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In 1980, brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood answered punk music's siren call and formed the Meat Puppets after meeting drummer Derrick Bostrom through a mutual pot dealer. Fueled by grass, acid, endless touring, and a desert-fried twist on the apocalypse, the Meat Puppets blazed trails with a distinct amalgam of swamp blues, country choogle, free jazz, and open-ended jamming that borrowed from Jerry Garcia and set the table for grunge.
"We wore our Dead influences on our lapel way before Phish," says Kirkwood. "We were one of the first bands to plumb that Grateful Dead thing on an indie level. The influence of the Meat Puppets, from what I've seen, has been rather fuckin' pervasive. From Widespread Panic to Soundgarden to Nirvana to you-name-it, on and on."
And on and on the Puppets went, through the Reagan era and beyond, issuing eight albums in a decade through SST Records. Released in 1983, Meat Puppets II remains the album that critics gush the most about, thanks to repeated airings of MTV Unplugged in the wake of Cobain's death. In the Nirvana episode, taped amid candelabra and funeral lilies bathed in subaquatic blue light, Aberdeen's tragic hero paid unexpected posthumous homage to the obscure album by covering three of its songs during the taping: "Plateau," "Oh Me," and "Lake of Fire."
"Cobain studied that album a lot," Kirkwood says. "It was probably a big influence. They're some of the best songs ever written, and he knew that. That's all I can assume. He's like George Jones to me: If I could pick somebody else to do the high and lonesome on one of my songs, it would have to be Jones or Cobain.
"I don't think my shit's that good," concedes Kirkwood in a sudden burst of modesty, though he's referring not so much to the material itself -- which he, of course, just described as "some of the best songs ever written," but his own treatment of it. "When [Kurt] did it, it was really cool. That album's a piece of shit! Meat Puppets II sounds horrible to me. It always did. I tried to make it sound like that. I'm just really lucky people saw the concept clearly."
The Meat Puppets followed up their worldwide broadcasts in 1994 with Too High to Die, spawning a single ("Backwater"), a gold record, a large-scale tour, and piles of money. But Cris became increasingly addicted to drugs much harder than pot or acid, smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in suicidal quantities. Following the release of the band's final album, 1995's No Joke!, he fell off the planet, ending the band's fifteen-year career. Three years later, Cris' wife died from an overdose of morphine and cocaine. With felony drug warrants out for his arrest, Cris once told the police during a traffic stop that he was Curt, forcing his older brother to appear in court to clear his name. Curt paid a professional interventionist to help his little brother, but after another arrest (for possession of stolen property), he gave up and moved on. The two haven't seen each other for over four years.
"I don't try to get in touch with him unless I want to fuckin' get fleeced for some money or something," Kirkwood says. "He got involved in rock cocaine too, and quit that supposedly earlier this year. Shit's hard to kick. I did plenty of it when I was a kid and so did my bro, but I didn't think it would come in when we were in our thirties and just wreck everything.
"The music started to go," he continues. "That was the bottom line. I've stuck with my brother as long as I could, though I have guilt over leaving him. I don't have Catholic guilt, like 'oh, I cheated and lied and killed and fucked' or whatever. That's human, you know?"
In Kirkwood's perfect world, Disneyland would have a virtual transgendered reality. "My theme park would have, like Female Land for the dudes," he says, "where you can go in and experience what it's like to be a chick. Instead of the jungle boat ride, it's like, this chick's gate riot."
In another perfect world, writer Michael Azerrad would have given the Meat Puppets an entire chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground. "That's why his book failed," Kirkwood snaps. "You can quote me on that. Let me tell you something -- 'cause I've already gone this far: Meat Puppets were D. Boon's favorite band. Period. And [Azerrad] wants to call the fuckin' book that and not have a Meat Puppets thing? Whatever, dude. Go ahead. He better be writin' a book about me, that's all I can say. 'Cause D.'ll flop over in his grave. That's fuckin' crap."
Forgetting his legacy for a moment, Kirkwood simmers down and counts his blessings. "I'm really glad that there's superfamous guys in our band, 'cause we can get our foot in the door," he says. "Unless you're tied in with fuckin' General Motors and the multi-death corporations, you're not gonna get the exposure. I've had my fill of those cheesy assholes for now. I couldn't get along with majors if I tried. It has nothing to do with music -- it's a board of fucking directors. It's public opinion swaying art. Fuck you. Kiss my ass.
"One day up in Lake Tahoe we were practicing where Bud has a house," Kirkwood continues. "I'm like, guess what? Let's not fucking deal with these people. They're slime. Let's make 'em crawl to us. I had an epiphany: Let's keep our fucking publishing. Let's keep the rights to our fucking record. I like making art without some asshole telling me if he thinks it's good or not. I'd rather have people just listen to it and applaud politely. And then, if they want to come back afterwards and tell me that they thought it was good, they're not telling me anything that I don't already know.
"We are Wonka," he continues. "And we always knew that."
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