By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Joseph Cultice|
The Meat Puppets pose one of the more interesting puzzles of rock music in the past 25 years. Early in their career, they made two of the most important and path-breaking indie-rock records — Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun. And then they made a good many forgettable records. In that string of mediocre, self-imitative and at times downright bad releases, they had a radio hit, “Backwater,” a hit without a hook that I couldn’t remember before popping in this new DVD, Alive in the Nineties, and couldn’t hum an hour after hearing it again. And they had a walk-on spot with Nirvana on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session, which accidentally became a historic (and frequently played) document after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. So the Meat Puppets became almost famous in the ’90s, but not for the recordings that made them great.
The band was an enigma in personal terms as well. A trio that endured for far longer than most bands, with two brothers to boot, they never seemed particularly together. Never was there less apparent bonding within a rock band, fewer inroads into the musicians’ personalities, or a greater shortage of other-than-musical spark. Drummer Derrick Bostrom was a poker-faced cipher, bassist Cris Kirkwood a dour muppet, front man Curt Kirkwood the guy from high school who had long curly hair the girls loved and wicked guitar chops and nothing else whatsoever to recommend him. His and the band’s deficiencies in the charisma department are evident on the DVD, when Curt invites the audience at an acoustic in-store show to “Get a little closer to me — I urge you to,” and no one looks tempted to budge an inch.
Another mystery: Curt Kirkwood wrote and sang the songs and took the guitar solos, but Bostrom — the deadpan behind the drum kit — was basically the creative director. He named the band, he introduced the classic-rocking Kirkwoods to punk, and he has been the project manager for the band’s every release. In the early days, he was the staff mystifier, who made three goofy stoners from Phoenix seem alluring by choosing evocative cover art and enigmatic band images (of course, inventive music helped). He then curated the band’s SST records in a highly insightful Rhino reissue series.
Now with Alive in the Nineties comes the definitive demystification, courtesy of candid band footage that sets a new standard for banality. An evidently drug-tweaked Curt makes a droll parody of trashing a gig green room by throwing peanuts “on the ceiling”; the Kirkwoods hurriedly fan a sounding-off hotel room smoke alarm (that is funny); Bostrom mimes downing a capped bottle of whiskey; and Curt pops a bubble he has blown, getting gum stuck in his facial hair.
No dummy (in fact, a talented journalist in his own right), Bostrom must see the pun in that bit. The bubble burst on the Meat Puppets, and picking up the pieces for Curt — the only one of the trio still trying to make it as a rocker — has been much like digging sticky bubble gum out of a scraggly mustache. Alive in the Nineties is footage from the band’s brief commercial bubble days, much of it shot when they were opening for the Stone Temple Pilots (or the Stone Pimple Toilets, as the Butthole Surfers used to call them) in 1994. The takes from these opening gigs suffer from huge-venue bloat — big sound, big stage, big crowd, big deal.
Things get better in footage from a sit-down small-venue acoustic show at New York’s Knitting Factory. They play some of their strongest material — “Plateau” and “Lost” from Meat Puppets II — though a crappy mix leaves Bostrom’s high hat as the dominant instrument. Things get better still during a multicamera live set for Italian TV. “Lake of Fire” is fittingly illustrated by a distant shot that shows mostly the blackness of the club, with dim, distant stage lights silhouetting the bobbing guitarists. There is the pleasure of seeing a filigreed font spell out the title “Six Gallon Pie” on Italian TV, and that tune reminds us of the Meat Puppets’ gift to rock music: a breakneck trio fronted by scattershot fingerpicking from that low, low circle of hell known as Phoenix in the summertime. They deconstruct in a ZZ Top–on–thrash free-for-all that looks like an Italian Altamont, which is followed by more Kirkwood charm from the bandstand: “We’ll do another one if you give us our fucking microphone back. Those fuckers cost money.”
The most revealing music on this DVD is the most tentative — an acoustic set at a D.C. record store, when they look like the awkward, ingrown bucketheads that reinvented rock music twice over the span of two records. The material — “Station,” “Coming Down,” “Violet Eyes” — is strong, but mostly the energy is just good, or as good as it ever got between two chronically bickering, mutually unpleasant brothers and the reflective drummer who served, in Mike Watt’s apt phrase, as the “shit catcher for all their grief.”