Out of the Mouths of Children
The improbable return of the Butthole Surfers
"I wish we'd taken a vow of silence," bemoans drummer King Coffey at the watercooler inside Beerland. "I regret every word I've ever said. ... I liked it more when there was a bit of a mystique to the band, before the Internet or cell phones, when we were living on the road and no one really knew who we were or where we were going."
At their peak in the mid- to late 1980s, Austin's Butthole Surfers were the physical embodiment of chaos theory, a flaming hemorrhoid of Texas psych, avant-garde expressionism, and iconoclastic noise ripping through the rectum of contemporary culture. Long before the band sneezed "Pepper," the Surfers' sphincter opened like Pandora's box, blurring the barrier between flippant ingenuity and absolute lunacy. Nothing was sacred.
"We were pure performance art with a musical soundtrack," offers frontman Gibby Haynes, who co-founded the group with guitarist Paul Leary at Trinity University in San Antonio in 1983.
"We were angry and unemployed, and being in a band and on the road was a way of avoiding real life," counters Leary with casual amusement. "We weren't looking to advance our career or make it in music. We were just doing it. The whole thing just seemed like a slow suicide."
After several lawsuits and years of drug abuse, the Butthole's pulse appeared to finally stop beating in 2001, when the band's eighth studio LP, Weird Revolution, failed to live up to its name. Then in June, for the first time in nearly two decades, the longest-lasting lineup of the Butthole Surfers – rounded out by second drummer Teresa Nervosa and bassist Jeff Pinkus – reunited at Asbury Lanes in New Jersey. Perhaps even more improbable than the band's return was its orchestration by the Paul Green School of Rock All Stars, which accompanied and backed the band for a monthlong tour on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I tend to avoid children like the plague most of the time," Leary admits. "I don't want to influence them or fuck up in front of them. It just seems bizarre to have a school of rock – rich parents sending their rich kids to play shows with washed-up, famous musicians. It seems like the death of rock once you start doing something like that."
The shah must be turning over in Lee Harvey's grave.
"The first thing we did after we landed in Holland, on the way to our accommodations, was stop off at a coffee shop in the closest small town. The band filed out of the bus, left 26 children and 14 adults aboard, bought weed, and got stoned while they waited. It was totally evil. I can't believe we did it, but it felt right." – Gibby Haynes
Reunion is a four-letter word to Gibby Haynes.
"Hell, man, it's just a rock show," the frontman barks from NYC, where he now resides. "Reunions are for high schools that you don't go to. I've never been to a fucking reunion, and I'm not going to go to this one."
Haynes is legendary for such outbursts. Onstage with the Surfers, the sight of him hoisting a 12-gauge shotgun might as well have been Gabriel's trumpet signaling the apocalypse. His hysterical manifestos and crude humor, amplified by a handheld megaphone, were nothing short of revelatory, simultaneously antagonizing and alluring. Without fail, something would end up on fire.
Yet beneath Haynes' transgressive temperament, there lies a noticeable tinge of regret, along with a sincere streak of optimism for the future. He's the only member of the Surfers who wants to record new material and is more than willing to take the rap for the group's gradual unraveling. "I was too fucked up ... emotionally, chemically, economically, all of 'em." He pauses before clarifying, "The economic part was that I had too much money."
After releasing his most recent solo album, 2004's Gibby Haynes & His Problem, the singer largely faded from the public eye, though he cropped up in documentaries on Roky Erickson, the Flaming Lips, and Daniel Johnston. In the latter, he's reclined in a dentist chair refuting the claim that he gave Johnston the LSD that sparked his first major breakdown.
"You have to have the crazy guy talk about the crazy people," Haynes reasoned to the Chronicle last year. "If I was just a little bit crazier, maybe I could have gotten into the 'Whitney Biennial.'"
While most parents probably wouldn't trust their children alone in the same room with Haynes, the Paul Green School of Rock Music, through Ween's Dave Dreiwitz, approached him about showcasing the music of the Butthole Surfers. In February, Haynes led the institution's All Stars on a five-date tour of the East Coast.
"The kids are really sweet," Haynes says. "They had to endure many practices with me where I was like: 'Dude, I don't know the words to this song. I don't even know how this song goes. Why don't you play it on your iPod?'"
