Donovan, Butthole Surfers, Transcendence, the Perfect Woman

While listening to some old Donovan tunes, it occurred to me that God parting the Red Sea was a pretty good miracle, but still within the thinking caps of the ancients. What would really have impressed me, and Pharaoh I think, after all the stick snakes and deluge of frog nonsense, would have been a Carnival Cruise Lines ship there picking the Jews up and taking them off on an all expenses paid vacation. I don’t care how hardened Pharaoh’s heart had been then, that’d have been a winner.

So Donovan is a kind of mind-bender, Mellow Yellow, while at times obviously overproduced and welded inexorably to the middle-aged producer expectations of music of the mid-sixties, or as Zappa would call them, the cigar-chomping guys in suits, has a lot of carnival pablum interspersed with some very clever and catchy folk style songs. Those cigar-chomping guys grew up with twenties arts, and so we ended up–in the sixties–with strange throw-backs to an era no one alive now has a connection to with things like “Winchester Cathedral”, and the Beatles doing absolutely non-rock pieces like “When I’m Sixty-four”. It’s an interesting leap from the rockabilly of Chuck Berry and Link Wray, which launched all those British Invasion kids, to the sounds of Cole Porter who would be dead in 1964 as the invasion got underway and I was born!

There’s this old theory of fashion and psychology that states whatever was going on when you were a tot becomes the mythic “good stuff” of culture, it becomes your preferred culture. Many of my favorite things do indeed reflect that precision, the giant-eye-lashed girls in go-go boots and sack dresses doing the Mashed Potato behind lip-syncing bands on television broadcasts. The artistic aesthetic of Lava Lamps and black and white Godzilla (or any monster) movies. I love movies with Jean-Paul Belmondo or Lee Marvin driving Renaults around dangerous curves. And I’ve still never really gotten over the calculus in my mind that the ideal woman is Goldie Hawn from the film version of Butterflies Are Free.

As I time travel forward from this era, however, into my twenties in the mid-eighties I become an aficionado of the Punk Rock. To do so, I all but become exclusive about it. I relegate my Psychedelic Rock, my old British Invasion disks, and even my Creedence to the back of the stacks. Records were my lifeblood, I lived, ate, and breathed albums. I didn’t see the point to any other artistic expression, at the time, and I had strong, possibly testosterone induced officious opinions about all of it. I could rail at you for an hour about why you should be in awe of Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, X and the Minutemen and forget your Tull and Doors and Hendrix. The sophistry included a lot about realism, and dedication to the art of the everyman rather than the haughty overproduced wealth and glut of the Led Zeppelins and Bostons. This was as much taught directly to me a few years before by The Sex Pistols themselves, it was their argument as well. Music should be in our own hands, it’s a participation “sport”. And join in that sport I did, with my group of disaffected young men who basically argued with each other until we created these lock-step, four or five minute riffs with a teen angst lyric plastered over. It was fine, but never satisfied me. I keep needing it to take another step, be something a bit more exhaustive. I couldn’t tell you at the time but the niggling answer to the problem was something along the line of our lack of musicianship x my testosterone frustration (lack of sex, and a desire to somehow achieve manliness through the power of music) all divided by the four lonesome souls that made up the corners of this cellar rock band wound up producing in me a greater lack of satisfaction than the earnings I blew on some broken used amplifiers when my pre-CBS Princeton couldn’t cut through the din of our shit P.A. system.

The singer, as is usually the case, always had a girlfriend, and we would all roll our eyes and suffer a bit inwardly when he changed them as frequently as sneakers. A good part of punk, at least as I saw it, was that nothing–not effort nor money—need be invested in a look or style. Punk was what you had. Of course, not everyone felt this way and millions were made selling so-called punks their style, which baffled me.
Years later, after all of this was just kind of an embarrassing youthful mess of expectations unmet, arguments undead, and relationships crotch-kicked too many times we finally called it quits after expanding the band into a larger unit that, while having more musical potential couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to keep me from arrogantly treating the whole enterprise like it was a joke. I didn’t mean it guys! I was just stupid.

