Making Sense of the Butthole Surfers

artwork by Chad Essley

 

Unlikely Texas music historian Ben Graham talks San Antonio acid, 1960s psychedelic rock and writing Scatological Alchemy, his new book about the Butthole Surfers

By Michael Pinchera

In May 2015, Brighton, England-based author Ben Graham visited Texas for the first time. The impetus for the trip was to see the 13th Floor Elevators’ 50th anniversary reunion show at the Levitation festival in Austin — the first time in decades all living members of the influential Texas psych band would play together—yet it also acted as the U.S. launch of his book, A Gathering of Promises.

“I was a little bit embarrassed about that because A Gathering of Promises was all about the 13th Floor Elevators and the 1960s psychedelic scene around the Austin area. And I basically wrote that without ever having been to Texas,” he explains. “I felt a bit like one of those 19th-century explorers who writes entire books on Africa whilst in the comfort of their sort of drawing room at home.”

On paper, this is an incredible setting for a book launch party; in reality, the last-minute arrangements he’d made with Levitation festival organizers basically meant A Gathering of Promises would be available at the event’s merch table before any other outlet in the U.S. But he was given a pass to the three-day, outdoor music festival—covering it for a couple of publications—and was finally able to spend a week in Austin, an almost mythical place about which he’d been immersed on a time-traveling, research-and-interview level.

“The people I met there were super friendly, especially all the older guys who’d been around, all the musicians, just so happy and interested that this younger English guy had written a book about their music and their scene, and they were really happy to share their stories,” he says. “A lot of the people I interviewed or people who were just around in that scene were amazed that I’d captured it so well, certainly without having been there in the 60s, but I hadn’t been to Texas at all.”

Having entirely missed the 1960s, the closest that 40-something Graham had previously been to the Austin area was 1,800 miles away, decades earlier, during a six-month American Studies college program in New York.

“I went [to the Levitation festival] because I’d finished the book and thought I’d never get to see the 13th Floor Elevators live—even though I’d seen Roky Erickson play in the U.K. a couple of times,” he says, summarizing the rationale that started the narrative you’re reading.

13th Floor Elevators reunion

 

Recipe for a memorable Texas trip: Take one music journalist/fanboy, add an essential 1960s psychedelic band that’s reformed for one time only, add a tab of San Antonio acid and levitate. Wait a second…“San Antonio acid?” Since when is that a brand of prestige?

“I think that’s the way I described it to friends when I got home,” Graham says, indicating that in all likelihood, someone from San Antonio simply provided the substance. “You know, I’m an English guy, there’s an exoticism to the phrase that conjured up something a bit Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to me: ‘Yeah, I had some San Antonio acid!’ I have no idea of the provenance—it may have been made in a lab in London.”

 

Enter the Buttholes

Early on in research for what would become A Gathering of Promises, Graham sought to cover “weird Texan music from the 60s right to the present day.” It was during this stage that he interviewed Paul Leary, founding member and guitarist extraordinaire of the most infamous musical act to ever emerge from San Antonio, the Butthole Surfers, and, naturally, “wrote a load of stuff about the Buttholes” (yes, he wrote a buttload).

“I’ve certainly been a fan of the Butthole Surfers since I first heard them, which would have been when I was a teenager—let’s say 1987,” Graham says. This exposure was through John Peel’s radio show and, he reckons, was probably the Butthole Surfers’ disturbing, sexual-assault-survivor-revelation nightmare “22 Going on 23.” Mooo! (Or perhaps that was a chorus of “Mu!” during the song’s conclusion as the chaos and freedom of Butthole Surfers live shows—more so than their albums—were, whether intentionally or not, absolutely Discordian exhibitions. And for fuck’s sake, the “23” is right there!)

However, he soon realized his initial plan for the book (writing a single work about six decades of weird Texas music) was a herculean endeavor—even just doing the 1960s was too much—so he homed in on just the 60s Austin/San Antonio-area scene and excised the Butthole Surfers material. So, when A Gathering of Promises was finished, Graham already had the beginnings of a book about the Butthole Surfers.

“I might as well go with that as my next project,” he decided.

Buttholes!

It seems no massive investigation is required to glimpse why he’d place such novel value upon that dose of psychedelic loosely tied to San Antonio on which he tripped during the 13th Floor Elevators reunion show in 2015. Just as the Butthole Surfers were an outgrowth of 1960s psychedelic rock (and, oh, so many other genres), Graham’s next book (Scatological Alchemy) would be an extension of his first.