"We wanted to make people uncomfortable and explore something that was new to them, but we really just wanted to entertain ourselves. I remember this one time Gibby took a dump in a Big Gulp and had Paul hold his shit without knowing it." – Jeff Pinkus
Jeff Pinkus was only 16 the first time he saw the Butthole Surfers at the Metroplex in his hometown of Atlanta in 1984. "I was on blue-gel acid," he smiles in fond recollection over a Jim Beam on the rocks at Creekside Lounge. "It wasn't what I expected at all."
Within a year, he had joined the band's traveling freak show.
"I didn't know any better," shrugs Pinkus. "I left home at 15 and was living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people. I had no worldly possessions and was looking for a band to play in that I liked. I showed up in a Germs leather jacket, and we played Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath for a little while, then Paul said, 'You wanna go to Europe?'"
Pinkus sums up the remainder of the 1980s as his missing years. By his own count, he lasted longer than the Surfers' other 16 bassists combined, ending a prolific nine-year stint following the release of the band's John Paul Jones-produced Capitol Records debut, Independent Worm Saloon, due to personal and creative differences.
"We all slept at the same place, rode in the same vehicle, went out to the same bars together," summarizes Pinkus, who now lives in Dripping Springs, about 10 miles from the shack in Driftwood where the Surfers' recorded their lone album for Rough Trade, 1990's Pioughd. "We did everything together. It didn't seem abnormal then. We were more functional than a lot of families."
With his main squeeze Honky, Pinkus has been a staple on South Congress and Red River for more than a decade now, serving up Texas boogie with raunchy, roadhouse flair (see "Attacked by Lesbians," May 26, 2000). He's had myriad other projects along the way, including Daddy Longhead, OTC, Areola 51, and his latest, Pure Luck, a sevenpiece hardcore country outfit. He also recently enrolled his son at the Austin branch of the Paul Green School of Rock Music.
"I'd like to have a better ending than we did last time," proffers Pinkus on the reunion. "We're all in a different, better place. It's really nice to be able to get back together without a label hanging over our heads and remember why we liked playing together."
"Everybody believed that King and I were brother and sister. I don't even know what I'm supposed to tell you right now. We very well may be. There used to be a consensus." – Teresa Nervosa
No one from the Butthole Surfers remembers exactly when Teresa Nervosa left the band, only that it happened sometime in 1989, while touring behind Hairway to Steven.
"On the surface, she was such a delicate, frail-looking girl, but underneath, she was so tough to be able to spend that amount of time on the road over the years in those kinds of conditions with us and a dog," Leary recalls. "When she wasn't there, I just felt like she needed a break, like we all did at some point."
Nervosa, born Teresa Taylor, originally joined the Surfers in 1983, after letting the band practice in the warehouse she rented in Downtown Austin for $40 a month. Standing at their drum kits, she and Coffey were two gods of thunder, hammering seismic beats that pressed the Surfers' live shows into the realm of spirit-possession ceremonies.
"Our shows were pretty wicked at that time," recalls Nervosa, who infamously appeared as "Papsmear Pusher" in local filmmaker Richard Linklater's indie watershed Slacker. "We had the penis reconstruction video, the strobe lights, the fire, the naked dancer. Everything was getting really out of control. I didn't always think it was the most positive first LSD experience for someone to have. People were coming away scarred."
By the time of her departure, Nervosa not only needed a break, she was breaking.
"I didn't want to leave the band, but I really wasn't well. I was flipping out, drinking too much and all that," she confides. "I had developed a really big fear of flying. I always thought the plane was going to crash. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. I started taking Prozac and trying to get better, trying to find someone who could help me."
As her band ascended to major label status, Nervosa dealt with its side effects. She suffered from strobe-light-induced seizures and underwent brain surgery in 1993 after being diagnosed with an aneurysm. Only recently did Nervosa, who still resides in Austin, begin regaining a sense of normalcy, returning to the stage in May with Coffey's experimental-psych wrecking crew Rubble.
"I'm on medication, and I'm still a little afraid of flying, but I can get on the plane like other people," she says. "I've been doing a lot better and picking back up and feeling pretty good. The timing couldn't have been any better for them to have called me up and asked me to do this."
