Puppet Rulers

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

"At that point, we were taking a lot of acid, and one of the things acid does is it throws you into your own world," Bostrom says. "So we were kind of making music for ourselves. On a personal level, what that means is you're not considering the effect of what you do. Making music for ourselves was an instant gratification, and we weren't calculating or thinking about what that would mean."

What it meant was a radical departure in the band's sound. While the songs on II showed that the band had progressed lyrically, the musical approach was also miles apart from the experimental thrash of their debut. Tracks like "Lost" and "Climbing" are country dirges featuring twangy guitar hooks and the subtle, melodic interplay of the rhythm section. A twisted, Neil Young-influenced crunch permeates the album's best-known songs "Plateau" and "Lake of Fire," while the lyrics combine with the music to conjure up images that are equal parts biblical and psychedelic.

As author Michael Azerrad notes in his essay for the disc, introducing such strong country and psychedelic elements into the music was revolutionary at the time, and more than a little heretical under the circumstances, when you consider that the development of the West Coast punk and hard-core scene was a direct reaction to the bloated sounds of country rockers like the Eagles and reviled hippie holdovers like the Grateful Dead.

The unlikely fusion of country, punk and roots music would be a major part of the Puppets' lasting legacy--even as later albums saw the group's turn toward a more refined and somewhat harder sound. But if the Puppets left one truly lasting impression, it was their reputation as live performers. That aspect of the group is represented in the Ryko series with the release of the band's first live album, Live in Montana.

The disc is composed of material from a pair of 1988 shows and works as an accurate portrait of the band's adventurous and often chaotic live shows.

"We were like the Dead in the respect that our performances were more about creation rather than re-creation, and we tended to let the audience in on the process, so in that sense it was kind of challenging to do a live album," Bostrom says.

Live in Montana touches on all the elements that made the band such a compelling live act. While the disc provides ample doses of Curt's guitar heroics and the band's experimental leanings, it mostly showcases their tendency to function as a wild and often comic outfit with a penchant for playing off-the-wall covers. Few bands, if any, could pull off a live medley of songs that begins with the theme from the television show S.W.A.T., meanders into Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou" and culminates with a pair of Black Sabbath covers.

"On the albums, we tried to make it more commercial," Bostrom says. "I mean, we never put any swearing on them or we tried to be non-oblique, we tried to make it as obvious as possible. And yet as a band, and as people, we were really not like that. And our shows reflected that heavily. So I wanted the live album to touch all of those things."

Bostrom admits that by the end of the project, it had become a journey into his own personal history as much as the band's. He also points out, with some irony, that the experience gave him a feeling of kinship with the musicians and the movement from which the Puppets had seemingly always been on the outer fringes.

"In the process of contacting writers to do the essays for the booklets, a lot of them were very interested in doing it because of that. The story of the '80s alternative American movement is really very interesting. It's almost like there was this lost generation of musicians, who didn't get a lot of publicity, and were literally roaming the highways for a decade until the Nirvana thing came in and cleared the table. At the time it was completely obscured to us, but looking back on it now, it seems really clear how we fit into this larger picture.

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