Puppet Rulers

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

Although the recording process for their debut was certainly steeped in a raw punk aesthetic, the Meat Puppets themselves were never that close to, or fond of, the narrow conventions of early-'80s American punk.

"Part of the problem was that we used to buy a lot of punk-rock records and they were pretty good, and then we had the occasion to see these bands up close and in person, and then we came to realize that a lot of what we liked about the bands was in our own heads and in our own imaginations." Laughing, Bostrom adds, "For the most part, these people were far too ordinary for our tastes. I mean, we were up to the challenge of living the legend."

Unlike many of the bands of that era, the Puppets' musical roots extended beyond the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

"We had been music fans forever," Bostrom says. "I mean, we were playing music before punk rock came about. So for us it was almost a more formal thing.

"I was very pop oriented, Cris and Curt were much less so. Curt was kind of a guitar-head and Cris was more of a jazz-head. And so we functioned on more of a formal level. We didn't get into music to impress girls or be part of a movement. We were using pop to express what was in ourselves musically. And it wasn't something that happened overnight."

The band members' diverse musical tastes explain the creative schizophrenia that permeates their earliest material. "Even on the first album, it was a blender," Bostrom says. "It was taking that two-minute format and shoving all this stuff into it, and obviously we were trying to push the boundaries so much that it failed. We really couldn't get it on tape properly because it was so wild. It was so hit or miss--it was just very experimental."

Among the reissues, Meat Puppets I benefits the most from the repackaging and the bonus tracks. While the first album has often been viewed as the one to avoid within the band's discography, the inclusion of the previously unreleased studio material and demo tracks makes it an important document of the band's history. The influence of straightahead punk as well as the Puppets' seemingly incongruous taste for '70s art-rock are literally jammed into a series of rough-sounding originals. While the result may not be as satisfying as their later work, these recordings offer a glimpse of triumphs that would follow on the band's next two records.

After releasing its debut EP, the group was sought out by Black Flag guitarist and SST founder Greg Ginn, who offered the band a recording contract. The Puppets soon found themselves at ground zero of what would be the explosion of the West Coast punk/hard-core scene. It was a position they would soon become uncomfortable with.

"The thing that attracted us to punk rock in the first place was the capacity to upset people. It wasn't really a musical thing. I mean, we'd get onstage and just pound as hard as we could and just thrash. It wasn't until we started attracting people we didn't care for--playing Black Flag shows and having kids spit on us and throw stuff."

Looking back, it's almost comical to think of how out of place the Puppets must have seemed in the midst of that particular scene. With their long hair, affinity for lengthy jamming and generally stoned demeanor, they were in many ways the antithesis of militant and dogmatic punk bands like Bad Religion and the Minutemen.

The desire to alienate members of the punk movement was only one of the factors that helped shape their unique sound. And while the Puppets were the object of scorn within certain quarters of the hard-core community, the encouragement the group received from the more discerning members of the audience served as a validation to push them further along their already iconoclastic path.

"Where [the Kirkwoods] were coming from, being 'an artist' was not as acceptable as it was in my family," says Bostrom. "So it wasn't until Curt got the initial encouragement, and people started saying 'you're good,' and 'you can amount to something,' that he took off. Those guys had somewhat of a hard childhood, where they weren't being told they were worth a shit. Whereas I was always being told I could own the world by my family. I mean, their succession of stepfathers was somewhat more roughhewn."

The band's next two album's, Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, reflect the exponential progression the band made during this period, and both records stand as watersheds in the development of the indie movement. While the lyrics on the group's debut were mainly a reflection of Bostrom's skewed sense of humor, the new songs found Curt exploring a wider range of issues--including the deeper themes of spirituality, alienation and discovery.

The lyrics on both records have a highly surreal quality, which was clearly enhanced by the copious amounts of hallucinogens the band was consuming at the time.

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