Show Reviews

    Concert Memory: Butthole Surfers Boston

    185

    The Channel Boston, MA  November 17 1988 by Dave Noonan

    One day in the Fall of 1988 my friend suggested that I come with him and some of his friends to Boston to hear a band he thought I would really enjoy-Butthole Surfers.

    I wasn’t a complete BHS neophyte-my housemate Edward had turned me on to the BHS earlier in the year. He had vinyl copies of a couple albums- the recently released Hairway to Steven and Creamed Corn From the Davis Socket.

    I decided going to the show was a good idea and said yes.

    The date of the show was 11-17-88, at the Channel nightclub in Boston. A couple buddies and I rode to Boston, partying and getting ready to dig something new.

    I learned that Butthole Surfers were very theatrical onstage. The lead singer sang through a megaphone and set parts of himself on fire. They had a naked go-go dancer. The music was bizarre and played fast. They showed movies on the walls during shows and practiced general insanity. All of this was fine with me-I was used to unpredictable environments.

    I was a touring Deadhead at that time-I had passed the acid test in dark rooms thousands of miles from home in confused and sweaty states. When the show ended I picked up the pieces and got into the car to go to the next show. I wasn’t afraid. Life on Dead tour meant that you were essentially homeless except for what you had around you on the road. You had to be resilient to do it. By 1988 Grateful Dead shows were predictable to me-fun but not altogether surprising. Psychedelic experiences had become a bit of work to sustain. I felt I was a bit of a veteran and mildly jaded.

    I was not concerned with what was coming for me inside The Channel.

    (Butthole Surfers Hairway To Steven album cover)


    The Channel was nationally renowned for the great bands that played there. Its doors were open from 1980 until approximately 1992. They featured top national touring acts with local support bands and showcased a wide variety of genres-the best in punk, rock, blues, reggae, and world music.

    Our car straggled into The Channel’s lot. Once parked, we continued partying. As I recall, there was no real trouble out there in the lot. It was cool, rowdy, filled with loud voices and weed smoke.

    We made our way into the club just as the opener, The Zulus, were starting their set. This band was the loudest group I had ever heard. The drummer was chubby, wore glasses, and he was a very hard hitter. The singer screeched into the microphone for 45 minutes. It was hard and heavy rock and roll without apology, totally deafening and painful. Being from Boston, The Zulus got a great response from the crowd.

    Next up were Butthole Surfers. I saw the two drum sets and went right up to the front of the stage. The club at this point was packed, hot, and getting aggressive. The people had flushed faces and the whole room seemed grandly f*cked up.

    All at once the stage exploded-literally-like a land mine had gone off. The swirling lights were red, orange, yellow, and green. Strobe lights raged without mercy. Movies started to flicker behind the band.

    (Butthole Surfers with dancer Kathleen Lynch)

    The crowd responded right away and seemed to be going up and down/side to side simultaneously. A rotating tornado of elbows, boots, fists, and sweat erupted to one side of the stage. I was a hippie but I knew about the pit.

    My friends were gone. They could have been right next to me but I didn’t see anyone I knew anymore. The energy pouring off the stage at The Channel was fourth dimensional.

    (Paul Leary)

    The guitar player, Paul Leary, was the brains of the outfit. His guitar powered this hotrod full of demented Texans for the duration of the show. Fiery red -hot riffs and endless screeching leads cut through the air. Filled with feedback and muscle, I was not hearing sounds I was familiar with- this guitar player left marks.

    The bass player, Jeff Pinkus, was the body of the band. His were the shoulders that the band could climb on when the lava started to get too high. His driving bass lines occasionally grounded the music but at any instant he pulled thumps of sonic pain out of his instrument that crackled at my head like a barn fire out of control.

    (Jeff Pinkus)

    The two drummers, King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa, were the heart of the band. They stood up behind their kits and pounded the drums with a tribal power I had not experienced. They were not playing the drums as much as inhabiting them. There was no holding back. What they were playing was life and death-you survive or you get crushed. All I could see of either of them through the patina of the show was their arms, hair, and teeth.

    For a drummer raised on the rather civil rhythmic interactions of two drummer outfits-including units like Sun Ra’s Arkestra-seeing these two play drums that night was beyond revelatory. It was a discovery of something pure and completely outside of my sphere of experience.

