Originally posted on “Paradise,” an old Puppets fan site on the now-defunct Geocities, looks like this one’s now only available on the Wayback Machine. Since this article would take way too long to OCR all over again, I’d feel better if it were in two places.
Meat Puppets: Swimming In A Lake of Fire
by Steve Roeser
“Where do bad folks go when they die?
They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly
They go down to the lake of fire and fry
Won’t see ‘em again till the fourth of July”
–lyrics from “Lake Of Fire” by Curt Kirkwood,
from the album Meat Puppets II, SST Records, 1983
There are worse ways, perhaps, for your life’s work to get the attention it deserves. You would have a tough time convincing Curt Kirkwood of that. Having your songs heard by millions of music fans is a great thing, a dream come true for any hard-working songwriter. But when it came to another guy named Kurt wanting to sing Kirkwood’s songs on a session of MTV’s Unplugged (and inviting Kirkwood and his brother to join his band onstage to perform them), the dream gradually turned into a nightmare.
Curt Kirkwood, his younger brother Cris, and their longtime friend, Derrick Bostrom, are the Meat Puppets. Now all in their 30s, they started the band when they were teenagers and have spent 15 years building a reputation as one of the most creative bands anywhere. Then, in 1993, the Meat Puppets got caught up in a rock star orbit called Nirvana, and they’re still dealing with the fallout. Recognition is indeed a two-edged sword.
“I see it now,” Kirkwood said. “The only person that’s asked me to play with him in the past 15 years is Kurt Cobain, outside of [our] band. That’s kind of, you know, one of the weirder things about my career.”
At the end of ’93, Nirvana was set to tape their session of Unplugged (released in November 1994 as Unplugged In New York). Cobain let it be known that he was very interested in playing some Meat Puppets songs. IN hindsight, this announcement by Cobain, whose Nirvana album In Utero was then riding high on the record charts, was particularly flattering. Among the 14 songs in their set, Nirvana played “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Oh, Me,” all written by Kirkwood. It so happens that all three songs came from the same album, Meat Puppets II, a record cut very early in the history of the Arizona trio (when Cobain was only 16).
“I think he could have picked out any three songs and done ‘em,” Kirkwood said. “I mean, those are three of the better ones off of that record. It made me realize that he was part of what we would call ‘our actual fan base.’ There’s a consensus that people have liked at least two of those songs, and the third one as well. Those have been popular songs amongst our fans.”
When Cobain invited Curt and Cris Kirkwood to come to New York, and called them out on the stage to join with the band in playing those songs (Bostrom was not present), he referred to them affectionately as “the Brothers Meat,” adding that “we’re big fans of theirs.” Although the Meat Puppets weren’t close friends with the guys in Nirvana, it was still a moment for the Kirkwoods to feel proud that their music had been appreciated.
For Curt, the invitation was welcome, but it also made him feel a bit strange. “It wasn’t just jamming with them,” he said. “It was actually fulfilling Cobain’s fantasies about being me for a little bit, or whatever the fuck he was tryin’ to do. Whether or not he liked our songs, why would he want Cris and I to play ‘em? Why not just cover ‘em, you know? I don’t want to trivialize it, because it meant a lot to me, in that I liked his voice a lot, and I’ve never worked with other people. So it was really fun to play some of my material with another drum player [Dave Grohl], and have Cris sit in on guitar and not have to sing it, have somebody with a distinctive voice sing it.
“Before then,” Kirkwood said, “if you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with any better idea than that. He was thinking along lines that wouldn’t have been unusual for me. But, then again, there’s hardly anybody else that I would have wanted to hear sing some of my stuff. Once again, in this situation, everything is adding up to the glorious virtues of ‘the legend.’ And that’s really wonderful. But I think in the long run, I have to take it back, look at it and go, ‘How can there be punk rock legends?’ So, who gives a fuck whether he was into us or not?
“He had a nice voice,” Kirkwood said of the other Kurt. “And he was beautiful. I’m sorry he’s dead. Outside of that, big fuckin’ deal. Who cares how big Nirvana was, or how fuckin’ great they were? I mean, I loved the band immensely. I’m sorry they were so huge that it has to color everything with this hogwash that just constantly emits from every orifice of the industry right now. For us, in particular.”
Kirkwood made oblique references to the fact that because his songs, including “Lake Of Fire,” were slated to be released on Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York album, music industry politics of one kind or another made it less than feasible for the Meat Puppets to release their own version of “Lake Of Fire,” which may have been the strongest possible followup to their 1994 radio hit “Backwater.” Both songs were on their most recent album, Too High To Die, although “Lake Of Fire” was not listed in the album’s information and credits. They had done a new recording of it, a decade after the original had been cut, and it wound up as a surprise track at the end of the album.
Kirkwood also let on that he and his bandmates found it somewhat embarrassing and unnecessary that their record label saw fit to elicit quotes from hot musicians that were then pressed onto a special sticker on the front of the album. Cobain was quoted as saying, “The Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music. I owe so much to them.”
Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner was more direct with his estimation: “They’re my favorite fucking band,” he was quoted as saying.
“God, you know the germ of this band [the Meat Puppets] was concocted when those people were in grade school,” Kirkwood pointed out, referring more to Cobain than Pirner. “And suddenly some kids come along, and get into something that was going well before they ever had any thoughts of bein’ in a band. And it means shit? Not to me. Not on a certain level. You know what I mean? How could it? What, it’s going to make me something more [than I am]?
I already had kids that were four or five years old before Nirvana ever formed,” he said. [Note: Curt Kirkwood is father to twins who are now age 11.] “I’m glad that people like my music, and I’m totally blown away that there was another person in the world that could interpret it as well as Cobain did. It made me feel really, really swell. But for us, we’d have rather had those songs make it on their own. I mean, you can see that. I wasn’t just fucking around back then [in the early '80s]. I was trying to sell records just like anybody else. And those songs get ignored until ‘super-chimp’ does it. So, that makes them great songs all of a sudden? Not to take anything away from Nirvana.
It’s hard to say,” Kirkwood remarked, “whether or not the actual career of the band is being hindered or helped by what’s happened with our involvement with Nirvana. In terms of me, personally, I probably never would have made any money off those songs if he hadn’t recorded ‘em. Now I’m lookin’ to make good money off of ‘em. That’s nice. But in terms of the band, we’ve had to measure our steps since he did that. Because playing those songs was an endorsement, in terms of the industry. It opened up the gates for a lot of exploitative moves.”
For anyone familiar with the music and career of the Meat Puppets, it’s fairly well known that this is not a band that has ever expended much energy over measuring steps.
The Kirkwoods: Horses, Guitars, and Jesuit Priests
Curt Kirkwood was born January 10, 1959, his brother Cris less than two years later, on October 22, 1960. The brothers were born in Texas, according to Cris (Curt in Wichita Falls, Cris in Amarillo), where their mother was married for a brief time to their father, who was in the military. The marriage didn’t last and she left Texas, taking her sons with her.
“Dad was an Air Force guy and she met him on a date,” Cris said. “It was some crap in college, like he was handsome and she was a pretty broad. And there was some competition between her and her sorority sisters over who could get him first. So she won, or lost. However you look at it. So, that marriage didn’t last, but Curt and I are full brothers.
Like so many parents who end up being a divorcee, she hit the road with Curt and I when we were fairly young, and just kinda tripped around the country here and there,” Cris said. “Then she settled up in Omaha, where she’s originally from, and met this guy. She wound up with this cowboy guy, Paul. Again, another sex thing that turned into pregnancy. She got married again.
And he wanted to live out here in Arizona because he was into horses. He was a horseshoer. He wanted to be located near the horse track circuit. We have a half-sister who we grew up with, and our dad went on to have more kids who we didn’t grow up with. But we wound up in Arizona because of the cowboy guy [stepfather].
“We had a nice house, with a little bit of land to it, and horse privileges. So Curt and I grew up with critters,” he said. “We actually had a barn, our own stable out at the horse track, Turf Paradise. We’d have chores in the morning. Take care of the horses, feed the chickens, all that kind of crap. And every day after school we’d have to go out to the track for more chores.”
Curt also recalled the days in the mid-to-late 1960s, after his mother remarried and brought him and his younger brother to live out in Arizona. “I was five when my mom married this horseman guy and we moved to Phoenix,” Curt said. “He was into country music quite a bit. He always had it on the car radio. That pretty much started as early as anything I can remember. Country music was always around, it was always on TV. You didn’t really have to pursue it. I didn’t have a real interest in music until we moved to Phoenix.
“Nobody in our family was pointedly ‘into’ music,” Curt said, “but my mother had old favorite songs that she would sing. We would sing along in the car when we were traveling. She didn’t play any instruments or anything. So that was the only music that there was in our family, really. But the stuff that she sang wasn’t being played on the radio anymore. I was a kid, things that her dad probably sang. And by the time she was in her mid-teens, we just got out of music and started working on her education and starting a family. So she kept a lot of that old music [in her head] and that’s pretty much were she stayed.”
Curt added that at home in Phoenix there were hardly any records around the house. But one that he remembers his mother had was by the country singing group Sons of the Pioneers. This record ended up having a significant impact on the Kirkwood brothers. One of the members of Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Nolan, wrote a song called “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” which was recorded for the first Meat Puppets album, almost 20 years after Curt and Cris first heard it.
“I watched a lot of TV,” Curt said. “We always watched Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Hee-Haw, and stuff like that. I watched that Beatles and Monkees cartoon shows on TV. Once I got to be a certain age, I suppose around fourth grade or somewhere in that area, I started getting into music. I wanted to get records. The first record I bought by myself was a Bobby Sherman record. And we bought a Petula Clark record, the album that had ‘Downtown’ on it. I had ‘MacArthur Park,’ stuff like that.”
The older Kirkwood acknowledged that, even though he was only a five-year-old kid when they first appeared on American television, the Beatles held a special fascination for him later in the ’60s.
“Oh, yeah, I was old enough to try and find clues as to whether Paul was dead or not,” he said. “The Beatles was a pretty big thing. I’m trying to remember the singles that I actually had. ‘Rain.’ ‘Paperback Writer.’ Yeah, I remember that. I think when the Beatles broke up, the world changed totally.”
“As young kids, we actually were aware of the Beatles,” Cris said. “There was this family down the street who had a couple of young boys close to our age. We would kind of vie for the honor of being the first on the block to have the new Beatles release. But I don’t think we realized, that much, that they were the Beatles. Maybe Curt did, somewhat. I didn’t, that much. I knew that they were THE BEATLES, but I didn’t know that I was collecting and keeping up with the Beatles. It wasn’t that purposeful.”
Later, Curt recalled, he continued buying 45s such as “Looking Out My Back Door” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk. By then, Curt and Cris had both started playing guitar.
“Mom got us into guitar playing when we were pretty young, actually,” Cris remembered. “She had us take lessons. I was younger than 10 at the time and I didn’t like it. It didn’t really stick, not at all. I didn’t like it at all. It didn’t take [with me], but there was always a guitar around. Curt kind of got into it a little more.”
“She was into having us play instruments as a form of culture,” Curt added. “She thought it would be good to have cultured children, you know, in terms of actually being into music. But I never thought about being a musician until after high school.”
