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Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean?: by Aaron Tanner

Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean?: by Aaron Tanner

The book starts to feel like the equivalent of listening in on friends as they swap tantalizing but vague stories about the epic show you missed last week.

Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean?: by Aaron Tanner

2.5 / 5

For those of us unlucky enough to have missed them in their prime, the Butthole Surfers can seem more like an urban legend than a band. They were the underbelly of the underbelly of the Reagan-era American underground: acid-fried Texan punks whose sensory-overload live shows frequently crossed the fine line between performance art and psychosis. As Mickey Melchiondo (better known as Dean Ween) writes in the foreword of the new book Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean?, “I’ve heard so many outrageous stories about them that I wouldn’t have any idea where to even begin—but I can tell you this for fact—all the stories about them are either true, or the truth Is worse than you heard.”

Unfortunately, those of us who weren’t there for the Buttholes’ initial reign of terror are just going to have to take Melchiondo at his word; because as a document of the group, What Does Regret Mean? aspires to little more than a prestige-packaged recycling of the same “outrageous stories” we’ve been hearing since the mid-‘80s. Assembled with the band’s permission, albeit apparently not their interest—frontman Gibby Haynes is quick to note that “the book wasn’t our idea” in the press release—Regret cobbles together concert flyers, live photographs, album artwork and other memorabilia for an impressionistic gloss of the Buttholes’ almost 40-year career, from their early days in San Antonio in 1981 to their most recent reunion gigs in late 2017. This visual history is punctuated by testimonials from fellow-travelers including Henry Rollins, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, whose short blurbs effectively reprise the same themes as Melchiondo’s foreword: the Buttholes were an awe-inspiringly bizarre live act, maybe the best of their generation, who influenced everyone who was anyone in ‘80s and ‘90s alternative rock. But with only context-free photos to chronicle the chaos, the book starts to feel like the equivalent of listening in on friends as they swap tantalizing but vague stories about the epic show you missed last week.

This is not to say that Regret is completely without historical value. The materials assembled by curator and designer Aaron Tanner are a treasure trove of Buttholes ephemera, and the zine-like presentation of the book’s pages feel true to the band’s aesthetic—as true as they can be, anyway, within the decidedly un-punk medium of an expensive limited-run coffee table book. A few of the stories are notably amusing: Chris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, for example, recalls getting high in the band’s truck and speculating that they were having sexual relations with their pet dog, prompting a hilariously deadpan reaction from guitarist Paul Leary. While it’s hard to tell the degree to which it was Tanner’s intention, there’s also an interesting narrative arc to be found in the visual evolution of the band and their artwork: from the Xeroxed punk flyers of the early years to the glossy posters and professional press releases of their brief period as MTV/Lollapalooza darlings, effectively mirroring the post-Nirvana boom of American alternative rock writ large. This subtext would be a lot better served, however, if it were framed by more substantive commentary; even just a few excerpts from the tantalizing press clippings included in Tanner’s collages would be a fine first step.

Of course, books like this also have a kind of intrinsic value as objects, which isn’t necessarily reflected in their content; and based on available photos and descriptions, What Does Regret Mean? really does appear to be an impressive object. The limited release also includes a flexi-disc featuring a previously unreleased Butthole Surfers track, “Locust Abortion Technician Medley,” which increases its value as a curio. But because this review is based on a PDF of the book, I can only really consider the content—and the content has left me convinced that the Butthole Surfers deserve a history that is as rich textually as this one is visually.

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