Of the band members, Leary provided the most original quotes and background—he tends to be the most accessible Butthole Surfer. Drummer King Coffey gave the project his blessing, the author says, but opted against any new interviews.

“He was perfectly friendly, but he said all of the old interviews he reads that he’s done, he’s always really embarrassed and just thinks he comes over fairly like an idiot,” Graham says.

And that was about it for direct lines of communication with the band as far as Scatological Alchemy is concerned.

“It didn’t turn out to be one that had a lot of direct, from-the-horse’s-mouth input, unlike my first book [A Gathering of Promises] for which I did a lot of direct interviews with people,” Graham says, citing text in John Higgs’ Timothy Leary biography, I Have America Surrounded, as justification for the former approach.

“[Higgs] talks about how he hadn’t done a lot of first-hand interviews for the book, he talks about how a lot of people’s memories [over time] get changed, colored and they don’t necessarily match up with what you know in the historical fact,” Graham notes. “Depending on the type of book you’re reading, sometimes it’s not necessary or helpful to have a lot of first-hand quotes.”

In fact, separating fact from fantasy has historically proven problematic in past coverage of the Butthole Surfers, with the band often presenting to journalists bullshit origin stories and meaning. Scatological Alchemy explores the band effectively in its 130-plus pages while reinforcing the author’s interpretations of their catalog of recorded works.

“It’s worked for me because a lot has already been written about how kind of crazy and chaotic [the Butthole Surfers’] live shows were, and obviously that was an important part of the band, but the records are what we now have to remember them by. And I actually wanted to look at the records and say why I think they really are great records—because even the band themselves [are] often quite dismissive of their recordings, for whatever reasons. You talk to Paul and he will say about almost any of [them], ‘Yeah, that was a load of crap, that was just something we knocked off in the studio.’ The live show was what it was always about, the records were just to have something to sell at the gigs,” Graham says. “[But] I think the records are great in their own right. Part of it was I really wanted to explore what we can read into them, not necessarily what I think they actually do mean. And whether the reader agrees with me or not, I hope we all then want to go back and listen to those albums again, which is, I think, one of the best things about any rock biography—it sends you back to the records.”

One of the interpretive excursions in Scatological Alchemy dips into “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave,” a song that Leary dismissed in his October reddit AMA as, “That’s just us being stupid. Our specialty.”

“I think that’s pretty much what he says about almost any song. Part of it is maybe not wanting to sound pretentious, but I think a lot of [their lyrics] probably are just kind of spontaneous gibberish. Actually, I think that’s one of Gibby’s great gifts—to be able to come up with stuff almost off the top of his head,” Graham says. “Maybe [the lyrics] don’t necessarily mean anything to him when he’s saying it, but then you can look back and read something into it. I think any writer often has that—you can write something down that’s fairly stream of consciousness and then you look back on it and think, ‘I didn’t realize it, but that’s about the relationship with my parents, I didn’t think it was, but that was obviously somewhere in my head—and that kind of makes sense to me.’ You’ve got people like Bob Dylan, who are regarded universally as these great poets, but a lot of his stuff, I think, was written fairly stream of consciousness—gibberish, off the top of his head. Then you find the meaning in it afterward.”

And the artist’s intention isn’t necessarily all that matters in any given work as audiences will always take away their own personal meaning, usually beyond anything an artist could have anticipated.

Paul Leary

 

The Stepchildren of Psychedelia

Digging into the music, Graham identifies the highly regarded Locust Abortion Technician—which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year—as his favorite of their albums, an opinion unlikely to cause much debate. Notably, this was also the first Butthole Surfers album to which Graham was exposed—a cause, I’d argue, that injects the nostalgia bug and inflates a fan’s perception. [I was first exposed to the band’s older albums with Psychic, Powerless, Another Man’s Sac… and that remains my favorite, with “Cherub” still a soundtrack of my dreams and nightmares.]

“A lot of people do love those earlier albums more, but I have a lot of good things to say about Electric Larryland, which a lot of fans really don’t like,” Graham says. “I think it’s a completely different kind of record [compared to] their earlier work, but there’s a lot to love about that album.”

