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Radical Nostalgia: The Jesus Lizard and the Butthole Surfers

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It was a hell of a week for old post-punk college-rockers in Los Angeles, what with former Husker Du guitarist Bob Mould at the Troubadour and Mike Watt of the Minutemen/ fIREHOSE playing the Redwood in the same five-day period that saw return visits from two of the major acts from Chicago’s legendary Touch & Go label. The Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers were two of Independent America’s most beloved bands, renowned for their abrasive, yet oddly classicist records and consciousness-altering live shows. Both rose to alt-rock prominence, got signed to major labels in the 1990s, occupied early-afternoon slots on the Lollapalooza main stage and received major endorsements from Kurt Cobain (a split single with Nirvana for the Lizard, a tour-opening slot for the Surfers), then lost the plot around the end of the decade. And both ended up in LA for reunion tours within a few days of each other.

Prior to the Jesus Lizard’s reunion, vocalist David Yow had noted in interviews that audiences should not expect to see him take his pants off anymore. “I’m forty-nine now, no one wants to see that.” But any fears that their astringent wine may have mellowed with age were put to rest as soon as the curtain rose, and Yow took a running start before launching himself toward the audience. Bands with a reputation for physically intense live shows sometimes fare the worst on the reunion circuit, but this one has apparently stayed in good shape during its eleven-year lag, and damn if this wasn’t a good night like they used to have good nights.

This band elevated the primal scream to arthouse levels, sometimes resembling a Red-era King Crimson for the hardcore set, working in odd meters and dissonant chord progressions while retaining a Zeppelin-esque flair for melody and a punch-in-the-mouth rhythm section. It was a joy to see Mac McNeilly behind the drums again, out of early retirement. One of the best drummers of the era, he added fluidity to the band’s jagged attack, and was a perfect partner for David Wm. Sims’ jackhammering bass. Guitarist Duane Denison brought the weirdness, but wasn’t above a good cudgel attack himself when the moment was right. And Yow wailed maniacal, cryptic, tuneless lyrics that gave the distinct impression of a man having a permanent panic attack. For most of his time on stage at the Fonda, he resembled a caged rat, only seeming at ease while riding the audience like a wave without missing a lyric.

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The set list was quite similar to the live album Show, covering most of the best tracks from their Touch & Go years. Concluding with a cover of the Dicks’ “Wheelchair Epidemic,” it was hard to find fault with any of it, despite the lack of new information. They more than lived up to expectations, which are necessarily diminished on this kind of nostalgic go-round. For a minute there, they really made it seem like 1992 again.

If the Butthole Surfers couldn’t quite live up to that level of re-creation, it’s because they had even more to live up to. The Jesus Lizard were always energetic and great players, and still are. But the Butts used to be batshit crazy. Their shows from the middle to end of the 1980s were, bar none, the most terrifying and mind-blowing live concerts this writer has ever witnessed. Combining cheap 60’s era props such as film projectors, strobe lights, smoke machines, the old set-myself-on-fire-with-rubbing alcohol trick, and dancing naked ladies, they created a visual spectacle that exponentially enhanced the already fucked-up music. Psychedelic in the worst possible way, they left more than one gnarly punk rocker stumbling toward the exits stammering “I can’t take anymore.” They became slightly more cuddly and conventional in their major-label phase, though they still made some great hard-rock tunes and never sounded like anyone but themselves.

At the Nokia, they didn’t even attempt to compete with that gruesome past, losing all the old props except the film projectors. Instead they offered a well-played, career-spanning set that was heavily weighted toward their early stuff. It sounded good. They’ve got bass player Jeff Pinkus, the secret weapon of their 1985-93 golden era, back in the fold, and Paul Leary is still an astonishing guitar player, moving from precise fingering to face-melting noise in a heartbeat. Though this was supposed to be the first time in twenty years that we’d get to see the double drumming of King Coffee and Teresa Taylor, King had it to go it alone for the majority of the set, though playing as solidly as ever.

But vocalist Gibby Haynes seemed to be in a bad mood from the outset, singing in a low register with little enthusiasm, and at one point berating the audience for their lack of response. “We all completely ruined our LIVES to do this… and we feel lucky.” I suppose I can’t blame them, it was more reserved down front than at any Surfers gig I’d ever witnessed; tony Club Nokia isn’t the type of venue to inspire crowd insanity. Even Leary observed: “This is one classy shithole, ain’t it?” (At the precise moment Leary intoned the immortal line “There’s a time to shit and a time for God/ The last shit I took was pretty fuckin’ odd!”, a respectably dressed gentleman was spritzing some soap into my hands and offering me a shot of fine men’s cologne.)

For any other band, getting up there and doing the old favorites, with all but one of the players operating at a high level, would be enough, and it’s hard to fault the musicians for failing to remain batshit crazy in their fifties. They closest they came was during the encore medley of “Jimi”, “Lou Reed (aka Comb)” and “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave”, pulling out the fog machines for the first time as Teresa finally showed up and began beating the tubs in unison with Coffee, grotesque sounds and images colliding as the whole room went white. But there’s never going to be anything quite like the old Butts again; those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed it in its time have a whole different view of what David St. Hubbins calls “the majesty of rock, (and) the pageantry of roll” than most people.