An Oral History of May 3, 1987: The Day The Butthole Surfers Came to Trenton, New Jersey
Randy Now: That Butthole Surfers show is another one of those shows that 5,000 people claim they were at, but only 500 or so tickets were sold. I loved the band, I really did. The Buttholes played three shows for me before this one. The first time was an all-ages show at a little place called New York South. The second time I booked them was at City Gardens with The Replacements. That weird bill happened because the Buttholes pretty much lived on the road. They would call up and ask for a gig, and then you would never hear from them again until the day of the show. You just had to believe that they would show up. So The Replacements wanted to play the same day and we hadn’t heard back from the Buttholes. We didn’t know if they were going to show up or not, and it was six weeks until the show date. And so I thought, why not just book The Replacements too? Leave the Buttholes on the bill, but then also have The Replacements play. We left them both on the advertising, I’m not sure who opened for who. I guess the Replacements opened for the Buttholes.
Gibby Haynes: My strongest memory of City Gardens is showing to play a show on one of our first tours and we didn’t confirm the gig in advance. So when we got to the club, the marquee out front said “Tonight: The Replacements.” I just thought it was ironic that we got replaced by The Replacements.
Randy Now: The third time was a great show. They were getting more popular and the audience loved them. They had three or four encores, people just couldn’t get enough.
Tony Rettman: I was really young. My older brother Don used to take me to shows, but the Butthole Surfers’ music was totally over my head. It just sounded like a jet landing—forever. Just a blur of noise. I remember one show where they had swear words written all over their bodies, like, “shit” and “fuck” written on their faces. And it wasn’t like something they did for the show, because they drove up and were hanging out the whole night before they played with cuss words written all over their faces. And I thought, “that’s pretty badass.”
Tim Hinely: It’s hard to describe exactly what a Butthole Surfers gig was like unless you were there. When kids these days tell me how wild or crazy their favorite band is, like Slipknot or Marilyn Manson, I utter three words to them: “The Butthole Surfers.” For starters they were total freaks. Drummer King Koffey and his “sister” Theresa played the double drums like they were from another planet, the bassist Jeff had a backwards Mohawk and looked like he was having trouble staying awake, guitarist Paul Leary was cross-eyed on purpose Last, but certainly not least, was seven-foot tall, Gibby Haynes. No shirt, gut hanging out, long greasy hair, yelling at whomever he could yell at. The guy was fucking scary.
Mickey Ween: That was the band we would sit around and listen to and get high. And you get these pictures in your head, “What are the guys who make this shit really like?!” It was just so insane. And then you find out the truth, and they’re even worse, even more insane, than you imagined.
Tim Hinely: Some of the bands that played the club were really polarizing. A skinhead band would play and the skinheads would be into it, but no one else would be, or a non-skinhead band would play and the skinheads would flip them off. But when the Buttholes played, everyone was into it. The skater kids, the hardcores, the skinheads, the punk geeks, everyone was into it. There was so much insanity that all genres were put aside.
Randy Now: They were pretty big at this point and starting to break through – they had just released Hurdy Gurdy Man, which got airplay on MTV and they had a lot of their own sound and light equipment. They had a projection screen showing films that had nude scenes and Ohio State Trooper accident films and stuff like that.
Gibby Haynes: Those were real 16mm films. To find those films I had to do research at University of Texas, looking in reference books and tracking things down. Back then you had to be pretty imaginative to get those kinds of films. The people who had things like penis reconstruction films were very sensitive about distribution. You had to call up and pretend you were a doctor. We would have stuff mailed to our house outside of town that were addressed to The Pathology Wing, at So-and-So Hospital, Dr. Gibson Haynes.
Tim Hinely: They played right before this show at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ and it was a wild affair to be sure. The band that played prior to them, The Serial Killers, had thrown cans of dog food out into the crowd so it was smeared all over the floor and it made everything very slippery. The place was packed to the gills, steaming hot and there was dog food all over the place. I haven’t even mentioned the naked lady dancer—with a beard, who had not bathed in a year—the smoke machine, strobe lights and the films playing behind them of gory car crashes from the 1960’s.