“I had more rudimentary lessons, but he went on to have lessons with a few different people,” Cris said about his brother. “Some classical lessons, some of which you can definitely see in his playing, still. He’s a real good finger-picker. He does those neat things, stuff like ‘Magic Toy Missing’ from our second record. Then he also actually studied with this guy MacLardy, who had this music store in the neighborhood where we grew up, Sunny Slope. He’s an old bebop kind of guitar player, and you could probably find him if you dig deep enough. He played with Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and people like that. Curt took a few lessons from him as well. [Initially] I just didn’t give a crap about the guitar.”
Cris continued, “It didn’t catch my attention at all. At the time I was into other childish things, or whatever. I realized, years later, that my guitar teacher had mildly molested me. A couple of times he would squeeze my knee and tell me how much he liked me. And that ‘I couldn’t tell anybody else how much he liked me, but he really liked me a lot,’ and all this crap. Years later I realized, ‘Wow, that’s flat-out what that was.’ Kind of a weird come-on thing.”
Later on however, Cris found the inspiration to bring a fresh outlook to learning about music. He was spurred on by a strange series of events, the culmination of which was their mother’s insistence that Cris and Curt accompany her to the movies to take in a mismatched double feature.
“A few years later, there was another one of mother’s husbands, Eduardo, a Mexican guy,” Cris recalled. “They had kind of a difficult relationship. He was one of those crazy dipsomaniac guys. He’d drink and get nuts. Once time he actually burned our house down, after a lovely evening. And that led to us living in this weird little apartment thing.
“And for some reason, mother decided that Curt and I needed to see A Clockwork Orange. Mom was open-minded, but she’s from that straight Midwest world. I can’t really remember the motivation for taking us to see that. But playing with A clockwork Orange was Deliverance. So I went out and bought Deliverance [soundtrack album] and just freaked on the banjo. That’s what got me into playing music. After that, I went into MacLardy’s Music and found a banjo that I could slowly work into buying. Seventy-five big dollars for it, and I still have it. That’s how I got into playing.”
Curt also remembered seeing the movie with his brother and mother, but the music on the soundtrack didn’t have quite so profound an effect on him. “I enjoyed it,” he said, “But I was well aware of bluegrass music by then. I can remember seeing the Dillards on The Andy Griffith Show when I was a little kid. And I can remember seeing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on The Johnny Cash Show. Deliverance, that would be ’72, the same year I started high school. So I was well along there, in terms of knowing what was going on musically. Cris and I didn’t hang out that much when we were kids.”
“I mean, when you talk about [formal] lessons,” Cris said, “I know more about music than Curt does, just because I got into it later on and studied it as a young adult. So I actually know more theory, and that kind of crap. But Curt had a grounding in guitar. And then just at a certain point, it became obvious that Curt was just good at guitar playing. I don’t know, he became like ‘the guy that can make the electric guitar sound the wackiest,’ or something.”
Before 1972, before getting into their teenage years, the Kirkwood brothers didn’t run together very much and tended to soak up their musical influences separately from one another. But the early-to-mid ’70s found them comparing notes a bit more on a musical level. Cris recalled a significant occasion in 1974 when his brother turned him on to a hot acoustic guitar player.
“Curt bought me tickets for my fourteenth birthday to see Leo Kottke, and I just fuckin’ dug the shit out of that,” Cris said. “It was so great. That was one of my favorite concerts, still, of all time. I just loved it . But I was a fan already. I was really into music. That was the thing that caught me, I mean what got me into playing. I just saw all sorts of crap. I was into goin’ to concerts.”
One of these Phoenix shows featured the jazz fusion band Weather Report. The group’s lineup included drummer Alex Acuna, who would do some session work with the Meat Puppets many years later on their major label debut, Forbidden Places.
“Alex Acuna was the percussionist in one of the later versions of Weather Report, the first band [we saw where] Curt and I ever smoked pot together,” Cris remembered. “We were going to see Weather Report, and we’d both been dopers for a while, but that was the first night we actually smoked dope together. This was back in ’75 or so.”
For the Kirkwood brothers, the combination of instability at home (change in residences as well as parental authority figures), coupled with a shift in the direction of their schooling, drove them more toward the fulfillment music could bring. The prep school his mother sent the brothers school was not to Cris’s liking.
“After the house got burned down, that was a pretty fuckin’ weird time,” he said. “Mom decided that Curt and I should to go the Jesuit high school in town, Brophey [sic] College Prep. It had its good side, which is that the Jesuits were intellectually stimulating, or whatever. But it had its down side, in that you’re goin’ to school with all these fuckin’ Arizonan children, the rich kids. You know, it was kind of like the ‘styley-phoofey school.’ I went to school with [Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor’s son, who happened to be a real nice guy.
“But other people, like the son of a famed heart doctor went there also,” Cris said. “And he was kind of a lunkhead jock. But because his dad’s a rich guy or whatnot, he gets to be the quarterback! So I found out early on that I could distance myself from all these other people who were listening to Boston and whatnot, by digging a little deeper into these different types of music that were out there, that I was slowly discovering. I went and saw just a truckload of bands. And since Phoenix is close to Los Angeles, you got a lot of concerts here back in the ’70s. It was nominally that I wanted to be different, but it was also that I suddenly realized that there was just a ton more cool music out there.
“The down side of going through the school experience for Curt and I was all these fuckin’ spoiled rich Catholic kids that had all gone to parochial grade schools, and we hadn’t,” Cris explained. “I was one of just a couple of kids form my grade school that went to the Jesuit high school, where a lot of these cliques were already formed. Just because of the kind of people that we are, I was later told this by my hippie dope dealer friend, Dealer Dan: ‘You’ve just got an aura, dude!’ Meaning, we’re the kind of people that other people like to attack.
“I just didn’t like the high school that much,” he said. “The guys were all just too macho, and too fuckin’ stupid. So like I said, I didn’t get into rock that much. I actually found it kind of fuckin’ gross. Albert Goldman said it well in that Elvis book [he wrote]: ‘Pablum for teenagers,’ Pablum being baby food. And I kind of saw it as that. Just more of the same old crap. Or, as P-Funk put it, ‘the electric spanking of war babies.’ That was a funny way of putting it. People just being manipulated and sold shit, because people will buy crap if you set them up to it. That’s all I could see it as. It was obvious.
“I liked a few things in rock, or things that were rock-ish, like the Dead. But a lot of the pop/rock stuff that was really popular I didn’t like. I just didn’t get it, I just never cared. I wasn’t that adamantly against it, I was just into other crap. The kind of rock I was listening to at the time was like weird Swedish commie rock, or Euro-rock. The whole Henry Cow scene. Or else, [John] McLaughlin and all the tasty fuckin’ lick-meisters.
“So punk rock came along,” Cris said, “and I just thought it was more Bowie-clone shit. More dress-up crap, which I didn’t care for. I was fat. I was a fat teenager. I was like, ‘dress-up, shmess-up.’ Especially Limeys. I was like, ‘Gag!’ I just didn’t ‘get’ rock ‘n’ roll, rock as like, ‘Yeah, go wild! Go crazy! Get into it, man!’ And it actually took [hearing] Elvis and the Rolling Stones. I got the Beatles thing, but I got the music side [of that experience], right? Music as a fuckin’ head space. I got that off of them.
“I actually never got into rock ‘n’ roll until my first girlfriend turned me on to heroin,” Cris admitted, “and the Rolling Stones and shit. I was like, ‘Oh, I get it! You don’t play as good, in a way, but you make up for it with macho moxie, or something?’
“And off of the banjo, I realized what it took to develop an instrument. How it came through the talking drum thing, and how civilizations develop, and how the blacks moved here, and just the fuckin’ way the world came together, and ideas progressed and whatnot. How people want to make noise, you know, and how they want to make these particular sounds. And how particular sounds come out of them, dependent on their circumstance, and all this shit. I was into that, but I didn’t get the rock slide of that, you know, like [slipping into self-important cockney accent], ‘And some of us have tog to put on tight pants, because we’ve got fuckin’ monsters in our trousers!”
In 1976, when he was 17, Curt had also started to blaze his own musical path, shunning the run-of-the-mill arena rock bands of the time in favor of a more diverse and satisfying blend of styles.
“I remember George Jones from way back,” Curt said, “but I never developed an interest in him until my late teens. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was a big favorite of mine. Symphonion Dream was one of my favorite albums as a teen. And the Kottke, and all that stuff. We had that all goin’ on.”
In spite of their love for folk, country, and country/rock, the Kirkwood brothers couldn’t avoid the prevailing hysteria over punk rock in the late ’70s. Punk hit big in Phoenix, as it did in most of the larger American cities. Curt and Cris were swept along in the tide and formed their first band, trying to fit into the punk scene.
“We had a band called Eye,” Curt said. “That was the year before the Meat Puppets. That was us and two other guys. It was heavily influenced by Television and Devo, with some other guy’s tunes.”
“In Tempe [Arizona] there was a club called Dooley’s, which is still here, but it’s called After The Gold Rush now,” Cris said. “It was kind of a fern bar, hippie concert venue. I was too young to get in there, but I used to be able to sneak in. Back in the ’70s it was the kind of place that you could somehow fake-ID your way into. There were a few punk shows that came through there that just smoked my shit. Like Devo. That show fuckin’ made my brain fall out the back of my head. Devo was utterly great. I saw the Ramones with the Runaways in like ’78, and that was a riot! They were so fuckin’ good.
“So, suddenly I was getting the rock thing off of punk rock,” Cris said. “And how punk rock was the rebirth of the rock ideal, or the rock spunk or spirit. And I started to get it.”
The Bostroms: Percussion Instruments and Protestant Ministers
By the time they’d had their first band experience with Eye, Curt and Cris met Derrick Bostrom (born June 23, 1960), a drummer and punk devotee who lived in another section of the city. They met through a loosely organized church social group. Like the Kirkwood brothers, Bostrom and his younger brother, Damon, lived with a stepfather.
“Derrick’s mom was married to a doctor when he was growin’ up, who was not his dad,” Cris said. “But they were fairly well-off, so he lived in a nice part of town. Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, the chi-chier part of town, with the nice public school and whatnot, whereas Curt and I lived in more of a ‘white trashville.’ Sunny Slope is kind of white trashy. He was definitely the long-haired, hippie intellectual drop-out guy, and was friends with the guys that were like that as well.
He went to high school with this guy David, who he is still real good friends with,” Cris explained about Bostrom, “who is the son of a minister, and is now also a Unitarian minister himself, and a real smart, interesting, sweet guy. But those guys, and the smarties from their school, just had this scene [that they called] LRY: the Liberal Religious Youth, which was a part of the Unitarian Church.
“We weren’t involved with it at all, but a friend of ours was, who was the common link [with Bostrom]. David’s dad, the reverend, ran this church. So they had this little religious youth group, which was their excuse to fart around in the church. Hang out at the church at night, when nobody else was around. Anything like that, at that age, was just an opportunity for people to skirt their parents’ hold over them, just to get away from whatever and have a good time. I think Curt and I went by there once or twice with this other friend of ours.”
Bostrom’s memory of how he met the Kirkwoods followed rather closely to Cris’s account. “I actually met those guys around ’77, through mutual friends,” the drummer said. “They went to one school, I went to another, and we connected through the church group. The Unitarian Church is a very liberal, kind of non-denominational church, almost. All my friends would go there. A lot of times, we’d just get the key, go in there, and set up and jam. Another guy who went to the church knew the Kirkwoods, and they came to one of the jams. So I kind of got to know them that way. Paradise Valley was on the outskirts of the city, like Sunny Slope. both of those areas are north Phoenix.”
