Lake of Fire
Meat Puppets rise to their knees
Lying in a federal holding cell 50 miles south of Phoenix, Cris Kirkwood can barely move. The .357 slug still lodged against his spine has rendered his legs immobile. Dope sickness, heroin withdrawal, has caused his body to rebel against him. His muscles cramp, bones ache. His track-scarred skin sweats in agonizing pulses.
Regret doesn't even register through the pain. Years of abuse precipitate this point, nothing left but his body in decay, obese, teeth rotted out. Just another junkie. The other inmates ignore him. He stinks, festering in his own filth, the atrophy of the needle and the damage done.
"It's just brutal," Cris sighs now with candid recall. "You puke. You shit. You have no control over your guts, and it lasts for at least a week solid. It's fucking disgusting. You're just a shit-spraying machine. And it hurts. The whole time your mind is just screaming, 'Just bring back the dope!'"
That wasn't even rock bottom. Six years earlier, August 1998, Cris' wife, Michelle Tardif, had overdosed and died amid the detritus of their Tempe, Ariz., home, a story chillingly detailed in David Holthouse's article "Shooting Star" for Phoenix New Times (reprinted in the Chronicle, Jan. 4, 1999). Tardif's death was followed eight months later by the death of close friend Pete "Sito" Sievert, whose body was found on Cris' couch. He had been dead for more than 24 hours before an anonymous call from a pay phone in Phoenix alerted the police. In response to the second OD, Holthouse printed an open letter in the New Times. It began, "Cris You know me, but you've smoked so much coke since we last talked I should probably reintroduce myself. I'm the guy who will write your obituary."
Nearly everyone had written Cris off as another slow-burn drug suicide, including his brother, Curt Kirkwood, who moved to Austin in 1997.
"I was just tired. I just couldn't do it. Not at the rate he was going," says Curt. The older Kirkwood squints his eyes against the sun, a cultivated detachment screening his own scars. "I was at odds with having to put up with his decision to just be a piece of shit, really, because it is a decision. People can say you're sick or whatever, but you can make a decision to get help, too."
The same stoic dismissal that allowed Curt to relinquish his brother to the spiral of addiction is also what permitted their reconciliation. Curt heard from his son Elmo and close friends still in Phoenix that his brother had finally managed to get clean in prison, so he reached out to Cris. He flew to Phoenix last Spring, and the two sat playing guitar together for the first time in more than 10 years. By October, Cris and Curt were in the studio, the prodigal Meat Puppet reclaiming his bass alongside his brother's lead.
"I wept like a baby the first time I tried to sing one of the songs," admits Cris, still reveling in his resurrection. "It was just such a moving thing, such a healthy sort of weeping."
The story of the Meat Puppets' return is a harsh, redemptive saga. It's the history of a band broken at the height of their career. It's the chronicle of the most important movement in rock of the past 20 years, the alternative scene the Meat Puppets helped birth and then became victims of as it imploded in an inertia of commercial success and drugs.
Most of all, it's the story of two brothers, of loss and reconciliation, and of bloodlines bruised and bonded in the improvised fluidity of guitar strings.
Maybe I've been wasted, maybe I'm confused, mostly this seems like a whole lot to lose. ("Vultures")
Sitting outside Jo's Hot Coffee, a short distance from his South Austin home, Curt Kirkwood's eyes are heavy, his stare intent. Streaks of gray line his close-trimmed goatee and frizzy hair, tied tightly back into a knot. He picks at his paper cup until it splits open at the side, letting the last drops of coffee spill onto his legs. He either doesn't notice or doesn't care.
"We started writing off junkies and idiots early because it's just all around," he says casually. "We grew up in North Phoenix, northwest side, where it's rife. It's an awful place. I've seen really brutal shit really close to me, and I don't put anything past anyone."
The Meat Puppets was never a band to pull punches, and both brothers speak with the same severe frankness and irreverent nonchalance that's always molded their music. From its beginnings in 1979, the band, consisting of Curt, Cris, and drummer Derrick Bostrom, encompassed an urban disgust that wouldn't be fully recognized for another decade, a wasteland of drugs and apathy circling behind the fragile facade of Eighties prosperity. It was an ethos cultivated from experience.
Raised amidst the wreckage of their mother's six failed marriages and a string of reckless stepfathers, Curt was the wilder of the two brothers. Cris, younger by a year, was more introspective, made good grades, and held a job.