Gibby Haynes: I was in charge of the show. I thought if I couldn’t really sing, then I might as well put on a show. So at first it was smoke and strobes. And then it was lots of smoke and lots of strobes. Completely fill the club with smoke until you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, with a pulsing, bright-as-shit light that would make you vomit and convulse. We would make effigies out of newspaper and then tear them up in the strobe light, which was cool because it looked like you were tearing a human apart. We would dress up the dummies the same way we were dressed, and then jump behind an amp and throw out the dummy and rip it up.
Randy Now: So, the show was booked and I kept hearing that all across the country that they had a nude dancer onstage. When they showed up that day I asked Gibby to not have the girl dancing nude, because it was an all-ages show and there would be kids there. And he said “okay” which really meant, “fuck you.”
Tim Hinely: The bill was Butthole Surfers, Malcolm Tent, Cleft Palate and Ween.
Mickey Ween: There were four bands. We were first, then Cleft Palate, and then a punk-rock accordion player named Malcolm Tent. There were three bands with no drums opening for a band with two drummers. I had seen Buttholes before and they were my favorite band at the time, but Aaron (Gene Ween) hadn’t seen them yet. And it was our first real club gig and it was total luck that we would open for our favorite band. We watched them do soundcheck and it all seemed pretty normal, just a regular band setup. And Aaron was like, “So what’s the big deal?” because I had told him all these stories about what mayhem it is when they play. But when they went on to play, it was suddenly a whole different thing.
Randy Now: The dancer takes her top off the very first song, but it was hard to see her because she was behind the two drummers and the film projections were reflecting off of the drums. But she was topless and I knew when (club owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone) saw her, he was going to go berserk, because it was his ass on the line in the end if some little kid goes home and tells mommy that there was a naked lady on stage. And it was huge crowd too.
Mickey Ween: Her name was Ta-da: The Shit Lady. Like, Ta-da! She had taken a vow of silence and didn’t talk.
Gibby Haynes: That was the first tour with Kathleen as our dancer. Generally, she was totally naked. She was from Atlanta and she was part of the crazy Atlanta music scene. Lady Claire, RuPaul and Frank Floyd Felecia, that whole group from Atlanta. We used to play a club there with a little bitty stage and we saw this band with two women; Kathleen played drums and Cabbage danced. But we got them mixed up. So when our drummer Theresa quit and we wanted another girl drummer, we were so loaded we got it backwards. We thought, let’s get Cabbage, thinking she was the drummer. And she sucked. Really bad. And then when Theresa came back, we got Kathleen as our dancer, who was actually the drummer. She was the drummer we really wanted but didn’t get, and then she became our dancer.
Tom Hinely: Guys just started elbowing each other and some of the punks were yelling lewd stuff at her. Not that I think she even noticed.
Tom Stanics: I was working the soda bar and I remember being pretty shocked when I looked up and saw a topless chick dancing onstage.
Tim Hinely: Parents were screaming at Randy. Parents who took their kids to the show and maybe were just going to hang out in the back were freaking out. There was the naked woman onstage and then Paul from the Buttholes pulled his pants down and was flipping his dick around. I remember turning around and seeing some moms and dads totally losing it.
Tony Rettman: I was 12 years old and I see this topless woman on stage, so I’m like, “Wow! Boobs!” It was the first time I saw naked boobs in person that didn’t belong to a family member. And the band looked really green and I didn’t know if they painted themselves or if they just had scurvy. I remember Gibby saying all this weird stuff like, “Don’t you hate it when your dad walks in and you have a wine bottle up your ass?”
Mark Pesetsky: I was onstage just acting as general security. The crowd was going nuts pretty much the entire show. When the crowd first saw the naked woman they went crazy, then it wore off and became old hat. After that they just focused on the band.
Tim Hinely: Something seemed a bit weirder about this gig… I mean, all was going smashingly. They played “Cherub,” “BBQ Pope,” “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave,” and , of course, their hit single, “Lady Sniff.” Complete with all the farting noises one can stand.
Mickey Ween: They dropped pieces of confetti that had cockroaches on them. Little white pieces of paper the size of a matchbook with a cockroach picture on each side. I don’t where they got this shit but they had bags and bags of it. I remember playing at City Gardens like six months later, and this confetti was still falling out of the lighting trusses. Like, up to a year later you would walk around the stage and find these little pieces of paper with cockroaches on them leftover from the Buttholes show.