    The singer, Gibby Haynes, was tall, long-haired, and not interested in salvation.

    He stalked around the stage shirtless bellowing strange lyrics into a megaphone held up to a microphone. He fiddled continuously with the knobs of his vocal effects rack that mutated the songs into a continuously swirling ultra-weirdness.

    (Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary)

    Butthole Surfer’s musical chaos rapidly transformed The Channel into a space where the spirits of possession could enter and frolic freely. I was used to seeing the lysergic dance performed by tie-dyed whirling dervishes driven to heights of ecstasy by the music.

    Inside The Channel on this night the ceremony of devotion was performed by a motley crowd of punks, hippies, skaters, skinheads, and brawlers smashing into each other, opened up by the transformative power of the music and very likely a wide variety of chemicals. It was a unified crowd.

    The first song, ‘Barking Dogs’, was as abrasive a welcome as I could imagine. The tune was several minutes of guitar noise crescendos that simultaneously erased my preconceptions of music and focused my mind on the thrill unfolding onstage. Something I had was now gone and replaced with something new.

    Up next was a song aptly titled ‘Psychedelic Jam’ a panic inducing spin through the early energy waves of a strong acid trip that’s coming on. The music went up and down until it finally settled into a steady unfocused pulse.

    A couple of BHS live show staples were next-the 4/4 boom-boom bap and screaming duel guitars of ‘To Parter’ and the grindy rock-a-billy groove of ‘Tornadoes.’ Both tunes appear on the EP Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis. Google the album title for the wholesome backstory of the record’s name.

    A reading of Paul Leary’s riff laden ‘Blind Man’ was next. This tune is deliciously heavy. Following this was the drum-driven hell ballad ‘Neee Neee‘. Both of these tunes were recorded in the UK about a month prior for The John Peel Sessions and are the last recordings to feature drummer Teresa Nervosa (she left the group in early 1989). I distinctly recall starting to become untethered around this point in the show. The wave had overtaken me and I was being pulled out to sea. I lost my grip on what I knew, transfixed by the demons behind the drum kits.

    Next came the anthemic uptempo ditty ‘I Saw an X-ray of a Girl Passing Gas’, from their recently released Hairway To Steven record. A tight version of ‘Roky’ (a tribute to Texas native and 13th Floor Elevators front man Roky Erickson) followed. Reportedly BHS asked Erickson to sing the tune for the record but he was unimpressed with it and declined. Years later King Coffey would produce him.

    The band jammed through the fast Texas country/rockabilly groove and almost Petty-like sing along choruses of ‘Gary Floyd’, a chestnut from their first full length record, Pyschic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac.’

    The power riffs of ‘Sweat Loaf’ were next. Another BHS live staple, this tune featured Gibby’s pitch shifting vocal delivery, instantly air-guitarable riffs and thumping rhythms.

    ‘Graveyard’ was up next, a fairly standard sounding rock tune with a repeated guitar riff complimenting Hayne’s frustrated howling.

    Both ‘Sweat Loaf’ and ‘Graveyard’ appeared on ‘Locust Abortion Technician’, a record acclaimed as a permanent influence by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Eric Avery to Flea. Paul Leary lamented in later interviews that it’s usually the second wave of artists in a scene that gets the recognition and financial gravy. The first wave get to watch the fruits of their labors ripen in relative obscurity.

    (Cover to Locust Abortion Technician)

    LAT was the holy grail for many up and coming top-40 alt rockers in the mid-80’s. This record firmly reinforced that Butthole Surfers were not concerned with public opinion.

    In 2018, Pitchfork included the album on their list of “The 200 Best Albums of the 1980s”, writing: “From the John Wayne Gacy-indebted cover art to the turbid sounds within, the group’s third LP took a chainsaw to hardcore, psychedelic rock, country blues, Black Sabbath, and, on closer (look of) “22 Going on 23,” the sound of mooing cows and the agonizing confession of a sexual assault victim. Butchering every notion of good taste in their path, the Butthole Surfers reveled in the most cartoonish and nightmarish aspects of reality without regret.”

    Most of the songs BHS performed this night, and each night, were rather short, barely breaking the 3 minute mark. The more experimental intro and outro tunes of the show clocked in longer at 7 or 8 minutes. It was hard to understand where songs began and ended, except for the fact the guitars and drums had briefly stopped. The pauses between tunes were more like a chance to take a big inhalation of toxic air before submerging again into the riptide.