"He wasn't as popular when we were kids," laughs Curt. "He wasn't shy, but Derrick and I were just more confident growing up, and Cris didn't have that kind of confidence. He helped me out a lot because he was always the straighter one. I was always real spaced out."
Cris was 19 and still living at home when the band originated, emerging with a pummeling, unrehearsed scrawl of hardcore punk that quickly landed them a deal with seminal DIY label SST, which released Meat Puppets in 1982. Drugs were a constant in the group's early music, their sound evolving into a genre-shredding repertoire that melded unrepentant punk with country roots and psychedelic jams.
"The first one was our LSD record," offered Curt upon the 1999 reissue of the Meat Puppets' catalog ("What Is This?," April 9, 1999). "We were three days in the studio, and we tripped the whole time. And it was really cool, and really trying, too, because we went insane. [Meat Puppets II] was our ecstasy record. That's why people like that record so much, I hate to tell you. Then the weed album, Up on the Sun. That's the pedestrian album. Weed and alcohol. I did that whole thing in 72 hours, straight through recorded and mixed it."
By 1989, the Meat Puppets had outlasted most of their contemporaries and, with SST suffering increasing legal trouble, signed to major label London Records. The result was 1991's Forbidden Places, a breakthrough eclipsed by the release of Nirvana's Nevermind just two months later.
Despite their acknowledged influence on the movement, the mainstream success of alternative rock didn't immediately extend to the Meat Puppets. Then, November 1993, Kurt Cobain invited the Kirkwoods to join him on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged special and to open for the group's European tour. Ironically, Cobain's suicide the following April became the catalyst for the Puppets' success; MTV's constant rotation of Nirvana Unplugged and the subsequent iconization of Cobain helped make Too High to Die the group's first album to sell in excess of 500,000 copies.
As it turns out, Cobain's heroin addiction and subsequent suicide were the harbinger of the scene's collapse.
"I hadn't seen any dope get used until we were out on tour with Stone Temple Pilots, and then there was heroin and needles everywhere," recalls Curt, who says he and Cris had stopped shooting up in the early Eighties.
Be that as it may, by 1995, Cris' habit had become a problem. Through the recording of No Joke!, Cris was increasingly incapacitated, and by the end of the year, Curt canceled the band's remaining tour dates with Primus.
"When Cris started getting fucked up to the point that he wasn't a good musician, that's when I bailed," says Curt. "It wasn't really in response to him dragging his ass around, shitting his pants and stuff. He just started fucking up onstage and fucking me up in one of my favorite places. Do what you want as long as you don't get into my shit. All that seems obvious to me."
Stupid stars, you could sell them for a song. Nevermind, one became the sun. And they say there's a Tiny Kingdom not too far away. And it rains on the plastering, watch it melt away. ("Tiny Kingdom")
Curt doesn't attempt to conceal his bitterness about the self-destruction that mired the alternative rock scene and stagnated the Meat Puppets' success. Suddenly enlivened, a sadistic smile crosses his face as he castigates Cobain.
"You suck my ass! You invite me to fucking do this; all these cool fuckers invite me out and then shoot themselves? How fucking cool is that? I'm already 10 years older than everybody, and then I watch them blow their wad on suicide. It's Too High to Die. That's why I did that record. I knew it was coming. That was a jab in the side, because we went through that shit in the early Eighties.
"Why did Kurt Cobain shoot himself?" he continues vehemently. "Nobody gives a rat's fucking ass, first of all, but the reality of it is he was smart enough to know he was in deep fucking shit. He used too much heroin, got depressed, and shot himself because he was bummed fucking out. It's really hard to quit using dope. Fucking miserable. A lot of people would rather die. You ruin your fucking brain. You ruin your pleasure center to a degree where you better have a really, really cheery side like my brother has."
Despite Curt's initial efforts to help get his brother into rehab, Cris continued disappearing into a haze of addiction. He and Tardif became increasingly reclusive as all night parties ceded to a constant need to find the next fix. On her deathbed, Cris' mother begged him to get clean, but even as he watched her body painfully wracked by cancer, he couldn't endure the withdrawal.
"I didn't handle Mom's illness very well, and things just started to unravel," relates Cris. "It was just hopeless. And all the while I'm aware of the damage I'm doing to other people. I fucked up the Meat Puppets, ruined our band. I fucking wrecked my brother's career, and Derrick's. Even as it unraveled, I was like, 'It's OK, I'll get better and fix this all.'
"But then Michelle died, and that can't be repaired, and now I had really ruined it for everybody, because I was gone, just fucking gone."
