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Living to play again

POP MUSIC

Curt Kirkwood had written brother Cris off as dead -- lost to drugs -- but the Meat Puppets' Lazarus is back. So is the influential post-punk band.

June 10, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

THE bullet is still there in Cris Kirkwood's back, a permanent reminder of how bad it got for him.

He was outside a post office in Tempe, Ariz., that day in 2003 when he exchanged words with a woman who complained about his parking. Then he got into it with a security guard who intervened. Kirkwood, who weighed more than 300 pounds and was in the grip of severe heroin addiction, grabbed the guard's baton and hit him with it. As the struggle continued, the guard drew his gun and fired.

Kirkwood says that he surprised the doctors by suffering no motor damage in his lower extremities, and he went to prison for 18 months for the assault.

That was bad, but the real low point had come five years earlier, when his wife, Michelle Tardif, died in their bedroom from a drug overdose. In comparison, Cris' arrests, the broken relationships, the physical damage and his fall from the pinnacle of indie-rock prominence as a member of the Meat Puppets didn't seem like so much. Not that it sobered him up.

Even by the standards of rock-lifestyle excess, Cris Kirkwood's story, which was detailed in a widely read 1998 Phoenix New Times article by David Holthouse, ranks as extreme. Instead of the co-pilot of one of alternative rock's most admired and influential bands, he was now known mainly as one of its most notorious casualties.

His brother Curt, the Meat Puppets' singer and guitarist, certainly didn't hold out much hope.

"No, no, none. I completely [wrote] him off years ago. A junkie, you don't deal with them at all, it doesn't do you or them any good.... You write them off as dead."

Cris shows a faint smile as he listens calmly to his brother's harsh evaluation. They're sitting in their van in front of the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where in a few hours they'll try to reconstitute the old Meat Puppets magic for a crowd of fans who thought they'd never have this chance again.

"I don't know about reclaiming anything, but definitely to be able to just do this again, it's a ... riot," says a beaming Cris Kirkwood, who began willing himself back toward a functional life after leaving the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix in mid-2005, and is now a Meat Puppet once again.

"Me and him together have a weird thing -- it's a really neat thing," Cris adds, looking at Curt. "There's a certain place you can get to. It was a thing that happened live a lot. Like the audience and some weird energy would get going and suddenly you'd get to this trippy place that I really dug."

The prodigal bassist's return has reanimated one of rock's most colorful entities, a freewheeling outfit with a wild-eyed vision and a disregard for musical borders. Starting in 1980, the Kirkwoods and drummer Derrick Bostrom made music that evolved from punk to Grateful Dead-like folk-country.

With their desert origins, surreal imagery and exploratory impulse, they were invariably tagged as pioneers of post-punk psychedelia, and their mind-bending ways have been adopted and absorbed into the fiber of rock.

"I don't think we properly credit them for how much they influenced us," says bassist Lou Barlow, who recently reunited with guitarist J Mascis and drummer Murph to take the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup into the studio and out on the road again.

"They weren't afraid to be influenced by anything and everything," Barlow adds. "People get kind of neurotic about the way they show their influences and doing it the right way and being cool. But they made no attempt to be cool or fit in the scene, and that was pretty incredible."

You can hear their impact in such artists as the Pixies, Beck and Queens of the Stone Age, but the Meat Puppets' most notable fan and patron back then was Kurt Cobain, who performed the Meat Puppets songs "Plateau," "Oh Me" and "Lake of Fire," with backing from the Kirkwoods, on Nirvana's 1994 "MTV Unplugged" album and telecast.

The simultaneous reemergence of the Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr. is a reminder of the remarkable output of SST Records in the 1980s, when the Lawndale-based label run by the South Bay punk band Black Flag released records by those two bands as well as Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Flipper, Husker Du and other groups that laid the groundwork for alternative rock, wearing grooves in the interstates for few rewards beyond the satisfaction of playing.

"There needs to be some of them around, because not many of them stuck it out," says Curt Kirkwood, sitting in the middle row of the van. "What happened to the promise of that era? Was it completely swallowed up by hip-hop and cruddy pop? ... There has to be some legacy; there has to be heritage artists in every generation."

Mike Watt, who played bass in the Minutemen, is one of the old cohorts who's dropped by to welcome the Meat Puppets back to town.

"Personal problems were probably in the way before," says Watt, reflecting on his friends' return. "You have to grow up a little, and you get those problems subdued and you can get back to your aesthetic that you started off with.

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