I began writing about rock’n’roll and pop culture when I was a teenager in the mid-1970’s. I went out every night and wrote constantly for any publication that would have me, from mainstream magazines and papers to underground fanzines, including my own. I had no idea my writing career would span over four decades. I was sort of unique in that I never considered myself a “critic" - I just wrote about what I liked, and, breaking the rules of journalism, almost always wrote in first person.
Often, I knew the people that I was writing about quite well...sometimes, I was actually sleeping with them. This gave rise to debates among many of my peers and editors, and they’d accuse me of lacking objectivity...but that was the whole point. My stance was that I had no desire to be objective, I only wanted to write about I what I loved: talented people who were fun and creative. For this reason, my stories and interviews were frequently billed as “an exclusive”; my subjects let their guard down, knowing they could trust me and that the story wouldn't be boring. This story appeared in the July 1996 issue of Larry Flint’s RIP Magazine... and was definitely one of the most hilarious interviews I'd ever done.
* * * *
The Capitol Records Tower, a longtime Hollywood landmark, looms majestically over central Hollywood. Inside, the chaos of the surrounding neighborhood- and Hollywood Boulevard specifically- is completely lost. Gold and platinum records line the walls. Burgundy leather office furniture nestles among potted palms and ficus trees, and efficient-looking, conservatively trendy employees chat on the phone under framed posters of Everclear’s Sparkle and Fade. The Beatles’ "Penny Lane" is the softly piped-in muzak-of-choice, and larger-than life black-and-white portraits of Capitol greats like Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole gaze down from their expensively-matted, richly-polished frames.
It seems like an unlikely place to interview the Butthole Surfers, but then, it seemed like a hugely unlikely merger when the Surfers signed with Capitol back in 1991. The union took, however, and the resulting Independent Worm Saloon (produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) was every bit as feedback-laden, scary, hideously twisted and loud as all the indie Butthole releases prior to it. For the longtime monarchs of the DIY underground scene, signing to Capitol didn’t mean losing an iota of "credibility," though it might have for a less well-established band.
The Butthole Surfers have been together since 1977 when front man(iac) Gibby Haynes and guitarist/producer Paul Leary met in college in San Antonio, Texas. After wreaking havoc for a few years and deciding that they really didn’t want to be stockbrokers or accountants (no kidding- the two met in business school!) they formed a band in 1981. They played under various monikers including the Ashtray Baby Heads, Vodka Family Winstons and Nine Foot Worm Makes Own Food. Pretty soon, they were booked under the name the Bleeding Skulls, but were announced incorrectly as the Butthole Surfers. It stuck, and what started as a lark soon turned into a full-time career.
That career – full of onstage mayhem, out-of-control tours, busted engines, acid-drenched after-show parties and non-stop gigs, as well as twelve releases – has now lasted fifteen years, during which time the band has become a living legend. Known for their unhinged antics and Dada-esque musical hybrid (everything from heavy metal to folksy parodies, with tons of feedback, weird vocal effects, etc.), the Butthole Surfers have either terrified or influenced nearly every band you could think of and have gone from doing shitty van tours where they slept on the floor of strangers’ houses to Lollapalooza and becoming, at least in alternative music circles, a household name. Think "Butthole Surfers" and you can’t help but think of craziness. That’s why the quietly corporate Capitol offices seem like an incongruous place to conducting this interview. But Leary and Haynes, along with stalwart drummer King Coffey, are in town to promote their latest CD, Electriclarryland.
Passing a framed copy of Jackie Gleason’s Lonesome Echo record (complete with cover art by Salvador Dali) and a huge display of Bozo The Clown’s Nursery Rhymes and Jungle Jingles, featuring "My Mule Charley" and Little Toot The Tugboat’s "Lost In The Fog," the concept of the Butthole Surfers being signed to Capitol doesn’t seem that far-fetched after all! A publicity assistant leads me down a hallway and gestures towards an unmarked door, dismissing me with a cheerful, "The band’s in there."
