Sunday, January 11, 2015

"No Joke!": A Section Removed from "The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood from 'Meat Puppets II' to 'No Joke!'"

No Joke!
      Meat Puppets were riding a wave of success in 1994.  Too High to Die was released in January followed by a year packed with tour dates, some of them high profile opening gigs with bands like Stone Temple Pilots, others smaller headlining shows.  Too High to Die would go on to be certified Gold (500,000 copies sold).  To this date the band’s biggest selling record.
      But there were signs that Meat Puppets’ run at success was to be short lived.  For one thing, even though the album and its single (“Backwater”) were doing well, attendance at the band’s headlining gigs didn’t seem to grow in the same proportion.  It was as if people liked the song, bought the album, but didn’t care too much for the band in general.
      Another sign of the band’s impending loss of success was structural, the grunge era was coming to a close.  Meat Puppets’ success was in large part based on their perceived association with big-time grunge acts like Nirvana, Blind Melon, and Stone Temple Pilots.  With grunge waning industry executives were looking to put their resources elsewhere.
      A third important reason for Meat Puppets fall is more personal, especially for the Kirkwood brothers.  Vera, the brothers’ mother, came down with Cancer in late 1994.  Cris, especially, was devastated.  He moved in with her to help her in her sickness.  At this same time Cris developed a serious heroin addiction, thus compounding the personal and familial problems the Kirkwoods faced.
      As 1994 morphed into 1995 Cris’s drug addiction became more and more of a problem for the band.  He became difficult to work with both on the road and in the studio.  He was often a no-show at the recording sessions for No Joke!, the follow-up to Too High to Die.  And when he did show up he would nod off in heroin-induced sleep.  Things became so bad that Curt, Derrick, and second-time producer Paul Leary left for California to finish the record, without telling Cris.  Indeed, it was around this time that Curt, in an attempt to distance himself from his family problems, moved to Long Beach, essentially separating himself from the rest of the band.
      In the second half of 1995 executives from London Records met a few times with Curt, urging him to drop Cris from the band.  Curt wouldn’t do it.  Curt’s loyalty, it seems, was to his brother and band rather than the label.  London Records promptly dropped Meat Puppets.  The final tour of the original Meat Puppets was an opening slot for Primus in late 1995; their final gig was New Year’s Eve in Chicago.
Too High to Die Success
      As mentioned in the previous chapter, some good things were happening for the band in the Fall/Winter of 1993 leading-up to the January 1994 release of Too High to Die.  In early October the band headlined the 96 Wave (96.1 WAVF) WaveFest in Charleston, South Carolina, a festival attended by “as many as 30,000 fans” (,3429789), including a few influential radio promoters who were impressed with the performance and got the word out that Meat Puppets are radio ready.  Soon after this they played their week or so of shows opening for Nirvana who, at this point, were the most popular rock band in the nation.  So, again, more big crowds and more exposure.  In November Curt and Cris joined Nirvana to record MTV’s Nirvana Unplugged which aired for the first time on December 14; two of the three Meat Puppets songs made the final video cut (all three would make the CD to be released a year later).
      With the looming success of Too High to Die, Nineteen ninety-four proved to be one of Meat Puppets’ busiest years before or since.  The record was released on January 25 for which, as is customary, the band would embark on a year-long series of concert tours to promote.  First, however, some housecleaning was in order.  One action they took was to find new management in the form of big-time managers John Silva and Tami Blevins of Gold Mountain Entertainment.  As Derrick suggests, Silva and Blevins took some of the pressure off of the band so that they could concentrate on their art rather than on the business.
John hired the day-to-day person who’d been working with us from our old management, so the transition was good.  We were able to concentrate on doing shows and not have to worry so much about that stuff.  Our old manager was picking at us.  He seemed to be more worried about getting his cut, and our new manager more like, “You guys do what you do and I’ll do what I do and don’t worry about a thing.” (personal interview, 2012)
At one point while “auditioning” possible second guitarists John Frusciante, who had recently quit playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, went to Phoenix to jam with Meat Puppets.  Cris’s telling of this story is consistent with the idea that London Records was encouraging the band to pick-up a second guitarist ala Nirvana.
John came out.  He quit the Chilis and he said in some newspaper article that the only band he’d think about playing with was us.  And the record label saw it.  And we knew John.  And they were like, “Why don’t you ask him if he’d like to do that?”  It seemed like an interesting idea, as I recall.  John came out and jammed with us a little bit.  It was trippy.  It was interesting. (personal interview, 2012)
      In the end Curt settled on Troy Meiss, a guitarist from Kansas who had spent a bit of time playing with the Feelies.  Both Curt and Derrick enjoyed having Troy on tour but Cris, on the other hand, apparently did not.  Cris, according to Troy, did not like him and treated him horribly during Meat Puppets’ extensive 1994 tour schedule (Prato 2012). Though Derrick liked him as a member of the band, he saw the addition of Troy as a causal factor in Cris’s increasingly erratic behavior; Curt was spending more time with Troy than with Cris.