After the Kirkwood brothers met Bostrom at the church, they began hanging around with him, usually over at the Bostrom homestead. There they also became acquainted with Damon Bostrom, whom Cris admired as a peculiar yet very creative character.
“Damon’s quite a bit younger. He’s a fuckin’ freak, man,” Cris said. “Damon is a trippy guy. All the Bostrom kids are interesting, but Damon and Derrick are the only two full [blooded] Bostroms. Damon’s by far the most musically-educated of us all. Damon, back then, was the kind of guy who came in and one day he’d shaved off all his hair and his eyebrows. We were like, ‘Hey, cool look!’
“He was mad, because he had to take the bus three times down to another part of town to get this piece for his piano,” Cris recalled. “He was the kind of kid who had gone out and gotten himself a piano, but it needed some work. We were all fairly into drugs and shit. More like psychedelics and pot, not really into narcotics abuse. But Damon was younger and kind of the dangerous little nut-freak.
They’re both smart people, and both into some cool shit,” Cris said, “but Damon is a way better musician, in a way, than his brother is, whereas Derrick’s more of a culture vulture. Damon was more of the self supporting type. He didn’t even need a band.”
Although the band that was in its fermentation stage still had no name at that point, according to Cris, Damon could have joined them if he’d been inclined to. In a sense, he was the first in a series of players who have acted, for some period of time, as an unofficial “fourth Meat Puppets” over the years. (This select group of individuals, in recent years, has included ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary and guitarist Troy Meiss. The latter toured and played gigs with the Meat Puppets all throughout 1994.)
“[Damon] could have been a member of the band, and we could have had keyboards all these years,” Cris commented. “There would have been just a lot more color added to the thing, a lot more musicality. A lot more along my line. Because I’m more of the schooled noodge, or whatever. Rather than, you know, ‘It’s art, man!’ Curt and Derrick are both the older children, so they’re both like, ‘What I say goes!’ And Damon and I are like [speaking in timid, nerdy voice], ‘Well, there’s a long and distinguished line of musical history from whence to draw upon…’”
Curt, however, differed in his recollection of the days hanging around the Bostrom house. He also took an alternate view on the issue of whether or not Damon was ever seriously considered a candidate to join the band.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Curt mused. “I think that’s being really giving to say that [Damon could have joined]. You know, if that’s the case, there were probably three or four people that could’ve started playin’ with us, if they’d have had the notion to. Because at that point we were fairly loose. And it went that way, probably until about ’85. We’d look around and go, ‘God, our friends could play. Why don’t they ever ask?’ It was pretty loose.
“In hindsight, I think everybody let me believe that it was all a friendly thing. But, for whatever reason, people just don’t want to be involved with me, by and large. I used to think that it was just them. That they didn’t have it together, or whatever.”
Nonetheless, Cris believes that, had Damon not chosen to go his own way and “exclude himself” from the band, the Meat Puppets could just as easily have ended up as two sets of brothers joining together. If Damon made less of an impression on Curt, Cris and Derrick found it nearly impossible not to be influenced by him, and by his off-kilter point of view about music and about life in general.
“Both Derrick and Damon are just these really, really talented, smart guys,” Cris said. “But also a couple of the stinkiest, greasiest little fuckers you’d never wanna meet. It’s like, ‘Goddamn! What did your moms do to you?’ Just weird guys. Fuckin’ flipped-out people.
“If you talk to Derrick, he’s the kind of kid that in the fourth grade informed his mother that he’d no longer be participating in P.E. [phys-ed] and was collecting underground comics. He was fairly self-aware. He just was like that at a young age, into different things. I had more of a ‘younger brother syndrome,’ in those days. Derrick’s dad, his actual dad who was long-divorced from his mom, decided quite a few years ago that he’d had enough of the ‘lower 48.’ He dropped out of ‘Americadom’ and moved up to Alaska. He farms and lives this kind of agrarian life up there with the natives. They catch salmon, that kind of thing.
“Damon didn’t got to school at all,” Cris said. “He dropped out of grade school and just lived at home. He got his GED, eventually. But at that time he was a young teen, and just goofy.
“Derrick’s mom’s husband had this house that was up on one of the preserves, high up there where the rich people build their houses. And it had a guest house out back. She was in the process of divorcing her husband, so she didn’t care what happened to the house. The guest house had been given over to Derrick and Damon. They lived like feral children, or something. Damon had the other half of this thing. You’d open the sliding door and look in there, and he’d have painted everything white. The TV, everything, painted white. And there’d be this nasty little pile of dirty blankets on the floor, with his feet stickin’ out of it.
“One of the things that he had goin’ was this fuckin’ unbelievable sculpture in the garage,” Cris said. “It had all these little machines on it that moved. And all this crap, like melted [plastic] army men, and things all over it. It was fuckin’ huge. It was built on a couple of tables. It was really quite the art piece. And at one point he just decided that it was time for it to go. And he lit it on fire.
“He was just too wacky of a guy,” Cris ventured as to why Damon ultimately didn’t participate in the band. “He’s too self-sufficient and just not a joiner, or something. He actually did end up graduating from ASU [Arizona State University] here in Tempe. And while he was going to ASU, he lived in the desert. In Phoenix, there’s these mountain preserves, actual mountain ranges in the city. Raw desert or wild desert.
“You can get down in the desert, and he lived in this fuckin’ wash near ASU,” Cris said. “You’d see this big, barefoot fucker walking around the school. He was just one of those self-motivated guys. He graduated with a degree in composition and theory. He’s serious, to a fault. And now he lives down in Bisbee [Arizona], this old fuckin’ mining town just off the border of Mexico, down in the southeast part of the state,” he said. “I don’t know what he does for a living. He probably works at a convenience mart, if they have one there. He just scrapes by. He writes these compositions for instruments he makes himself. Things that are called, like, ‘The Wind’ and so on. He’s very into his own trip. The last I’d heard, he’d gotten into fuckin’ Jesushood or something. It’s all a quest for personal self … whatever. I don’t know what he’s actually into now. I haven’t seen him for a while. He’s got a couple of kids from a couple of different women. Just a very fuckin’ far-out guy.
“I started playin’ bass,” Cris said. “I had a knack for it, because I played banjo. So my fingers kind of worked, and I could just make myself do it. And the band just kind of fell out of this scene, this group of friends. It was just kind of a natural thing. All sorts of kooky things were happening. We just all went in these different directions, and everybody got into different little bits of music, here and there.”
Back when Cris and Curt were playing in the band Eye, Bostrom had also been making plans to start a band with another friend from school. But that group never really got going. “I messed around with a friend of mine,” the drummer said. “We went to college together for a year, and then I dropped out. He was in a different city, so that kind of stopped happening. And besides, I wanted to do it. And he was not as ambitious as I was. He had his own post-college game plan.”
Bostrom had no intention of pursuing anything besides music. Eventually, his comic book collection had taken a back seat to a record collection, one that had a particular concentration on punk rock.
“Everybody graduated from high school, and everybody went on about their business,” Bostrom said. “And I was still dedicated to bein’ a punk rocker. I’d been into punk since the minute I heard it, early ’77. In ’77, when I first got into it, there were a few punk rockers. Then there were some people that were into bands like King Crimson and Gong, and that whole kind of jazz, who were playing that kind of pre-punk/experimental/heavy metal/progressive sort of stuff. And we were big fans of King Crimson. We thought that stuff was great. Then punk hit. Of course, I was just a kid and I had never left Phoenix. But some people were going to L.A. and buying records.
“And the first time I heard about local punk rock was on a radio show on a station called KDKB,” Bostrom recalled, “which was a progressive station. They did a show about the local scene. And there was also an article about it in the paper. Then there was a show that I wanted to go see. But I was 17 and they wouldn’t let me in. Somebody wrote about that, saying, ‘If you didn’t go to this show, then you’re not with it, you’re not happening. You’re old.’ That was the thing that punk rockers used to call rock fans, right? So I wrote a letter back saying, ‘Fuck that “old” shit. I’m too young to go in. Why don’t you come play at my school?’
“And so, the singer from this band actually wrote me and said, ‘Well, you get us to play at your school. Gimme a call, let’s network.’ So I got to know some of these bands.”
“We actually kind of gravitated to Derrick,” Cris said, “because everybody else that we knew was a big [Bill] Bruford clone, without the talent. So there’d be all these drummers doin’ these fuckin’ stupid fills and we’d be like, ‘Would you stop that?’ Derrick was into that shit like King Crimson, but not in an uncool way. He liked it in like ’74, or when it first came out. That’s the kind of guy he was. But when it was time to move on and be into something else, he was. And he was never so uncool as to actually try to play like that or anything. It’s way cooler to, you know, not give a shit. He’s way more from that school.
“When we first started playin’ with him, he had a kick drum with a little cymbal screwed into the top of it, and a snare. And he taught himself how to play backwards. So he actually reached over with his other hand and played the cymbal with his left hand, while he smacked the snare drum with his right. Most people cross over, right? It was just like, ‘God, wind-up monkey!’ And we’d have him speed up or slow down, dependent on the song.
“And Curt and I knew a bunch of other things, too, that we’d show Derrick,” Cris said. “Like, musical things we’d turn him on to. Like we’d say, ‘Listen, hear that? That’s the bass.’ We’d turn him on to music as something other than just a cultural phenomenon, but as something self-indulgent.”
The Phoenix Scene and the L.A. Connection
A turning point for the Kirkwood brothers was the time they went to see Iggy Pop perform in town, in the late ’70s. Iggy had just come off working with David Bowie in Europe and had pieced together a new band. The makeup of Iggy’s band had more of an impact on the brothers than seeing Iggy himself.
“That show was one of the things that turned me on to punk rock,” Cris said. “I mean, Derrick was definitely one of the things that turned me on to punk, but so were a couple of other friends that were getting into it, slowly. Punk rock kind of started seepin’ in at a certain point. Definitely, that Iggy show was a blast. He had [Arthur] “Killer” Kane, from the New York Dolls, on bass. He himself was goofier than fuck. Somebody beaned him with a bottle. Good old Arizona. That’s classic behavior here. It was a fun show.”
Curt also remembered attending Iggy’s Phoenix gig and how something clicked in his head during the band’s performance. “I think, for me, it’s more of always trying to find a place where I can sort of get other people to pay attention to me,” he said. “I saw, at that show, a platform to be able to get a group of people together. Personally, I liked the guitar playing. He had the Damned’s guitar player, Brian James,” playing. I really didn’t care that much about Iggy’s trip, except for the fact that he threw himself down on the stage sometimes. I thought that was kind of cool. By and large, getting into things for me, it’s more a question for trying to find anyplace where I can get people to pay attention to me long enough to be able to work with ‘em.”
“They had told me they’d gone and seen Iggy Pop, and Brian James was Iggy’s guitarist for that tour,” Bostrom said. “And I was like [still stoked by the memory of it], ‘Oh, he’s the original guitarist for the Damned! I love him!’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, he was great!’ So I gave them my copy of the Damned album to check out, and my copy of [the Stooges'] Raw Power, and tried to get them into it. Of course, those are two bands [the Damned and the Stooges]–obviously known, but Brian James maybe less so. But he’s kind of a James Williamson-style guitarist. Both kind of flashy, as far as punk rock goes. But I got Curt to listen to [those albums], and he thought they were great.
