Puppet Rulers

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.


Meat Puppets

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."

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.

"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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