As the door swings open, I’m simultaneously choked by cigar-smoke and deafened by the top-volume strains of the Steve Miller Band doing "The Joker." Haynes is playing deejay, and looking every inch the part, with weary bloodshot eyes and a long-sleeve, black Monster Magnet T-shirt; while Leary sedately puffs away on a huge stogie. Coffey is nestled into a deep wing chair, guzzling Snapple lemonade. They all look kind of tired or maybe road-worn, and I wonder aloud if they’ve had a hard day of interviews, it being rather late in the day. They assure me that this is their first, and that they spent the day hanging out with "Erik Estrada," whom they met through "EltonJonBoyGeorgeMichaelJacksonBrowne."
It takes a moment, but then I realize that they’ve probably been smoking something other than cigars – and why shouldn’t they be? They have an image to uphold!
"Or live down to," Leary nods.
"We have an image to die for!" Haynes corrects him.
After a few hot topics are discussed – the Ebola virus, Tex-Mex star Selena, alligators, cocaine booger jokes, Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, rumors that Tanya Tucker was spotted helping Ministry unload equipment at some hotel while their tour buses were parked together, and imitations of Sting singing the Police’s hit Roxanne – the Buttholes begin to discuss their illustrious career.
"You know, over the past 15 years, things have changed so much," says Leary,
"Every day things are getting better. It's hard for us to associate us now with us back then. Some people thought it was strange when we signed to Capitol, but when I signed the dotted line, it didn't make my shit smell any better, know what I mean?"
"I think it's a matter of all the record execs starting to be our age. Nine or ten years into the band, the people who were coming to our shows started to turn up in the upper levels of the record companies. That was when Jane's Addiction and the Chili Peppers started to hit, then it was only a matter of time," Haynes theorizes.
"Poor Hüsker Du!" laments Coffey, "They were too early!"
"What I'm wondering," Leary begins, "Is when do we get another Devo? I guess things haven't stiffened up enough yet…"
He takes a reflective puff of his cigar and then adds, "Pearl Jam seems to be working on it, though!" Everyone laughs, and Haynes says, "I'll tell you what's weird - we're now playing for our first wave of fans' kids!"
"I think that the Butthole Surfers have always had the same kind of appeal that the Dead Kennedys did," King muses, "People just have to hear our name - even if they haven't heard of us - and they want to go to a 'wild' rock 'n' roll show, like a big punk-rock gig, so they come and see us. So actually, nothing's changed at all! We're still playing to 13-year olds!"
"Naw," Haynes cuts in, "That'd be Green Day, King!"
As the band argues animatedly over whether or not Billie "Jack Shaver" (Billie Joe Armstrong" is scary (and even to have Haynes debating that about you is an honor in itself), the conversation turns to sage advice the Butthole crew would give to the members of Green Day.
"Never, ever EVER look at the audience," Haynes recommends helpfully, "It will freak you right out!"
"What goes through my mind on stage is sheer terror," Coffey says with a feeble grin, "Just play the drums and get the fuck out! But then, the next day, it starts all over again - day after day…"
Leary shakes his head in horror. "Year after year," he says sadly.
"And then," Gibby says somberly. "The day will come when some girl you don’t even know – her parents will want to come into your dressing room and hang out!"
He shudders in dread and disgust.
Though it’s hard to pull actual touring-hell anecdotes from their mouths, please be advised that the Surfers have actually seen… wait, let’s put it this way: in their entire lives, some people don’t see the complete insanity that this band has seen – and generates – both onstage and off – in merely a couple of weeks’ time. I can remember being at Butthole gigs in New York and Los Angeles over the years where strobes were flashing, naked girls covered in finger paint with tinfoil over their teen writhed onstage, and ninety percent of the patrons in the club were flying on various combinations of hallucinogens and alcohol. Maybe it’s just that there aren’t enough brain cells left for the band members to recall any particularly frightening episodes, although Coffey does have one fond memory:
"One time, there were these Christian protesters at our show in Kansas City," he recalls, "And they were all carrying signs and stuff. I went outside and spoke to them. They didn’t like what we stood for; they didn’t like our name; they though we were contributing to declining morals of our society. These people had no idea who I was, but I had to agree with them! So I stood out there and protested along with them for a while, then went in and played."
"I bet that was fun, harassing those chubby little college girls," Haynes says.
Speaking of harassment, the name of the new CD had to be changed. You know it only as Electriclarryland, but it was originally going to be called Oklahoma!, same as the famous musical comedy which starred Shirley Jones in her pre-Partridge Family days.
