December 26, 2003, was an extremely crappy day in a string of crappy months and years for Cris Kirkwood. He parked his car in the downtown Phoenix post-office parking lot in such a way as to attract another patron’s unfriendly attention. An argument ensued, and security guard Thomas Goodrum was asked to intervene, which led to a scuffle, which led to Kirkwood grabbing Goodrum’s nightstick and striking him in the head, which led to Goodrum shooting Kirkwood in the back, which led to Kirkwood serving 18 months of a 21-month sentence at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, southeast of Tempe.
Prior to Cris’ harsh downward spiral, which began in 1994, things had been going pretty damn well. Cris and his brother, Curt, and their friend Derrick Bostrom formed a band called the Meat Puppets in 1980. Curt, the elder by 21 months, wrote most of the songs, played guitar and sang; Cris wrote a bit, sang and played bass; Bostrom played drums.
The Meat Puppets played hardcore punk at first, and signed with SST Records. But as they toured, spreading good cheer among mostly college-age students and making a small living, their music evolved from prairie-style punk thrashings into a peculiar mix of psychedelic bluegrass ballads, vein-grinding rock, high-speed country stomps, pop satire and points between. In 1983, SST captured their turning point on one of rock-style history’s most fascinating and strangely beautiful albums, Meat Puppets II. Despite the critical acclaim for II and, especially, the more crafted and approachable 1985 Up on the Sun, the Phoenix-based band spent most of the next decade laboring in smaller venues, attracting the attentions of the punk-adjacent who enjoyed the occasional meandering hippie jams, and the hippie-adjacent who enjoyed an occasional dip in the punk.
Then came a taste of mainstream success: At the end of 1993, one of the band’s most outspoken fans, Kurt Cobain, invited the Meat Puppets to join Nirvana onstage to play a set of both bands’ songs (and one by David Bowie) for what would later be released as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. Bolstered by Cobain’s personal promotion and MTV’s enthusiastic propagation of “Backwater,” the Meat Puppets’ first hit single, the Pups’ 10th album, Too High to Die, went gold soon after its January 1994 release.
When a tour with Nirvana was set to kick off in April, the band seemed on the verge of bigtime rock stardom. The Meat Puppets would meet Nirvana in Prague and they’d play together all over Europe.
But then, of course, Cobain killed himself in early April, and, for Cris, things went down from there. Both Kirkwood brothers had done plenty of drugs — mostly pot, mushrooms and acid — the friendly drugs. They’d done little in the manner of cocaine and heroin, which is a different world entirely. Cris entered into this different world hard and heavy while the Meat Puppets toured that summer with the Stone Temple Pilots.
By the time the band were finishing their 11th album, 1995’s No Joke!, Cris was a mess. When their label, London Records, caught wind of Cris’ condition, it cut its losses and stopped promoting the Meat Puppets entirely.
It all fell apart. Cris and his new wife, Michelle, stayed home and did drugs. Curt moved to L.A. and then to Austin, hooking up with other musicians, trying different projects and raising his children. Derrick bowed out. The Kirkwoods’ mother was diagnosed with cancer, and died at the age of 59 in late 1996. And one August afternoon in 1998, Cris awoke at home to find his wife dead of an overdose, at which point he flipped and fell into a whole new level of self-destruction, the kind from which most people don’t return.
Two years out of prison, Cris is back. Not just physically back, but back back — clear eyed, sharp witted, trim and ready, drinking ice water and chomping on the California roll to my immediate left.
“If you could,” Cris advises, “try to make me come off . . . whiny.”
Across from us sit brother Curt and photographer/director Joseph Cultice, who’s shooting a documentary about the making of the Meat Puppets’ new album on Anodyne Records, Rise to Your Knees. It’s the brothers’ first recording together since 1995. Notably absent from the new album is Bostrom, who’s enjoying family life and is busy with various projects in Phoenix; notably absent from the table is the band’s new drummer, Ted Marcus, an Emmy-winning audio engineer and sound designer who became a Meat Puppet while working on Joseph’s film.