“So I said, ‘Well, let’s learn some songs and jam,’” Bostrom recalled. “And we did. And we dug the way it sounded. So we stuck with it. I got him to learn about half my punk 45 collection.” By definition of Bostrom’s stash of singles, that must have been quite a few tunes that Curt picked up on.
“There were a few records that Derrick had,” Cris said, “that got us more into it, including an Iggy record. That James Williamson 7-inch, with ‘I Got A Right’ [b/w] ‘Gimme Some Skin,’ that was just one of my favorite records. That was so cool. And the whole first Damned album. And they were all easy stuff, too, for Curt and I to play.
‘Cause we’d kind of been off on this fusionary tangent, and both of us were just kind of good little stringmeisters. So we’d hang out with Derrick, who had all these kooky records, and learn all of ‘em. We learned the whole fuckin’ Damned record in an afternoon. So we played a bunch of punk songs, and Derrick would sit back there and sing ‘em.”
“We got bored with just playin’ in our back bedroom,” Bostrom said. “So we started playin’ out, some parties. And we found that playing in front of people increased the energy level by, like, triple. So we started to want to get gigs. We were like, ‘Oh, we’re onto something here. We like this.’ So we got a real gig. And about that time, Curt had written the song ‘Meat Puppets.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s just call ourselves Meat Puppets. That works, that’s a proper noun.”
[Note: The song "Meat Puppets" was recorded for the Meat Puppets album in late 1981. Among the other songs on that album were an interesting cover of the Doc Watson tune "Walking Boss" and a Bostrom/Kirkwood original entitled "the Gold Mine."]
“And people liked it,” Bostrom said. “They were talkin’ as much about our name as they were about our performance. So we decided to keep it, because it was gettin’ us over.”
“I did all improvising music all through the late ’70s,” Curt said. “Cris and I would play different things. The Devo songs, or things by the Tubes, Talking Heads, what-have-you. Just playin’ around at home on drums and bass.”
“Curt and I were already playing other things as well,” Cris added. “We had gotten a drum kit and were just doin’ stuff together, with either one of us on drums. Both of us can play drums, too.”
“Mostly what we were into, what we were workin’ on,” Curt said, “when we got together and played around with friends, were these experimental noise jams. I didn’t start writing until we started playing together [with Derrick]. I had written a couple of country songs when I was a child. That’s about all I wrote before the Meat Puppets. I started writing in the Meat Puppets because nobody else was.”
“In Phoenix at that time,” Bostrom said, “there was this one club in Tempe, which is where we [still] live. It’s like the college area. Some of the local musicians were in with this bar owner. And they had enough pull with this bar to actually hire some of the punk rock bands from L.A. to come out and play in Phoenix. So, we had seen, for instance, X. This is like in ’80. Alley Cats, Plugz, Go-Go’s before they were popular. Bands like that. If you’re familiar with the L.A. scene, Dangerhouse has got their two-CD set of these bands. And Rhino did one [as part of its DIY series] on the L.A. scene.
“Anyway,” the drummer continued, “These bands were comin’ out. And one band that came out [from L.A. to play gigs in Phoenix] was Human Hands. And their singer used to be in a band called Consumers, who were from Phoenix. They had moved out to L.A., broke up, and then half of ‘em moved back to Phoenix. And this one guy stayed out there. And he joined this band called Human Hands.
“We had gone and seen Iggy Pop [after the Brian James tour], and it turned out that the opening act was a band called Feeders [sic], who were from Phoenix. They were around in like ’78, moved to San Francisco and did a couple of albums. And the original bass player had moved to L.A., but had come back to reform the band so they could do the opening slot. The singer, the head guy, had just gotten married, so it was like a big party. They did the gig and had a little reunion.
“There were these bands, Consumers, Liars and Annihilators,” Bostrom said. “Now, let’s see… One of the Consumers was Paul Cutler. And one of the Annihilators was Rob Graves, who was Paul’s bassist in 45 Grave. And Don Bolles was the bassist, I think for the Liars, as well as the drummer for the Annihilators. There were three to four bands, but only about six people. They just kept rotating costumes and playing different instruments.
“So Don Bolles went on to play in the Germs, and 45 Grave, Vox Pop and Celebrity Skin. God knows what he’s doing now. I’m sure he’s in there somewhere, doin’ stuff. Those are like the major people that came out of Phoenix. A lot of people who were serious about it went to L.A. They were either serious about their music, or the heroin connections weren’t good enough here, or whatever. But by 1980, there was another whole batch of bands.
“Some of the people who were in Consumers that didn’t want to live in L.A. had started Killer Pussy,” Bostrom said. “That was a band that started about the same time we did. JFA [Jodie Foster's Army] is another band that got out of Phoenix. They started about a year after we did. Their singer [Brian Brannon] is now the music editor at Thrasher [skateboarding] magazine in San Francisco.
“Sun City Girls was a band that started up around the same time we did. I think they live in Seattle or Portland now. It was a much more eclectic mix than the old punk rock of the late ’70s. We were more eclectic than punk rock. And there were lots of others. Bands that were more into the British scene, Joy Division-style bands. Or power-pop bands, like this one called Blue Shoes.
“And then there was a band called the Nervous,” Bostrom said, “who were kind of Talking Heads-oriented, more New York-style. Phoenix had its share of copycat bands, as well as its stone originals, like the Meat Puppets! And, of course, the Meat Puppets were the band that got the best luck. We got out of town, we were liked right away, we were able to get a record out quickly, and then we were able to tour the U.S.
“I ran into these people that I had known in like ’77, when they were still living in Phoenix and doing music there,” Bostrom recalled. “That’s when I was 17, and needed them to sneak me into gigs. And so I said, ‘I’ve got a band now.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, lay a tape on me. Do you write your own songs?’ And we were like, ‘No, we just do punk covers. But we do ‘em really good!’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you gotta write your own songs. Write some songs, send me some tapes, and we’ll get you some shows out in L.A.’
“So we did that,” Bostrom said. “This friend of ours, David Wiley, had the tape, which was very crudely made, played on Rodney [Bingenheimer's radio] show out there. And we got some gigs, with him and with some other bands. One of the bands we played with was called Monitor. Another band we played with was called the Urinals, who became 100 Flowers. And they both liked us a lot.”
Once the Meat Puppets were on the L.A. punk scene, it proved to be a relatively easy leap to go from playing gigs to actually cutting a record. The associations that developed through knowing Wiley, and through having their homemade tape played on Bingenheimer’s program, led directly to the first recording opportunities for the trio.
“We did a song on a compilation that the 100 Flowers did on their label, Happy Squid,” Bostrom said. “The compilation was called Keats Rides A Harley, and the song was called ‘H-Elenore.’ 100 Flowers and Gun Club were also on that compilation. And Leaving Trains, I think, is on a cut. Those are the artists I remember off of that.”
It was this compilation tape that first turned Leary on to the Meat Puppets. “Gibby introduced me to a record called Keats Rides A Harley, which was a compilation from California,” Leary said. “It had the Meat Puppets, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Urinals, or 1,000 Flowers [sic], or whatever they were called at the time. A whole bunch of bands.’
“And then the Human Hands organization was affiliated with a thing called L.A. Free Music Society,” Bostrom said. “and we did a cut with them on a cassette compilation. This L.A.F.M.S. cassette is called Light Bulb. It was a two-cassette compilation, with tons of bands on it. We did an early version of, or kind of a demo of ‘Meat Puppets.’ Just me and Curt did that, with two cassette machines. So, that and the other compilation song were both done in Phoenix. The Keats Rides A Harley thing we did on four-track at a friend’s house.
“Then Monitor were in the studio making an album, after already having done a single. And they had this one punk rock song, which they kind of wrote as a sendup of punk. And they wanted us to perform it, because we had the punk thing down. And they weren’t able to play it as fast and hard as they wanted. A lot of their stuff was, you know, slower. This Monitor cut was done at the same time as our first EP [in the spring of 1981].
“And they said, ‘As a trade-off, we’ll let you record five songs, and we’ll bankroll the single.’ So we did it,” Bostrom said. “We did their song, and a take. Then we did our own songs and a take, each. And they released it. And that was our little In A Car EP, that came out in the summer of ’81.”
SST Records — The Early Years
To hear Bostrom tell it, getting a recording career started was almost too easy for the Meat Puppets. One situation seemed to lead to another and things began happening. Now that they had some “product” to promote, the band felt extra motivation for staying away from Phoenix and out on the road.
“We started goin’ from L.A. all over, up to San Francisco,” Bostrom said. “We were selling the EP ourselves. So we would take it into record stores and sell them, and go to distributors, because Monitor knew these people. We went to Systematic and dropped records off there. And either the guys that were working there were these guys that ran their own label, which was called Thermidor, or we just went right to Thermidor. I’m not really sure. Either way, we went and visited these two guys who had this label, Thermidor.
“Monitor was putting out a surf record under an assumed name with them, so that’s how we got the connection,” Bostrom said. “And they were like, ‘You guys should put out a Meat Puppets album.’ And one of these guys, Joe Carducci, was about to go to work for SST. He said, ‘Thermidor will bankroll the recording, and then we’ll get SST to put it out. So it’ll be a joint release. And then I’ll go over to SST, and I’ll be able to work your album.’ We were like, ‘Okay. Sounds better than gettin’ a job.’”
Although the self-titled Meat Puppets debut album does contain a total of 14 songs, at less than 22 minutes it runs past the listener quicker than a typical EP. This one is much more Bostrom’s project than anything else in the Meat Puppets’ catalog, and sounds almost nothing like their later efforts. In fact, it is so starkly different from Meat Puppets II that, if you listen to them back to back, you might swear the two records were made by completely different bands.
“We started out with one concept,” Bostrom said, “which was to write a bunch of songs in an afternoon, which is what you used to do back then .We’d just get a lick, throw some lyrics together, and learn it. And we wrote songs like that for most of ’80, till we had a bunch of ‘em. We recorded ‘em all, and the ones we liked we threw onto Meat Puppets.
“That was when Curt wasn’t writing songs. We were just learning songs and playing ‘em. I said, ‘Curt, let’s write some songs.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know how to write songs.’ And I said, ‘We’ll just, you know, do it. Here’s some lyrics. Just wiggle your fingers around on the fretboard until you come up with something.’ So I wrote most of the lyrics to the first record.”
Greg Ginn was in the band Black Flag and had started the SST label in the L.A. area. Chuck Dukowski helped him get things going. By the time the Meat Puppets came to Ginn’s attention in 1981, SST had released only a few titles. In the years that followed, SST would release hundreds of records from a wide variety of bands and artists. Some of these, including Soundgarden, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., have become big names in the ’90s. But when the Meat Puppets album was released in 1982, it was only the ninth offering from the label.
“It used to be that SST was just Black Flag,” Bostrom said. “Then they did a record [Paranoid Time] with Minutemen, who were friends of theirs, and another record [Pagan Icons] with Saccharine Trust. We were the first [band] that they had actually gone out and, ‘signed.’ Although, like I said, we came to them through Thermidor, because the guy who owned Thermidor went to work for ‘em. But we were like the very first ‘outsider band,’ the first SST ‘find,’ proper.
“And they put us in [the recording studio] with Spot,” Bostrom said. “Spot was an engineer in Hollywood that Greg and Chuck knew, who was kind of sick of the whole disco scene, or whatever, and got in with those guys and started engineering Black Flag session. He liked their shit, and started doing other stuff for that label. Spot was a cool guy, and he made three great records with us.
