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Live in 1991 and coming from my son's room in 2002.

Butthole Surfers

I have a pretty cool two-room office suite (although I am expected to move my office to our new house – we move this weekend), and when my son comes home from school he “works” (homework, practice his bass, listen to loud music, fart around on his computer) in the other room of my office.

Today when he came home he played the Butthole Surfers, which was really cosmic because he doesn’t ususally play the Butthole Surfers, and eleven years ago TO THE DAY I attended and reviewed one of the strangest concerts of my life by, you guessed it, the Butthole Surfers.

    1991

    I wade into the exotic human aquarium that is a Butthole Surfer show amongst the unmistakable cries of a profoundly wounded woodland creature. Or perhaps it is the opening act.

    I am concerned about the proper reading of the name “Butthole Surfers.” Perhaps the name reflects the perjorative sense of “butthole,” i.e.: one who surfs but is unkind to others. Other images are more disconcerting still. This is a name meant to confront and to unsettle. “Butthole Surfers” has frightened off radio airplay and prohibited reference to the group in family publications [I subsequently learned that “butthole surfer” is an old cross-country running term for when you slip and fall on very wet grass and go “butthole surfing,” especially down a hill].

    The taboo name challenges and ridicules a system implemented through the written and spoken word. Many primitive societies attach existential weight to the names of things. To borrow an animal’s name is to borrow its essence. A name inexpressible in the mass media generates the show biz equivalent of invisibility.

    The Butthole Surfers have grown steadily in popularity and now stand perched upon the threshold of visibility. This threshold is critical because once the band crosses the line, it must justify its vision to the world at large and not merely preach to the converted.

    These ruminations are chased from my mind like dustballs when the band takes the stage to the deafening approval of their awaiting minions. Suddenly, I apprehend the obvious. The Butthole Surfers are a cult. A rock group-as-cult generates an entirely different set of responses and expectations than does a rock group-as-entertainment. The cult band is selling a world view, not songs. To the cult fan, the enveloping membrane of a world view supersedes the importance of the actual music. In this case, the fans view the world through butt-colored glasses.

    The Surfers are the post-punk Grateful Dead. The Dead’s music and world view arose out of bluegrass/psychedelic seeds nurtured in the soil of the Summer of Love which bore a fruit psychologically tasting of Jung’s collective unconscious in which individuals are essentially loveable nodes on a great collective brain.

    The Surfer’s music and world view arose out of punk/psychedelic seeds nurtured in the soil of the Winter of Nihilism which bore a fruit psychologically tasting of Sartre’s existentialism in which individuals are essentially isolated lumps of deteriorating flesh in a vast disconnected wasteland. Bummer, dude.

    Existentialism is a 20th century philosophy that asserts the fundamental meaninglessness of life and our abject aloneness. Man has no hope for salvation, only a chance for dignity, gained by absurdly carrying on in the face of the yawning maw of the meaningless abyss. Grafting the social gadfly role onto the existential philosophy creates a hopeless pain in the ass. The Butthole Surfers present this grim credo with remarkable enthusiasm, which reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll is more fun than philosophy.

    The converted rush the stage to be nearer to their avatars. The Surfer’s performance consists mainly of the bass player Jeff Pinkus and guitar player Paul Leary thrashing away at their respective instruments, while the drummer King Coffey holds it all together with a laconic, yet rock-solid beat – a post-punk Charlie Watts. The lead singer, the tall, portly, disheveled Gibby Haynes, faces stage right and fiddles with dials and knobs as he sings into a megaphone words of distorted but portentous weight. He occasionally noodles on the guitar.

    A fan seated near I observes, “Gibby must be edging out on acid ’cause he doesn’t want to deal with us tonight.” This statement nearly escalates to internecine warfare as his companion counters with, “It’s not that he doesn’t want to deal with us, buttface. It’s that he is dealing with us through the equipment. He is pouring his soul into the knobs and dials and spraying it over us through the speakers.” Deep thinkers, these Buttheads.

    Behind the writhing, moaning, shouting, thrashing and pummeling band are two large video screens. On the right screen are a variety of cheesy and/or violent scenes from Hollywood movies are displayed. The left screen offers an endless procession of graphic medical instructional films, highlighted by a juicy breast reconstruction and climaxed with a full half-hour of V.D. victims. A half-hour of infected pudenda is probably enough for all but the serious aficionado. As the infection runs its course, someone shouts, “Play it again, Dick.”

    Next there is some juxtapositioning of sexual and military imagery, suggesting an answer as to why the Gulf War was such a satisfying experience. As the show reaches a climax, the screens are rolled up to reveal a battery of equatorially bright lights which assault the retina as the videos have assaulted the sensibility. The Surfers feel compelled to assault their audience because underneath it all the Surfers want to communicate. In the late 20th century assault is the most direct form of communication. This is why adherents leave the show with beatific expressions on their faces.

    Conversely, it is conceiveable that the Surfers just enjoy drenching themselves in an acid rain of squalor and degeneracy, and that their disciples are self-loathing masochists. I resolves to see the band a few more times before he decides for sure.

1991 was a strange time for the Surfers, as they were oozing into the mainstream via the release of their first major label release, Pioughd, which contained the semi-hit “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” The emergence of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” on the radio forced the modification of the band’s name to “B.H. Surfers.” Hard to believe things were that different just 11 years ago. I remember my mother heard me on the radio say “Butthole Surfers” around that time (no “B.H. Surfers” for me, dammit) and about popped an organ. I doubt she’d even notice now.

The band put out two more absolute classics in the ’90s: Independent Worm Saloon and Electriclarryland, by which time they were underground and dangerous no more. The group had become SO mainstream by last year that freaking DISNEY, in the form of Hollywood Records, put out their Weird Revolution album, which I have to admit I have never even heard although my son has it. I’ll get around to it one of these days.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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