That Time I Took LSD and Got Kicked in the Head at a Butthole Surfers Show

A personal recounting of the psycho-pharmacological experience that was a 1987 Butthole Surfers show.

BUTTHOLES2

The Butthole Surfers

When people asked me as a teenager what I wanted to do when I grew up I, at some point developed a stock answer. “I’d like to be one of three things,” I’d say. “A Butthole Surfer, A Beastie Boy or a Pogue.”

Well, it’s 25 plus years later and I have to admit, that was a pretty solid answer. I give my younger self credit for aiming high.

Each of those 3 bands did more than just make great music. They offered a distinct worldview, a context with which one could filter life.

We all know a Beastie Boy is a smart mouth New York rapper and a Pogue, distinct from the word’s historical definition, is a punk steeped in Irish underdog musical tradition and political status. Oh, and a Pogue likes to drink.

But what the hell is a Butthole Surfer? I’ll venture that it’s someone that enjoys a vaguely melodic, psychedelic and hard drug induced freak-out orgy/experience. Nor is that person afraid to evoke Satan’s name in vain. Additionally they might have fixation with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Manson family and traditional Texan values as well. I’m not exactly sure. One thing I am sure of is that a Butthole concert was complete unhinged insanity, just totally fucking nuts.

horrible_cover

The truly disturbing image the band chose to represent itself on its first single.

American hardcore in the late 80’s was becoming regimented. The core product was still good and there were undoubtedly lots of different flavors, but on the whole things were beginning to feel a bit stale, particularly in Boston where I was growing up. It had been a while since the innovations of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag and other first wave American hardcore. On the East Coast, the DC, NY and Boston hardcore scenes were locked in a march towards macho posturing. Things were sounding more like angry military marching music than punk rock. I’m talking about bands like Token Entry, Dag Nasty, Cro-Mags, and Slapshot. They were producing fast, angry and not particularly approachable hardcore. Being unapproachable was, of course, the point of it all, but hanging with skinheads and getting beat up in the pit wasn’t all that appealing to me.

What was a glue-huffing, beer swilling, psychedelic drug consuming skate rat that loved punk rock like myself left to do? I turned to England for the most part and listened to bands like The Fall, but then I found another outlet on which to focus my nihilist art rock tendencies in a bunch of Texas-bred acid freaks. Somehow I came to be in possession of the Butthole Surfer’s “Locust Abortion Technician” record.

With that fateful first line, the weird spoken voice that emerges from the amniotic background in the song “Sweat Loaf:”

Well son, a funny thing about regret is, that 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, you can be sure and tell her… SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!

 With the mention of Satan I was in. I was a Butthole enthusiast.

Locust Abortion Technician is a hard rock record. And weird. It also had fantastically freaky cover art. It’s punk, but not hardcore. It was totally original and twisted shit and exactly what I was looking for.

And then I went to see them. I was 16 years old. It was a Sunday afternoon all ages show at Boston’s Channel club in 1987. In keeping with my passions at the time I took LSD.

The Buttholes began by flooding the stage with smoke, industrial strength-you-can’t-see-shit smoke. And then incredibly loud and weird digital feedback began, guitar noise and bizarre noise samples and tribal percussion emerged before we were able to see anyone on stage. Eventually a song emerged from the cacophony and the smoke drifted away. The band was revealed. They looked like the Manson family, a bunch of dirty looking longhaired freaks! They were projecting film loops of disturbing shit behind themselves, (I checked Wikipedia to verify my memory) stuff like car accidents, nuclear explosions, meat processing, spiders and scorpions stalking prey, gory drivers ed films and penis reconstruction surgery. There were all sorts of lights and at least 7 people on stage, probably more. I can’t tell you the configuration beyond Gibby Hanes – the Charles Manson-esque front man who stood center stage – and two drummers in back. Topless dancers gyrated along with the music.

