From Mohawks To Mullets

Images from 25 years of Phoenix music

Children We Never Really Knew

It seems almost disingenuous to stake a claim to the Meat Puppets. It's not a question of geography. The band's music -- an ambling mix of rock, folk, country, psychedelia and punk -- was clearly a concoction that could only have been brewed in a scorching mind-altering clime like ours. It's just that the group was never embraced locally the way it was elsewhere. The Puppets' affiliation with the Southern California-based SST label actually led many to believe that the group members were native Golden Staters.

Though it called SST home, truthfully, the group -- brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, and friend Derrick Bostrom -- never really fit in anywhere. Even among its SoCal peers (Black Flag, Minutemen), the group was regarded as too freeform, too esoteric, their hair too long, to ever really be considered "punk."

The Puppets were never that fond of the narrow conventions of the era's dogmatic hard-core movement, and the sense of alienation only fueled their creativity. Landmark efforts like Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun fused highly surreal lyricism (clearly enhanced by the copious amounts of hallucinogens the band was consuming at the time) with country dirges featuring twangy guitar hooks and the subtle, melodic interplay of the rhythm section.

The Puppets, unlike many of their brethren, continued, refining their sound throughout the '80s, losing their rougher edges and emerging intact on the other side of the decade.

The great tragedy for most of the bands from the American indie revolution of the '80s is that they were gone just as the results of their decadelong struggle were about to take a foothold in the charts and the culture 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 Puppets' sophomore classic. Following these high-profile appearances and Cobain's suicide, 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 triumph that had once seemed unthinkable.

Unfortunately, the band's success 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.

The ensuing years brought tragedy -- the death of Cris Kirkwood's wife and best friend, his own worsening condition. Sadly, the group's musical legacy began to diminish in the public consciousness as the Puppets became more synonymous with junk and death than for the towering achievement of their previous work.

More recently, the Puppets have enjoyed something of a rebirth. Curt Kirkwood has relocated to Austin, Texas, where he launched a second version of the Meat Puppets (sans his brother and drummer Derrick Bostrom). The "new" Meat Puppets will release their first full-length album (a seven-song EP was distributed free on the band's Web site last year) on an as-yet-undetermined imprint of Universal Music.

Meanwhile, Bostrom still lives in Phoenix and just last year supervised an exhaustive (bonus tracks, archival CD-ROM footage, previously unheard live album) rerelease of the band's entire SST catalogue on Rykodisc. -- BM

Rock 'n' Roll World

I remember when I first joined the band, someone said, "That's Robin. He's in a local group called the Gin Blossoms -- they're almost as good as the Jetzons." Man, I remember hearing that and, at the time, just to be considered in the same breath as those guys was better than selling a million records. That's how important they were.

-- Robin Wilson, singer, Gin Blossoms

In the mind's eye, they are inextricably linked. Bruce Connole, literate and lithe, a wasted poet whose talent was eclipsed only by a penchant for self-destruction. Then there was his foil, the diminutive Damon Doiron, who served as both collaborator and conscience. The two began their unlikely partnership backing another troubled talent, Mike Corte, as part of Valley New Wave avatars Billy Clone and the Same. When Corte died of a heroin-related overdose in 1980, Connole and Doiron recruited keyboardist Brad Buxer and drummer Steve Golladay and mutated into the Jetzons. During a rocky, on-again, off-again eight-year run, they would go on to become one of the most popular and significant groups in local music history. Whether drawing 700 people on a Sunday night at the Devil House or playing Merlin's -- four sets a night, four nights a week for months on end -- people intuitively gravitated to the band's music, a danceable mélange of sprite New Wave and rock. Their influence as the first true local "stars" cannot be understated; they almost single-handedly launched what was then a nonexistent Tempe music "scene" and went on to inspire countless scores of aspiring rock 'n' rollers. Though they were never able to parlay their local celebrity into national prominence, the group had its chances for success. But the lure of industry centers like Los Angeles (where the group relocated in 1982) held as much danger as promise for the band's leader. Little, save for some enduring feelings of regret over wasted chances, resulted from their forays into the big city.

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