By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
Somewhere in the Midwest, in the mid-'80s, in the middle of what rock critics will later call their heyday, the Meat Puppets are preaching to the converted. In the concrete and red-tile bar student union that often hosts the worst kind of campus cover bands, the best band the place has ever seen is playing its best song for the shoulder-to-shoulder throng of undergrads.
Yes, the Phoenix trio is meandering through "Up on the Sun." Curt Kirkwood plucks the descending hook line with aching clarity on his unfuzzed Les Paul, his brother Cris offers his baritone countermelody on the bass, and drummer Derrick Bostrom builds a loping rhythmic framework as flimsy and perfect as the ribs of a kite. And the tune does soar, taking the assembled faithful to a place where it never rains or snows.
As "Up on the Sun" spirals toward its chorus, somebody has to testify. A tall, doughy kid wearing a Batman T-shirt and holding a beer takes the one small step onto the stage, toward Cris' microphone. The bassist hits a note and holds it with his left hand, while his right shoots out at the guy. Is he shoving the interloper back into the crowd where he belongs? No, he grabs a handful of the kid's T-shirt and pulls him toward the mic, just in time to join Curt in singing the haunting, signature line of the refrain:
"Not too much more, too much more..."
As the fan sings along, his face is solemn, rapt. It's an expression the world would see some years later on the face of Kurt Cobain as he sang three Meat Puppets songs -- with the Kirkwoods playing along -- on Nirvana's monster hit album and video MTV Unplugged in New York. On this recording the man who broke punk said of the Pups, "We're big fans of theirs."
This benediction set the Meat Puppets on a path that no one in the band could have foreseen. After spending the '80s artfully weaving country-and-western, jazz, and punk rock into a breathtaking folk-art tapestry that confounded the vocabulary of the most loquacious music critics, the Pups went from the dizzying heights of stadium shows and a gold record (1994's Too High to Die), to the depths of Cris Kirkwood's crippling -- and ongoing -- heroin addiction.
After five years below the radar, Curt Kirkwood has taken the reconstituted band on the road in support of its new Breaking Records/Atlantic Records CD, Golden Lies, the first Meat Puppets studio album in five years. From his home in Austin, Texas, the 42-year-old Kirkwood ponders the question of whether what he calls "the whole Nirvana thing" was a blessing or a curse.
"It's been a blessing," he begins. "I just loved it. [MTV Unplugged] did well, and then in the middle of its run, [Cobain] killed himself, and it did even better. The way that attention started to come around in the middle of it was kind of gross, yet at the same time, what people were noticing about us was pretty cool."
He pauses. "The real curse of it is, in Cris' case, it rectified what he had always felt about us: That we were really, really great, and everybody should totally kiss his ass," he recalls. "I don't think he meant to become a heroin addict; I know he didn't. It's, like, a total miserable scene he found himself in, and he was just aghast and had no idea how to deal with it. But it came about by going, "Wow, see, we made it! We can do whatever we want! We really are great.'"
When he tries to parse why his brother got hooked, Curt says he thinks the adulation definitely went to Cris' head, "and money can buy you plenty of dope." But in the end there is no satisfactory explanation. "That's like getting into the pathology of addiction, which I really don't understand. Nobody does."
By late 1995, at an industry showcase in Los Angeles for the Pups' new record No Joke!, the band's internal problems became external. "Cris just made an ill show of it, and you could tell really clearly that he was on junk," Kirkwood remembers. "It was just fucked. He pretty much let everybody know that the rumors were really true." What followed was a lesson in the harsh realities of the music business. "They tell you in advance, "You know, you should get rid of your clown of a brother,'" he recalls with a nervous chuckle. "I didn't really interpret that properly: "... or else.'"
The first consequence came when the band's then-label, London Records, "backed off" No Joke! -- they stopped promoting it and advertising it and didn't release a video. In 1996 London had problems of its own, as it was absorbed into Universal's takeover of its parent company. In the corporate confusion, the label refused to release any new Meat Puppets material. Meanwhile Cris' addiction got progressively worse, presenting his brother with an agonizing choice. "It has the makings of a tragedy on a larger scale if I don't respond the way that I have been," Curt Kirkwood says. "I just kept doing what I was doing until it was like, "So, is Cris better yet? No? Well, I need to get somebody else.' I waited until I realized that it wasn't... he wasn't gonna... that it would pretty soon be like [I'd] have to make a "comeback.' That came mid-'97."