How an unexpected gift kicked off a lifelong love affair with the Butthole Surfers’ double-drum attack
Once, out of the blue, a friend of mine offered to give me all of his Butthole Surfers albums. It seemed weird at the time. I don’t recall the reason he gave for wanting to get rid of them, but you don’t have to ask me that kind of thing twice.
Around that time, I’d moved in with my girlfriend, who brought some great albums with her to our small but sunny second-floor apartment in Garfield, New Jersey. As we set up our living room shelves, she said she wanted to mix her LPs in with mine. It seemed weird at the time, though I didn’t let on what I was thinking. What, am I going to start an argument on our first day living together?
And it worked out in the end. When we broke up nine months later, she moved out in such haste that she left her LPs behind. Some of them had been owned by an earlier boyfriend of hers, but he’d been forced to part with them by some rehab group he’d joined. They insisted that if a person really wanted to get straight, they had to give up everything from their previous existence — books…records…anything that was associated with the unhealthy lifestyle they were trying to get away from. “So, you used to get high with your friends while listening to ‘Dazed and Confused,’ didja? Hand over the Led Zep I, pal!” I don’t mean to sound flip — substance abuse can be a very bad thing indeed — but this just seemed needlessly cruel to me. I remember thinking, God forbid I ever wind up in a predicament like that, I’m going to cling to my records like a liferaft. I still think of this poor guy every time I put on his old copy of Hot Tuna’s Burgers.
But back to my Butthole Surfers stash. This happened on June 17, 1994. Even if you have a lousy memory like me, it’s still an easy date to remember, or at least to look up. See, earlier that night we’d been watching the NBA finals when suddenly the station cut away from the game to broadcast the unlikely scene of a white Ford Bronco being slowly pursued by police cars down an L.A. highway. Inside was none other than O.J. Simpson. The former football star’s head had kind of exploded since he stabbed his ex-wife and a friend of hers to death a few days before. Now apparently O.J. wanted to make this our problem as well. The whole thing seemed super weird at the time. It still seems super weird. Weirder than giving a bunch of records away for dubious reasons, anyway.
The Butthole Surfers are weird, but good-weird. Oh, by the way, the reason I’m talking about them tonight is because I just learned that it was on this day* in 1988 that a riot was started by some British fans who couldn’t get into a sold-out show at London’s Mean Fiddler. I love a good riot anniversary story.
For much of the band’s early career they employed two drummers in a unique and powerful way. “Tribal,” “trancy” — these words have been terribly overused in music journalism, but they do get you in the ballpark in terms of the effect that King Coffee and Teresa Nervosa had on the band’s cinematic, psychedelic gutter punk, particularly onstage. Usually playing standing up, the brother-and-sister drum duo (not really, but it made for good copy) did not, as some have suggested, always play identical parts, as in drum corps, nor did they always play precisely defined interlocking parts, like in a traditional percussion section. Rather, they played somewhere in between those approaches, sometimes striking similar targets together, sometimes not. If occasionally you could detect a flam between them, it somehow just added to the thickness of their sound without derailing it. And while clinical precision wasn’t the name of the game with the early Buttholes, hypnotism was, surrealism was, humor was, even subtlety was. Especially when experiencing the band live, with Gibby Haynes’ nightmare vocal effects, Paul Leary’s searing guitar lines, and the relentless video projections and disorienting strobe lights, you could absolutely be transported. This was shaggy but powerful stuff, and those British fans who were lucky enough to score tickets thirty-three years ago no doubt got everything they’d hoped for and more.
There are a couple vintage Butthole Surfer videos on Youtube if you want to get a taste of what I’ve been talking about here, but I’d actually recommend losing yourself in their recordings first, either with the headphones on or through your stereo speakers, loudly. Then go ahead and check out their live thing online — and while you’re there, be sure to watch Teresa Nervosa’s scene in Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. That’s her on the movie poster, and she’s really funny.
* This article was begun on February 11 but completed and posted on the 12th.