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Long, Strange Trip

How the Meat Puppets negotiated a quarter-century of highs and lows.

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The world's most gifted fiction writer couldn't come up with a story as fascinating and tragic as that of the Meat Puppets. Formed in 1980 by brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom, the Phoenix trio began as purveyors of what can only be described as artsy hardcore — explosive, sloppy, irreverent, and absurdly noisy for the time period. The band's first EP, In a Car, showcased this approach perfectly when it was released on the tiny World Imitation label in 1981. The record is a partial jab at the violent suburban hardcore that was then coming out of L.A.

The EP caught the attention of Greg Ginn, Black Flag guitarist/ringleader and owner of SST Records. SST re-released In a Car, following it with the release of Meat Puppets (1982), a very short album that's essentially an extension of the EP. SST would be the Meat Puppets' home through the end of the '80s. Though by this point the band was making music that classified them as hardcore, they did not feel comfortable moving within the punk and hardcore scenes. That's going to happen when you're dealing with guys who were fond of running around in the desert in the middle of the night, blazing on LSD.

Unsurprisingly, the band's second album signaled a shift in style — a major shift in style. Meat Puppets II was still furious, unhinged, and loud as hell, but on this album the band introduced a fusion of punk and country/folk that sounded unlike anything happening at the time of its release in 1984. It would be a major influence for years to come, serving as the original home for the Meat Puppets songs that Nirvana covered on its MTV Unplugged album ("Plateau," "Lake of Fire," and "Oh Me").

Up on the Sun (1985), the band's third full-length, dialed up the country, '70s hard rock, and jammy Grateful Dead/Quicksilver Messenger Service-style psych folk (see the amazing "Enchanted Pork Fist") to further distance the band from underground indie contemporaries. Up on the Sun made the Meat Puppets a staple of college radio and, along with its predecessor, established a "Meat Puppets sound." Sadly, the band would continue to release solid albums throughout the latter part of the decade, but none would approach the artistic highs reached on II and Up on the Sun. The SST releases were reissued by Rykodisc in 1999, all with loads of bonus tracks and excellent liner notes.

The Meat Puppets left SST at the turn of the decade and broke up for a short time. After reforming, they made the major-label move to London Records. The resultant Forbidden Places (1991) was their seventh album and a better than average Meat Puppets amalgam of ZZ Top, country, indie rock, and traditional rock that would go straight into the cut-out bins once grunge and alternative rock stole the spotlight.

For two years, the band kept a relatively low profile until they were asked by Nirvana to open the In Utero tour in 1993. It was at the end of this tour that Nirvana taped MTV Unplugged with the Meat Puppets sitting in as guests. All of this provided serious exposure for the band, and their next album, Too High To Die (1994), was poised to be a success. This didn't happen until Kurt Cobain committed suicide, after which MTV got a lot of mileage out of airing the unplugged performance. The single "Backwater," still occasionally heard on the radio today, moved up the charts to become the Meat Puppets' first and only hit. This would prove to be both a blessing and a curse, but probably more of a curse.

The band's next album, 1995's No Joke!, made no mark on the charts, and during its recording, bassist Cris Kirkwood's drug problem would reach a destructive point. The band split up, and Curt escaped the insanity by moving to Austin. Then, in 1998, Cris' wife, Michelle Tardif, was found dead of an overdose in the couple's bedroom. Cris then went missing for a while before reappearing to tackle his addictions via rehab. He would still struggle with drugs for years, until he experienced a life-changing incident.

On December 29, 2003, at a post office in downtown Phoenix, Cris got into an altercation with a woman over a parking space. A security guard attempted to escort Cris from the premises, but the former Meat Puppet punched him and stole his collapsible baton. As the scuffle escalated, the security guard drew his sidearm and shot Cris once. The bullet nicked his lower spine, putting him in the hospital in critical condition and causing temporary paralysis. As a final blow, Cris was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm, to which he later pled guilty.

After serving a prison term and finally kicking drugs, Cris reunited with Curt, and at the end of 2006, word began to spread that the brothers were preparing to play live. At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, the new incarnation of the Meat Puppets was unveiled to generally favorable reviews. A few months later, Rise to Your Knees was released, the first Meat Puppets album in 12 years to feature both Kirkwood brothers. The album sounds like a cross section of the band's SST years, even if it does have a few alt-rock touches left over from the early '90s.

Cris and Curt Kirkwood can still speak musical telepathy to one another live, reason enough to witness, this week at the Hi-Tone, this happy chapter in an insane story.

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