Echoes and Reverberations: Melting Down With the Butthole Surfers

Was this show the turning point for Deep Ellum? (James Bland)

A little over 22 years ago, the Butthole Surfers decided to tape their performances during a weekend-long stint at the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum.

It was the first time Dallas-based producer David Castell had tried recording a live album. And he'd rather not relive the memory.

“Oh God, you’re not gonna write about that, are you?” he asked last week. “Please don’t. That was one of the worst gigs of my life. It was a freakin’ nightmare.”

Oh, come on, David. Let’s dig up all of those ugly repressed memories and recreate the carnage. Just for a laugh. Let’s at least give our peeps a little street data they can use to contrast the experience when the original Surfers lineup returns to Dallas for their big gig next week at the Granada Theater.

Castell, who also recently produced the new Toadies album, No Deliverance, was in the process of building a mobile recording studio at this particular stage in his career. Feeling a chance to hone his skills at field recording on location, our man eagerly took the job.

To this day, David still isn’t really sure just exactly how he landed the gig in the first place.

“At the time, I was mixing younger bands like Zane Grey and T-4-2, working as an engineer at a recording studio in Highland Park," he recalls. "I have no idea how they even came across my number.”

Castell and Surfers bandleader Gibby Haynes worked out a simple deal over the phone: The band would pay him $500 a night to record two performances.

“I wasn’t familiar with their music, so I didn’t really know what expect,” he remembers. “We cleared out that area where the little Deep Ellum Records store was, there in the front lobby of the building, and then I spent all day setting up the console and the 16-track analog tape machine in that space.”

Theatre Gallery was located at 2808 Commerce; the building last occupied by the Galaxy Club. It had little operative plumbing and no central heating or air conditioning; the record store in front had no ventilation other than what little air came through a single door leading into the gallery space. Put 750 people in that building, add lots of secondhand smoke, and the venue usually felt like Auschwitz with a live band.

The temperature in Castell’s makeshift control booth that weekend was easily over 100 degrees.

The Butthole Surfers had just released back-to-back albums Locust Abortion Technician and Rembrandt Pussyhorse, and the band was really starting to garner a strong reputation as an extraordinary live act at the time. (Damn, they were expensive, too: As I remember, that was easily the most money we ever paid any group to play at Theatre Gallery.)

With songs like “Creep in the Cellar”, “Whirling Hall of Knives” and “Strangers Die Every Day”, it wasn’t hard to see where they were coming from stylistically. Perverts and murderers, right? Equal parts punk rock circus troupe and psychedelic freak show, the band was one of the first alternative groups to incorporate an onslaught of random visuals as part of their show.

Most of that “found imagery” was particularly disturbing to watch.

While setting up the microphones during sound check, Castell looked up and saw one of the band’s rear screen projections on the back wall.

“Their lighting guy was cuing up this film where some guy was literally peeling the skin off of a dead guy’s skull,” he says. “It was probably the most disgusting thing I had ever seen in my life up until that point. Of course, the night was still young.”

It was all David could do to keep focused on the immediate task at hand--and he was the only straight guy in the house.

“Thank God I was stone-cold sober that night,” Castell says. “To this day, my friends Kenny Withrow and John Bush (members of The New Bohemians) still talk about how that weekend was this once-in-a-lifetime psychedelic experience. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. All I know is that I’m just glad that I wasn’t on anything that weekend.”

Withrow, who has been sober for years, remembers Haynes constantly putting Castell on the defensive before the show.

“Before the show, Gibby kept saying to David, ‘OK, but what if everything fucks up? What are you going to do?’ He kept saying that over and over and over again,” Withrow says. “And it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This whole time, David totally had his shit together. All of his recording gear worked fine beforehand. Everything was set and ready to go."

David Castell picks up the story from here: “I was stoked. Everything worked perfectly during sound check. This was going to be great. Then, 30 seconds before it was time to roll tape, I was about to hit the record button and the digital time display totally went blank, as if the machine had a mind of its own and just refused to record the band. I was flabbergasted. Nothing like that has ever to me before that, or since then.”

