Heard It on the X

Gibby Haynes on the Airwaves

by Chris Walters

"You're listening to 101-X, Austin's new rock alternative! I am a flake of dandruff that has fallen into the cleavage of a very beautiful, very old motion picture star. And this would be the Beatles song that I insist on playing."

Guitars churn. John Lennon wails about wanting to die, and one marvels at the strangeness of that non sequitur. For the nth time this summer, there is no getting around the unlikelihood of what is happening: Gibby Haynes has been allowed access to the airwaves. The same Gibby Haynes, who, as the lead singer of Austin's Butthole Surfers, helped define the phrase "alternative rock" a good decade before radio consultants ever dreamed there was an alternative to Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. For roughly four hours a night during the work week, the powers that be at KROX let a notorious iconoclast, best known for belting absurdist nightmare rock against a backdrop of autopsy footage, disrupt their station's "alternative rock" lockstep. They deserve some credit for this; Haynes fills the air with verbal acrobatics, an over-arching assault on seriousness, and music of little interest to industry payola masters. Perhaps not too much credit, though, because he's the one truly vivid air personality they've got. A strong selling point for a spanking new station.

More curious still, it's unclear whether or how long Haynes will stay at his post: He's been known to rave on air about how disgusted he is with the whole situation, vowing to jump ship unless things improved in a hurry. Apparently, Haynes feels used like a sideshow attraction who's expected to get by on a few peanuts. Reached by phone the next day, Haynes was noncommittal about his plans. He did say that he'd prefer doing a morning show, and would like a schedule that allowed him more time for planning comic effects that take fuller advantage of radio's technical capabilities. KROX would no doubt press on without him if he leaves, but it's local listeners who would lose out, because Gibby-as-deejay is as devoted to surprise as Gibby-as-shamanistic-singer, and surprise of any kind on contemporary rock radio is itself surprising. Listen to him travesty the call-in format:

Hello, you're on the X.

[female voice] Could you play Tripping Daisy?

No. Hello, you're on the X.

[male voice] Hey, dude...

Hello, you're on the X.

[female voice] Hi. [giggles] Would you go out with me?

Sure. Where do you wanna go? What would you like to do?

Well... [giggles]...

Hello, you're on the X.

[female voice] Could you play something by Weezer? Please?

I will if you can tell me why you like Weezer. What is it that you like about Weezer?


Hello, you're on the X.

[female voice] How are you?

I have no choice. What's your name?

And so on. While those examples are freely adapted from several different nights, you can see how Haynes uses the hang-up button like a trapdoor, searching, often in vain, for snappy repartee, and occasionally even asking his callers to think. Sometimes it sounds like a generational comedy, as if painfully inarticulate children are seeking favor from a punk father figure in his late thirties who exhales subtext even when he's merely filling time. Lowering the volume on Flipper's "Sex Bomb" one night, he critiques standard radio practice: "Here we see how a powerful rock band is reduced to an inane musical bed for a radio announcer."

Whether indulging himself with penis puns or tossing out great verbal riffs that approach glossolalia, Haynes illustrates the dullness of orthodox "alternative rock" - the songs that strive for importance and achieve vainglory, the deejays who are younger versions of typical FM hacks. Market analysis ruined radio so long ago that at least two generations of listeners have no idea how wild it can be. The Firesign Theatre and the hipster comics of the bebop era are Haynes' familiars, and he single-handedly restores some of the medium's former luster when he creates the feeling that anything can happen next.

On the short-lived KROX morning show he did early this summer with Robbie Jacks (a local actor/singer/writer and longtime friend), Haynes once erupted after a playing of that ubiquitous Hootie & the Blowfish hit: "Did he really just sing, `I'm like a baby/Even the dolphin makes me cry?' What unbelievable crap!" On the evening show, he bundles the alternative chart-toppers he's required to play into sets and introduces them as "puke chunks." The rest of the time he skips around a lot, spinning old funk tunes, rap, current punk, unclassifiable oddities, and a platoon of favorites that are ritually played almost every night, including the aforementioned "Sex Bomb," Brian Eno's "Baby's on Fire," the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks," and the Mekons' glorious "Millionaire." The other night he introduced "a lousy old Velvet Underground song" ("There She Goes") and asked listeners to run around naked and semi-aroused with tinfoil on their heads, screaming, "Andy! Andy!" At last, a real alternative to radio as usual.

Like any other self-respecting late 20th-century artist, Haynes has a concealed project. His radio debut follows several years of careening from one episode to another in a saga of extravagant self-destruction, often involving the usual controlled substances. Friends suggest that holding this job is his way of pulling back from the brink and cleaning up. One reason he reportedly would prefer a morning shift has to do with the temptations that arise when he gets off work at two in the morning, all wound up from four hours of pithy palaver. That, and the fact that his father played "Mr. Peppermint" on morning television in Dallas while he was growing up.

When Gibby Haynes says, "I'm so depressed," there is real feeling beneath the rich, sardonic vocal timbre. Still and all, he seems to realize that while it's often painful and horrible, life is never serious. The same goes for rehabilitation. n

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