Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Desert and the Monsoon in the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood's Original Meat Puppets

Here is a paper I completed in the summer of 2009.

The Desert and the Monsoon in the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood’s Original Meat Puppets

I. Introduction: Biography of Meat Puppets

The original Meat Puppets began in Tempe, Arizona, around 1980. They consisted of Curt Kirkwood (guitar, lead vocals), Cris Kirkwood (bass, vocals), and Derrick Bostrom (drums). Their first release, an EP called In a Car, was released on World Imitation Records in 1981. Their first, eponymous, full-length recording was released on the independent label SST Records in 1982. The lyrics to all but four of the songs on this first LP were penned by Derrick. Of the other four, two were covers, one had lyrics written by Cris and another by Curt.

Meat Puppets stayed with SST Records through 1989, releasing six LPs and one EP. Beginning in 1991 the band released three full-length recordings with the major label London records, the last of which, No Joke!, was released in 1995. The height of Meat Puppets’ popularity came in 1993 with their guest appearance on MTV Unplugged with Nirvana, and the 1994 release of MTV Unplugged in New York, the audio recording of the same performance. Pushed by the Nirvana performance and the radio success of the song “Backwater,” Meat Puppets 1994 release Too High to Die became their best selling album (going gold).

No Joke! was the last release by the original Meat Puppets line-up of Curt, Cris, and Derrick. In the late nineties Curt, now living in Austin, formed a band he called the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra. He renamed the band Meat Puppets and released two recordings: a self-titled EP in 1999 and a full-length, Golden Lies, in 2000. Of the four members, Curt was the only original Meat Puppet in this incarnation of the band. Curt went on to form bands and release one record each with Eyes Adrift (2002) and Volcano (2004), as well as a solo record, Snow, in 2005.

In 2006, after recovering from some well publicized personal experiences (Holthouse), Cris reconnected with Curt and, with the addition of Ted Marcus, a drummer not associated with the original band, released a full-length record in July of 2007, Rise to Your Knees, on the independent Anodyne Records. Their most recent record is Sewn Together, released in May, 2009, on Megaforce Records. This incarnation of the band has toured regularly since May of 2007. Original drummer Derrick Bostrom is not part of the current version of Meat Puppets.

Beginning with Meat Puppets II in 1984, the band’s second full-length release, all music and lyrics of the original line-up are credited to Curt Kirkwood (the exceptions being two songs on each of the last two recordings being credited to Cris Kirkwood, and a cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” from 1986’s Out My Way EP). My analysis, then, of Meat Puppets lyrics for this paper focuses on the songs penned by Curt Kirkwood with the original line-up of the band (Curt, Cris, and Derrick): All songs recorded beginning with 1984’s Meat Puppets II through 1995’s No Joke!, excluding the four written by Cris Kirkwood and the Little Richard cover.

In the remainder of this paper I discuss Meat Puppets as a “desert band,” explore Curt Kirkwood’s lyrical style, pinpoint references to the desert in his lyrics, and investigate two songs in which Curt writes about a unique feature of desert life, the monsoon. In reading this it will become clear that I am not the first to notice the connection between Meat Puppets and the Southwestern deserts from which they sprang. However, I am the first to systematically extrapolate Curt’s presentations of desert life from within the lyrics of his own songs.

II. Research

As mentioned above, findings for this paper come from my own analyses and interpretations of all Meat Puppets’ songs written by Curt Kirkwood beginning with Meat Puppets II and ending with No Joke! (a total of 93 songs covering 8 LPs and 1 EP). Through my analyses I have uncovered a number of themes within Curt’s songs: Escape, mental illness, hallucinations, and nighttime being a few of the salient ones. My extrapolations on these themes are part of a work-in-progress much larger than the current paper.

I chose to focus on the desert theme for this paper because of its early and frequent appearances in Curt’s songs. As I show, lyrics about the desert span all of the albums in question. I limit my analyses to the songs of the “original” Meat Puppets (Curt, Cris, and Derrick; 1980-1994) for a couple practical reasons. First, when I started this project the original band was defunct and I assumed, as I suspect others did as well, that Meat Puppets would not reform. Therefore I felt I was covering the entirety of Curt’s songs with the band.