"Some meek soul here at the record company who was afraid and made us change the name," Leary laments,
"I would’ve loved to have been sued by Rogers and Hammerstein!"
Although they began speaking freely about Diet Coke commercials, how everyone used to think Red Skelton’s name was "Red Skeleton," professional figure skaters in general and Brian Boitano in particular, they were a little reluctant to discuss the new CD, so I will.
A quintessential Buttholes masterpiece, it features the requisite screeching feedback and howling from the opening track of "Birds" right on through to the ending of "Space." There are some killer moments on this disc, which was recorded last fall with Steve Thompson (Soundgarden, Metallica, Anthrax, etc.) at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. The band also recorded and mixed a few songs, with Leary producing, at Arlyn Studio in Austin, Texas. Though the Surfers don’t have a bassist right now, Andrew Weiss of Ween filled in on the CD. The disc runs the gamut of styling, from the Cramps-like Cough Syrup, to the roar of Ah Ha. A personal favorite of mine is the tender ballad, Jingle Of A Dog’s Collar, which features Haynes getting sappy – like one of those sickening solo records recorded by William "Captain Kirk" Shatner in the ‘70s – going, "What do they know about love, my friend?" over and over.
As far as touring goes, they are planning on going out, but don’t have a bassist yet. "We’ll probably just pick up different players in different towns along the way, teach him the songs, push him out onstage and then fire him," Haynes says, ever practical.
"Remember when my little nephew Johnnie played with us?" asks Leary,
"He was like, 12 or 13, and he played with us at one of the Lollapalooza shows. He was all excited because he met Ice-T, and they posed for pictures with a couple of Ice-T’s hot bitches, and Ice-T put Johnnie’s hand on one of the girls’ butts!"
"Lollapalooza," sighs Coffey. "Now that was a cakewalk! We’d do our song and dance for 30 minutes, then they’d pull us offstage and we’d have the rest of the day to fuck off off and inebriate ourselves!"
"Yep, we had a little too much freedom!" laughs Leary, although that amount of free time doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, there’s always something to do.
We adjourn to the roof of the Capitol Tower, so the guys can fire up substances other than cigars, and talk about side projects. Leary, ever the studio whiz, produced the Meat Puppets’ No Joke and the Supersucker’s Sacrilicious while the Buttholes were on a break, and, of course Haynes fronts the infamous P, which features Johnny Depp on guitar, and unfortunately was the act performing at the Viper Room the night River Phoenix died. Haynes was in fine form, with magic marker scrawls all over his bare torso, screaming about bourbon. Though P has no current tour plans, Haynes says,
"We’ll probably record again."
Coffey meanwhile claims that his side project is selling Tupperware.
"It’s so great," he enthuses, shaking his head in wonder, "It’s really good stuff. Y’know, I was thinking of selling Mary Kay Cosmetics, but they have a $100 start-up fee for their introductory kit… and Tupperware just fronts it to you!"
"What I really want to do," says Haynes, as we head back inside to the cigar smoke-filled room,
"Is produce an album of whistling songs – all the greatest hits, like Bridge On The River Kwai, the themes from Mayberry RFD and Hogan’s Heroes… You could even do whistling versions of The Godfather and Lassie! But I’d have to get a short little Jewish or Italian girl playing really bad acoustic guitar…and she’d have to wear a little tam on her head, too, because that’d be kinda folky, but also kind of bohemian…"
His eyes get a faraway gleam, but his thoughts are interrupted by babble on everything from Emilio Estevez to Indian tribes, gymnast Mary Lou Retton (Haynes thinks she reminds him of a Contac cold pill) to Chinese anthropologists, and a story about the time one of the members of the Austin band The Hickoids thought a girl’s stereo was a urinal and peed on it.
"So," Haynes says, longingly fingering the Steve Miller CD, "Do you think this is gonna be a good story?"
"Of course," I reply.
"Good," he says approvingly. "If you need any more material, just say whatever you want, okay? In fact, just go ahead and lie about everything!"
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Journalista!, scheduled for publication in late 2015 by Punk Hostage Press. For more info on my writing-and everything else I do- please visit: