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:
The Meat Puppets
Respectable Street, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
9 p.m. Tuesday, January 23, on a bill with Trapped by Mormons and Damnations TX. Tickets cost $10 to $12. Call 561-832-0706.
"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."
Curt's move out of Phoenix -- first to Los Angeles, later to his new digs in Austin -- came none too soon. In 1998 Cris' wife died of an overdose in the couple's Tempe home. Some eight months later, one of the brothers' closest friends met a similar fate in that same, cursed house.
The Kirkwoods haven't spoken in a year. "I just can't," Curt says, a note a weariness in his voice. Yet despite the fact that Cris is out of commission and drummer Derrick Bostrom retired from music (though he still runs the band's Website, www.meatpuppets.com), Curt says that he never considered calling the current lineup anything but the Meat Puppets.
"Things are whatever I decide they are," he says with a laugh. "If I want to say this isn't Earth, it doesn't matter what anybody else wants to say. I don't care what kind of proof they think they have, they haven't got any. This isn't Earth."
The very longevity and consistency of the band's original lineup has also become something of a trap, but it's one Kirkwood refuses to fall into. "Ironically the more you do that, the more people want to hold you to what you've done, and I refuse to have that," he declares. "I've earned, in equity of sweat, the right to do whatever the fuck I please."
Assisting the master of the Puppets in his new mission are guitarist Kyle Ellison (who had signed on as the band's touring guitarist in 1995), drummer Shandon Sahm, and bassist Andrew Duplantis. And make no mistake, this group is not the Curt Kirkwood Experience: Ellison and Kirkwood collaborated on four of the fourteen tracks on Golden Lies, and Sahm and Duplantis chipped in on a tune apiece.
The new Pups sound much fuller than the previous incarnation, and not just because of Ellison's rhythm guitar or the occasional organ or percussion flourishes Kirkwood -- also the record's producer -- added to the mix. While Sahm doesn't overplay by any stretch of the imagination, Bostrom's drumming was so minimalist that any embellishment at all fills what were once wide sonic gaps -- intentional ones -- in the band's songs. "Cris would enjoy playing with [Sahm]," Kirkwood muses. "He does all the things Cris wished Derrick could do."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Yet he refuses to get too caught up in questions of chops and technique -- even his own, oft-praised guitar prowess. "I'm glad I'm in a vocal band," he says. "I try to tell the guys, "Not to demean what you do, but the fuckin' crowd is gonna really hear these vocals. They don't want you to dick around on those other instruments.'"
And what of his notoriously oblique lyrics? From such earth-shattering observations as "Pistachios turn your fingers red" on Up on the Sun's "Enchanted Pork Fist" to "There's palm trees and milky machine guns/And sunsets that melt like a gem in the sea" from the new album's "Pieces of Me," Kirkwood's mind brims with loopy-yet-literate non sequiturs. "It's an ambient thing," he says. "A lot of singers are trying to make a message. I just want the audience to think there's one, but a lot of times it's just playing with words. The medium is the message."
And ultimately Curt Kirkwood keeps playing because it's what he loves to do. After all he's been through, his own slightly bent reasons for being in a band still hold up. "If an apple disappeared off of a tree someplace and just fuckin' wasn't anymore, then the universe would collapse," he declares. "Einstein proved it; everybody's a star. That's how come I formed a punk-rock band, because it wasn't going to be popular, and it doesn't matter."
He says he still runs into nostalgic skeptics who expect the new iteration of the Pups not to matter in the way the old group mattered to Kurt Cobain, but Kirkwood has little patience for such folks. "We just tear them a new asshole," he says cheerfully.