“Can I tell the Ted story?” says Joseph. “Okay: On our first day of shooting, which is also the first day of recording in the studio, Curt’s trying to play drums. He’s beating on them mercilessly — banging his hands, bitching and moaning. People are yelling at him, he’s getting blisters on his hands, and he just looks very sad. Afterward, we’re driving back — me and my wife, who’s the [doc’s] other director, and Ted in the back seat. Ted goes, ‘I feel really bad that Curt’s having ?such a hard time. I could probably play all that stuff in one afternoon.’
“My wife and I go, ‘What?’
“Ted says, ‘Well, I’ve been a drummer since I was 8 years old.’
“And my wife and I go, ‘WHAT?!’ So we devised this plan where Curt would be unwittingly duped into letting Ted play the drums — we’d kind of just slide it in, and catch it on film. But Curt wouldn’t pay any attention. I’m saying, ‘Curt! On the monitor! Lookit! It’s Ted! Playing drums! He’s really good! He’s been playing since he was 8 years old!’ And he wants to play drums on the record for free!
“Curt finally looks, and there’s Ted, up on the monitors. Digga-digga-digga-DIGGA! digga-digga-digga-DIGGA! CHUNGA!-dung-gung-gung-gung . . .
“Curt’s like, ‘What the fuck? That sadist! He fuckin’ saw me beatin’ myself up all day yesterday? I’m dyin’ here!’ So now Ted’s the drummer. And that’s Ted’s story.”
It seems strange to be eating when the band’s due onstage at the Troubadour in less than an hour. “Do you guys always eat right before you go on?”
“Depends,” says Curt. “Fish is good, sushi’s good, and the tofu. If I ate a steak right now, though, I’d have to take a nap.”
“I’m trying to remember what I ‘do’ and ‘don’t do,’ ” says Cris. “You know what I mean? It’s been so long.”
We talk about art, fish and prison. Cris shows me his arms, heavily scarred, top to bottom and all around — beyond anything I’ve seen.
Cris brings up James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, who fabricated time spent in prison. Cris had seen Oprah.
“They were talking about some of the things that he made up,” says Cris, “and I’m like, that is so much less harsh than my reality, and he made that up to make it seem bad?! It doesn’t even come close.
“Jesus,” Cris sighs. “I gotta get in on this book thing.” And then he rolls his eyes and leers at me like Groucho. “You know, Dave, I might be in the market for a ghostwriter . . .”
After dinner, the Meat Puppets will find the Troubadour packed with enthusiastic, mostly male 20- to 60-somethings. Perhaps to emphasize the significance of their brotherliness, they’ll kick off their set with the rapid rocker “Sam,” from 1991’s Forbidden Places, which begins with Curt and Cris chanting rapid-fire triplets in almost impossibly meticulous unison. By the end of “Sam,” the collar of Cris’ untucked button-down turns dark with Meat Puppet juice; over the ensuing two-hour spankin’-tight, groovin’, punkin’ psychedelic expedition, the darkness will spread downward, slowly, song by song, making its way past the .38 slug that remains embedded within, and on down to the end, to the very last song, completely saturated to the ’tails.
“Ask me anything you want, Dave,” says Cris, just before the van pulls up to take them to the gig. “Ask away.”
“All right,” I say. “When the boulder gets to the top of the hill and then rolls back down, how fast should you run after it so you can push it back up again?”
“I’d just fuckin’ lay down and quit.”
“That is . . . not the right answer. You’re supposed to be having this rebirth thing — the wayward brother who goes through hell and returns to his brother, his band, and then everything is good. Needs to be more noble.”
“All right,” says Cris. “In that case [Cris alters voice and face to effect a he-man rugged-individualist character, noble preacher of self-bootstrap-pullery], “what I do, before I even start pushing that boulder up that hill, is run to the top and build that mountain up higher! ’Cause I can’t get enough! I can’t get enough of pushing that boulder!”
The Meat Puppets’ new album, Rise to Your Knees, comes out July 17.