Gibby Haynes: That stuff hung around. Three years ago, I coughed one up.
Randy: I know Tut’s going to go crazy when he sees this whole thing, so I kept him distracted and had him in the back counting bottles of Jack Daniels or something. Almost the whole set was finished, but he finally comes out and he sees what’s going on and tells me to go up on the stage and tell the dancer that she has to put her top on. I’m up there doing hand signals and waving, and they just ignored me. Of course Tut wouldn’t get involved himself, he’s just standing in the back yelling at me to go do something. We had this big on/off breaker switch that fed the power to the stage. It was gigantic; it looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie from the 20’s it was so huge. He’s yelling, “Pull the plug! Pull the plug!” And that thing just cut the power to the stage and so we pulled it.
Tony Rettman: Gibby set his arm on fire and he was waving it at people. When things got crazy, I was too young to be scared, I didn’t know enough to know that things like that aren’t supposed to happen.
Tim Hinely: Everyone realized the plug got pulled and was pissed. People were yelling, “Bouncers suck!”
Mickey Ween: And that set off a whole series of events. The lights came on and the PA went out, and the whole place was filled with smoke, either from a smoke machine or his burning arm, and when the house lights go up, you could see everyone for the first time. The two drummers kept going and Gibby had the bullhorn and it turned into this tribal hell. That’s what was so great about seeing the Buttholes, it was like you were in Hell, especially if you’re on drugs.
Randy Now: After we pulled the plug they kept on playing and starting pouring rubbing alcohol onto the drum cymbals, setting it on fire and then hitting them so that the fire flew all over the place.
Mickey Ween: I was watching them from the dressing room window, which was up over the stage. And they started doing the thing with the cymbal, he would pour rubbing alcohol into the cymbal and let it burn at this low blue flame until he hit it and the flames would shoot up. The flames were hitting the ceiling and then going horizontal, creeping along the roof. I don’t know if it actually caught on fire or was just smoldering, but it was clear it was all about to go up.
Mark Pesetsky: I see fire flying everywhere, meanwhile the insulation from the ceiling is hanging down and I’m thinking that’s going to catch on fire any minute. So I started grabbing their beer and throwing it on the cymbals to douse the fire.
Randy Now: Fire was a sore subject to begin with, because before that we had Wendy O. Williams from The Plasmatics. She had a little cherry picker that she would use to go out over the crowd and she set the ceiling on fire. A bouncer had to grab a fire extinguisher and put it out. Fire was always an issue at the club because bands always wanted to do stuff with it.
Mickey Ween: A security guard came onstage and Gibby threw the alcohol on him. The dude just started backing away, it was clear that Gibby probably would set him on fire. And now, knowing Gibby like I do, it was definitely within the realm of possibility.
Mark Pesetsky: And Gibby just gave me that psycho look with the Charles Manson eyes. He grabs a bottle of the rubbing alcohol and throws it on me and then starts walking towards me with a lighter. And John, the other bouncer, just jumps offstage. It was every man for himself at that point.
Gibby Haynes: Oh yeah, I do remember that. I mean, I’ve lit kids’ heads on fire and they were smiling! They were happy about it. If I was on fire, they figured they were safe too. When I say light their head on fire, I don’t engulf their head in flames. If you cover your hand in alcohol and light it on fire, for a quick moment you can touch the top of someone’s head and leave a handprint of flame on top of their head. And it’s really cool to look at. And people don’t even realize that their head’s been lit on fire, that’s how benign it is.
Mark Pesetsky: We turned around and went back to the stage and we were both ready to hit him. I went up to Gibby and tapped him on the shoulder and he turns around and sticks his hand out to shake my hand. So, I just shook his hand. But, when they were loading out, I stole his guitar tuner.
Gibby Haynes: Alcohol burns at such a really low temperature. You can dump it on your hand and go “one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, whoa!!!” and that’s how long you have before you feel it. Gas, you want to put it out quicker, but it’s a lot harder to put out. The first time I ever lit my hand on fire, I used lighter fluid and the flame would not go out. You have to deprive it 100% of oxygen before it will relinquish its fiery grip and it’s a bitch. It’s a bummer to put it out once it gets going. I learned all this through trial and error.