A second reason for limiting my analyses to the original Meat Puppets, even after their reformation, is that they may now be a band for many years to come. They have already released two full-length records since I began. If they continue at this pace, producing twelve or so news songs every couple of years, my analyses could conceivably never end and I may never come out with a final product. Perhaps in a future project I will deal with the lyrics of Meat Puppets’ second time around.

III. Meat Puppets as a “Desert” Band

Meat Puppets have always been recognized as a “desert” band. Their performances, their presentations of self, and, particularly, their music is seen as intricately linked to the terrain and lifestyle associated with living in the Southwestern United States. In the fourth edition of Trouser Press from 1991, for instance, Ira Robbins suggests that Meat Puppets II is a “brilliant evocation of the wide open world of the Southwest,” and refers to the vocals on the recording Huevos as “out-there-with-the-cacti” (p. 417).

In The Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock (1997) David Fricke writes that Meat Puppets have a “mystical sense of music’s role in desert ecology” and a style “stretched between desert country punk and old-school psychedelic improvisation” (p. 466).

On the web, Mark Prindle mentions that the band is from “Desert Country, Arizona” and, in reviewing the first record, Meat Puppets, writes that “The genre is speed country desert hardcore” (Prindle). They are described as a “power trio from the desert” (Mosenfelder) from a “desert clime” (Hairston) possessing “all of the wonder of the desert” (“Meat Puppets”). They make music “amid Phoenix’s desert landscape,” in the “open spaces of the American Southwest” and “the saguaro desert” (Le Blanc).

Marc Elliot (1996) in Rock: The Rough Guide sums up the link between Meat Puppets and the desert well when he writes that “it was the desert around Arizona, with its coyotes, creeks and empty spaces, that had the greatest effect on their music” (p. 558). He writes that “Plateau,” off of Meat Puppets II comments “on the Arizona desert’s curious beauty,” that Meat Puppets II itself is “an adventure in cactus-filled places,” and the recording Mirage is a “surreal, sad, humorous attempt to come to grips with the desert” (p. 559).

With regards to Curt’s oft-maligned vocals one writer makes reference to his “lonesome desert voice” (Chedsey 1999). In a 1982 interview in Flipside magazine Curt answers a question about his “vocal influences” in characteristically absurdist fashion, “Almost 23 years.” Drummer Derrick, however, answers the question more directly, “Our main influence is the desert” (Helen 1982).

IV. Curt’s Lyrics

As a whole, Curt Kirkwood’s lyrics span a range from absurdly silly,

Petrified lizard antlers
Asphalt orange wheel
Dog-eared alphabetic
Rubber turns to steel
(“Liquified,” Huevos, 1987)

to paranoid hallucinations,

the walls turn into waterfalls
with water made of thoughts that call
“it’s not O.K. to tip the glass
don’t make a noise or shed a tear
you’re not the only one that’s you
things have changed, now we are here”
(“We’re Here,” Meat Puppets II, 1984)

standard rock machismo,

There is a button that makes me go
She turned it on and let me know
That she could be my gasoline
She knew that I was a machine
(“I Am a Machine,” Mirage, 1987)

to nihilist existentialism,

I fall towards a flash of light
That burns the seed of life away
No thing is changed
Nothing arranged
No thing will ever be
(“Nothing,” No Joke!, 1995)

to mention but a bit of his range.

Others, of course, have commented on Curt’s lyrics. Occasionally they are seen as “genius” (Wood) and compared with some of the great rock lyricists of all time, as when Curt Loder, in Rolling Stone magazine, rates him alongside Bob Dylan by writing of his “sharp, Blonde on Blonde-style wordsmithing” (Loder 1984). Others notice the humor in Curt’s lyrics, as when one writer suggests Meat Puppets have the “goofiest, most hilarious lyrics imaginable” (Mosenfelder). Still more find his lyrics “fanciful and confusing,” “simple but hint at deeper meaning,” and, if nothing else, “ambiguous” (Wurm 2005).

Many writers focus on the psychedelic nature of Curt’s lyrics. They are seen as “trippy” (Samudrala) and “enigmatic” (Le Blanc). David Fricke (1997) epitomizes the view of Curt’s lyrics as psychedelic in his review of the band in The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock when he mentions the “trippy paranoia in Curt’s lyrics,” his “free association imagery” and his “bad-trip metaphors and outright nihilism” (pp. 466-67).