It’s certainly true that Electric Larryland is very different than the band’s earlier output—but the Surfers have shaken things up throughout their recording career. Punk, psychedelic, electronica, pop, industrial…it can be understandably confusing to identify where, in the pantheon of 20th-century music, the Butthole Surfers fit—a fact that may have hindered any chance of the band experiencing real, lasting mainstream success (or perhaps the auditory insanity and Wal-Mart-unfriendly name is to blame).

“I suppose in the book, I make the case for them being a psychedelic band, which is partly a hangover of Scatological Alchemy as coming out of my book on psychedelic music,” Graham says.

With that approach, Graham’s presentation clearly paints the Surfers as being in the tradition of psychedelic rock.

“But they’re also obviously a punk band in the sense that they came out of the punk era and the punk scene,” Graham says, revealing the strange ether from which the Butthole Surfers emerged. “But they seem to have a nudge from the psychedelic tradition down to the music, some of the psychedelic-era cover versions they did, covering people like Donovan and Black Sabbath, down to the live shows being as much visual as they were musical with the strobes and the projections, even down to the years of kind of constant touring, which is almost like a punk version of the Grateful Dead. There are a lot of psychedelic tropes about the Butthole Surfers. Beyond that, they also have one foot in the industrial scene, even though I don’t know if you’d ever really call them an industrial band.”

And all of that reveals: “So, yeah, broadly uncategorizable. Post-punk is a nice label as well because what does that mean, that just means any of the weird, alternative stuff that came after punk chronologically or loosely inspired by punk. I’d like to make the case of them being in the psychedelic tradition, and specifically in the Texan psychedelic tradition because it seems to me the Texan psychedelic tradition always has an element of punk about it.”

He goes on to explain that in 1965, the 13th Floor Elevators had more in common with Nirvana circa 1991 than with many of their psychedelic scene counterparts of the day.

“When the Elevators went to play San Francisco, everybody was like, ‘Ooh, what’s this? This can’t be psychedelic because they’re not wearing all their chiffon and lace and paisley.’ But actually, the music they played was more authentically psychedelic—they were the band that took acid every time they went on stage. Jefferson Airplane wasn’t doing that. The Grateful Dead was reputedly shocked that the Elevators could still play on the amount of acid they were taking. There’s always been that garage-punk element to Texan psychedelia,” Graham says. “I sort of think the Buttholes are in that tradition, not the least their use of psychedelics before, during and after performing as well.”

So, what of the geographical origin of psychedelic rock? Graham takes the middle ground, granting import to both Austin and San Francisco.

“It’s like the old debate about punk: New York or London? Being started in different towns, they’re probably a bit different. At some point, somebody puts a label on it and says that what was happening in Austin and what was happening in San Francisco was both psychedelic music.”

The origin, certainly also relates to the availability of psychedelic drugs. The freaks in Austin and San Francisco were not isolated from one another—people were commonly going back and forth. Graham posits that marijuana trafficking from Mexico up to Northern California could have led to this blending of countercultural output and the start of psychedelic music.

“The first psychedelic light show happened in San Francisco, but there were guys from Austin who were going up there and they brought it back and Austin had one really early—but there were Texans involved up there,” he says, going on to use the amusing phrase “ex-pat Texans,” to describe those who fled the Lone Star State for the temporary utopia in the Bay Area. “You could loosely say that the San Francisco scene could be a bit more about fashion and, in that sense, they were a bit more media savvy in getting it noticed. Whereas the Texas scene seemed to be more authentic, not least because you had peyote cactus growing in the desert there—really early on before psychedelic music as such.”

(During Graham’s research for A Gathering of Promises, Clementine Hall—kind of the fifth member of the 13th Floor Elevators—shared memories of Austinites applying some sort of shellac to peyote buttons as a form of homemade time-release. This sounds incredibly unhealthy, but trippers of the time believed it prevented the nausea for which peyote is well known.)

We’ll soon learn if and where the modern Butthole Surfers (punks and freakazoids now well into their 50s) fit musically: They began recording a new album earlier this year—the first since 2001’s Weird Revolution—and are promising a 2018 release.

Pick up Ben Graham’s Scatological Alchemy at Eleusinian Press (Amazon and other retailers to come in early 2018).

Michael Pinchera is a writer and editor of fringe, business and travel-related matters; explorer of non-Cartesian realities.

Check him out at What Meme Worry

 

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