"At Lollapalooza, Siouxsie [Sioux] came up onstage and started wrestling on the ground with Gibby over the shotgun. I look down, and that shotgun is pointed right at me. That thing may have been shooting blanks, but had it gone off, it would have killed me." – Paul Leary
It was in what Paul Leary describes as "a weak moment" that the guitarist agreed to reunite with the Butthole Surfers.
"We've had a lot of offers over the years to play places like Taiwan and South Africa," says Leary in his living room in Central Austin. "I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Not even Leary's incinerating guitar work could keep the Surfers' final album, 2001's Weird Revolution (Hollywood/Surfdog), from leaving a bad taste in just about everyone's mouth. Envisioned three years earlier as the follow-up to the band's commercial breakthrough, 1996's Electriclarryland, the album was scrapped and subsequently shrouded in legal entanglements with Capitol. Adding to the frustration at the time was an acrimonious split from manager Tom Bunch and a heated lawsuit with Touch and Go Records over the ownership of the band's first four LPs, which, by association, also left Coffey without a distributor for his beloved indie label, Trance Syndicate (see "Weird Bands From Texas," Nov. 20, 1998).
"It was a really brutal, painful experience, like the band was an albatross around our necks," Leary says. "I've never listened to the last record. I hated it before it even came out. Then when we went on tour to support it in the wake of 9/11, people weren't in the mood for mayhem and belching explosions, and neither was I. ...
"The road just got to be such a grind. I prefer being here in my house with my wife. I have a life here, and I really like working in the studio where I can be in control of everything that goes on."
Leary certainly hasn't had any trouble finding work. Having honed his craft through his work with the Surfers, not to mention the Bad Livers and Meat Puppets, Leary became one of the most sought-after names in modern music after producing Sublime's eponymous third album, which has bankrolled more than 10 million copies to date. He's since worked with everyone from Daniel Johnston and Weezer to U2 and Nelly Furtado and is now mixing a batch of unreleased recordings by the Toadies.
"It's been nice to be able to enjoy playing music again, especially seeing Gibby at his best," Leary concedes. "I still don't want to make a habit of doing too many of these shows."
"The whole band got scabies once, and we had to hold Kathleen down and get her medicated. She had decided she didn't want to kill the scabies because they were her friends." – Paul Leary
One at a time, the students from the Paul Green School of Rock All Stars cautiously join the Surfers onstage for their first show together, breathing in the hallucinatory gas emitted by classics such as "Cowboy Bob" and "Cherub," pulled from the black hole that is the band's 1984 debut LP, Psychic ... Powerless ... Another Man's Sac. The contrast with the group's early acid-happenings could not be any more apparent.
Haynes no longer loads up the shotgun. Nervosa and Coffey both take a seat behind their respective drum kits and refrain from turning their cymbals into torches, while Pinkus now straps on the Flying V bass he mastered with Honky. Longtime associate Kathleen (aka "Ta-Da the Shit Lady") shows up to entertain the audience of proud parents and fans with some interpretive dancing but manages to remain fully clothed.
"Everything the Butthole Surfers have ever done has been pretty bizarre," acknowledges Leary. "From that point of view, this seems to fit right in, and it probably wouldn't have happened any other way."
From day one, the Butthole Surfers captured adolescence as reflected through the looking glass, their music a shameless celebration of impulsive tomfoolery and hormonal urges. "I would say we're one of the most childlike things in rock & roll history," Haynes adds. "Childish, juvenile, intelligent. You know kids say the darnedest things."
Every student gathers onstage for the closing number, "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave," the first song Haynes ever played for Leary at Trinity. The bloodcurdling opening line sends the night spiraling into complete, cathartic chaos: "There's a time to fuck and a time to pray, but the shah sleeps in Lee Harvey's grave!"
Kids are crawling all over the stage, torturing instruments and bashing on any object that will make noise. Some just stand in place with their hands over their ears and scream. It's as if, for the first time, the Butthole Surfers' bastardized vision is fully realized.
The Butthole Surfers return to Stubb's on Saturday, Sept. 27, for an official Austin City Limits aftershow with the Kills and Fuckemos.