Finally, in reviewing Meat Puppets’ 2007 release, Rise to Your Knees, Trouser Press writes that Curt’s more mature lyrics are “contemplative,” as opposed to the lyrics of his younger days which resembled the lyrics of a “stunned tripper in the desert” (Robbins et al).

V. Desert References in Curt Kirkwoods’s Lyrics

Having grown-up in the wide-open spaces of the Southwest and being a purveyor of “trippy” lyrics, one would expect images of the desert both direct and metaphoric to abound in the lyrics of Curt Kirkwood, and they do. In this section I cover some of his more isolated references to the desert; those lyrics where he makes passing reference to the desert in a phrase, line, or even in a single word. I then focus on two songs where Curt addresses a particular meteorological phenomenon of the desert—the monsoon—as a central lyrical theme.

There are two songs on Meat Puppets II, the first recording on which Curt wrote all the lyrics, where the desert gets mentioned. The first is “Plateau,” the same song which was mentioned above as being lyrically “genius” and which Kurt Loder compared favorably with the lyrics of Bob Dylan. The title of the song seems an obvious enough allusion to desert vistas littered with anvil-shaped mountain tops, but there are some lines, especially in the first stanza, that make use of desert imagery descriptively and metaphorically. The first line of the song reads: “Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau,” highlighting the landscape of the Southwest while also using the desert plateau as metaphor for spiritual searching. The last two lines of stanza one suggest that “holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand/to beautify the foothills,” highlighting two ubiquitous features of the desert: Sand and foothills.

On “Climbing,” from the same second recording, Curt writes of always climbing out of bed in the morning “on a mountain made of sand.” Here there is a mountain rather than a plateau or foothill, but it is still made out of sand, grainy, giving way. In many of Curt’s songs the desert is a difficult place to live, adamant in its stubbornness to allowing the easy life. Climbing out of bed every morning on a mountain of sand reflects this difficulty.

On “Too Real,” a song from Up on the Sun, Curt writes: “When drops of sunshine/Start to turn to rain.” Sun, like sand, is a salient feature of the desert environment and to present sunshine as “drops” emphasizes the physical nature of experiencing the desert sun. Drops are things one can feel and touch and be soaked by. The rain, drops of rain, are things to get out of. So too then, as with rain, one should probably seek shelter from the heavy, saturating, “drops of sunshine” that one finds in the desert.

A set of lines from “Liquified,” off of Mirage, bestow an image of the old Southwest, of heat, of desert:

Cow town on the horizon
Boiled in twisted jade

One can see Singer here in the desert. It’s hot. He’s been riding or walking for days, alone. He comes across a small town, maybe a cattle industry type town. He sees it off through the dust and sun and cacti and sweat. The day is hot. The town appears to be boiling in jade, a bit of imagery harkening to jewelry of the Southwest and suggesting a town with Native American or Mexican influence. It is probably in Southern Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. The town is off in the distance. Like a mirage.

On “Comin’ Down” from Too High To Die (1994) Curt takes a standard bluegrass theme juxtaposing people’s earthly and celestial lives and transposes them into a scene of the deserts of the American Southwest rather than of the mountains of Kentucky or Tennessee. “Comin’ Down” ends a recording where many of the songs’ lyrics seem to lament the band’s ascension to the major recording level and the loss of freedom associated with this rise. The song suggests that Meat Puppets have now seen what business is like at the highest level (on top of the mountain). They do not really like the view from on top, so for now they are coming down to hang-out with the ordinary folk of the rock world.

But life in the independent, non-major label, rock scene has it’s problems as well, and Curt uses the desert as a metaphor for life below the major label level and the problems this entails.

Goin’ down to the desert
To the dirty filthy desert
I’ll be crawling through the sand
For at least a couple days

Goin’ down to the desert
There are things there worth avoiding
And it always makes me cross
When those things get in my way

These stanzas suggest that the desert is a harsh, unyielding place full of dirt and sand. One does not come back from the desert clean. One has sand in one’s shoes and hair. And when traveling through the desert one must watch out for things: cactus, rocks, poisonous insects, arachnids, and reptiles. Walks in the desert require concentration. Singer, in this song, is irritated by this concentration.

