Hairway To Steven

Hairway To Steven is my favorite Butthole Surfers album. Every song on it is gold. It’s one of the greatest experimental rock albums of all time, easily on par with Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. I have the original Touch & Go release from 1988, with the impossible-to-remove MADE IN CANADA sticker. This disc is thirty years old.

The glyphs on the disc itself do not relate to the tracks in any way that I’m aware of (for the most part), but I will notate them here. The cover of the album features freaky photos of the band members superimposed upon each other.

It’s as wonderful to look at as the music is to listen to while on drugs. I tried for fifteen minutes to improve that last sentence. No dice.

The inside cover has the picture of Gibby Haynes, lead singer. You might have seen him as a screaming audience member in Alex Winter’s Freaked, or as the director of the commercial for (cocaine-laced) GWAR Cereal in Phallus In Wonderland (1992). He was hilarious in both instances. (He’s on the right, below.)

The first track on this masterpiece is “Jimi”. On the disc, it’s represented by a crude drawing of a nude man and woman playing baseball. The woman is at bat, standing over a puddle, and the man is pitching while shitting, with an erection.

This might be one of the greatest opening tracks of all time. If you’ve never heard this before, I envy you.

Around 2:30, Gibby starts quoting Tom Berenger from Platoon, which was barely a year old when this album came out.

 According to bassist Jeff Pinkus, the band had been performing most of these songs for years before recording them for this album. Many of the band’s previous releases had been piecework affairs, recorded over several months in numerous studios, and their songs underwent far more in-studio development.

Butthole Surfers opted to follow this album’s blueprint on future recordings, entering the studio with more fully formed songs than they had in the past. Pinkus has expressed the opinion that these better-organized recording sessions stifled much of the spontaneous creativity that had propelled the group’s previous albums. [Wikipedia]

No joke, Hairway To Steven is one of the most spontaneous-sounding and creative albums I’ve ever heard! Ever!

Some people check out when things get crazy, at 5:30. Hang in there, even through the wall of feedback that builds up block by block (and the creepy high-pitched vocals). Trust me.

At 7:38, the noise clears, and you hear a bell ringing. “Lurch” from The Addams Family says “You rang?” and an acoustic guitar begins to play, cuing a softer drum beat. Sheep and other animals become audible, as though you are now in a beautiful meadow. People mutter, birds chirp and dogs bark. A bowler rolls a perfect strike.

You tell me; how many opening cuts are better than that?!?

“Ricky”, the second track, picks the pace back up with excellent rhythm guitar work from Paul Leary. On the disc, it’s represented by a urinating male horse. Pinkus and Leary keep perfect time with the drummer, who is either King Coffey or Teresa Nervosa, while Gibby howls in psychedelic style. This is possibly one the Surfers’ best songs.

When I was a college freshman in 1990, Spin magazine was well worth reading. Once, they printed a top ten list of what they claimed were the most revolting, off-putting songs in rock history. I actually discovered some bands through this list, by researching the ones I didn’t recognize. Even if I could somehow find it, much of the list wouldn’t surprise you; it included “I Saw Your Mommy” (Suicidal Tendencies), “Code Blue” (T.S.O.L.), and “I’m In Love With A Dead Dog” (GWAR, this was before “B.D.F.”). Also on the list was “I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas”. 

On the disc it is represented by a pair of crudely-drawn naked women, bending over at the waist, as viewed from behind. You want a song that speaks for itself? This is it.

This was Teresa Nervosa’s last album as drummer with the Surfers. If you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s classic indie film Slacker, that’s Teresa trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear. She’s literally the poster child of the film; that’s her on the poster. If you’ve never seen Slacker, do so.

Even more quotable than the last track is the next; “John E. Smoke”. Appropriately enough, the corresponding glyph on the disc is a burning cigarette. It opens with Gibby addressing a probably faux audience with a babbling tall tale about the titular Smoke.

“John E. was a little crippled midget lesbian boy but he stood ten foot tall with a knife.”

Behold the thundering drums and guitar. I told you; every song on this album is great.

Next up is “Rocky”. It’s an absolute beaut. You might know it as the “all of our friends have gone insane” song. This is why some of us got really steamed when people acted like “Pepper” was a good song from a band they just discovered. That song sucks as anything but financial success for a deserving fringe band, and we knew how great the band was long before you, because of this:

Just excellent interplay between every band member, and a well-crafted tune. On the disc, it’s represented by a hypodermic syringe. Draw your own conclusions. In any case, has there been anything short of genius thus far?

Track six is “Julio Iglesias”. The cartoon on the disc is a fish and a shitting, leaping rabbit. The song is total rockabilly insanity with the funniest lyrics of the entire album.

Julio Iglesias
Jacked off in outer-spacias
Did 69 with the pope in the butthole
Rammed that sucker head down in the throat now

Julio he had a mole
Went to the doctor with a fiery pole
Saw the nurse what did he see
Loved to watch his sister pee

Pinkus goes totally bugfuck on the bass throughout, and it’s glorious. Both he and Leary rock the fuck out the song. See for yourself:

In 1996, the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias released an album called Tango, which of course we stocked at my record store. I worked on a comedy routine based on the fact that for the album cover, it looked like the photographer just rolled Julio out of bed.

 

“Mr. Iglesias, wake up… we’re here to take the picture for your album…”

(groggily) “No, no… no…”

“Mr. Iglesias, it’s for your new album, it’s called Tango.”

“Tango, no… no Tango…”

“Just sit up. We can do this in five minutes.”

(I didn’t say it was a good comedy routine.)

With the sign of the shitting moose and shitting eagle, we go into “Backass”, winding things down a bit before the final track. It’s a bit like Black Sabbath, but with more terror and madness in the lead guitar.

It’s almost a bookend to “Jimi”, with the driving beat and distorted guitar peals.

The closer is perhaps my favorite. On the disc, it’s represented by a rocket shooting towards a crescent moon, with a face, like in the old cartoons. It’s called “Fast”, but you may know it as the “I wanna set the place on fire” song. It is, admittedly, quite fast.

There you have it, my friends; Hairway To Steven, my favorite Butthole Surfers album. A masterpiece. There are many others that I love, but none as much as this one, and none that hooked me like this one did. It’s a brilliant work of musical art in under forty-five minutes and few albums are its equal. If I haven’t convinced you of that fact by this point, nothing will.

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