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Muscle and Meat: The Meat Puppets, June 24 at RIBCO PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 04 June 2009 10:53

Meat Puppets

The Meat Puppets have a name that all self-respecting rock fans recognize - even if many have only heard Kurt Cobain sing the band's songs - and a hell of a history.

But singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter Curt Kirkwood didn't want a big comeback record or tour when he reunited with his bassist brother Cris.

"Let's just pretend like we're a brand-new band - just forget about it all," he said in a phone interview last week to promote the band's June 24 show at RIBCO. "I don't have to meet anybody's expectations. ...

"Can we just do this on a real level - make records and not be an anachronism or a re-formation, a tribute to the '80s or '90s or whatever?"

Kirkwood, who turned 50 this year, isn't dumb, though, and recognizes that the ideal is unattainable. The most important thing, he said, is to make progress, to not merely exploit the past: "There is the anachronism involved, there is a heritage, there is a history in all this stuff. And yet, you move it on. ... It's on you to not rest on your laurels."

You expect similar pronouncements from any long-running band, and you'd be smart to be skeptical. But the closer you look at the Meat Puppets' history, the more weight Kirkwood's words carry.

The short version is pretty dull - what looks like a standard-issue cash-in for a band that used to be cool. The Kirkwood brothers reunited in the Meat Puppets and, 12 years after their last album, put out Rise to Your Knees (2007) and then Sewn Together (released last month).

The longer version is a train wreck but a rock-and-roll cliché. After more than a decade as an influential but relatively obscure alternative band, the Meat Puppets had a commercial breakthrough with the gold Too High to Die (1994), which was facilitated by the Kirkwoods and three classic Meat Puppets songs being featured on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged special - the channel's impromptu memorial following Kurt Cobain's suicide. Cris Kirkwood became a junkie, and while Curt Kirkwood never disbanded the Meat Puppets, the group ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. Curt assembled a new band and released 2000's Golden Lies and a 2002 live record under the Puppets name, but it hardly seemed right without both brothers.

The still-longer version is horrifying and heartbreaking, and it makes you realize how unlikely a Puppets reunion was. The Kirkwoods' mother died of cancer in 1996. Cris Kirkwood's wife and good friend died from drug overdoses at his house eight months apart (in 1998 and '99, respectively.) Curt called his brother a "suicide in progress" in a 1998 article. "No matter how logical or cynical or realistic I try to be to protect myself, of course I still have hope," Curt said in that article. "There would have to be a tremendous amount of mending, but there's always a place for him." Then, in 2003, the troubled younger Kirkwood was shot after attacking a security guard with his baton during a parking-lot argument and was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

But Curt Kirkwood was true to his word, and when his brother was released from prison and clean, the real Meat Puppets were resurrected - with a new drummer (Ted Marcus taking the role of original member Derrick Bostrom) but the Kirkwood-brothers core.

This is the band that, with Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen, helped SST Records define alternative rock in the early 1980s. This is one of the seminal cowpunk bands, paving the way for alternative country in the '90s. This is the band that released two classic records (1984's Meat Puppets II and 1985's Up on the Sun) and has been around for nearly three decades.

Given that history, it's not surprising that the Kirkwoods moved slowly.