Finally, there are a number of places where Curt references that most salient feature of desert life, the sun. For instance, Meat Puppets’ third recording is titled Up on the Sun, and its title track describes a harsh environment not unlike the desert: “Up on the sun/Where it never rains or snows/there’s an ocean/ with a wind that never blows.” The song “Sexy Music” from Huevos contains the refrain “Hot as the sun.” From the recording Monsters comes the song “Light,” which is about, well, luminescence, and contains the lines “flaming river burning in the sky/falls in silence/over land to dry” in reference to the ultimate giver of light (the sun) and its parching effect on the desert floor. On “Never to be Found” from Too High To Die Curt sings of looking back upon a past life event, “shining dimly like a mudslick in the sun.” Again, an image of a hot, sunny, desert day comes to mind here. And on No Joke! there is a song with the title “Taste of the Sun” where, in stanza one, Curt makes reference to “simmering rain” that is “boiling over again,” maybe in reference to the monsoon rains of Southwestern desert summers.

VI. Two Songs about the Desert Monsoon

In this section I discuss two Meat Puppet’s songs that focus on a peculiar meteorological aspect of the desert Southwest. The monsoon is the rainy season that occurs during the desert Summer’s hottest months of June, July and August. The songs in which Curt spotlights the monsoon are “Swimming Ground” and “Dry Rain.”

“Swimming Ground” is from Meat Puppets’ third full-length recording, Up on the Sun (1985).

The sun is up and beating down
Hot enough to melt the ground
A little water would do us good
The clouds’d help us if they could
They’d send showers of pouring rain
Get everything wet again
We could go and float around
In our favorite swimming ground
The best place I ever found
Wasn’t close to any town
Was a little swimming ground
Everything just floated around
Out to lunch and out of town
Pretty close to falling down
A little water would do us good
Lyrics by Curt Kirkwood

Thematically, “Swimming Ground” belongs in a common category of some of Curt’s early songs: escape. It is about getting away from the drabness and conventionality of everyday life to a place without worries, without cares, without conventional expectations.

“Swimming Ground” begins with a description of the heat of summer in the desert Southwest. I first wrote preliminary notes about “Swimming Ground” from my home in Southwest Utah in July on the sixth straight day of 110+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures. The sun does beat down on these days. Everything is hot. You do think the ground might melt. To boot, it was the sixth straight year of drought.

A little water would have done us a lot of good in Southern Utah. We were on the cusp of monsoon season, mid-July. Light clouds were beginning to cover our skies. We heard of rains happening a few hours to our south in Arizona. We saw thunderheads off in the distance. We were parched. A little water would have done us good. The first two lines of the song are a great summation of mid-summer, pre-monsoon desert life, written by someone who has experienced this season.

“The clouds’d help us if they could.” It is not the clouds’ faults that we do not have rain. They are doing their best, it is just that the sun is so hot that the clouds cannot get in. But they are trying. And they will be here eventually.

He then tells of the joy of the rain that comes with the monsoon. When the clouds come in, they will “send showers of pouring rain/ getting everything wet again.” Nothing compares to the feel and smell of the first rains of monsoon season. It’s orgasmic! It’s relief. It’s beauty in the highest sense. And it provides escape. Escape from the repetition of sunny summer days (cloudy days in the desert summer are welcomed, to say the least) and escape from the sun itself.

At this point Singer’s favorite swimming ground fills up with rain water. He and his friends can go there and just float around. The lazy days of summer. One can imagine Curt and brother Cris hiking through the rough desert terrain of central Arizona, through a canyon and over a small mountain, and reaching the swimming ground. And then just hanging out.

The written lyrics end with the line “a little water would do us good.” This brings us back to reality. The escape of the swimming ground will not be a reality unless the rains come (and sometimes they do not!). Until then we just bide our time, putting up with the beating sun and the melting ground, fantasizing about escape.

“Dry Rain.”

“Dry Rain” is from Meat Puppets’ 1987 release Huevos.

You said you’d make it grow
You said you’d make it green
But I see dusty fields
Broken rock is all I see

And all around me
I see your storm clouds
Another lies about to fall

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain

It seemed like it was real
Felt like water to my skin
But I stepped through the rainbow
And saw the desert deep within

And all around me
Are roaring waters
But I won’t let me
Be swept away

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain

And all around me
I see the Pharaohs
I see collections
Of hats and guns

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain
Lyrics by Curt Kirkwood

It was another warm July evening when I first wrote about this song. The second evening in a row consisting of dark and heavy storm clouds and strong gusts of wind but no rain. Within this context, “Dry Rain” makes perfect sense.

