for mayor of San Francisco, though unsuccessful, gave the band tons of mainstream press. His street corner buffoonery openly mocked the campaign process, as he grinned maniacally and kissed baby dolls before throwing them over his shoulder. He set up a political platform of banning cars from downtown San Francisco, and requiring all businessmen to dress in clown suits as they rode their bikes to work.

Biafra’s message, however sarcastic, managed to strike a chord with those “average”city dwellers who were tired of losing their city to the big money power brokers setting the agenda. He came in 4th out of 10 candidates; a respectable showing, considering his lack of money and tongue in cheek campaign antics. It forced a runoff election, which eventually lead to Diane Feinstein winning the race.

Jello ran with the press he got, and his knack for drumming up controversy; and hyperbolic, absurdist wit, carried on in the finest tradition of Abby Hoffman, H.L. Mencken and George Carlin. He put the fear of God into the Conservative Right, then known as the Moral Majority. You could bet that, when the Southern Baptist churches held their Saturday night record burnings, you would find a copy of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or In God We Trust, Inc. amongst smoldering pile of melted plastic.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 7

The powers-that-be became afraid of punk rock, not just because their kids had blue hair or wore safety pins through their noses, but because they were becoming focused and organized and seriously threatening to their establishment ideals. Perhaps the nagging guilt that they had abandoned the struggle to win back the country from the big money corporate interests exacerbated the pain and fear in their own guts. Punks mocked the corporations who were becoming more and more a part of the political process, and organized benefit shows, and played demonstration rallies to rail against the power-mongers running the real show. It was in the finest tradition of the blues and folk artists of the 1940s and ’50s, many of whom were called Communists, dragged before House committees, and blacklisted forever.

Most of the new breed of punks were barely old enough to remember Altamont or Kent State, but they certainly lived with their repercussions. Punks were wide-eyed, but not naive, and they knew that in order to create a New Society, some sort of a revolution needed to take place; even if it was just a revolution of thought. Jello proudly stood forward as the face of the movement. The man punks generally loved and parents and politicians feared and vilified.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 5

Photo by William McConnell, 1986

And with the influence the Dead Kennedys had globally, hardcore bands began to spring up everywhere; not just in the USA, but in the countries of Eastern Europe torn in half by the cold war; and the third world countries used as pawns in the chess battle between the power elite. They began to aspire to be able to make a difference, and, perhaps more idealistically, dream of earning a living wage as a member of a punk band. Of course, this had its unintended negative consequences as well.

More and more hardcore bands were faster, rawer, and angrier than the British punk bands who helped cleave the path before them, yet few were much more than that. Punks became suspicious if a band didn’t fit into a precise formula, and often turned on each other with cries of “poseur” or “trust-fund punk” to make sure bands followed the rules as they saw them. The prospect of “selling out” became the sword of Damocles to bands, who had to make sure not to stray too far from what narrow-minded punks thought they should sound, or act or believe.

This made the Butthole Surfers an even stranger anomaly for the time. By not being quite ‘punk rock’ there was always a bit of suspicion of where they stood. By liking them, you were opening yourself up to ridicule. Of course, the band’s name became the focus of so much publicity, as most people passed them off as a campy joke, or gay. “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave” was almost as offensive to punks as it was to mainstream folks, for it seemed to mock the stupidity of punk rock as much as it did the stupidity of straight society.

But as the band played out more and more, and often in the context of a Dead Kennedys bill, the more it was that open-minded punks began getting the joke. There was something more to the Butthole Surfers; something real. And while the Butthole Surfers could make you piss your pants with laughter at any given moment, there was nothing that seemed contrived about them. If Biafra was the man running the anti-establishment rally, the Butthole Surfers were the ones who were showing up trying to score some weed. They were the Dead Kennedys’s comic relief. Flava Flav to Jello’s Chuck D.

The Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” video

Author James Burns lives in Saugerties, NY with his wife and four children. He founded Cheap Drugs Records in 2000. Let’s Go to Hell is the 9th release of the label, and first book to bear the Cheap Drugs name. The book is available in two formats — a 7×10 economy color paperback ($38.95) and a 7×10 economy color caseboound glossy ($48.95). Check it out here.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS 1

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://www.zverina.com/ Robert Zverina

    Will barter for copy of book, please.

  • Tim Chmielewski

    Would like to hear the backstory of the Texas BBQ short they did.