I was 15 in 1996: a week’s worth of eyeliner, skater jeans from the boys’ department at Kohls. When I picture that summer, everything’s vermilion, fierce orange-beaten red. Northern sun through the red oaks. My mom who couldn’t stop cutting her arms and legs into the sink or on the floor; I thought it was not so much blood, but I see now it was far too much.
You’re steady and you’re hollow and you’re tired of seein’ double/And you never know the places you’ve been
The Butthole Surfers’ Electriclarryland is sun and orange light and cheap nail polish and vermilion paint, the kind of vermilion where you can smell the mercuric sulfide intact (the kind where you want to).
Gibby Haynes’ syncopated, somehow lewd, vibrating growl. Those fried and wavy bass lines that end up cupped by your hip bones. The Butthole Surfers aren’t sexy though, unless you think sexy feels like falling, or better: the jolt your body gets when it realizes it’s falling, that moment of singular terror but in slow motion. Deep reverberating guitar trying to be a bassline.
I heard “Pepper” for the first time on the Fourth of July. The station played it again the next hour, and I taped it. My dad put a basketball hoop on the concrete slab in the woods where once we’d housed homeless dogs in kennels, and I shot baskets for hours under the sun that summer, listening to the song. Gorgeous nightmare.
They were all in in love with dying/They were drinkin’ from a fountain/That was pouring like an avalanche/Comin’ down the mountain
Because the radio station wouldn’t say the name of the band, I had to quote “Pepper” to the Sam Goody clerk to find the song’s artist, and then, oh glorious surprise to the girl from the church-school with the covered-up collarbones and knees. Music gets godlike when you have to hide it.
Every meditation on an album is about where you were at the time, about who was hurting next to you and how you took on that hurt and threw it up to the sky. At night, owls and bats flew from tree to tree across the concrete in the woods, and I shot hoops and listened to other grinding guitars and Draino-drinking screams, but I only listened to Electriclarryland when the sun was bright and awful.
Moments showing how tender a lyric can be when you’re riding on the sensation of your own too-alive skin:
Bobby played piano like a kid out in the rain/Until he lost his leg in Dallas/He was dancing with a train
And I heard that his brother was a Viking/He liked to solve a problem with a gun
There are only so many doors you can open and find your mom’s blood behind, and I’m not one to keep a door closed. That summer, that album; everything was vermilion. Psychedelic noise-rock about kids obeying that vermilion air, trundling toward something bad. Psychedelic noise-rock out of Texas in which nothing’s normal, everything is definitely not okay, and here’s how you don’t ignore it, don’t fix what can’t be fixed, but instead lap it up like you were born to it, sweetcakes.
The jingle of a dog’s collar would be good right here.
A lot of Electriclarryland is mind-scrambling noise, not least of which is Haynes’ voice, warped by what became known as Gibbytronix: megaphones, processors, toilet paper rolls, anything that would make him more machine, more demon, more in your blood than out of it. Or maybe the whole thing is soundscape if we’re defining it by blood. And I know Electriclarryland is the more conventional of the Butthole Surfers’ albums, but remember my covered-up collarbones, my knees. They get a say here too.
The convoluted narratives with multiple characters that end up making no sense, like plot was a trick all along. That happy heedless hurtling toward bright white destruction capsuled in nearly every song but most obvious in “Pepper,” “Cough Syrup,” and “The Lord is a Monkey,” where everyone ends up happily dead or maimed. The fun’s in going along with it, finding where it fits, even when it’s too ridiculous to fit anywhere.
If you wanna touch the sky you must be prepared to die/And I hate cough syrup don’t you?
Weird and scary things happen in vermilion air and pockets of small-town, church-girl life that both loves itself and wants to be different, when skin feels too alive and there’s no word or eyeliner shade that fits all the vermilion you’re building up, so you throw it up into the sky. And then there’s Gibby bringing in the bridge with his malicious laugh, and you’re back to your gorgeous nightmare.
Beat so full of malignant anticipation that it’s eyes are on you in “My Brother’s Wife,” silly lyrics turned up to Old Testament doom by the incessant, prowling rhythm and Gibby’s threat-sexy, sick-dog groans.
Sadly I turn to the left and I see/My brother’s wife’s breasts /I really must be off/Oh, it hurts to laugh
The point where “Cough Syrup” speeds up:
Lock, stock, and barrel all the dogs were gone to feral and the car ran like a broken percolator
…and you can feel Gibby give in to the pleasure of nonsense given a trajectory, his world where everything’s going wonderfully wrong, and the sense that at any moment, it’ll all push you backwards, hair in your face, eyeliner streaming…
And you’re back before someone taught you that a safe and pleasant world was your right, when you didn’t know to expect anything other than what you felt on your live-wire skin, in your heart that willingly played along to any beat and trick of a plot you gave it.
This has been the first installment in a new ongoing series at The Collapsar that will be exploring all the 90’s albums that have been “forgotten,” “misplaced,” or otherwise “overlooked.” If you want to pitch an essay, get in touch.
Natalie Vestin is a science writer and researcher from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, The Collapsar, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction chapbook, Shine a light, the light won’t pass, was published in 2015 by MIEL, and her fiction and photography chapbook, Gomorrah, Baby, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume in 2016.