“Actually,” Bostrom said, amending his previous statement, “the first record was recorded by Ed Barger, who did the first Devo singles. The ones they did back in the Midwest, before they moved to Hollywood, or England, or wherever they made their major recordings. He did In A Car for us, and he also did ‘Jocko Homo’ and ‘Satisfaction’ and stuff for Devo. And then they, you know, dumped him once they got signed.
“Now, Meat Puppets was recorded live. So live that there wasn’t even any separation. We just set up the way we play onstage. Pretty much everything you hear on that record is just the drums and what’s bleeded through ‘em, and the vocals put on [later]. So that was a very raw project, and it sounds like it. You can hear the room. You can hear the direct signal, like the bass going [simulated loud crackling noise], and then you can hear everything else bleeding into the mikes on the drums.
“So anyway,” Bostrom continued, “we recorded the first record with Spot. And then our best friend in Monitor, Laurie [O'Connell], the bass player, who had taken us under her wing, wanted Ed to come in and mix it. They mixed it like four times, and ran up a huge bill. And then they got into a big argument with Greg and Chuck at SST. And then they stole the tapes. Meanwhile, they kept mixing. We said we liked the second mix. But then they went ahead and did the third and fourth. And we were like, ‘God, these people are out of control.’
“And they told us, ‘We’ve stolen the tape, we’re gonna release it on our label, and we’re gonna push you guys as a country act, because you’ve done “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” But we’d done like a screamy, feedbacky version of it. And we were like, ‘Help!’ And then Spot sent us his mix, saying, ‘Just in case you wanted to hear this …’ And we went, ‘Ah, this is the record! This is what we did. This is what we wanted to hear.’ Laurie and Ed were gettin’ way out of control. With these weird rooming techniques and stuff, adding tons of reverb to it.
“So,” Bostrom recalled, “we just said, ‘We wanna work with Spot on this. We like his mix and we wanna use it. And furthermore, we made the record with SST. We said we’d give it to them, and we want to.’ And they said, ‘Well, then we’re out of the picture, because we won’t work with them.’ And so we no longer worked with Monitor or World Imitation [who had released In A Car].”
The Meat Puppets album featured cover art that was credited to Curt and to Damon Bostrom. In a sense, the record is an artifact from the days when the Kirkwood brothers and the Bostrom brothers hung around the guest house in the hills on the north side of Phoenix. Soon those days would be left far behind, although the band has never given up Phoenix as a port of call. (Damon had also done some of the artwork for the In A Car release.)
There’s a song called ‘Unpleasant,’ which we did in ’82 on a record called Amuck,” Bostrom said. “And it was on Placebo, which was JFA’s label out of Phoenix. They did a lot of compilations, and this was their first one. Cris and I are actually on another cut on that record called ‘Bottle’s Neck.’ And the band is Victory Acres. That cut and the rest of that session came out on a record, also on Placebo, within the last five years. It was the Victory Acres/Joke Flower record, which I think is still available on cassette and LP. The session with me and Cris is on one side, and on the other is more current recordings by the same group of people. Only now they’re callin’ themselves Joke Flower.
“We did a cut [also] in 1982 for a magazine called Take It, which was out of Massachusetts. They used to do flexis in their issues. And we did a song called ‘Teenagers.’ Half of it was fast. It was actually the very first thing we ever recorded that wasn’t like punk rock, that wasn’t screamy. We did just like a little chord progression that we jammed on, and tried to make it as mellow as possible. Because it was [considered] ‘punk’ to get more mellow than the, quote, ‘old, mellow rock stars.’ So that’s the origin of our mellow vibe. And it’s only available on flexi.”
That mellow vibe would carry over into the band’s next session with Spot, eventually released as Meat Puppets II. A lot of Curt’s surprisingly sophisticated country influences would also come to the fore. According to Bostrom, this musical direction all stemmed from the “Teenagers” track.
“II have no idea what happened to it,” he said, “but it’s a great cut. We have the multi-track tape, but we don’t have the mix we sent to them. I don’t remember what issue it was in, but Chris D. of flesheaters was on the cover. And also, on the flexi, is Tex and the Horseheads. ‘Cause this is when they were just comin’ out. That’s probably the most collectible thing we’ve done. I mean, the [Light Bulb] cassette’s pretty collectible, too. I know people are selling original copies of radio shows, stuff like that, that are being sold for lots of money.
“I don’t dare buy Goldmine,” Bostrom stated in a humorous aside, “because then I’ll see things I want to spend hundreds of dollars on. Or worse, I’ll see my stuff being sold for hundreds of dollars. I don’t pursue it the way I did when I was 17, when I had to have every 45 I saw. Eventually you have to pay your own rent. But before I had to do that, all my money went to punk rock records.
“But nobody’s ever gold me they’ve found a copy of that Take It flexi. And it’s pretty good stuff, too. I saw it, I have two copies of it. [So, it definitely exists.]
“In fact, I wrote an article for Take It, and gave them some art [work]. And the editor, or whoever was in charge of doing the story, called me back saying she didn’t understand what I had written. Because I was writing in a very ironic style, and being rather arch. She asked me to explain some of the references, and I did. I was very accommodating. And what she did was put approximations of what I had said in the bulk of the article, and then still credit the whole thing to me. Although half of it was misquotings of me that she had written into it, plus my stuff.
“And it ended up making SST very mad at us,” Bostrom said. “Because there were some jokes in there about them, like, ‘Yeah, we’re doin’ this country album for SST to capitalize on their punk market.’ And it was a joke. It came out sounding like, ‘We don’t like those guys, but we want their audience,’ or something. They didn’t like it, so they didn’t take us to Europe with them the first time they went. They took the Minutemen instead.”
Nonetheless, the Meat Puppets were starting to gain some notoriety outside of Arizona and California, a circumstance which sent them headed to the east coast for the first time. Meat Puppets was just beginning to get some play in alternative music circles, and the band started to conceive of themselves as more than just an “Arizona band” or a regional act.
“We’ve never gotten to tour with Sonic Youth, unfortunately, but we did a couple of shows here and there with them,” Bostrom said. “Actually we played with sonic Youth in 1982, the first time we ever came to New York. They opened for us at Folk City. It was like November of ’82, and they were just children, as were we. I remember being irritated, because I was on tour for the first time, and I had already gotten sick three times, or whatever. New York City scared the piss out of me, ’cause I was from the wide open spaces. I didn’t dig it. I was a long ways from home for the first time, working in a big city, not getting a lot of sleep, not eating well, and having to do shows. And it’s hard, when you’re not used to it. You have to pretty much know your limits, before you can go and rock out really hard. If you’re exhausted and strung out on bad food and no sleep, the shows start to suck.
“So I was kind of cranky, and I didn’t watch their [Sonic Youth's] set,” the drummer said. “But I remember Kim [Gordon] coming down into the dressing room, either before or after her set. I said nothing to her, and she said nothing to me. It was one of those uncomfortable things, like ‘Obviously we’re not saying anything.’ I wasn’t going to say anything! It’s all too easy for me to be just as uncooperative and incommunicative as possible.”
“Meat Puppets, they were really weird,” Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore said last year. “When they first started, they were just so fuckin’ weird. They were really twisted. They would come out and play a hundred songs, each one shorter than the last. Singing this Mickey Mouse gobbledy-gook. Then they’d break into a 20-minute Grateful Dead thing. The audience just did not know what to think of these guys. And they had long hair which was unheard of.”
In defense of his own band, Bostrom really didn’t think the Meat Puppets were all that weird in those days. “Well, we always figured that we had a side that people could relate to,” he said.
“We weren’t out trying to bust people’s balls, or freak ‘em out or anything. We had chops, we weren’t like a band that didn’t know how to play our instruments when we picked ‘em up. We already had somewhat of an idea of what direction we wanted to go into when we started the band.”
After 1982 is when Curt began to really come into his own, as a songwriter as well as a guitarist. Bostrom didn’t seem to mind that, after the first SST album, Curt quickly became the focus of the band, a perception that has largely remained with the Meat Puppets ever since.
“Curt started gettin’ in the groove and started turnin’ stuff out,” Bostrom said. “People were tellin ‘him he was good, and givin’ him encouragement. People outside the band, people in Monitor, for instance. So he soon began to develop his own style. And it wasn’t real punk-rocky [sic]. Plus, we were playin ‘these shows with punk rockers, like Redd Kross in 1981, Black Flag. We made the rounds. And the skinhead thing was coming in, the hardcore thing, which was separate from punk rock. Hardcore was kind of like jocks who got into it, because it was hard and fast, rather than because it was ‘anti-music’ or some sort of avant-garde thing. And so we were like, ‘Ugh! We’re not about that!’ We decided we were going to have to stop playing ‘hard/fast-rules’-style music, ’cause we weren’t like Wasted Youth or Bad Religion, or Adolescents. I guess they’re the typical band of that style. We weren’t like that at all.
“We had been listening to Fleetwood Mac, and Creedence, and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And Neil Young, a lot. Those kind of bands. And I guess Meat Puppets II kind of showed our influences more than any other of our records did. I mean, let’s face it, ‘Lake of Fire’ is a pretty popular song right now [in the '90s]. It makes the rounds these days, getting played on MTV every now and again. That was a fairly fledgling Meat Puppets song. So, even stuff we wrote 10 years ago is considered popular now.”
“I guess, more than anything, I didn’t know how punk rock was gonna go over,” Curt said, acknowledging the band’s conscious swing back to the other end of its spectrum of musical influences. “When it did start to go over, I was pretty idealistic, and I didn’t really like the audience very much. So when, I took the time to think about it, I realized I needed to explore some of my other roots. I mean, we’d always had sort of a punk rock motive early on, but as a band, and individually, we’d never kept ourselves form doing anything.
I just had to start conscientiously having us do other things, which largely, I got the confidence to do through listening to Neil Young and the Grateful Dead when I was growin’ up. Those and the Flying Burrito Brothers [among others].”
“I think that Curt discovered the joy, of Neil, back then,” Cris said. “You know, the cool [records], where he’s a heartbroken little singer/songwriter. Like Harvest, or whatever the fuckin’ huge ones are. ‘For The Turnstiles,’ I think… I don’t know, but it has to do more with just pickin’ up an acoustic guitar. People like Cobain credited us with turnin’ him on to bein’ a pussy, and bein’ a hardass at the same time. Which is alternative, or some crap, right? It’s like, ‘We don’t cuss, so that it fits in between the commercials and gets on radio. But we don’t dress up, so it’s sincere.’
“So, when [Cobain] said that, we were goin’, ‘Well, you know, we got that off Neil Young, or whatever. And Neil Young got it off the fuckin’ Beatles. And the Beatles got it off of fuckin’ lysergic [acid], and being open-minded off of British culture. And you keep goin’ back, and there’s ol’ psychedelic Bill Shakespeare, and all his cool cohorts. And you go further back beyond that, and you suddenly realize, ‘Well, fuck, people have been into this kind of shit forever.’ You know? It’s just like, ‘To be, or not to be — and fuckin’ why?”
“You suddenly realize, ‘Well this is what a lot of great art is about.’ So I don’t take credit for that at all. If we happened to be the ones who turned that kid [Cobain] onto [sic] it, we got turned onto it at some point, too. Rock ‘n’ roll can actually be art, if you just look at it the right way.”
