Fatal Vision 

Ex-Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood on God, drugs, JonBenét, and his new band, Eyes Adrift.

"This is not a supergroup," Curt Kirkwood insists about Eyes Adrift, a new trio featuring himself, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, and Sublime's Bud Gaugh. "This is not any of your American fuckin' hogwash. This is real. We want to have a good go of our lives because the past is dead, you know? There comes a time when people want to hold you to your past and go 'See? You're like Muhammad Ali. You can't take a punch anymore. Let's make fun of you.'

"If you're getting old, you're getting old," continues Kirkwood, the loquacious 43-year-old former frontman for the Meat Puppets. "This is America. We shit on our old people here, we shit on our failures, and we shit on our heroes as soon as we can find a place to shit on. The rock 'n' roll thing is like, go ahead and die. And it's not 'leave a good-looking corpse,' it's like 'leave a corpse for everyone to shit on.' Here you go. Shit on my fucking dead body, you bunch of cock-a-roaches."

During an intensely vitriolic rant from his Austin-based home that lasts close to two hours, the eccentric Kirkwood unloads many personal frustrations on life, liberty, and the pursuit of music. He favors blunt, stream-of-consciousness-styled outbursts -- something familiar to fans of the Meat Puppets' brand of aggressive, country-flavored punk music. He exudes arrogance, self-indulgence, and cynicism. He's also funny as hell and indisputably sincere. A forefather to the golden age of America's indie underground, Kirkwood sounds like he could ramble on passionately about any given subject for days: music, modern penance, hi-tech potato guns, Walt Disney, Ayn Rand, or even the recent execution of Texas death-row inmate, Uh-Oh the Clown. ("People who need to be clowns," Kirkwood concludes, "are fucked.")

"I tend to be tangent-oriented these days," he says. "I'm very comfortable with Jesus when he comes across my lawn. I seen him in the forest at a cabin one time in North Carolina. And I'm an atheist. But I have seen Jesus. I've never seen him in my own house. That would be cool. But I think if you talked to him, he'd split.

"What's he look like?" Kirkwood continues, laughing. "Like something that I made up out of reading when I was a kid. Kinda like the Mummy. I don't know. It's more of a feeling. It's like a spirit that's devout and loves. And I don't know what worship is really all about -- but there's love. It exists."

Jesus and death seem to monopolize Kirkwood's thoughts. He's certainly seen his share of death over the years, from his mother's loss to cancer in 1996 to the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994. During the last two decades, several of Kirkwood's friends and musical colleagues flatlined well before their time: the Minutemen's D. Boon, Morphine's Mark Sandman, the Replacements' Bob Stinson, Sublime's Brad Nowell, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, Tripping Daisy's Wes Bergen, Skinny Puppy's Dwayne Goettel, Blues Traveler's Bobby Sheehan, and Pariah's Sims Ellison. But according to the fiery guitar-slinger, grief and calamity did not shape Eyes Adrift.

"We didn't get together because of our mutual tragedies," Kirkwood says of his new bandmates. "I mean, this shit just keeps happening whether you like it or not. You can't be dragged down by it, either. There's no fucking way you can get around something like the genius of Cobain -- and then he shoots himself. It's not like a phenomenon that Kurt Cobain shot himself. It's bad. It's all a bad read, you know. But this isn't Survivor Part II. This is reality."

Rather than bellyache about their traumas, Kirkwood, Novoselic, and Gaugh have assembled an exceptional group that sounds fresh, vibrant, and comfortably familiar. Kirkwood writes the lion's share of the songs, fusing them with poetic clarity and deadpan humor. And while it's easy to associate his voice with the Meat Puppets, there's something new afoot, a soul chemistry more fluid than crackpot-cowboy balladry with twangy hooks, or fuzz-blown songs about hating life and wanting to die, or dance-happy surf/skate renditions of the Jamaican two-step.

"People would be bummed if the majors pushed this with 'Look at the rock stars and their glorious past!'" Kirkwood says. "'Come see the new Nirvana! Subvana! It's grunge-reggae!' I think that people who are into any of the three bands can find something in here that they could appreciate. It's still really stylized. And still very folksy, but not progressive."

Though Kirkwood and Novoselic can improvise together at will, neither one had ever jammed before with the former Sublime and Long Beach Dub Allstars timekeeper. "It was a blind date that worked out really well," Kirkwood says. "Bud's one of those drummers that makes you want to move. He has that Ringo Starr quality that's like 'Oh look, he's as cute as a fuckin' teddy bear!'...You get these Sublime fans at shows, it's like a big cult, and Nirvana's a religion. It's a whole amalgam of different nut-people coming out."

Eyes Adrift, which toyed with laughable handles -- including Phawn and the Diapers -- before settling on its name, crafts a refined, accessible, and panoramic beauty that lends diversity to its self-titled debut on SpinArt. It blends roundelay piano-looped ditties ("Sleight of Hand"), crunchy rockers ("Telescope"), and glorious, guitar-sped hoedowns ("Dottie Dawn and Julie Jewel") with relative ease. "Blind Me," written in homage to Willie Nelson and a staple at Kirkwood's solo gigs, likewise exhibits the maturity of a gifted songwriter in his prime. "Pasted," a fifteen-minute opus, explores a psychedelic and jam-oriented netherworld. And "Solid" gives a glimpse into Kirkwood's stamina as a battered punk star: "I could cut myself and nothing would come out/'Cause the blood is frozen solid in my veins/I should know by now that I could cut myself/'Cause I'm solid and I've always been that way."

"It's like fine art meets cartooning -- just what I like," Kirkwood says of the new album. "We like that lowbrow gutbucket thing for now. Like what Beefheart meant when he said 'Turn yourself inside out. Fuck everyone else's vomit. Yours is gross enough.'"

On "Inquiring Minds," one of three tunes written and sung by Novoselic, tabloid-fueled culture receives brutal scrutiny. Using JonBenét Ramsey's murder and the cottage industry it spawned as a flash point, Novoselic questions the media's motives of putting flowers on her grave when "All they want to do is poke around your mommy."

"It really has nothing to do with the little girl," Novoselic says. "No disrespect to her or the Ramseys. That whole thing was such a tragedy, and all those news investigators made money off of it. People used to go to watch executions for fun. Or they slow down for car wrecks. And this sniper now. Do we really need to have such saturation coverage? Man, do they milk it."

"JonBenét and Cobain were kinda similar," Kirkwood adds. "They were both cute little blondes. It's necrophilia. It's kind of heavy, so we made it a triumphant song. And you know what lives on? The absolutely mind-numbing beauty of the little girl."

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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