Randy Now: The insulation caught on fire—or at least it seemed like it was going to—and that’s when Tut ran up on stage with the fire extinguisher. He didn’t say anything, he just walked up there like he was the maintenance man and putting out fires was part of his job. But with me, he was panicking, cursing and yelling, but when he ran up on stage he was all calm. But the band had no reaction, they were just sort of laughing. It was so surreal that maybe they didn’t realize the battle that was going on. There was battle happening on that stage and it was The Bouncers vs. Gibby.
Gibby Haynes: We tried to create chaos, but it was never mean-spirited. It was never exploitative in nature. I would never play nasty pranks on people. There was no real philosophy behind it.
Mickey Ween: I remember seeing Tut in the middle of all of it. The band was a really intimidating band to look at. And they’re not pussies. I know guys in bands and they’re all artsy-farsty, they play tough music but they are not tough people. But Paul and Gibby are pretty athletic. They aren’t people you’d want to fight. And I just always assumed that those guys were on LSD. Gibby’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, he can talk about anything, but you wouldn’t want to mess with him.
Randy Now: At one point I was up onstage and I just remember grabbing Gibby and shaking him. And I grabbed a towel and tried to put it on the dancer but she just ripped it off.
Mickey Ween: The drummers kept playing, Gibby is screaming on the megaphone, the staff opened the doors to kick people out, and that was it. The show was officially over. The part that got scary was when the audience realized the show was over. Then they started breaking stuff up.
Randy Now: The soundman was trying to protect our equipment because we had no idea what was going on. But they managed to steal that big old 24-channel cable that I had just bought! I’m still pissed about it! How did they roll up a 100-foot cable and take it and no one saw? But the soundman is up there acting like nothing else is going on. He’s putting the mikes into boxes, and the fire didn’t bother him and the fire extinguisher didn’t bother him, acting like nothing bizarre was going on. He acted oblivious.
Tim Hinely: Everyone was just sort of milling around, yelling at the band, yelling at the bouncers, yelling at Randy. And finally Randy came over the intercom and said, “Okay guys, it’s time to go.” And everyone finally started leaving.
Mickey Ween: When they got thrown outside, they started taking the gravel and the rocks from the parking lot and throwing them. I remember someone throwing shit onto the cars and kicking out the headlights and grills of the cars parked along the front of the club. And that to me is what made it a certified riot. It’s was like, “What the hell is going to happen here?” And I think Randy’s car got targeted.
Randy Now: Some of the people went out and started smashing cars—they were really charged up. We finally cleared the audience out and then the band refused to leave. We had to call the police to get them out of the building. I told the cops, “This band refuses to leave the building.” And the cops showed up and were just like, “Look, you guys gotta leave.”
Gibby Haynes: Was there police involvement? That’s because we wanted to get paid. We didn’t get paid! I want it known that’s why we didn’t leave. I remember talking to really absurdly dressed state police. Dudes who looked like they were wearing English riding pants.
Randy Now: And so when they agreed to leave, that’s when I paid Gibby the other 50% I owed them from the guarantee. I said, “I need you to sign this before I give you the money.” I counted it out and held it in my hand and refused to give it over until he signed the receipt. Honestly, there was such a large crowd there, they probably could have gotten bonus money, but I wasn’t about to give them that. And now I’m glad, especially since they stole the cable! But I paid them their whole guarantee, which was $2,500.
Of course after that, we could never book them again. We told their booking agent what happened—they started a riot onstage, tried to set a security guard on fire. I’m not sure if told them about the naked women. Their agent, Steve Martin from Nasty Little Man, called me a bunch of dirty names, reamed me out. Somehow when the story got back to him, I was to blame.
Tony Rettmen: When I look back on it, it was pretty fucked up on so many levels. What was I doing in the middle of Trenton? Why was I seeing a naked woman? Why was I hearing this music? I was 12!
Mickey Ween: Sometimes I think people don’t believe me when I tell them what our first gig was like. I was never concerned for my safety, the whole time. It’s still the best show I’ve ever seen, to this day.
From the upcoming book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving: How a Seedy New Jersey Club Defined an Era, an oral history of 80s and 90s-era alternative/punk music told through the portal of one club—Trenton, New Jersey’s legendary City Gardens.