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Puppets Show

On the newly released DVD Meat Puppets Alive in the Nineties, there's a particularly alive moment from the early '80s that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore fondly remembers.

"I had heard they were rambling across the country in a van and playing doughnut shops and they were coming to New York to play at Gerdes Folk City," beams Moore. Before Sonic Youth was even signed to SST, the band was invited to open for the nomadic Puppets' New York debut, at the legendary club where Dylan played his earliest Big Apple gigs but was now close enough to extinction to cater to thrash punk. Moore regales at their hippie-soaked appearance, their clothes-strewn van and their noble objection to sound-checking because they felt it ruined shows.

It's one of Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom's favorite moments on the DVD. Bostrom, who now works for a Valley media company and concentrates these days on writing about music, remarks that "so many things happen in the course of a career and bands get older and have varying degrees of success, and I just like that Thurston chose to talk about the first time we dragged our asses to New York from Phoenix, schlepping all our stuff," he says. "We were exhausted from never having toured anywhere before. This was like '82 and I was pretty damn well terrified. So we get onstage and blow off all this weird energy, doing this crazy stuff."

Once onstage, they proceeded to play their regular set at a breakneck speed that left the loud, fat-ruled Mohawk crowd speechless.

In the '80s, Arizonans could regularly see Bostrom and the Kirkwood Brothers Curt and Cris race through their strange hybrid set of chaotic punk, bleary-eyed country rock and Grateful Dead jamming several times a month at places like Hollywood Alley and the Mason Jar but mostly in now-defunct venues like the Silver Dollar ("Which is pretty much somewhere on the field of Bank One Ballpark," says Bostrom) and the Sun Club.

"Prior to us getting signed to London in the early '90s, we would play four times a month and stagger different clubs so that we could make ends meet by playing every other week," recalls Bostrom. "And once we had played through those, we'd play Flagstaff at Monsoon's, I think, and Club Congress in Tucson and did this as long as we could stand it before we started oversaturating ourselves. Then we would hit the road and only play in town when those big tours rolled into town. Our local gigs were always great and so were the after-hours parties. We would always gauge how big our following was by the after-hours parties and if they were visited by the police. Since that never happened, I guess we were moderately popular."

"I wouldn't say we were disrespected in town," notes Bostrom. "I just think we played here a lot. There was a period you could see us a couple of times a month, maybe to us getting busy and never being around." That's precisely why the DVD should be of special interest to locals who never got to see the band at the peak of its powers unless they were opening up for Stone Temple Pilots or Soul Asylum.

After the success of 1994's Too High to Die and the near Top 40 hit "Backwater," the hometown band played Arizona "maybe three times," in Bostrom's estimation. None of those shows are captured on the DVD, which was probably a judgment call by objective Meat Puppets fan and DVD compiler Zach Fischel. In one of Bostrom's storage boxes of videotapes (he actually sprained his wrist trying to haul it out) there's likely "an Electric Ballroom show, a post-'Backwater,' top-of-our-popularity gig and it was like screaming teenage girls, and that was kind of weird. Then I remember some New Year's Eve gig in '95 and a weird benefit around the time of No Joke where the bloom was definitely off the rose."

Among the highlights you can enjoy is a multi-camera shoot for Italian television, which Bostrom enjoys because "the editing was savvy and you can see interaction between us; the camera will cut from Curt cocking his eyebrow and me and you'll see me pick up his cue as we go through our improvising." Also included are the band's first acoustic gigs at New York's Knitting Factory, which show the band tentatively playing soft, something they got a taste of when they were guests on Nirvana's famed Unplugged MTV appearance, which raised awareness for the band's major-label debut, especially when it was put into heavy rotation after Kurt Cobain killed himself.

Given all the internal fracturing that went on with the band following Cris Kirkwood's much-documented descent into drug addiction, the videos capture the band on the same page musically and aesthetically, before its dissolution. "We'd learned to get along with each other one way or the other over the years," says Bostrom. "A lot of the tension was derived from the major-label pressure. Use this producer or we won't release the record until we hear a single' pressure to the your trend is dying, we want to get rid of you, we no longer give a shit' pressure. For Too High to Die there was a lot of this; the record went back and forth a lot negotiating and Backwater' was a result of it. They'd heard a lot of demos and said, Oh, that's what we want you to do,' and we'd say, That's not a Meat Puppet song, that's just a goof, a punk rock parody.' They got good feedback for Backwater' when they'd played the tape for people. For No Joke, it was basically give 'em enough rope. They didn't criticize at all. They just said, Here's your budget, which is too big, and give us the record.' It was almost like a foregone conclusion that the record wasn't gonna get pushed.

"By the fall of '95, most of the bands that had come up through the '80s doing the do-it-yourself independent touring ranks [had] ended one way or another, broke up, people died or they went through changes; the trend was quickly milked and they were supplanted by bands that were plugged in the major-label thing, played the major-label game and gave them the hard guitars style that they wanted. And then the so-called authentic bands weren't needed anymore."

Bostrom also oversaw the reissues and penned liner notes for the Meat Puppets Ryko CDs, both of which served as a dry run for the memoirs of his musician life he's planning (still a musician, he collaborated on some songs with singer-songwriter Neil Hamburger for his next CD). As for his contact with Cris Kirkwood, Bostrom switches to third person to announce, "Bostrom doesn't want to be involved with hard drugs, and when Cris got involved with that, I cut off contact. I don't know what he's up to." But Curt recently did some acoustic solo shows in support of the DVD.

Overseeing the band's legacy, though, is something that Bostrom's done since its earliest days. "When the band was together, I was kind of packaging it, kind of creating that mythological bubble that three stoners from Phoenix could appear larger than life with. [Curt and Cris] have never had any problems with that and I have yet to betray their trust by making it the DVD of Bostrom's drumming. I did all the Ryko stuff and they still trust my judgment. We weren't interested in putting out odds and ends. It's pretty obvious to us what's the good stuff."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic