The Meat Puppets are still rockin'
05:00 AM, Apr 04, 2013
If you go
What: The Meat Puppets, The World Takes and The Cringe, with lead singer John Cusimano, who cant shake the label Mr. Rachael Ray.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (April 6).
Where: The Club at Water Street, 204 N. Water St.
Admission: $13 advance ($16 the day of the show) at waterstreetmusic.com.
Curt Kirkwood turns an uninterested, deadened ear to the fashionable gossip of the music business. From day to day, these stories are merely “changing toilet paper brands,” he says. Chris Brown and Rihanna, that’s a big brand of the moment. A much-more fashionable tale of thick-headed romance and domestic abuse, Kirkwood says, than “our little story.”
Yes, the Meat Puppets’ little story. It has gone on for three decades now, including the typical rock band drug-interruptus, and survives and thrives even now to the surprise of many observers. A band of psychedelic cowboy punks emerging from the Arizona desert to become stars of ’80s college radio, and then a close association with grunge icons Nirvana, even though the decidedly low-key Kirkwood makes it sound as though they hardly knew each other. Kirkwood fled to Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s, getting away from The Meat Puppets and his bass-playing brother, Cris, as the band imploded from Cris’ debilitating drug intake.
The wounds may still show, but have generally healed, as The Meat Puppets play Saturday at The Club at Water Street. The now-rehabbed Cris is back on board, as is drummer Shandon Sahm, son of legendary Tejano rocker Doug Sahm. The band has a brand new album, Rat Farm, and cooperated with the release last year of a band bio named for it’s most commercially successful album, Too High To Die. Writer Greg Prato interviewed about 50 people for the book and stitched together those conversations in an oral history that seems to agree: The Meat Puppets were a cool, visionary band, someone should write a book about these guys.
“It’s interesting to be in band,” Kirkwood says. “And touring musicians are eccentric sometimes, and unpredictable.
“Some of it’s true, some close to the truth, some is opinion. Eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. I didn’t get into terrible, horrible stuff. So a lot of it is skimming the surface, rough details, attention grabber-type headlines. I keep a lot to myself. I’m pretty reclusive. I’m measured about what I say.”
Cris Kirkwood? Maybe not so measured. I went deep into the files to uncover a 1994 interview that I did with the bassist, who informed me back then that he’d once dropped acid at Charles Manson’s old hideout, the Spahn Movie Ranch. And he delighted in the fact that the band appeared on the pilot episode of 90210, playing a band, a gristly fly in that ointment.
“We’ve always managed to ignore them,” Cris Kirkwood said of cultural touchstones such as 90210, “jelly-anointed doughnut rolls of human waste that we are.”
So I told Curt Kirkwood last week that his brother had struck me as a really clever, funny guy.
“He probably wasn’t that high when you talked to him,” Kirkwood says. “It was an abrupt transition, a quick slide downhill.
“He’s smart, he could have been a doctor, whatever the hell he wanted to be. We grew up in a bubble, we were isolated in our own way. We were socially isolated, kind of on purpose. We had friends, but we were the ones who wanted to do this.”
By “this,” he means play in a rock band. The Meat Puppets were doing well enough on their own when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain decided he wanted to play three Meat Puppets songs, and have The Meat Puppets playing onstage as well, when Nirvana taped its MTV Unplugged in New York show and album. Seven months later, the heroin-addicted Cobain killed himself. I ask Kirkwood if he saw any signs of that tragedy approaching.
“It’s not really my place,” he says quietly. “It was a pretty big surprise, and pretty sad.”
And was there a parallel between Cobain’s self destruction and his brother’s?
“I never drew too much of a parallel,” Kirkwood says.
Perhaps not. But by 2003, the Cris Kirkwood drug scene had gotten so bad that people around him were dying, including his wife. “There’s no helping someone like that,” Curt Kirkwood says. “He has to work it out himself. Like any addict, you stay away from them.” Reduced to a paranoid drug recluse, Cris Kirkwood attacked a Post Office security guard with the guard’s own baton. The guard responded by shooting Kirkwood, seriously injuring him. The bassist’s subsequent hospitalization and 18-month prison sentence was a cold-turkey time that accomplished what earlier jail stints and rehab couldn’t do: clean him up. The Kirkwoods were re-united as The Meat Puppets in 2006, “Once he got out of prison and was leading a normal life,” Curt says.
Now 54, his past enough to fill a book, Kirkwood’s life is a decidedly unambitious agenda. “I hang around the house, water the plants, feed the birds and the dogs, go hiking, cook, pretty much just chill,” he says. “I sometimes paint, draw, doodle. I’ve done some of the album covers. But I’m not a real driven artist.
“I get a lot of excitement in the business. When I get home I just like to be domestic.”
Rat Farm rocks, yet it is music of a sparse beauty. Kirkwood describes it as, “Stuff I could play on an acoustic guitar, and not think too hard.” It is the soul of self-deprecating randomness. “There’s a lot of space between sucking and being good,” he says. “We allow ourselves to suck to find the good stuff.”