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The Secret History of Texas Music

“Pepper” (1996)

Written by: Butthole surfers Recorded by: Butthole Surfers

The Buttholes didn’t do story songs. They did punk songs, noise songs, art songs, absurd songs. And yet their one major hit was not only a narrative but was also based on real people—unlike the folks in, say, “I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas.” “Pepper,” which originated as a recorded drumbeat and a guitar riff by Paul Leary, drew on the memories of singer Gibby Haynes, who scribbled out lyrics about people he had known as a teenager in Dallas (Mikey, Sharon, another Mikey, and “the ever-present football player rapist”) who’d lost limbs and lives to fights, car crashes, and AIDS. The one thing they’d had in common: “They were all in love with dying, they were doing it in Texas.” 

Haynes sang and rapped the words, Leary played a distorted guitar solo, and the group added a bridge with backward vocals, which Leary remembers worried their label, Capitol. “They were uptight about knowing what was being said. They didn’t want some kid killing himself.” (In fact, the bridge’s words came from the singsongy chorus: “I don’t mind the sun sometimes, the images it shows.”) “Pepper” hit number one on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, though the song’s success angered some longtime fans, who thought it a betrayal of the group’s scrappy roots. “Yeah, but who cares,” says Haynes. Leary agrees. “We were never a punk band. We were always a schlock band.” 

As for the song’s title, Haynes says, “One time a guy came up to Teresa, one of our drummers, while she was walking the band’s dog and asked, ‘What’s your dog’s name, sonny . . . Pepper?’ ”

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