Meat Puppets Desert Desperados
Published Dec 01, 2000For the better part of two decades, Texas-born brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom have been the Meat Puppets. If the band's name (slang for male genitalia) does not make it apparent, the trio started as a parody of the blossoming Phoenix, Arizona punk scene. Although no longer punk, they are the only vital band left from that original scene. The band toiled in near obscurity for more than a decade before a famous fan in Nirvana's Kurt Cobain shone a spotlight their way; considered a sell-out by some long-time fans, their new success almost destroyed the band. Only Curt remains from the original line-up, while brother Cris battles personal demons, and Bostrom has opted for day job security. They're still Meat Puppets, according to Curt: "There is always room for everyone."
1978 to 1980
The band's formative years are spent as a punk cover band, not because they are necessarily huge fans, but because of their proficiency. The band is well versed in 70s prog rock, psychedelia and Tex-Mex country, but punk is in and they do it well.
The band releases their debut single, In My Car five noisy punk blasts in under ten minutes, slammed out in about 12 hours. Recorded as a result of a connections to the band Monitor, it leads to L.A. shows, to airplay courtesy of legendary radio host Rodney Bingenheimer, and to as many shows as possible between Phoenix and San Francisco.
Monitor convinces the Meat Puppets to record for Thermidor, a label for whom they had recorded fake surf albums. Joe Carducci, a Thermidor employee who later penned Rock and the Pop Narcotic, jumps ship to SST Records, owned by Black Flag guitarist Gregg Ginn. Carducci suggests Thermidor pay for, and SST release, the recordings. They were the first non-Californian band signed one of the 80s most influential indie labels. Even today, Meat Puppets I is a hard listen, a raw mixture of early West Coast punk, country and too much time spent in the desert.
1983 to 84
After completing an American tour, the band becomes increasingly disassociated from the hardcore movement. The more they play, the more their non-punk influence infiltrates sets, causing punk animosity in return. They decide to change their sound, showcasing a country influence on Meat Puppets II. The results prove hugely influential on listeners, including Cobain, who would later record three tracks on Nirvana's Unplugged In New York. For his part, Curt Kirkwood is befuddled by the accolades. "I can't really place why this record has become so popular," he claims. "I think it has to do with musicians that can listen to it and say 'Wow, I wish I could get away with that kind of stuff on my records.' Truth be told, it is a really sloppy, sort of lazy record." One of the first slow punk records, the fact that it's not really a punk record made all the more punk. While preparing to record, Curt found out he was about to become a father. Twins are born just as recording is finished, cementing Kirkwood's decision to make music viable; he forces the band to tour for the better part of each year from then on.
Still hailed as an 80s underground classic, Up On The Sun is for many the band's crowning achievement. Curt Kirkwood's guitar heroics take centre stage, and unlike the sloppy, hard-edged sound of Meat Puppets II, it is rich in clear guitar tones and precise musicianship. The musical dialogue between the Kirkwood brothers complements at every turn. As always, the band tours non-stop for the record, encountering Michelle Tardif, whom Curt Kirkwood refers to as a "complete groupie." She introduces herself to bassist Cris Kirkwood after a Toronto show that year, but only later would play a much larger part in the band's lives.
After two years of constant recording and touring, Out My Way marks the first time the band is not prepared to record an album. According to drummer Derrick Bostrom, "the record was written between one-nighters and two a.m. feedings." The six-song release is a huge step backwards musically; the joyful rocking out on a cover of "Good Golly, Miss Molly" is the saving grace on this stopgap effort.
Mirage, the real successor to Up On The Sun, is released early in 87. The mellow spaciousness and arid song textures don't fare well in concert, and within a few months the band is bored stiff of the new songs. They hurry back into the studio with a new group of songs written on the road and bang them out in less than a week. Goldmine Magazine called the result, Huevos, "Curt's love letter to Billy Gibbons" of ZZ Top. With Curt Kirkwood's classic rock-inspired guitar riffs all over it and the rough strewn vocal harmonising of the Kirkwood brothers, Huevos is more workman-like than anything the band has ever done. It was also a sort of fuck you to label SST, whom Kirkwood claims "never paid us a penny until it was time to do another fucking record."
Montreal groupie Michelle Tardif relocates from Montreal to Tempe, Arizona. Although she has eyes for Cris, the move is more likely due to the inexpensive availability of heroin and cocaine, due to close proximity to Mexico.
The band releases their last SST album, Monsters, and Curt believes it to be their best; it's also their heaviest. "I am not a big fan of our records overall as one big package. I like a song here and a guitar passage there, but Monsters is a good one." Kirkwood reveals a heavy guitar tone that predates grunge. The band sends it to all the major labels. "We were just making ends meet," explained Bostrom in a 1996 interview with Goldmine. "We decided to do Monsters more with an idea of trying to get signed." They did, to London/Polygram.
1990 to 1991
For their major label debut, the band records, at the label's behest, with country guitarist Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, Roy Orbison). The result, Forbidden Places, shows the band at their most mellow and with the exception of the barnstorming single "Sam," most of it misses the mark. "I think we just tried to put too much thought into it," Curt says in retrospect. Critical acclaim is heaped upon it, but major label life proves no different than their indie days the label is unsure what to do with them. The Puppets hit the road again, but tour partying starts getting bigger. According to band manager Tami Blevins in a 1998 Sonicnet interview, they had more backstage guests than Led Zeppelin in their prime. The Kirkwood brothers are admitted pot and acid heads, and had dabbled in harder drugs, but now, Curt admits "there was anything you wanted offered you every night. We just didn't want it. Or at least we knew we couldn't have it."