Castell was forced to improvise on the fly; he quickly chose to bypass the multi-track machine and record straight to a two-track tape. Haynes, who has always had a long-standing reputation for being difficult to work with, predictably went ballistic after the show.

“After he was done screaming at me until he was blue in the face, Gibby literally went upstairs to the loft space above the dressing room and took a shit on the floor--right in front of the room where the TG lighting guy lived,” Castell says. “I mean, Ray was this really sweet older English guy who was always so nice and supportive of everybody in the scene, and Gibby just goes up there and takes a dump right in the middle of his living space."

It wasn’t for a lack of plumbing in the building.

After the first show, Castell and former T-4-2 member Jim Goff spent the rest of that night and all of the next afternoon troubleshooting until they corrected the problem. That meant having to do the next night’s show on pins and needles. (Not to mention no sleep, and the fear of literally getting shitted on.)

Thankfully, all of his gear worked fine the second night, and Castell was able to capture the second performance seemingly without any further tech issues.

Here’s a little broader perspective: Up until this particular weekend, the Deep Ellum neighborhood was very much a throwback to the '60s “Summer of Love”; everybody dug each other--ecstacy was still legal and the legal drinking age was still 18--and most people were really open to experiencing new things.

Kenny Withrow picked up on the rapid sea change right away: “I actually went to both shows. It was like Deep Ellum just totally transformed that weekend," he says. “I mean, I was just this hippie kid from East Dallas, everything was about peace and love and art and all that. I was really looking forward to the shows. I couldn’t wait to check it out.”

For Withrow, the first Butthole Surfers performance started out with a great deal of promise.

“It freaked me the fucked out,” he says. “The first three minutes of the show was some of the most amazing art I had ever seen in my life. The band was just killin’ it. It was intense. Paul Leary was playing the most incredible shit on his guitar. The film projections were from the perspective of someone on a speedboat. It really was a beautiful thing.”

Then came the radical shift into pure unadulterated psychosis.

Withrow continues: “A couple of songs into it, once the 'Mechanized Death' videos came on, it was just all over. Everybody started freaking out when the acid kicked in and we all realized that we were watching a bunch of dead bodies and dismembered carcasses. I remember thinking, 'Oh, wow. I guess it’s gonna be like this now, huh?'"

While it was apparent that many hardcore Surfers fans in the crowd were really into it, the graphic snuff films were just too much for a lot of people to deal with.

“Of course, everybody there was trippin’ on something,” Withrow recalls. “And no one had ever seen anything like that. It just freaked everybody out. About halfway through, nobody could even stand next to each other. I went to the show with my brother and he just looked at me and asked, ‘Why would people do this? What is wrong with these people?’ And it just kept going on and on and on and on. I saw really good friends who were looking at me like they were just different people altogether. Everybody had become the Butthole Surfers' minions and they were out doing their evil work.”

New Bohemians lead vocalist Edie Brickell didn’t dig it at all. She and I were sitting on the balcony above the bar when a vivid projection of a graphic Driver’s Ed film showed twisted and bloody bodies being pulled from a hideous car wreck. That was all she needed to see of the Butthole Surfers live show. Brickell got up and walked out after the fourth song.

Three days later, Edie traded in her VW Bug and bought herself a big, sturdy mustard-yellow pick-up truck.

During that same week, Castell received a frantic telephone message from Gibby Haynes.

This man spawned Gibby Haynes.

“He called me up screaming his head off, saying ‘There is no snare drum on here you asshole! How could you forget to set up a microphone on the snare drum?’ I had no idea what he was talking about. I had set up a mic for the snare drum--I heard it on the playback through the headphones all night. I knew it was there. I thought maybe he was still jacking around with me for no reason.”

A couple of days after that, Haynes actually called back and apologized, saying that he had been mistakenly listening to a tape from a different performance in another city.

In retrospect, Castell says the experience wasn’t a total nightmare.

“At least I got to meet Mr. Peppermint that weekend.” --Jeffrey Liles

The Butthole Surfers perform on Wednesday, October 22, at the Granada Theater. For some kinda shocking information on what the Surfers have been up to these days, check out Jesse Hughey's interview with Haynes in this week's Observer, which should be online shortly.

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