Whether it was because of the book’s great quality or simply because it was the first to address the merits of the bands which erupted out of the American underground music scene in the 1980s, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life truly did set a standard that any other book which intended to cover any of the bands included in it would have to meet. Part of that has to with the fact Azerrad’s a really good writer who is capable of covering a significant amount of time and including all of the pertinent events which occurred in it succinctly and with no obvious gaps which would imply that anything was left out or glossed over. In that way, readers are left feeling as though they know/understand the band they just read about and are excited to read about the next, in sequence. That is a talent for which the journalist Azerrad deserved to be commended, and one which is put into poignant relief early as one reads Let’s Go To Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers by James Burns.
Unlike Azerrad (who is a journalist and writes with the discipline of that occupation), James Burns’ appreciation of the Butthole Surfers is far more fan-oriented, and that fan’s sense of excitement fairly drops from each of the book’s 485 pages. In addition to his own telling of “The Butthole Surfers Story,” readers will find that Burns has gone a few steps further and included appendices of cover songs that the band played live as well as when they were performed and chronologies of shows, practices and recording sessions, as well as a discography which includes album liner notes and band member opinions of the sessions and records at the end of the book. In short, the novel goes to great lengths – between the interviews conducted and the research done – to ensure that everything any fan or other interested party looking for information on the Butthole Surfers can find what they’re looking for here; in that particular regard, Let’s Go To Hell trumps the Butthole Surfers’ portion of Our Band Could Be Your Life quite ably. Where it comes up short of Azerrad’s book is in the fact that it reads as though it was written by a fan – not a professional.
First and foremost, the greatest fault of Let’s Go To Hell lies in the obvious lack of editorial care taken with it. Various faux pas like spelling (the high school, college and university level English tutor in this critic had to actively resist uttering phrases like, “That’s ‘disperse’ on page 51, not ‘disburse,’ and that should be ‘sought after’ and not ‘sort after’ on page 69. Oh – and it should be ‘uncharted’ on page 108, not ‘unchartered,’ Mr. Burns.”) and grammatical errors as well as intermittent troubles with sentence structure and punctuation appear throughout this text, leading one to wonder who was asleep at the proverbial production board; granted, every writer makes mistakes like these on occasion (including THIS critic – ask my editors), but those who know are perfectly able to spot and correct such simple issues, why did that not happen in Let’s Go To Hell?
Editorial problems continue throughout Let’s Go To Hell as readers discover Burns’ perennial habit of making a point and then going to great lengths (thereby expending a tremendous amount of ink) to develop the minutiae around it before finally reiterating it once again. A great example of such a phenomenon can be found beginning on page 128 when it is revealed that bassist Trevor Malcolm left the band, perhaps in the middle of the night, in 1985. That point could be made and perhaps colored a bit with a quote within a single paragraph (perhaps two) and then left behind, but not in this book; here, discussion of the finer points around what was really a very short-lived member of the band stretches over a two-and-a-half-page span. It’s the definition of overkill and/or overwriting.
As frustrating and overwritten as Let’s Go To Hell can occasionally be however, there are other portions of the story which are just so good that it makes the moments of overkill forgivable. The combined effort of every band member making contributions to flesh out the early reading of the book, for example, and outlining the hard-going of the early years (including, but not limited to, making the band’s first two EPs as well as A Brown Reason To Live, and the frustration of working with Alternative Tentacles) is incredibly interesting and enjoyable because it all links together so easily. Likewise, fans will be excited to read about the time period, releases and experiences of the band which came after the Butthole Surfers signed with a major label in 1991 because that time period was not addressed much in Our Band Could Be Your Life. The reasons why it wasn’t included there made perfect sense (that was the point at which they ceased to be an underground band), but getting to read about it here proves to be a great pleasure that some might say functions as a solid post-script – even if it is addressed in a separate book.
…And therein lies at least a little bit of the problem – who wants to go through an entire novels simply to get to the end and enjoy a perceived post-script to some other writer’s book? No one – other than perhaps an archivist or student who is writing a university paper and is hoping to build up his bibliography with a few extra sources. That’s the catch about Let’s Go To Hell; the gruesome truth is that, while it’s not a bad book, at most it could be considered an able and welcome companion work to Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s okay in that context, but it’s not as good on its own.