Curt, meanwhile, was lost in his own way here in Austin as he channeled his creative energies into various projects. In 1999, he reconstituted the Meat Puppets into a quartet with local standouts Andrew Duplantis, Shandon Sahm, and Kyle Ellison ("A Sound Salvation," Jan. 14, 2000). Despite a year and a half of rehearsal before the band debuted, Curt admits that the new lineup never realized the chemistry of the original Puppets, and they lasted for only one album, the lackluster Golden Lies ("Texas Platters," Sept. 29, 2000).
Eyes Adrift followed in 2002, a supergroup consisting of Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Sublime's Bud Gaugh that only emphasized the fallout from the promise of the Nineties. Curt shuffled through the band Volcano and an unfinished country duet album with Lisa Newmyer before finally releasing his solo debut, Snow ("Texas Platters," Nov. 25, 2005).
In Phoenix, Cris receded even further from the world, a hollow vapor shifting through jails and the street. Finally, in 2004, he was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison after an argument over a post office parking space escalated into a fight with a security guard. Cris, weighing more than 300 pounds at the time, was shot when he attacked the officer with his nightstick.
I thought that it was over, these seem to be the days of wine. You've done as you've pleased, we're all so relieved. ("Enemy Love Song")
Cris is still unaccustomed to giving interviews. Speaking by phone from Phoenix, he continually interrupts himself to ask how he's doing. He's doing fine these days.
"It's just fucking miraculous, really," he enthuses. "I allowed my life to become a serious pile of fucking dog shit. I made it all happen, so there was nowhere to point any blame except for myself. But just to have my brother back in my life really means the fucking world to me."
His voice bounces with a youthful vitality, even as he traces the darkest scars of his past. Now living with his girlfriend, Flathead bassist Ruth Wilson, and her parents, who are both doctors, Cris takes nothing for granted. A dentist who was a fan of the band fitted him with dentures last year, while another friend found him a bass. His weight is down to 175 pounds. This isn't simply a second chance; this is new life.
That rekindled sense of wonder lingers throughout the Meat Puppets' new album, Rise to Your Knees, which was recorded here in Austin at Wire Recording and Bubble Studios and released this week on Anodyne Records. Although laced with Curt's characteristically caustic lyrics, there's a hopefulness born within the cynicism, a freedom in the unbounded possibilities of nihilism. The songs cascade with a mellow and melodic rhythm that flows easily between the brothers.
"There's just something really organic about Curt and me playing together," offers Cris. "That's what made the Meat Puppets happen in the first place, and with Derrick. And it's definitely still there."
Although Curt tried to recruit Bostrom to rejoin the band as well, the drummer declined. Ted Marcus instead filled the role behind the kit.
"What the album has to me, it has a very big underlying theme of love," Cris suggests. "There's a lot of love there. And it's a deep love, for oneself, for my brother, for fucking life! Just the magic of what life can put you through and still being alive, which is what Meat Puppets has always ever been what it's ever been all about."
Rise to Your Knees isn't likely to return the Meat Puppets to the pinnacle of their Nineties success. Nor will the album spark the revolution encapsulated in their SST influence, even if alternative rock has since become merely a shallow corporate image of angst without genuine substance or emotion. The Kirkwood brothers aren't interested in changing the world, though. This album is more important than that.
"It's really just a continuation of the art that Curt and I have been making since we were young," says Cris. "It's the reemergence of Curt and me playing again and the result of me actually getting to the point where I have some light back in my soul. Music, art, is a strange, frail thing. It's just part of me coming back to life."
There are some relationships, however, that Cris will never be able to reconcile and some things that time will never heal.
"I fucking hurt myself; I hurt my heart," he sighs. "I broke my heart completely. Losing Michelle was irreparably damaging, and there's just no fixing that. But there's the ability to learn to live with wounds, and that's what I've managed to be able to do."
Most healing are the reacceptance from his brother and the confidence entrusted in re-forming the band. The music is consolation and redemption, a reaffirmation of life and what Cris had lost.
Nowhere is that conviction more apparent than onstage. At this year's South by Southwest, the brothers played their first shows together, both grinning effusively behind twin flailing billows of curly hair. The intervening 10 years dissolved in a wave of thick, swirling guitar and thrusting bass vibrations, the pair high in harmonic ecstasy.
"He's smiling because he sees over the clouds all of the sudden," laughs Curt about his brother. "Meat Puppets is a rare thing. It's like in your dreams when you can fly."
"It's just home," says Cris. "Meat Puppets is home."