|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.”
Watt mumbles his way through a pained bonus-footage interview, still undone by the death of his Minutemen bandmate d. boon, who would come to mind not only because d. boon loved the Meat Puppets — the guy also died in a van wreck just outside of Phoenix. But for core Meat Puppets fans, those who wore holes in the grooves of their vinyl copies of Meat Puppets II, the Thurston Moore interview will be the most affecting moment of Alive in the Nineties. The Meat Puppets were alive in the ’90s, but they were amazing in the early ’80s, and those are the years Moore details with an early fan’s unabashed enthusiasm. He remembers when the Meat Puppets were the weirdest, most surprising of all punk bands, and he had the privilege of opening for them. A vanished, pre-Nirvana, pre-alternative-radio, pre-so-many-things band scene comes alive as Moore recalls being “super excited” to land that gig, making a flier for it at the copy shop where he worked.
Sonic Youth was yet to tour the country then, and the long-haired, oddball Meat Puppets in their van packed with tattered clothes seemed almost untouchably cool and road-wise to Moore. The gig he described — “country-baked thrash played 20 million times faster than any hardcore band,” with both Kirkwoods continually circling around their mic stands to keep their vocals projected into the microphones (which had a screw loose and a mind of their own like everything else on the stage) — was, he said, the “coolest fucked-up thing I’d ever seen.” You won’t see anything quite that cool or fucked up on Alive in the Nineties, but it’s an honest and likable portrait of the twilight of the rock gods that were the Meat Puppets.
THE MEAT PUPPETS | Alive in the Nineties DVD | (Cornerstone RAS/
Music Video Distributors)