Let Them Bring You Brown
Butthole Surfers' Greatest Shits
Sun, 7:30–8:30 pm,
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You're probably thinking, WTF—Butthole Surfers at Bumbershoot? Actually, though, the idea is so absurd, it makes a kind of perverse sense. Maybe in 2011, Butthole Surfers count as family entertainment. Sure, these Texas malcontents have mellowed over the years; if they hadn't, they'd probably be pushing up daisies now. Instead, they've gone on to score hit records, play Lollapalooza, get songs on Beavis and Butt-Head, record with Led Zep's John Paul Jones, and form a group with Johnny Depp called P. (Ignore the fact that the Surfers' own label is called Latino Bugger Veil. Your kids don't need to know that.)
But, from their 1981 beginning through 1988's Hairway to Steven, Butthole Surfers carved one of the more bizarre paths through the American rock underground. Their live shows during that stretch were more wildly psychedelic than their records—which were plenty out there to begin with. The six-feet-four Gibby Haynes was prone to stripping, barking through a bullhorn, and setting King Coffey's cymbals and his own hand on fire. A young, mostly nude woman named Kathleen Lynch danced center stage with pathos and out of time with the music. Everyone in the band's eyes seemed to be rolling around in their sockets like roulette balls. Terrifying and ludicrous images flickered on the screen behind the group, as cautionary drivers' training films and graphic footage of medical treatments alternated with Charlie's Angels episodes and other cheesy ephemera.
If you witnessed the Surfers during the 1980s, you would've been shocked to see their Seattle comeback gig at Showbox at the Market last year. The members—including guitarist Paul Leary and bassist Jeff Pinkus—looked all cleaned up as they ran through many of their best songs with businesslike efficiency. They've become a well-oiled nostalgia machine. Still, it was better than it had a right to be at this late date—so what if they drank Vitaminwater after the show instead of Everclear?
Let's hope the Surfers deign to play any or all of the following killer joints at Bumbershoot, which represent some of the most fucked-up and inspired shit in American rock. (Narrowing the list to 13 tracks was harder than toilet training.)
"Something": Almost a twisted sort of rap song, this is the Surfers' funkiest piece ever (sorry, "Pepper"). Leary established here that he's one of America's most synapse-sizzling psych-rock guitarists with a stunning array of six-string ululations and snarls.
"The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave": Catastrophic bursts of cacophony mark the ultimate moshing soundtrack, interspersed with risible pronouncements like "There's a time to shit and a time for God/The last shit I took was pretty fuckin' odd" and "There's a time to live and a time to die/I smoke Elvis Presley's toenails when I wanna get high." Makes all other punk sound hopelessly humorless and staid.
"Lady Sniff": The definitive Butthole Surfers cut, this exemplifies the group's grotesqueness and crudity. It moves like an obese hobo while Haynes belches, spits, farts, vomits, and bellows like the most uncouth fucker in the world. The guitar sparks with ornery, coiled tension, emitting a blues under duress.
"Cherub": One of the most demonic and disorienting works in the Surfers' canon, "Cherub" roils and cackles like mad and its guitars ululate like tricked-out theremins, coming at you in waves of psilocybin-enhanced intensity, while the bass nods along with Zen calm. It's their most psychedelic moment—which is saying a foaming mouthful.
"Gary Floyd": The most conventional rocker in Butthole Surfers' '80s oeuvre, "Gary Floyd" evokes Moby Grape's rip-roarin' country stormer "Hey Grandma." Leary tears off an absolutely fried, rococo solo that sounds like an articulate, ascending squeal. This one always gets the crowd frothing.
"Moving to Florida": The funniest blues parody ever, this endlessly quotable spoof kicks like a cantankerous mule. Pondering all the outrageous things he's going to do once he gets to the Sunshine State, Haynes jibbers like John Lee Hooker with a mouth full of mashed potatoes. Two immortal lines among many: "I'm gonna grind me a White Castle slider out of India's sacred cow" and "I'm gonna have to potty train the Chairman Mao."
"Creep in the Cellar": Paraphrases Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," but takes it to weirder realms via Haynes's gloomy piano motif and a delirium-tremens'd, backward violin part.
"Whirling Hall of Knives": Fantastic, woozy slice of psychedelia that reveals a subtler side to the Surfers. It proves that they could write emotionally affecting songs without a trace of snark or irreverence.
"Sweet Loaf": A galumphing homage to Black Sabbath's pot anthem "Sweet Leaf." The Surfers used to do a Rockettes-like dancing routine while playing this, but with a riff that magnificently potent, no high kicks are necessary; it's still guaranteed to slay crowds.
"22 Going on 23": Grim sludge rock over a woman recounting her psychological traumas to a radio shrink. At the end, the track ascends to an exalted level, thanks to Leary's wailing ax lament, as majestic as Jeff Beck's on "Beck's Bolero."
"John E. Smoke": A grandiose parody of rococo, rambling folk à la Van Morrison, this is a tall-ass tale told with hilarious hyperbole by Haynes.
"P.S.Y.": A seemingly sincere psych-rock jam that genuinely wants to take you higher, just like any other self-respecting, bong-hitting longhairs would want to (e.g., Monster Magnet, Kyuss, etc.), the 12-minute "P.S.Y." has three distinct parts and all of them righteously elevate your mind.
"The Hurdy Gurdy Man": The Surfers treat Donovan's classic 1968 sike-folk hit even more seriously than the British troubadour did, thereby increasing the mockery. Leary really lets loose with the filigreed fuzz tones to mimic the original's tamboura part while Haynes slathers on the vocal effects to create an exaggeratedly tremulous delivery, again probably to poke fun at Donovan, who likely cried all the way to the bank.