Puppet Rulers

Reissue of the Meat Puppets' '80s catalogue reclaims the band's crucial role in the Amerindie revolution

For most people, a mention of the music of the 1980s conjures up thoughts of big hair and Boy George--and a terrible drought in the history of rock 'n' roll.

But for a small, alienated segment of the population, there existed a kind of parallel musical universe that delivered a golden age for a new kind of rock music--earthy, unbridled and stubbornly independent.

Without major media attention or support from mainstream radio, this underground legion of bands was forced to take its message directly to the people. Traveling in vans and playing before huddled masses hungering for all that was nonexistent in the commercial music of the time, a tangible though loose-knit movement was born.

While there were many groups from that era that left a lasting mark, few were as unconventional or as influential as Arizona's Meat Puppets. The trio, featuring guitarist/front man Curt Kirkwood, his brother and bassist Cris, and drummer Derrick Bostrom, was in many ways unlike anything to emerge from the American underground.

Their sound wasn't motivated by any regional or limited stylistic elements. They weren't among the politically motivated groups railing against the policies of the Reagan era, nor were they as easily accessible as the retro-pop and roots-rock bands of the time. The Meat Puppets, whether by design or accident, existed very much on their own plain.

The great tragedy for most of the bands from the Amerindie revolution is that they were gone just as the results of their decadelong struggle were about to take a foothold in the popular consciousness with the breakthrough of Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind. The Puppets were one of the few exceptions, as they were recognized for their efforts by Kurt Cobain when he asked the group to open a series of shows on Nirvana's In Utero tour and brought them onstage for a taping of MTV Unplugged, where he performed three songs from the Meat Pups' landmark sophomore release. Following these high-profile appearances (and Cobain's death), the group released its 10th album, Too High to Die. Spawning a hit single, a gold record and a large-scale tour, Too High brought the band the kind of commercial success that had once seemed unthinkable.

The Meat Puppets endured, due in large part to their unconventionality and constant musical growth. The fact that they actually lasted long enough to benefit from the groundwork they had laid a decade earlier is perhaps one reason they're not viewed with the same tint of romance or nostalgia as many of their contemporaries. Unfortunately, the success that the group enjoyed as a result of Too High to Die produced an unintended side effect, turning Cris Kirkwood into a casualty of rock 'n' roll excess. His addiction to heroin effectively ended the band's run after the release of 1995's No Joke.

With Curt relocating to Austin, Texas, to continue his musical career (first with the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, and now with a newly reconstituted Meat Puppets) and Cris spiraling further into the grip of heroin, the task of caring for the group's musical legacy fell into the hands of Bostrom. When the rights to the group's SST material reverted back to the band in late 1997, Bostrom went to work. Playing the role of band historian, archivist and spokesman, he spent the last year compiling and listening to material in preparation for an ambitious rerelease of the band's entire '80s catalogue.

"It was always something I wanted to do when the time came, because I've got all of these archives of stuff that I've hung onto over the years with an eye toward doing something like this someday," Bostrom says. "And when the rights came back to us, we started shopping it around. We talked to a few labels, and Rykodisc had the inside track, having done reissues from other artists."

Ryko's previous reissue projects included restoring the catalogues of David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello, among others. And while the Meat Puppets discs receive the standard remastering and bonus-track treatment, they also feature the album's original artwork and packaging, detailed recording notes by Bostrom, new essays from a number of rock journalists, and enhanced CD-concert footage.

"I wanted the series to be historical in its overview," says Bostrom. "I wanted to be able to explain what we had done. Because a lot of people are picking up our records because of 'Backwater' or Nirvana Unplugged, and they may not get it. If they accidentally pick up Meat Puppets I, they're not really going to understand what it's all about. So I wanted to add some context."

While giving newer fans some perspective on the band may have been Bostrom's stated goal, what the project should do is ensure that the Puppets' contributions to '80s indie rock aren't reduced to the margins of history.

The Ryko reissue series begins with a specially compiled version of Meat Puppets I. Included on the disc is the group's 1980 EP In a Car, and its eponymously titled full-length debut (along with more than a dozen bonus tracks).

"That one was done in the classic punk-rock style," Bostrom recalls. "We'd get together, and I'd have written a bunch of smart-alecky lyrics based on what I'd been reading at the time. And then Curt would pull a riff out, and then the band put the rest together as we went along."

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