Meat Puppets - Biography
The Meat Puppets were something of an anomaly on the roster of Southern California’s notorious hardcore punk label SST. Though the Arizona trio’s initial early-‘80s recordings were as noisy, aggressive, and in-your-face as the work of their label contemporaries Black Flag, The Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü, they quickly gravitated toward a sound that favored mutant country-rock, neo-psychedelia, and hard-rock jamming. Along the way, they influenced a host of younger bands, most notably Nirvana, and they even managed a major mid-‘90s hit of their own before drug abuse took them out of the picture for more than a decade.
The group was founded by the Kirkwood brothers, Curt (born Jan. 10, 1959) and Cris (born Oct. 22, 1960). The sons of a much-married mother and grandsons of a multi-millionaire inventor and entrepreneur, they lived a peripatetic childhood before settling in the Phoenix area when they were in their teens. Curt and Cris took up guitar and bass, respectively, and in 1979 they began playing with the punk-oriented drummer Derrick Bostrom.
The threesome’s early music, which was loud, often formless, and characterized by Curt Kirkwood’s freewheeling guitar explorations, was issued by SST on the 1981 EP In a Car and a self-titled 1982 LP. Their live performances of this period were taxing and bewildering affairs, even for members of the hardcore community.
The Puppets’ music underwent an unexpected and radical sea change on Meat Puppets II (1983), a focused and widely praised move into what can only be called “alternative punk country.” (This shift would not have surprised listeners had they known that Cris Kirkwood had taken up the banjo as a teenager, after seeing the film Deliverance.) A classic of its now oft-imitated kind, the album was succeeded by a series of releases – Up On the Sun (1985), the EP Out My Way (1986), and Mirage (1987) – which elaborated on and deepened the Puppets’ countrified punk with jammy, almost Grateful Dead-like textures and frankly psychedelic guitar extrapolations.
As the ‘80s drew near their close, The Meat Puppets essayed a heavier sound – which acknowledged the pungent hard rock stylings of arena-rock guitar god Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top – on their last SST albums Huevos (1987) and Monsters (1989). The label released the compilation No Strings Attached in 1990.
The Meat Puppets made their major-label debut with Forbidden Places (1991), an almost wholly miscalculated attempt to wrong-headedly codify the band’s country elements by mating them with Pete Anderson, guitarist and producer for LA honky-tonk star Dwight Yoakam. The album was a befuddling flop, but the band soon entered the commercial mainstream through the back door.
One of The Meat Puppets’ most outspoken fans was singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Cobain of the mega-hit grunge-rock act Nirvana. Cobain invited the group to open shows on Nirvana’s 1993 arena tour. He also asked them to appear on the Washington group’s prestigious MTV Unplugged special; there the Kirkwoods backed Cobain on three songs drawn from Meat Puppets II – “Oh Me,” “Lake of Fire,” and “Plateau.”
The attention accorded the trio’s work with Nirvana bore fruit with their next studio album Too High to Die (1994); this relatively straight-forward alternative rock collection, produced by Paul Leary of Austin’s Butthole Surfers, included the single “Backwater,” which became an MTV fixture and worked its way into the national top 50, pushing the album to gold status.
Unfortunately, Too High to Die bore a prophetic title. The album’s release was followed by tours on which The Meat Puppets opened for Blind Melon and Stone Temple Pilots, and Cris Kirkwood was soon sucked into the deadly drug culture that surrounded both those bands. By the time the rackety and unfocused No Joke! (1995) was released, the younger Kirkwood was well on his way to becoming a drug casualty with a national profile.
By 1998, Cris Kirkwood’s addictions to heroin and crack cocaine had escalated to the point that he had become a virtual recluse. That August, his wife Michelle Tardif died of a drug overdose; police summoned to Kirkwood’s home found it strewn with drug paraphernalia. Three months later, a sensational story about the musician’s decline appeared in Phoenix New Times, the city’s alternative newspaper: a line in writer David Holthouse’s piece said, “Cris Kirkwood is lurching pell-mell toward the reaper, track-marked arms open for the embrace.”
With his brother lost to drugs, Curt Kirkwood plotted a new musical course. He formed a new Austin-based quartet, The Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, which soon unwisely took the name The Meat Puppets. The band’s album under that moniker, the aptly titled Golden Lies (2000), was met with critical and commercial indifference. Curt went on to join Krist Novoselic’s post-Nirvana band Eyes Adrift, which issued its lone self-titled album in 2002, and made an eponymous 2004 album with the group Volcano, which also included ex-Sublime and Eyes Adrift drummer Bud Gaugh. Neither record reached the charts.
On the day after Christmas in 2003, Cris Kirkwood got involved in an argument over a parking spot with a woman outside a Phoenix post office. A security guard was drawn into the dispute; after Kirkwood wrested the guard’s baton from him and struck him with it, the musician was shot and critically wounded. Jailed for assault with a deadly weapon, the bassist pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in jail.
Curt Kirkwood embarked on a solo career with the release of Snow (2005). Shortly before that album’s release, the newly clean and sober Cris Kirkwood was paroled from prison, and the brothers began a period of reconciliation. The pair reformed The Meat Puppets, with drummer Ted Marcus replacing Derrick Bostrom (who had acted as the band’s webmaster and unofficial historian for years). The reconfigured trio issued two albums, Rise to Your Knees (2007) and Sewn Together (2009), which coherently restated the energy and the melodic virtues of their ‘80s work; while neither set became a major hit, Puppets fans welcomed the band back on their well-received tours.