The amount of pride many of us Phoenicians have in the success of the Meat Puppets is beyond measure. From the standpoint of being part of the "other" scene -- the underground, college rock, or whatever you want to call it -- it was always a point of pride to see the Meat Puppets written up in cool magazines or mentioned by the cream of the crop in the punk and indie rock world as influences.
The Puppets were the local boys that did really well nationally -- at least at first -- in the "alternative" underground. Sure, JFA made a name for themselves and still play skate punk better than anybody, but the Meat Puppets were a collision of genres and a collage of sound, lights, and hair. Of their Arizona contemporaries, the Meat Puppets did it bigger -- and in many cases better -- than anybody else. While the band quickly branched off and essentially distanced themselves from their punk rock roots, their first seven-inch, often referred to as "In a Car," is amazing, totally rockin', and to at least one of their alt-rock peers, highly influential.
"People thought we were a Meat Puppets rip-off at first," said J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
In an interview with New Times earlier this year, the subject of the Meat Puppets came up, and the East Coast guitar god lit up like a youngster talking about his favorite superheroes.
"The Meat Puppets' first record was pretty amazing to us when it came out." Mascis says.
Truth be told, there is a lot of similarity between the early Dinosaur Jr stuff and early Meat Puppets material. While "rip-off" might be strong, there definitely is something to Mascis' enthusiasm for the Meat Puppets, especially when it comes to their first seven-inch EP.
As previously mentioned, fans commonly call the seven-inch "In a Car," but there actually isn't an official title. Cris Kirkwood played bass and sang on the recording, joined by drummer Derrick Bostrom and Cris' brother, Curt Kirkwood, on guitar and vocals.
"'In a Car' was basically a payment by the group Monitor [amazing L.A. post-punk art rock trio] who wanted us to track their song 'Hair' for their album. They said, 'Come in and do our song and you can record a song of yours.' This was at their studio in Silver Lake [California, near Hollywood]," Bostrom says.
Monitor had their own label, World Imitation Records, and signed the Meat Puppets to their first recording contract, which came as some surprise to the Meat Puppets when it was offered.
"We said, 'Sure,' and we made a record contract. It had two stipulations. The first was the Meat Puppets are always right and the second was, if there was any problems, see the first stipulation. Then we signed it in blood," says Cris Kirkwood. "I mean, it's punk rock, right?"
True to form, a punk rock recording contract should indeed be signed in blood and, hopefully, all local record labels and bands are taking note of this. Besides, if it worked for the Meat Puppets, it will certainly work again. The recording for this EP took place on a single day -- June 4, 1981 -- and Ed Barger, who also worked on the Monitor record, as well as several early Devo singles, was at the helm. Bostrom remembers the recording went very smoothly, which was unlike most of the Meat Puppets' recording sessions that followed, unfortunately.
"Not all of our sessions went well. 'In a Car' went really smoothly and we were blindsided because those were about the last sessions we did that went smoothly. Once we started working with SST [Records, founded by Greg Ginn of Black Flag], we felt the pressure and they were not as fun," says Bostrom.
Legend has it, for example, that the entire eponymously titled Meat Puppets debut was recorded (in November 1981) with the band completely under the influence of LSD. For less accomplished (or adventurous) musicians, this could create a significant challenge in and of itself.
Luckily for us, though, there was some magic in the Puppets that fateful day in 1981, and the seven-inch turned out to be a killer little punk rock gem. "In a Car" kicks off the EP in fine fashion, with Cris Kirkwood screaming over the hardcore guitar skronk of his older brother, Curt.
"At the end of it, there is a little bit on the outro where I go into this screaming thing . . . I scream to a friend of ours, Anthony, who had been killed in a car accident," remembers Cris.
"Big House" reverberates around Bostrom's constant snare hit and the lyrics, well, they hint to all the acid done by the Puppets:
"This house is so damn big that we all hide forever inside / We do it daily but the beneficial remains unrealized / This is the big house nobody ever leaves, the whole thing vibrates slightly / I can feel that you're afraid / Frightened is a state of mind, States of mind are harmful / They make you think that think that things are about to become undone."
"Big House" also further shows how the band put its own twist on the "hardcore" punk guitar and bass sound. The brothers Kirkwood are masters of interweaving their riffage so it sounds almost backwards at times yet still drives the listener to a constant state of head-bobbing. With the Meat Puppets, you have to be able to feel the music, as well as listen, but this is not as challenging as one might think. The band is well-rooted to pop music structures and almost always has a sizable hook you can sink your teeth into while enjoying their recorded dementia.
Speaking of dementia, "Dolphin Field" is another trip down the lyrical rabbit hole, and it may have possibly invented the genre known as "power violence," as the Kirkwood brothers scream their way into the skulls of their audience. Led again by Bostrom's one-two, one-two blasts of snare and kick drum, Curt picks out a guitar line reminiscent of both Syd Barrett and Buck Owens, while Cris provides the punk rock backbone on bass. Just try to get the guitar part out of your head. Luckily it morphs right into the instrumental "Out in the Gardener."
It should be pointed here, and not at all reluctantly, that these songs are all about one minute long. Typically, unless you are locked into mortal combat or being prodded by an overzealous physician, a minute doesn't seem like a very long time, but with all the tracks on this EP, they seem much bigger (and perhaps longer) than they really are. "Out in the Gardener" is probably the most thinly veiled hint of what would come from the Puppets next: fried country punk or a finger-picked freakout. Either way, it is still effective and probably confounded many a punk trying to figure out what the band was going for when they recorded the middle track on the B side. The final cut, "Foreign Lawns," is another punk rock gem blasting fuzzed-out guitars, screaming, and the clatter of every cymbal seemingly being played at the same time. It's over before you know it, and at 36 whole seconds, it is the shortest track on the record. No wonder the boys from Dinosaur Jr liked this one. Just take a listen to Mascis and Lou Barlow's (Dino Jr. bass player and leader of Sebadoh) early band, Deep Wound, and you will hear the connection. All in all, the whole thing is sort of like being tickled mercilessly with blunt instruments and force fed sugar cubes laced with high-grade LSD-25. One thing is for sure: Listen to this record and you'll never be the same.
We are fortunate, though, because the Meat Puppets are still at it. Curt Kirkwood no longer calls the Valley home, but Cris still lives here. Original drummer Bostrom left the band in the late '90s but has fond memories of this session.
"'In a Car' was the best representation of what we sounded like live. We were definitely 'on,'" says Bostrom, and he's right.
The Meat Puppets are at their best, even in their current incarnation, when they are laying it all out there on the line and jamming in the moment. While they could play punk rock with the best of them in the early '80s, they were clearly looking for something more and continue to evolve to this day. No one needs the Meat Puppets to be just one type of music or subscribe to one particular genre.
Cris Kirkwood sums up the history of the band in just three words: "Because we could." On behalf of all Meat Puppets fans, we're definitely glad you did.
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