Of all the bands in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s rock lexicon, Meat Puppets are the ones that got away. Though the trio didn’t have nearly the amount of record sales as their label mates Soundgarden and Dinosaur Jr., or the alluring teenage angst of Nirvana, they were the godfather of influences for all three bands that unfortunately got caught in the crosshairs of time and circumstance.
MEAT PUPPETS When: 8 p.m. May 19 Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Tickets: $22 in advance Info: lh-st.com
Rolling Stone writer Greg Prato asserts as much about his 2012 oral history, “Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets,” telling the Los Angeles Beat, “It always puzzled me as to why they seem left out each time a documentary or book comes out on either the ’80s punk/underground or ’90s alt-rock movements, as they issued some of the best all-time albums for both genres.”
Part of the issue may be that the Meat Puppets (formed in Phoenix in 1980 by brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood, bass and guitar/vocals respectively, and former drummer Derrick Bostrom) were too experimental for their time—perfecting a bizarro mix of punk rock, acid psych, country, rock and funk that was relegated to the abyss of college radio while other more categorical contemporaries were getting supermodel status all over magazines and MTV.
The Meat Puppets did have an appearance on the channel, invited by fan and former tourmate Kurt Cobain to sit in with Nirvana during their infamous MTV Unplugged session. During the taping, Nirvana covered “Lake Of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Oh, Me” (from 1984 album “Meat Puppets II”) as an affront to the whole commercial attitude of the event.
“It was very humbling, ultimately in the aftermath of what happened,” says Cris during a recent phone chat. The infamous performance was just five months before Cobain died and was broadcast repeatedly thereafter. “To have been so highly considered by that guy, that’s why all that happened. He dug us, and wanted to expose us, which is so punk rock.”
Like Cobain’s story, the other part of the Meat Puppets story was succumbing to the rampant availability of drugs. Cris fared the worst. By the time the band had some modicum of success, ironically with 1994’s “Too High to Die,” which produced popular single, “Backwater,” the label uncovered his addictions and ceased promotions. The band had their first hiatus. In the early 2000s another came when Cris was sent to prison for assault. Here he met Steppenwolf’s Jerry Posin, and the two formed a prison band. Meanwhile Curt carried on with his career, notably with Eyes Adrift featuring Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Sublime’s Bud Gaugh, bonded by their band member losses.
“My favorite artist period is my brother, and it sucked what I did to him and what I did to myself,” says Cris. “There’s no question as to whether or not that was my fault. I absolutely wish I hadn’t, it affected everything, … But the cool part is here I am again, I made it back.”
Cris made amends with Curt and was welcomed back into the band in 2007, this time with drummer Shandon Sahm. The most recent addition is Elmo Kirkwood, Curt’s son, on rhythm guitar; together, they have led Meat Puppets into its second coming, releasing three new albums, including the latest, “Rat Farm” in 2013, taking part in the highly curated ATP Festival in New York and playing their first Riot Fest in 2016. Prior to the appearance, the Kirkwood Brothers were also invited to meet with primary students at Chicago’s Suder Montessori Magnet School after a video plea from teacher (and uber fan) Rachel Jacobson.
“That was absolutely incredible,” remembers Cris who says he has an affinity for the area from spending time with his dad in the Lisle/Naperville area. “The chance to see a bunch of young folks into the music and singing along with them was mind-bending. I got such a kick out of it. I guess I’m just an old softie.”
He refers to himself as an “old softie” a second time when talking about the band’s latest nostalgia-fueled tour. Joining them at Lincoln Hall on May 19 are Minutemen’s Mike Watt with the Jom & Terry Show and Porcupine featuring Hüsker Dü’s Greg Norton. All were part of the militia of talent on Greg Ginn’s iconic SST Record Label, the Meat Puppets’ first home, and were billed together on the original “Tour Tour” in 1985. “There’s something really sentimental about it,” says Cris. “The fact that we’re all still actively playing and pushing the boundaries, and that we’re still pals.”
When not on tour, Cris has started venturing into hosting his own podcast and tampering with production work for Phoenix’s Slope Records, overseeing the one and only album of the former ‘70s-era punks The Exterminators as well as novice acts like The Linecutters.
“There’s all these elements coming forward—how music is ageless, how aging is something I didn’t ask for, and how these kids are influential,” remarks Cris, saying not to count out Meat Puppets for new material. “There’s some stuff brewing. … All of what we have gone through has contributed to us being at a point right now that I find exceedingly satisfying.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.