I don’t remember how it happened but around this era I got my hands on a Butthole Surfers record. I think it was Rembrandt Pussyhorse, which has some of the darkest and most singable tunes on it. I must have spun that disk 1000 times and thought to myself, this is it. I developed my passion (which is what passion is, not found, but developed) for the guitar styling of Paul Leary, and fell head-over-heels in love with the irreverent wildness of one Gibson Haynes. It wasn’t long before I also had Locust Abortion Technician and the one with the horrible image of what looked like a rotting corpse on the cover, as well as a couple of expanded twelve inch disks with pieces that were evidently jams and other psychic weirdness like “Moving to Florida”, a one tone beat-bash with Gibby sounding like an aged drunk explaining to us that “LBJ was a soviet Jew” and that “they be makin’ tadpoles the size of Mercurys down in Florida that be telling Julio Iglesias what to sing”. I was enthralled with this irreverent weirdness. When I saw them live, I went alone, I couldn’t interest anyone else in the value of this band, despite the venue (the old Living Room in Providence) being packed. They were loud, and at times didn’t even seem to be playing a song. Gibby lit his hand on fire and offered it to the audience. He ran about looking totally like a drug-addled street person and while on the face of it I didn’t know how to express what I as getting, the man was more entertaining than anything I’d ever seen or heard previously. He was just what I needed when I needed it. They ran disturbing films on a sixteen mm projector directly over themselves and the entire experience was something transcendent. Later I understood that it was nothing less than a full on sensory abolishment. I’d had a transcendent experience. When I got back to my cellar band I couldn’t explain it. Each example I gave of the thrill I got from the show left my guys looking concerned or just unaffected. “I wouldn’t think you’d like that kind of thing,” my bassist and best friend said. “You gotta go next time they come, you just gotta see it.” I gushed like a believer. And, of course, nothing I could do with my band, playing the same tunes we’d been working on for years, our repetitive one riff blasts, could no longer surprise or satisfy me.

I had always been disinterested in covering songs. I was sort of a hard-ass when it came to who we were and who we should be. But then, even the Sex Pistols covered songs (though not PiL). But the Butthole Surfers covered several. High on the list was their amazing blast of “American Woman” by the Guess Who. In all honesty it’s a fairly raucous and straight jam of the song. Gibby doesn’t stay true to the lyrics at all, he invents his own rather bizarre scenes of police and loudspeakers, but the song is wonderful. The same with Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”, transformed into “Sweat Loaf”, which when done live had Gibby riffing from the Doors’ “The End”. All of a sudden my having grown up with the older rock was making sense. The Butthole Surfers weren’t shitting on anything, they were celebrating all of it in their own wild and some might say Texan way. Then came their cover of Donovan. I didn’t even know what a Donovan was. I’d been all through Bob Dylan and even had a good feel for many of the old folk and blues guys that were referenced by Captain Beefheart through to Zeppelin but, Donovan had slipped by. When the Butthole Surfers did “Hurdy Gurdy Man” I could not imagine that I was listening to a psychedelic rock song by a cute, beloved sixties troubadour. But there it was, in all its glory, Donovan was done true. The Butthole Surfers barely fuck around. Maybe I misread the irreverence! Imagine calling your band the Butthole Surfers. Who could be that brave?
During the 90s Stereolab got me fully into Krautrock, and Beefheart’s introduction to Ornette Coleman took me down that long freejazz warren informing me of the “punk rock” of Coltrane and Ayers. I’m no longer an exclusivist, I’ve grown up and embrace all the milestones and all the great musicians.

In picking up a recently released (just weeks ago) book about Can (All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Young and Schmidt, 2018) I have been transported once again to the sixties and seventies to find out that these legends, these musical heroes of mine, were once again regular folk. They were full of arguments and expectations and efforts that failed and others that unexpectedly took off. It always blows my mind that people who do admirable things are just like everyone else. They’re dedicated workers, building passion and hoping for the best. It shouldn’t be something that surprises us, but almost everything in our culture points away from this truth. We love a genius myth. A genius myth also exonerates us of blame when we don’t succeed. But it’s wholly unnecessary, there’s a lot of good luck involved in success. And we need to recognize it and be kind in the meantime.

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