And it was profoundly loud, like grip your ears and attempt to cower-from-the-PA-loud. The crowd went nuts slam dancing. The only band I can recall being louder was Dinasaur Jr. which is and was a physically painful experience without earplugs.

There was fire too, including Gibby’s trademark upside down cymbal doused in lighter fluid fire. And lasers. Gibby screamed through a bullhorn and danced around in his saggy old tighty-whitey underwear. I found the underwear routine shocking. I didn’t realize that was a trademark move for him. The most memorable thing about the whole experience though was the wall of incredibly bright strobe lights backlighting the band. The strobes were pointed at the audience and they were really powerful, really bright. I distinctly remember being off my nut, if not peaking then full-on tripping and the strobes just wouldn’t quit. I couldn’t see anything else. It was completely insane! Being shoved around in the pit while simultaneously hypnotized by the strobe lights sent me someplace else. I floated above the crowd raised by the aural cacophony and the epileptic fit inducing lights.

This clip below in no way does the experience justice – it was more immersive than what you see here, but it comes from around the same time period. The light show was much more powerful in person, especially when you are on acid. The sound in this video is thin as well.

 

Seeing punk shows at the Channel was particularly dangerous because the pit was surrounded by a waist high bannister/bar thingy. It made a corral out of the slam dancing pit. It wasn’t easy to escape it once you were in it. Normally at a show you only have to look for people stage diving from in front but because of this railing, people could jump from the sides and even from behind you. It was a real problem.

At some point during the mayhem that was that show somebody, somebody wearing heavy shoes or boots dove onto the crowd from behind. I got full-on kicked in the back of the head. I was knocked out for a few seconds and was trampled in the pit until somebody finally dragged me out. I came to, sitting on the disgustingly dirty and sticky floor. I crawled off to the far reaches of the club and sat out the rest of the show. I remember being really freaked out by all the blood coming from my scalp. I thought I would need stitches but the bleeding stopped before I left the club. Bleeding while tripping is rarely a good combination.

I can’t end this essay without mentioning the fantastic 10-minute super-8 movie made in 1988 by Alex Winter (aka Bill of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), called Bar-B-Que Movie. This little gem does an amazing job of distilling the band’s horrifyingly comic aesthetic. Watch it if you dare. It stands up as a really unique milestone in American counter-culture.

In the 90’s I saw the Buttholes again at a much larger outdoor venue. Their profile had risen considerably by that time, along with that of many other “alternative” acts (a label that makes no sense to me to this day). The concert was still wild. It was still high energy. The sound and musicianship had gotten better. But despite the markedly improved aesthetic, it just wasn’t the same. They had become professionals. In their way, the band had begun punching the clock. They would even, improbably to my mind, go on to score a #1 hit on the Billboard modern rock chart in 1996.

Far be it from me to accuse anyone of being a sell-out. The times had caught up with the band. Not the other way around. And I had changed as well. Sitting midway back in the enormous crowd I watched as kids toward the front attempted to get a mosh-pit started. The venue’s seats were bolted to the floor however and the pit couldn’t really get going. I couldn’t help but play the role of a dispassionate, albeit wizened 20-something onlooker. In the voice of Grandpa Simpson I said to myself, “Why just look at these silly kids trying to do a slam-dance! Back in my day, we did a proper slam-dance!” Watching the absurdity of that scene I had a realization: you can’t always watch a Buttholes show while crawling around on the beer and piss covered floor at a punk club, tripping your ass off and bleeding from a head wound.

And there’s actually nothing wrong with that. Vive la Butthole Surfers!

4 comments

  1. bud from boston

    man, that sweat loaf line about regret has been bouncing around in my head for-fucking-ever!
    who was that band? now i know and go back and listen again.
    also, i went to the channel quite a few times a little before your time,
    usually winning tickets from radio stations while i worked the nightshift.

    so, thanks.
    now i´ll browse a bit and start the relistening.
    bud out

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