    The punk-metal song ‘Fast’ (which clocked in at 1:19) and the arena rock screamer ‘Paranoid’ (written by Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad) slathered with Gibby’s electronic vocal antics and digitized maniacal laughter, closed out the regular portion of the show.

    The band left the stage. I had to go outside for a minute to grab some air. It was all too much. This was a new kind of storm. Loud cheers from inside let me know more was to come. I hurried back in as the band started playing their encore set.

    ‘Ghandi’ brought us back to 4:00 am part of the trip, where you think you might get back down from the cloud you’re on but you’re not really sure its going to work out that way. Even the crickets of pre-dawn showed up during this song.

    ‘1401’ followed. This tune is as reasonable a navel gazer as any corporate alt B-side.

    ’Edgar’ (the third tune from 1988’s John Peel Sessions) followed. This is a great tune in 6/8 time, pushed hard by Coffey and Nervosa. I was getting pretty Nervosa myself at this point. The vibes of a BHS show do not relent, even though there are pauses in the music. They are masters of the creating the weird.

    For free MP3’s, discography, links to press, and all things BHS head over to www.buttholesurfers.com

    The roaring dissolution of reality couplet known as Jimi/Lou Reed’ ripped the room open again, and though I didn’t think it possible, the music became even more intense. I felt fractured in the face of the relentless aural onslaught. ‘Lou Reed’ was long and spooky, like hearing a punk rock horror movie theme at full volume played through a stinky sewer pipe.

    Twisted sounds were flowing around the room. It became impossible for me to keep track of what was happening where, which was the ethos of a BHS concert. As Gibby said, ‘We always tried to create chaos, but there was no philosophy behind it.’

    (Gibby Haynes)

    If you were to watch any good horror film, during the best parts you put your hands over your eyes and peak through your fingers. When I was brave enough to take a look around inside The Channel, I heard the loops of haunting words echoing, mutated fading delays emanating from the guitar amps, the pulsing echoes of the drums, and the smell of victory blowing around the stage. The drummers threw their sticks away and collapsed behind from their kits, disappearing. Paul and Jeff slowly faded from view. Gibby looped a honking harmonica and started to chant over it, distorting everything with his effects.

    My focus started to return. I was up at the front of the stage again, looking at the drum kits and the tall madman twirling knobs. Suddenly I realized the stage was empty of musicians. Just sound remained. Slowly the crashing and the amplified disturbances faded into a restless unease, a purely free moment that transfixed the audience.


    It sank into silence, defiant and alive, and the crowd erupted in honest appreciation. This was one of the most psychedelic shows I’ve ever attended. It’s a high water mark against which I’ve judge many of the other shows I have gone to. The drumming alone forever broadened my scope of what is possible to do behind a kit.

    (Dancer Kathleen Lynch)

    Butthole Surfers were at the top of their game in 1988. They toured steadily both in the States and Europe behind ‘Hairway To Steven.’ The wild ride of early BHS shows was fading maybe a bit, a result of getting older, touring constantly, and many long nights watching the trails. Despite their inherent craziness they had a solid catalog of music to draw from. The second iteration of post-punk rock and roll was rising and BHS were revered on the scene. They had a solid new album and plenty of good paying shows booked. The Fall 1988 tour occurred pre-mainstream success for the band. This gig was in a club that held maybe 750 people. Within a few short months, Theresa and Kathleen would be gone. The gigs would be bigger. The European festival circuit and Lollapalooza beckoned soon thereafter, as did headlining with a mainstreamed Nirvana, a top-40 hit and appearances on Letterman.
    My lasting impression throughout the years has been that Butthole Surfers were entirely fearless. They were the most original band I had ever heard. They did not give a f*ck.
    They lived their message. As they sing in the intro to ‘Sweat Loaf’, ‘The funny thing about regret is, it’s better to regret something you did than to regret something you haven’t done…Satan! Satan! Satan!’

    With special gratitude to James Burns.

    For a complete chronology of BHS shows including setlists and audio/video information, head over to: www.buttholesurfersanalobsession.com

    Drop us a line at lmnandr@gmail.com with your live music news or concert review.