“The Neil thing goes back to stuff that I grew up on even before I heard Neil,” Curt said. “But I think he gave me the confidence, knowing that rockers could play rock, and then cross over. Neil was one of the only people who ever did t, for some reason. But we got tired of playin’ punk rock, that was it, I guess. We realized we could do the other stuff, so…
“I always kind of got a kick out of taking stuff that we recorded out to the desert, and listening to it,” Curt said. “It was kind of nice sometimes, when you’ve got a campfire goin’ or somethin, to hang the radio up in a tree somewhere and listen to it like that. But ultimately I just kind of think that people [have the impression] that there’s a certain amount of spirituality and freedom the desert provides. And, coincidentally, we play that kind of thing. And that gets attributed to the fact that we’re from here [Arizona]. But I don’t know that that has any bearing on [our music], that the two things come together that much. As if it wouldn’t be the same if we were from someplace else. It’s more about imagination and feelings than trying to paint a [musical] landscape, or anything like that.
“[Young's music] definitely has those plaintive strains, but I don’t know if there’s any music that really fits in that well here like that, like people think. You get imagery if you think about the desert. But being there really isn’t something, when you’re out there, that really makes you think about listening to music that much. Music, in my mind, is fairly, you know… You can kind of cross your idealism and your fantasies and stuff, to a degree. But actually being in the desert has more of a real feeling to it. We never really dragged our blasters out to the desert that much, and listened to music when we were out there.”
As much as the Meat Puppets enjoyed recording with Spot the engineer, they couldn’t count on him to let them in on the completion of their album once the sessions were done. Meat Puppets II was cut early in 1983 in Los Angeles, but the band played the rest of the year wondering what became of their album.
“We went on [recording] with SST,” Bostrom said, “and Spot did our next couple of records, and then Spot got out. It was just as well, ’cause Spot was very freewheeling on his own time. We recorded Meat Puppets II in like March of ’83, and then he disappeared with the tape till like November. So when we went to do the third one, Up On The Sun [in late January 1985], we demoed it ourselves, got it all finished and everything. and we said, ‘Alright, we want to block out three days, and at the end of those three days, the record’s gonna be done. No more dicking around.’ And we did it. And we haven’t been able to top that. We made a really fine record in a Friday/Saturday/Sunday lockout period, in a studio [Total Access, in Redondo Beach, California].
“And everything got done. Except for the editing, and that was a piece of cake. And that’s like [most] people’s favorite record of ours. Whereas Meat Puppets II was more varied, more difference from song to song, in instrumentation and arrangement. On Up On The Sun, each cut is arranged real similarly, to streamline the process. But that’s really the only place where we cut corners.”
Before the recording of Up On The Sun, the band had spent the year 1984 out on the road promoting Meat Puppets II. Due to their affiliation with the up-and-coming SST label, they would often play shows far from their Phoenix base with other SST bands.
“We played Seattle for the first time either in ’82 or ’84, which was with Black Flag at this school. It was definitely an ass-kicker of a gig. And then suddenly [several years later], there was the ‘Seattle sound.’ And we’re going, ‘Well, lookit there: “The Seattle sound” sure looks a lot like us!’ But it was no big deal. We didn’t give a crap about that, anyway.”
Touring had its own perils for the Meat Puppets, as it does for any band operating on a small budget. The bad food, lack of sleep and need for stimulants were constant facts of life on the road. Curt’s painting for the front cover of Up On The Sun gave an accurate indication of the band’s intake priorities. It was a picture of a coffee mug adorned with a burst of leaves form a marijuana plant.
“Unfortunately, I’m pretty much addicted to caffeine at this point,” Bostrom said. “It’s the only addictive substance I haven’t been able to shake. I tried, and it really hurt hard to try to cold turkey without coffee. The Descendents [another SST band] were heavily into coffee, and the Minutemen were into coffee, and we drink it.
“But we weren’t really influenced [musically] by any of that wave. The bands that we were listening to [before SST] from L.A. were like the Dangerhouse artists. And the original Slash [Records] artists, like Germs, Plugz, Alley Cats, the Dils, stuff like that. The first wave. I know the Damned came to L.A. in like 1977, and a lot of kids saw that and thought that was great. We listened to the bands that were influenced by the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned. Not the second generation, or whatever. We came up at the same time as them. We never heard of the Minutemen until we had already kind of crystallized our thing.
“Being with SST gave us the opportunity to do even more gigs, expand our base,” Bostrom said. “And also play to their audience, which we found somewhat distasteful. So it led us to, like, blow off punk rock, and kind of go into the more mainstream sound. We started doing country-rock, or Creedence-y sort of stuff, or whatever we’re kind of still known for [today].
“We sent with SST on a national tour. And they had already done a few national tours, and had laid the groundwork for the touring network that they had. Then they had their own booking agency, which they started. And by the time Up On The Sun came out in ’85, we were able to tour the whole country, and capitalize on the fact that that record did very well for us.
“At the time,” Bostrom said, “the independent market was so small, that that record was able to reach #10 on the independent chart they had in Rolling Stone. Now, in order to get to #10, you’ve probably got to sell 10 times as many records as we did to do it 10 years ago. But around ’85, we started being able to support ourselves [solely through music]. We would put out a record, tour for like six month, chill for six months. Make another record, and start the whole thing over again.
“Of course, what we would do was cut corners like mad. We’d go out in a van with our small gear, sleep on people’s floors, or get one [motel] room, and sneak into it. And that started getting old. [Note: And dangerous. Around this time, D. Boon of the Minutemen was killed in a van accident on the highway.]
“Then, about that time, Husker Du and Replacements got signed [by major labels],” Bostrom said. “Se we began to get this pressure on us, like ‘Why haven’t you guys gotten signed?’ And we also started reaching kind of the ceiling of what we could do [saleswise] with SST. They could only push us so hard. They really weren’t geared toward bands that knew nothing about the business, and just wanted to make a record or two, and would get no exposure otherwise.”
“All through the ’80s, we had our cool relationship with this batch of other people that had their artistic intentions, financial intentions, social intentions and whatever,” Cris said. “And we managed to work within their confines at SSt. The art side of it was opening up, so it worked for us. Artistically [speaking], we were able to get done what we wanted to get done. Because that’s where we’ve always been coming from. We just want to do this work, you know? Regardless of [any interference]. But at a certain point, it fell apart.”
After touring behind Up On The Sun for most of 1985, the Meat Puppets put out the six-song EP Out My Way in 1986. Along with five new Kirkwood compositions (three of which were co-credited to Cris), the released contained, in a deliberate nod to rock ‘n’ roll history, a wild cover of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” It had been 30 years since the original was cut, and the band still had enough of its late ’70s punk spirit remaining to do a bang-up job on it.
But, in all likelihood, it was the Creedence Clearwater version of “Good Golly Miss Molly” that inspired the Meat Puppets to cover it, as opposed to the original Little Richard recording.
The Late ’80s: Hallucinations, Eggs, and Other Scary Stuff
The year 1987 was a particularly busy one for the Meat Puppets. They recorded and released two full-length albums, kept touring like crazy, yet still weren’t convinced that the band was getting anywhere. After the Mirage album was completed, they concluded that its songs were too polished to play on stage night after night.
“We did Mirage, which was our proper followup to Up On The Sun,” Bostrom said. “And we spent about a month and a half doing it, which for us was quite a lot. We were very meticulous with it.”
“We farted around in the studio,” Cris recalled. “And the songs were a lot more conceptual, in a way. But then, all the Meat Puppets crap is all about, ‘The point is, there is no point.’ Mirage was just a little bit more picked over, we took a little more time with it. And then we just turned right around and whipped Huevos out, just because we wanted to.”
“What we found [with Mirage],” Bostrom said, “was that we only sold about as many as we did on Up On The Sun, and couldn’t really expand our base, given where we were at. Plus, we didn’t really like going out and touring on songs that were that heavily-crafted. So we did Huevos, which we did right before we went on tour, between two tours. It cost us like 1500 bucks, and we did it in like four days.
“And the idea was,” Bostrom said, “you know, ‘We need to put out some songs that we actually want to play on stage. Plus, why sp3end any more time on records, if they’re only gonna do [only] so well, no matter how much we put into it?’ Of course, what we found was that wasn’t really the case.
“We’d come home and it would be like, oh, such-and-such band has broken up, such-and-such a person has died of heroin abuse. Such-and-such a person has gotten married, or joined the church, or moved away, or whatever.’ Soon,” Bostrom said, “we kind of like got out of the scene. Curt had a couple of kids, and we moved out of the city to the outskirts, to get away from people who’d show up at our doorstep at 3 A.M.”
“Huevos, with another painting by Curt used as the cover (whereas Mirage sported Derrick’s artwork on the front cover), is now regarded by some as Curt’s “love letter to Billy Gibbons,” at least in terms of the guitar stylings employed on the nine tracks that comprise it. Curt preferred to back off of that estimation, but nonetheless freely admitted that he listened to a lot of ZZ Top in his formative years and that the pervasive influence of Gibbons no doubt was on his mind during the loose and lively Huevos sessions, which took place in Phoenix.
“Yeah, I’d say there’s probably two songs on there [inspired by early ZZ Top],” he said. “But, I don’t know, I’ve never been that heavy on rhythm ‘n’ blues. We’ve done rhythm ‘n’ blues songs occasionally, but I think [listeners are picking up on] probably the guitar sound more than anything.”
The Meat Puppets didn’t make an album in 1988, but by then had quite a back catalog available because of their seven years with SST. They were also fairly well-known in the underground music circles across the U.S. Their loyal fans loved them. They routinely won the respect of most music critics and, in more than a few instances, unmitigated acclaim. As with most bands labeled “alternative” in that era, what eluded them were fame and fortune. If you were to ask the typical MTV viewer, during Ronald Reagan’s final year as president, for an opinion on the Meat Puppets, the response you would have most likely gotten is, “The what?”
“For many, many years,” Curt said, “it was real easy, although we didn’t make very much money. It was more of a straight shot. Where we would just put out a record, go out and do it, and nobody had shit to say about it. And we weren’t you know, anybody’s big heroes, we weren’t ‘venerable,’ we weren’t any of these different things that [in the mid-'90s] are supposed to add up to something, and really don’t yet. I like doin’ music. I really enjoy that, that’s not a problem.
“It’s just a matter of basically being a fairly self-motivated autonomous sort of a person, and having to constantly compromise and co-opt myself [is something I despise]. That’s why I got into the indie record scene [to begin with]. And why I got into trying to do my own thing as heavily as I have. Even within the band I’m like that.”
Monsters, in 1989, was the last album the Meat Puppets made for SST. On their own terms, the band had been a success in the 1980s, but they had to think about the future.
“The press was going like, ‘Oh, the Meat Puppets, they’re backsliding. They’re never gonna get signed.’ And,” Bostrom said, “we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re supposed to get signed.’ Obviously, we started out as this scruffy punk band, doing it for ourselves. We weren’t really looking to make it big. But, we had kind of grown to love what we were doing, and we wanted to stick with it. And we found, as in a lot of businesses, that to stay in place was to move backwards. And we really were expected to ‘sign up, get with the program.’
“Meanwhile,” the drummer said, “on the other side, the alternative movement, the indie movement, was getting noticed by the major labels. They were beginning to buy up bands and labels. And soon, the indie network that we had helped set up — us and dozens and dozens of other bands — was beginning to crumble, because there was no product that was good. Bands were not going to indie labels anymore, and so [the old network] couldn’t be supported by the acts that were just doing it for fun, or whatever. All the good stuff was going to the majors.