The Monsoon rains are hit or miss. Dense, dark, and ominous clouds come rushing in with huge winds and the smells of rain. You can smell and see the rain falling in cells in the distance. You can watch the storm cells move across the landscape. The clouds are massive! They boil up in the sky and roll straight in for your position. They are so big they scare you.

As when writing about “Swimming Ground” it had been 110 degrees for two weeks straight when I first wrote about “Dry Rain.” That is what brings the clouds in the first place. As the deserts heat up they draw moisture from the Gulf of California up to our dry places. So we wait with anticipation for the arrival of the Monsoon. Because we all know it is supposed to come. And we hope that it will be like that one year, the one year that happens every ten, when there actually was significant rain to accompany the clouds. But it almost never happens. It is usually just the clouds and wind and smell of rain and then. . .and then the sun and the 110 degree heat again! Maybe, when the Monsoon tease is most intense, there will be five minutes of downpour. . . heavy, heavy downpour, and then STOP! And then the sun again.

And that is “Dry Rain” in a nutshell. Interestingly, the disc booklet states the disc was recorded on August 3-7 in Phoenix. Smack in the middle of Monsoon season.

Singer seems to be singing to the Monsoon in this song. “You’d make it grow/You’d make it green.” “But I do not see it happening”, he seems to say, “All I see is dry desert landscape.” Singer is angry at Monsoon. Monsoon promises a lot but does not deliver. Indeed, Singer accuses Monsoon of lying. “I see your storm clouds/Another lies (sic) about to fall.” Singer knows that there is no rain coming. He is letting Monsoon know that he knows that the clouds and smells are a farce.

In the next two passages, however, Singer seems to be lying to himself. We all get so excited about the Monsoon that even though we know very little water will fall, we con ourselves into thinking that maybe this time, maybe this one big cloud that is coming in will be the one to drop enough water to quench our thirst. “It seemed like it was real/Felt like water to my skin,” he sings. Bam! The clouds coming in, the smell of the rain, it feels so real. But then, probably when the clouds start to be burned away by the scorching sun, Singer opens his eyes and sees the “desert deep within.” There is a reason this is a desert. It gets no water!

Similarly in the next passage: “And all around me/Are roaring waters/But I won’t let me/Be swept away.” It often seems there is a downpour happening right over there, and if it would just move a mile or two in our direction we could enjoy some relief. But Singer won’t let being surrounded by thunderstorm cells convince him that he will see any rain. He won’t let himself be swept away.

There is some lyrical ambiguity in this “swept away” line. Singer will not let himself be swept away by his emotions or by the flash floods that accompany Monsoon rains. Television and radio reports during Monsoon season often warn hikers and campers to be extra cautious because of the high potential for flash floods. During Monsoon, whenever and wherever the rains are falling, the water is channeled into washes and canyons. And whenever and wherever the rain happens to fall, it falls hard and fast. So fast that the ground cannot absorb it and fierce flash floods happen in the washes and canyons in a matter of moments. People must beware not to be swept away.

VII. Conclusion

I have only met Curt Kirkwood in passing. Twice in one day, in fact, in the Spring of 1994 in Chicago. It was as part of an acoustic promotional tour for Too High to Die that Meat Puppets played an afternoon gig at Northwestern University where Curt (as well as Cris and Derrick) signed my CD, and an invite-only gig at Schuba’s in the evening where on my way out after the show I cornered Curt, shook his hand and said something like, “Thanks for the music, man.” So I may be awry in my interpretations of his song lyrics. As he quips in a 2009 Playlist online magazine interview regarding his lyrical style:

I am just having fun with it more than anything, trying to make stuff that sounds cool along with the music. I try to write things that are confusing and stupid (Golden 2009).

Never-the-less, as I have tried to show, I am not the only one who senses the desert in the songs and lyrics of Curt’s music. Specifically in this paper I have fleshed out those places in Meat Puppets’ songs where Curt does make relatively direct references to the deserts of the American Southwest. Some of these references are to the geography of the desert, some to the lifestyles of those living there, and still others to desert climates (i.e. the Monsoon). Whatever the reference, it is apparent that the desert is a recurring theme in the lyrics of Curt Kirkwood’s original Meat Puppets.


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