1991 to 93
Nirvana's Nevermind explodes into the mainstream; Kurt Cobain (and Soundgarden and Soul Asylum) uses new found fame to hype his heroes, including the Puppets. While London encourages the Puppets to record an acoustic EP, Cobain sings the praises of their raunchy 80s albums, especially Meat Puppets II. London finally agrees to let the band do their own thing and in 1993, they head into the studio with good friend, Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, producing. The band spends much of the year recording Too High To Die, named by the band's long-time soundman Dave-o.
As recording is completed (including a re-recording of fan favourite "Lake of Fire") fate changes their luck. In November 1993, Kurt Cobain invites the Kirkwood brothers to join Nirvana on MTV Unplugged to cover three songs from Meat Puppets II, including "Lake of Fire." The sudden thrust into the mainstream ends up being more financially rewarding than anyone could imagine. "It made us millions," laughs Curt Kirkwood. "So much money it is stupid."
Too High To Die is released to rave reviews, Nirvana takes the band on tour and the Puppets have their first-ever radio hit with "Backwater." Within a year, the album goes gold in the U.S., but as the tours get bigger, and money starts rolling in, the backstage scene grows increasingly seedier. Large tours with Blind Melon, Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots feature backstage areas that Kirkwood claims "reeked of death." In short order, Kurt Cobain and Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon are dead. STP's Scott Weiland, also a heroin addict, introduces Cris Kirkwood to the drug.
While recording THTD's follow-up No Joke, Cris Kirkwood's addiction worsens. Cris becomes a non-entity in the band and the brothers Kirkwood fight non-stop over the addiction. "At first, Paul [Leary] was like, 'This is some brother bullshit you need to put in a drawer until we finish this record,'" Kirkwood said in a 1998 Phoenix New Times interview. "Then, after a few days, he came up to me like, 'You know, I think Cris might have a drug problem.' Meanwhile, Cris is nodding out with his bass in his hands, and I'm like, 'You think so?'" London Records discovers Cris's addiction shortly after the record is released and immediately aborts all support. To make matters worse, Cris marries long-time hanger-on Michelle Tardif, herself addicted to heroin, cocaine and crack. The two withdraw together, living on a diet of narcotics and ice cream.
1996 to 97
The band is shelved while Cris and his new wife who likes to refer to herself publicly as "Mrs. Meat Puppet" slip deeper into addiction; the only peeps from the Meat Puppet camp are the numerous times she is arrested trying to score drugs in downtown Phoenix. Curt sees the couple together for the last time in late 1996, at their mother's funeral. Curt Kirkwood relocates to Austin TX to restart his music career.
On Aug 12th Michelle Kirkwood is found dead of an overdose. At 5'9", she weighs 88 pounds, and is covered in abscesses and open sores from head to toe. Police find 113 used syringes, bent and burnt spoons, pipes, and cocaine residue, and circular blood splatters on the wall of the garbage-strewn house. Curt flies his brother Cris to California to help clean him up. Cris leaves rehab after five days, returning to Arizona and his addictions. One of the last times Curt sees Cris, his brother is shooting heroin into an open abscess on his stomach.
Curt forms a new band in Austin, called the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, featuring Shandon Sahm, son of legendary Tex-mex rocker Doug Sahm. Within months, they are back as the Meat Puppets, itching to record new material for London, while the label is mired in a corporate shake-up. Drummer Derrick Bostrom decides to not take part, although he remains a member. Now working full time for a Phoenix computer software firm, the drummer oversees the re-mastering and reissue of the band's SST catalogue on Rykodisc, an immense improvement in sound over the originals, released the following year.
Not long after the Rykodisc reissues appeared, the new Meat Puppets band records and releases the promo-only You Love Me CD. Dropped by London before it could be officially released, the brilliant collection of new songs immediately becomes a highly collectable item for fans, fetching top dollar on the Internet. A second death occurs at Cris Kirkwood's house when lifelong friend Pete Seivert overdoses in April. Cris Kirkwood is arrested and incarcerated. "That is the best thing that could have happened," says brother Curt.
The band signs to Breaking Records, an imprint owned by Hootie and the Blowfish. Golden Lies is released to minimal fanfare. Dedicated to the memory of Doug Sahm, the only father figure ever allowed into the band's jam space, the record is a much more logical follow up to Too High To Die than No Joke was. Kirkwood admits the band has an uphill battle, noting that these days "jingoism is now more popular than the art itself."
"If there is one thing I have learned, it is that in five years you have gone away. Five years can blur the edges of what you are doing. While I don't know if I am struggling now to do what I do, I do know that things certainly are not the same way they used to be." Curt Kirkwood no longer knows the whereabouts or status of his brother, since his release from prison earlier this year. "I can't even remember the last time I spoke to him. That is something that hurts more than I can ever explain. I do know he knows the band is still together he called one of my kids after the new band played live on television. There will always be a place for him in this band, but I cannot surround myself with junkies. I don't want that in my life, even if it is my brother."