“All the ‘big stars.’ the Husker Dus, Replacements, etcetera, were like ‘no longer there.’ We were just making ends meet. We decided to do Monsters more with an idea of trying to get signed. So we made that record, sent it out to record companies, and got a bunch interested.”
Critical reaction was typically positive to the effort, with the review by Cindy Laufenberg, editor and publisher of the Toms River, New Jersey-based ‘zine The Ledge, being more or less par for the course. “Those Arizona zanies are back, with a truly chuggin’ set of tunes that sound sorta like Black Sabbath meets ZZ Top,” wrote Laufenberg, who gave a thumbs-down to the Soundgarden album Louder Than Love in the same issue (#10, January/February 1990). “Less trippy-dippy than previous efforts, Monsters will keep your toes tappin’ and your air guitar in full swing, even though it’s still impossible to figure out just what they’re singing about.”
[Note: The CD version of this album, now available, does contain a lyric sheet, however, should anyone care to follow along.]
Laufenberg concluded her brief writeup by describing the Kirkwood brothers as “incredibly beautiful” (at least in photographic closeup), proving that the Meat Puppets did exhibit their own brand of sex appeal well before Evan Dando made the rounds on the alternative bandwagon.
“We ended up talking to the folks at Atlantic,” Bostrom said. “and the vice-president in charge of that kind of music was hired by PolyGram to run London Records, which they had just started up [in the U.S.]. So we followed him over [there].”
The 90s: The Big Time?
As the Meat Puppets were keeping a keen eye open for a major label record deal, alternative music colleagues form the early ’80s, notably Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers, were doing the same. Leary’s Surfers, after recording for the indie labels Touch and Go, Rough Trade, and Alternative Tentacles, eventually signed with Capitol. Sonic Youth struck a deal with David Geffen’s DGS Records, and soon afterwards Nirvana also wound up on Geffen’s label.
“They say that the Meat Puppets have influenced other bands,” Bostrom said. “And what I get off of that, when I hear people talk about it, is that we were one of the first ‘progressive’ punk rock bands. One of the first bands to come out and say, ‘Punk rock doesn’t have to be anti-everything that came before it.’ We were kind of filtering old music through a new sensibility, sort of. Through which people could get off saying that everything sucked, that came before punk rock, or whatever.
“Because before that, it was just like that: ‘You’re old.’ You know, the whole Sex Pistols thing: ‘We’re the future, period.’ That was kind of our contribution, along with several other bands that were doin’ that. But I think Meat Puppets II is one of the first overtly backward-looking albums, that really incorporated country-rock and mainstream rock into the punk rock sensibility. I can’t think of another one, and my memory is pretty good.” Bostrom said that all this information is stored on his “flesh hard-disc.”
To begin their association with London Records, the band returned to Los Angeles and entered a recording studio with guitarist Pete Anderson, who had already established good credentials as a producer through his work with Roy Orbison and Dwight Yoakam. The batch of songs that would constitute the Forbidden Places album were once again, all composed by Curt.
“I contributed a couple of [song] titles to Meat Puppets II,” Bostrom said. “I think Curt wrote all of Up On The Sun, except for a riff or two which Cris contributed. Likewise with Out My Way. Curt wrote all of Mirage and all of Huevos, except for an occasional lyric or an occasional riff that Cris would throw in. You know, a ‘part three’ or something. Cris really hadn’t written anything until [Too High To Die], on which he wrote ‘Station’ and ‘Evil Love.’”
“Curt’s just a fuckin’ machine,” his brother said. “He’s a very on it, visionary kind of creep, you know? That’s what he’s done for years. It’s like, ‘Well, there’s our new batch of songs.’ And I go, ‘Can I put a little [instrumental part] in the middle of it?’ And then I get my name on a few songs here and there. But Curt is just actually that kind of artist, who just [constantly] puts out work.”
For his part, while taking into account his contribution to the group, Curt is adverse to accepting the designation as leader of the Meat Puppets. He seems to love the band, and the idea of the band, as they first conceived it, far more than his own individual role in it.
“People put all kinds of shit off on me,” he said, “that has to do with nothing more than [me] sitting around in front of my TV, making up songs. People put this huge stigma of leadership and authority, and domination and intelligence, and all this different crap, that has nothing to do with what I do, at all. Basically, I often can’t see the forest for the trees, because the band is regarded as so much ‘me.’ And so much to do with whether or not I’m dominant or not.
“It’s a pretty psycho thing, not like it’s that crazy or anything,” Curt said, “It’s just that, in terms of working with other people, it’s always been just writing songs and then having them interpreted by this particular band. And this band can hold its own without my songs. It can do other people’s songs, or whatever. So, even that’s a crock o’ shit. Basically, I’ve been stigmatized by being clever, or something. I don’t know.”
A late ’94 Meat Puppets set in L.A. backed up Curt’s argument. The band did an outstanding acoustic version of “Tennessee Stud” during their performance. They also played a song written by Leary (which the Butthole Surfers have not officially recorded) called “Sleepy Pee Pee” (“Pee Pee The Sailor”).
Forbidden Places, perhaps reflecting some of Anderson’s influence, was somewhat of a return to the country-rock stylings contained on Meat Puppets recordings of the early-to-mid ’80s, in contrast to the heavy guitar and drum sounds on much of the Monsers album. Once again, critical reaction was largely favorable, but significant sales figures didn’t materialize. London’s enthusiasm over the Meat Puppets cooled a bit, as the label tried to figure a way to promote them.
“We had gone in to record Too High To Die as an acoustic EP, because they didn’t know what else to do with us,” Cris said. “We were ready to record [our next album] in the fall of ’92, and they wouldn’t let us go in the studio. They were keepin’ us from puttin’ out a record. They were like, ‘Well, read the contract.’ They were gonna have us put [the EP] out on Atlas, their little ‘alternative label.’
So we were just goin’, ‘Well, this is a fuckin’ wonderful situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Our whole little trip has been bought out by these people.’ Punk rock had been turned into little kids pretending to be English people again,” Cris said disgustedly. “Suddenly, ‘Mr. Big’ came around with his new flavor of cigar going, ‘It’s the “you can do your artwork” cigar flavor, because now it’s popular,’ and blah, blah, blah.
“They asked us to re-record our old crap, said Cris, indicating that the band was fairly flabbergasted by the absurdity of this request. “They wanted us to do Up On The Sun, all acoustic. And we were like, ‘Oh, okay, so you’re gonna sell us as an oldies act? Whatever.’ It didn’t matter how we felt about it. We were broke and up against the wall. So we had to do what we could. So we said, ‘Well, if it’s going to be a lesser priority thing, how about we do it with our friend Paul [Leary]?’ And they said ‘yeah’ to that.”
“The label said, ‘You guys can go in and record six acoustic things, which we’ll release as an EP as a stopgap until we can get the [next] record done.’ And we said, ‘Okay.’ We were without a producer and the last record had already been out a year and a half, and we still weren’t any closer to [completing another album]. Then we went to South By Southwest [annual music conference in Austin] and attended the Butthole Surfers’ album release party for Independent Worm Saloon. And we told Paul of our woeful story and he was like [in Walter Brennan voice], ‘Well, I’ll do it!’ We know his manager, and his manager pursued it,” Bostrom explained.
“So we did it. There was more pressure on us for this record than the last one. Because [Forbidden Places[ was made in the pre-Nevermind days, and was kind of like, 'We'll run it up the flag pole and let's see what happens.' But they knew [by 1993] that if they made the right record — you know, they were planning on making this record happen. So they wanted to hook us up with the right producer,” the drummer said. “We had talked to Tom Werman, who had done Motley Crue records, and Ted Nugent records, and Cheap Trick records and stuff. We’d also been considering David Briggs, Neil Young’s producer, and the label didn’t want us to use him. They were obviously lookin’ for somebody with some sort of ‘alternative clout.’”
“They were tryin’ to come up with a producer, and I kind of wormed my way into it,” Leary said. “They wanted Neil Young’s producer, and the label said ‘no.’ And they wanted somebody, I think the guy that produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, or somethin’. They were throwin’ out names of producers with platinum records under their belts. And the record label kept sayin’, ‘No, no, we want someone cool.’ And they were tellin’ me about it, and I just said in passing, ‘Well, hell, why don’t you let me do it?’ And they went, ‘Okay!’ I fooled somebody into thinkin’ I was cool.”
The band did the acoustic sessions for the proposed EP with Leary, and was tremendously pleased with the experience as well as the results on tape. They took the recordings back to the label with hopes of convincing London to scrap plans for an EP and just let the Meat Puppets go ahead and cut the next album with Leary at the helm. The plan was to record in Memphis.
“The label found the [recording studio in Memphis], I think they even own the place. It was a good place to do it. They were like, ‘We’ve got a studio out here, why don’t you come out and check it out? Check out the studio, and check out Paul. See if you like it. If it works, we’ll use it.’ We liked it, and it worked. You know, in Memphis there’s like a dozen recording sessions going on, instead of like 200 in L.A. I was able to go to the top drum store in town and deal with the owner. I could actually stick the stuff I wanted into the rental car and drive it to the studio. And there was a lot more available there. I mean, in L.A. there’s a lot of stuff, but you’ve got people who have been doing it for a long time who tend to, like, tell you what you’re going to do. It was just more relaxed in Memphis. We were pretty much able to do it more our way.
“Basically,” Bostrom said, “this album was really done by a producer that likes us just the way we are. He’s a big fan. He didn’t make us do anything. Basically, what he did was bring his guitar collection, and try to get one of his favorite guitarists to play some of his favorite guitars, and make sure the tuning was right. And let us do our things. So it was largely co-produced. And aside from fronting us for the label, there isn’t a whole lot that he made us do, or that he wouldn’t let us do. So this [Too High To Die] is pretty pure, unadulterated Meat Puppets.”
“We started recording,” Cris said, “and it just was comin’ out really great, like we knew it would. Because anything we do is fuckin’ brilliant! And with the inclusion of Paul, it’s only that much more good, green buds. When we recorded the album, we were like, ‘Look, we don’t want to put this old crap on there. These are old songs, we did ‘em a decade ago. We’re not a fuckin’ oldies act. We’ve got plenty of new songs that we like, and that’s all that’s ever been the criterion [for a Meat Puppets album]. It’s just, do we want to do it?’
“Suddenly, here’s this band that’s been this pillar of fuckin’ idealism and ‘do it your own way’ being shoved around by the one stick that everybody gets shoved around by — financial,” Cris said. In effect, he felt the band was being told, “You can’t do your work at all. You can sit at home, or I hope you like your Circle-K job.”
“Even after Too High To Die was completed, in mid-1993, the label still wasn’t totally convinced that the album had the potential to break the Meat Puppets to a wider audience. After the Memphis sessions were over, the band cut a track back in Phoenix which London wanted to release as a single. But Cris and the others couldn’t go along with that idea.
“Paul actually didn’t play any guitar on the sessions at all,” Cris said. “That’s weird. Me and him had one little jam one day. He had all his gear out there and he picked up a guitar. And I sat down at the drums to have a jam with him. I’m bigger than Derrick, so I play drums hard! Paul starts goin’ off and boom! He blows up an amplifier. It was hilarious. I guess you call that punk rock. But Paul did a really good job on the production side of it, with what he did, which is bring like an engineer’s knowledge of all the studio gear. Paul flat-out taught himself how to be an engineer, and then he’s just a really cool, artistic cat. And an old, dear friend, too. We’ve known Paul and Gibby since ’81, and we just fuckin’ love those guys.
