I saw the Butthole Surfers DVD Blind Eye Sees All recently, a brilliant document of the kings of punk scatology playing live in Detroit in 1985. Their psycho-delic heyday, shortly before I discovered live music. A live performance which to my nostalgia appears clothed in insanely alluring garments, despite—or because of?—the shabby, humming filth. Their performance of ‘100 Million People Dead’ (a contribution to P.E.A.C.E., a punk anti-war compilation, which I’d never heard before) pinned me to the sofa and obsessed me for days. Oddly, it made me think of my walk down the Ridgeway to Avebury last summer solstice.
Ambling along the ancient pathway, the wonderfully warm, balmy weather seemed to me to subtly foreground the seething hidden life of the hedgerows. I was constantly aware of the mass of frenetic activity and slow-motion rot, mostly invisible to the casual passer-by, that was bound in a ceaseless cycle of growth, decay and renewal. I could almost feel the heat of it. I remembered my excited child self going on little nature treks, fascinated by the thrill of hidden recesses filled with alien life, entire new worlds of purpose enclosed in seemingly innocuous spaces. My fantasy of having a nest of tarantulas living in the creeping red-berried bush against our conservatory wall…
Camping on the Ridgeway, I had a false awakening into a dream one morning. In the dream, which I took for reality until I really woke up, my tent had no bottom sheet, and I was sleeping on mossy rocks. They clumped together haphazardly, leaving dark networks of space between them, where bizarre, brightly-coloured insects flourished, a writhing world of life gorging on its own abundance… The repulsive, almost demonic atmosphere of a fetid insectile underworld just under the surface of a well-kept lawn, conjured in the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, is one reaction. The Butthole Surfers are another. Or rather, Lynch’s crawling nightmare is one aspect, to be faced on its own terms. The Buttholes just feel like making a party out of the mess and the creepiness, in a way that those who perpetuate or repress horrors can’t comprehend.
Walking across the Wiltshire fields, the lumps of chalk and assorted rubble in the ploughed soil brought to mind the fact that a mixture of such earthy, organic waste was found packed into the West Kennet long barrow when it was opened. In the Neolithic mind, there was a continuum: from the chaotic mixture of soil and chalk that proved so fertile in growing crops, to the death that awaited them all. From the over-ripeness and burdgeoning decay of late autumn, the barren landscapes of winter, through to the blossoming hope of spring.
This Neolithic balance, embracing a full consciousness of nature’s extremes of vitality and decline, is a devastating thing to achieve in the modern world. Not only are we physically and psychically alienated from the root elements of the natural sphere, we’ve created our own extremes, within the human sphere of nature. Some would say that the negative extremes—nuclear holocausts, torture, genocide, repressive squalor—are a psychotic manifestation of our inability to fully face and integrate nature’s intensities within us.
Even beginning to embrace all this will not happen in an atmosphere of pristine cleanliness and benevolence. That eloquent champion of psychically unclean callings, Ramsey Dukes, writes of his take on “black magic”:
To argue that it is really white magic, because the intent is to recycle the evil into something good, is to miss the point horribly: anyone who approaches such work with the crusading spirit of a white knight going down to “rescue” underworld nasties and convert them, is doomed to fail. Such work means getting one’s hands dirty for a while . . .
‘In Praise of Devil Worship’, in What I Did In My Holidays
That the Buttholes circa 1985 were so far from that crusading spirit was part of their genius for making a party out of getting covered in filth. And if there’s a talent that needs encouraging in this world, where we’re constantly placed in danger of drowning in the torrents of unprocessed waste created all the time by those with no mind for nature, by human culture apparently cut adrift from biology, this is it.
There’s Theresa Nervosa and King Coffey pounding maniacally on the drums, a blind, gleeful engine; Jeff Pinkus coils the insistent bassline around them, eyeing all from behind his shades; on the floor, Gibby Haynes dementedly performs bare-handed surgery on a mannequin and rips the stuffing out a teddy; and Paul Leary chaotically rides the lot with soaring, trembling riffs. Then Gibby’s tremendous wail turns into the looped, distorted refrain, “100 million people are dead”, as the projected skeleton dances a jig. I’ll let the survivors of actual wars speak for their own experience. But as a cultural, psychic experience, this performance had me brushing against all those times in the past when I’ve felt alive enough to bear letting the world’s crap in and still feel alive.
There’s often an accusation of revelling in squalor and morbidity levelled at bands like the Buttholes, and it can’t be denied. Neither can the energy they generate. In agriculture, life from shit is called common sense. In occulture, it’s called alchemy. In pop culture, more often than not, it’s called sickness.
The band’s almost total immersion in human sleaze and sordidness, fart jokes, diseases, cultural banality, alienation, internal organs, self-absorbed festering and psychosis, seems to be a form of paganism. Or, a little more accurately, devil-worship, in Dukes’ sense of forming a relationship with a devil. The band are obviously calculated to appear demonic, to those without the eyes to see. This calculation puts them a step ahead of these human devils, the devils of body-horror and excessive consciousness, and makes their laughter at those who don’t see past the devils, those who don’t see that “Energy is Eternal Delight”, all the sweeter.
Coil’s devastating live show ‘Constant Shallowness Leads To Evil’ was openly acknowledged as being Buttholes-influenced. Looking back writing this, it’s no coincidence that the performance was designed as an invocation of that irrepressible god of natural chaos, Pan. Stretching out far past the human world, Pan is the guy we find one step beyond the Butthole Surfers, the force of nature left standing when you’ve ripped that final curtain of human self-involvement down and wiped your arse with it.
No coincidence then, that as I lay alone on Waden Hill on solstice eve last summer—absorbing the near-full moon and the warm, enveloping darkness of the Avebury landscape, a boiling chaos of colour and light behind my chemically sober eyelids whenever I closed them—I was shocked into near-panic when a little black goat pelted at me from nowhere, curving away as it neared me and vanishing into the night. Until it came back to leap in and out of the cornfield behind me, as I was immobilised with unspeakable fear on the other side of the fence.
During psychedelic therapy, you eventually have to go to the monster and get to know it. The Jungians go as far as getting a good look at it and accepting that it’s there. What we do is, we go into it and look out its eyes so that we become it. . . .
Once you get inside the demon, the first thing you experience is the absolute lack of fear and then you begin to recognize that this is also the survivor aspect of yourself. There’s a part that takes care of you. Then it begins to transform, and you recognize its quality of total selfishness—it’s going to take care of you and nobody else, right?—but it is your ally. And then you begin to recognize its positive aspects.
Ann Shulgin in an interview
This devilishly persistent, feral will-to-life has some part in Bodhisattvic “blissful participation in the sorrows of the world”; not cruel weakness that hides behind a mask of pleasure, but open-hearted acceptance of the idea that “happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or . . . remain small together.” (Nietzsche) It inspires the roiling rhythms of ‘100 Million People Dead’, pounding ecstasy out of confusion and terror. And when you lie down in a field, it seethes beneath your sleeping head…