“They’re both just totally sweet, far-out cats. Paul is tending to his own career as a producer, which is what he wants to be, and plus dealing with a band [the Meat Puppets] that he just loves. And we love the Buttholes. So it was a big butt-lickathon. It actually was a lot of fun, about as cool as you could get. We’d recorded an album that we wanted to make.
“But I’ve got my own eight-track studio here at home, and we recorded this song called ‘Don’t Touch My Stuff,’ with Derrick singing and playing guitar,” Cris said. “It’s a song that Derrick had written, who hadn’t written anything in years. He wrote this thing on a lark, and it was funny. He couched it in all this antimilitaristic cartoon drivel, that Derrick is wont to slant things as. It had this Nirvana kind of feel to it, like ‘Teen Spirit.’ It could have been on the record as a little Derrick song, but not as the fuckin’ single.
“They wanted to push us as a joke, just like they pushed that song ‘Sam’ off the [previous] record. Like, ‘Oh, wow, listen! They sing fast!’ Well, yeah, but we’ve also got 15 years of musical history. What about us as a fuckin’ band? How about that shit that we actually do? I mean, if we were, I don’t know, the Dead Milkmen or something, it’d be one thing. But we’re not, you know?”
While the wrangling over their follow-up to Forbidden Places continued, the Meat Puppets became aware that Nirvana’s Cobain was a fan of theirs, and had been for many years. It wasn’t something new or unique that a respected musician would mention in the press that he really dug the Meat Puppets, but the remarks usually didn’t come form someone who had Cobain’s level of fame.
“My old roommate had moved to Seattle,” Bostrom said, “and gotten involved in the club scene. He called me one day and said, ‘Can I give [Nirvana] your number? They love you.’ I was like, ‘Sure, what the hell. We want to open for ‘em sometime.’ I had never heard of them before Nevermind came out. We asked our manager to follow up on it. An old friend of ours from SST days, Ray Farrell, was actually their A&R guy over at Geffen. Eventually we hooked up through those channels.”
“I first heard about [Cobain] because of Ray Farrell,” Cris said. “Well, first I had seen things in the newspapers, when Nirvana first started coming out. I saw the guy mention us a few times here and there. But a lot of people mention us.”
Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow and the mother of his child, also attested to the Seattle punk rocker’s love of the music of the Meat Puppets. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Love told David Fricke (one of the last journalists to formally interview Cobain before his death), “He told me that the Meat Puppets’ second record was great. I couldn’t stand it. Then he played it to me — in his voice, his cadence, his timing. And I realized he was right.”
“I think Cobain heard Portland Zoo, this bootleg of us that came out from like ’90 or ’91,” Cris said. “A show up in Portland [Oregon]. And our shows have still been good, or whatever. And the band has continued to develop. And I think he heard that bootleg and realized that the Meat Puppets are [slipping into crazy old Appalachian backwoodsman voice] ‘still kickin’ ass!’
“Ray Farrell started workin’ at Geffen when Sonic Youth got signed. Cobain asked him what was up with the Meat Puppets. And Ray told him, ‘well, they’re havin’ a hard time gettin’ their record company to understand ‘em.’ And Cobain was like, ‘What can I do to help?’ I think he was specifically into turning people on to the shit he’d been into [when he was younger]. You’d see him wearing that Flipper t-shirt, and they did that Vaselines song, and that Raincoats thing.
“I heard that Cobain wanted to use his newfound power, or whatever, to help out shit he was into,” Cris said. “The first thing was they invited us to go on tour with them.”
“Nirvana had pretty much promised every band that they like, a week with them,” Bostrom said. “They would change opening acts every week. And so we got our week. We did a week’s worth of shows with them in the Great Lakes region. We did a shot in Detroit, a couple in Ohio, a couple in Canada, and one in upstate New York. We played with the Boredoms, too. They opened the show. Then they stopped touring and went to New York to do Unplugged, and Cris and Curt went out and did that with them. And we were gonna go out and do some more dates with them in Europe.
“We also heard somewhere,” Bostrom said, “in an article in Spin or something, that they were into Meat Puppets II, and they either wanted to cover ‘Lake Of Fire’ on their new album or an Unplugged session. And we were like, ‘Well, great. We’ll teach it to you.’ We never got around to teaching it to them, because they were horribly busy, just like we [got in 1994]. And they just said, ‘Hell, come along. We’ll buy you some [plane] tickets, and you guys can just play the track, because we don’t have time to learn it.’
“And, of course, that set a fire under everybody’s ass in the [London Records] office. It gave the publicity department something to hang the stuff on. They went and got quotes from [Cobain] and slapped it on the record [Too High To Die].”
“One night I was talkin’ to the guy [Cobain] about this and that,” Cris said. “We started talkin’ about cover songs and stuff. He said they wanted to play some of our crap. And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll show you how to do it. It’s fairly easy. There’s some little guitar things in there that you’ll have to get ol’ ‘big guy’ [Curt] to teach you.’ Cobain was more of a ‘chordy’ kind of musician. There are some little lines in there, little ‘notey notes.’ Curt, my Curt, is a pretty good guitarist, just more of a player.
“Cobain comes from more of a punker thing,” Cris said. “There’s more chords in his music. I mean, he was a good guitar player, really. But just an intuitive, natural, bitchin’ fuckin’ outlet for his screamy soul, or whatever, more than a technician. Whereas we’re more like little player nerds. Besides, he himself knew that, and interpreted it his way. And he said, ‘You guys should come and do it with us on TV.’
“It was a blast. I liked it not only because it was Nirvana and MTV, this world of Men Without Hats, or whatever, that we’ve never been allowed into. I liked doin’ the thing. On a musical level, I think Nirvana’s a good band. Because you don’t have to move your fingers [with super dexterity] to be good, right? It was good in that they put across bitchin’ shit, you know? Really organoid [sic], natural, neat stuff.
“And then to see my brother plain’ with other musicians,” Cris added. “Curt’s just hardly ever done that. I played Krist’s acoustic bass, and Krist [Novoselic] played acoustic guitar. I showed him how to do the crap simple, ‘the retard version’ of how to play all those songs, as opposed to the ‘teeny little notes’ version, which my Curt did. It was just neat to have Curt play with other musicians. And they happened to also be a really good band. That was the main thing about it. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise, if they weren’t people we could stomach. But beyond stomaching them, they were actually really fuckin’ good, in their own way.
“It was just bitchin’ on a musical level,” Cris said, “let alone the other aspects. It sure as shit didn’t hurt our career. Although, it kind of did. I mean, it kind of made us [look like] ‘the grand old farts’ who the cool, young guys like, or whatever. But Cobain knew that we were in hell, basically, that our relationship with our record company [was tenuous]. That’s one of the reasons that he had us go on tour and took us on TV with him.”
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session started airing during the 1993 holiday season and some new, younger music fans started discovering the Meat Puppets. Then Too High To Die came out at the start of ’94 and things were looking brighter for the band. But by early March media reports about Cobain’s problems were heard with greater frequency, and his brilliant collaboration with the Meat Puppets only a few short months earlier suddenly seemed not to matter very much. Cris expressed a wish that he could have, perhaps, convinced Cobain to take some time off and come down to Arizona to hang out, if he’d been aware of the extent of his troubles.
“The Cobain thing helped [the Meat Puppets], as far as catching people’s attention and shit,” Cris said. “It was, for sure, a lot of good exposure. And then he shot himself. It was just sad, that the poor little guy had to [resort to that]. It was just like, ‘Dude, come down here for a while. Come live in the desert, that’ll make your life worth living. It will at least make you enough of a lizard that you wont’ give a shit! But, ah, too much rain …”
After Cobain’s suicide, 1994 had its ups and downs for the Meat Puppets. Meiss, a former roadie for the band Feelies, joined the band to complement Curt on second guitar. “Backwater” became a popular song (“a fluke,” Cris thought) and the album sold steadily throughout the year. With no more than a week’s break to return to Phoenix, the band spent nearly the entire year on the road, for a spell as the opening act for Stone Temple Pilots.
“We toured with STP,” Cris said, “these guys who are millionaires now, basically. These guys grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and shit, and couldn’t be nicer guys. And they take a lot of shit for bein’ the band that they are, but still have succeeded really wildly in the way that they wanted to.”
“We’ve been out on tour with Blind Melon, Soul Asylum and Nirvana, and we spent two months out with Stone Temple Pilots,” Curt said. “We’ve [lately] been rubbing shoulders with the seriously wealthy. All we get to do is talk to other wealthy people, and listen to other high-salaried opinions. Their opinions are all colored by keeping their big boats afloat. And I don’t got a fucking boat at all. It gets old [hearing this stuff]. Basically, it bothers me as much as our old routine of not makin’ any money. It’s the same thing, by and large.
“I’d really love,” Curt said, “at some point during my children’s adolescence, just to be able to get things straight. To not have it the way that it has been through their whole childhood. Just constantly makin’ ends meet, or borrowin’ from Peter to pay Paul. It totally clouds my attitude about stuff. It’s been this way for years. And fortunately, for one reason or another, it doesn’t really affect my artwork.”
In their travels during the latter part of ’94, the Meat Puppets stopped in New York to do a gig at the beacon Theatre on the upper west side of Manhattan. Their audience that night was treated to a double-dose of bizarreness during the show. First, Curt finished the set dressed as a woman, following a photo shoot earlier that day for Rolling Stone. But before the set came to its wild conclusion, infamous radio personality Howard Stern, a longtime fan of the band, walked out on stage with a guitar strapped on and jammed with the Meat Puppets, to the delight of the band and the crowd. Soon afterwards, Stern invited Cris, Curt, Bostrom and Meiss to appear on his morning radio show, a session that was also taped by a video camera and shown on the E! Entertainment cable network. Stern jammed with the band on “Lake of Fire” and “Backwater.”
“Howard is a gentleman, regardless of what his public persona may be,” said Bostrom, who was allowed to have a modified version of his drum kit set up so that he could play in the cramped radio broadcast studio. “He’s actually a delight, I mean he’s a fan, right? And as a fan he’s a gentleman as well. We were able to corner him [at the Beacon] and get him to bring us on the show, which we’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
“Actually, it was my understanding that SST had spoken to him in 1986 or ’87 and he had asked us to come on, but we’d never heard of him [back then]. So, once we started to find out who he was, we wanted him to get us back on. He couldn’t remember what had happened, but we finally got on.”
No one can say, in 1995, that the Meat Puppets haven’t persevered. Even if, as Bostrom points out, they aren’t “as famous as the Gin Blossoms,” the Meat Puppets are probably the most musically interesting band to emerge from Phoenix in the past 20 years. Whether that’s enough to attain rock immortality, only time will tell.
“This is art,” Cris said about what his band does. “It’s not like fuckin’ science. This is the land where you go, ‘No what I say is, is.’ You know? That’s what art is all about.”
Welcome to the planet of the Meat Puppets.
–Thanks to: SST Records, Regina Joskow at London Records, Thurston Moore, Paul Leary, Mike Alvarez of Not Records Tapes, the SST Super Store, Dean Abramovitch, Ken Roeser, and Derrick Bostrom, Cris and Curt Kirkwood for the phoners; also, thanks to Tammi at Gold Mountain.