Without the structure of being tight with his brother, with Curt going off with Troy, I’m afraid that had as much to do with Cris getting into trouble as anything else. (personal interview, 2012)
      Too High to Die was released on January 25, 1994, and the band immediately hit the road to promote it.  They began the year with what they titled the “Munchies” tour, a two-week acoustic promotional jaunt for press, retail, and colleges throughout the country with lunch bags full of goodies as promotion gifts.
      The band began February by making a professional-budget video for “Backwater,” directed by established videographer Rocky Schenck, a video that received ample airplay on MTV. Schenck had already made a name for himself making videos for Alice in Chains, the Afghan Wigs, and Paul Westerberg, among others.  The video caught much of the psychedelic joy that Meat Puppets’ fans enjoyed:  liquid distorted images of the band members, disturbed looking clowns, trolls, long hair.  It was a cool video to make, says Cris.
He made these clear plastic tanks, big enough that you could get all the way underneath, and then suspended them over each other and hung a camera on top of it and shot down through them, and floated flowers and shit, had us get underneath them at different levels.  It was a trip.  And there’s some cool other affects, like shards of mirrors. (personal interview, 2012)
The video received ample airplay on MTV, helping propel the song to #47 in Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the Billboard Album Rock Charts.  It also received a nomination for Best Editing in a Video at the 1994 MTV Video Awards.[1]
      In late November/early December of 1994 Meat Puppets embarked on a short (“five or six shows at the most” [Derrick, personal correspondence, 2012]) headline tour of France and the Netherlands with Alternative Tentacles band Alice Donut.  Curt and Cris brought their mother, Vera, along for the trip.  It was here that the cancer she would battle for the next couple years first became an issue, one which play a major part in the lives of the Kirkwood brothers leading up to, and beyond, the making of their next record, No Joke! (Prato 2012).
      With the twelve months of touring in 1994 coming to an end it became time for Curt to whip up a batch of new songs and for the band to get to work on making a new record for 1995.  But, as things tend to be, there were problems to be dealt with, roadblocks to plow through, life to live.  One problem, though not necessarily a threat to the band’s existence, was Derrick’s increasing distance from the Kirkwood brothers and boredom with the rock and roll lifestyle.  It had become all business to him.  He had stopped partying, doing any drugs really, in the late 1980s, so at this point he would show up for gigs, play, and go back to his hotel room.
The only bone of contention there would be that after a gig I wouldn’t stay up all night with the label hacks doing drugs.  I would go back to my room and try to get some rest so that I could continue on.  I do not do well without rest.  I learned that on the road.  If I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t function.  So after a certain point I was like, “You’re gonna do the 4:00 am record promotion.”
      And Curt used to try to pretend that it was a huge burden.  Like, “You need to be there!
And I’m like, “If that’s what it’s gonna take, I guess we’re gonna fail.  I’m not doing it.” (Derrick, personal interview, 2012).
But overall, Derrick liked his job and was happy being in the band.  When asked if he enjoyed his time in the band in 1994, he responded
More or less.  More so than the late-eighties.  I liked working with Tami.  I liked having the accountants to help us with our stuff.  I liked having our finances more or less in order.  I thought we were doing good shows.  I enjoyed having Troy around.  I very much enjoyed working with our tour manager, Ben Marts, during ’94. (personal interview, 2012)
      The main problem for the band at this point, it seems, was Cris’s drug use and its concomitant tribulations for himself and for those around him.  The scene Meat Puppets were playing through 1994 was rife with hard drugs, heroin and cocaine were readily available.  A number of the artists Meat Puppets played with at this time are now well-publicized cases of drug addiction.  It was no secret that Kurt Cobain used heroin regularly.  And though he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound rather than heroin in April of 1994, many feel that drugs played a significant part in his ongoing depression.  Stone Temple Pilots front man Scott Weiland is said to have started using heroin with Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes on the bands’ 1993 tour together; Paul Leary, the producer of Too High to Die and the upcoming No Joke! being Haynes’ bandmate, had this to say to Greg Prato (2012):  “Everything I had my hands into was turning to shit because of somebody’s fucking drug problem” (p. 279).  Additionally, Shannon Hoon, lead singer for Blind Melon (the band Meat Puppets toured with in February, 1994) had serious drug problems and died of a cocaine overdose in October, 1995.
      Mix together the fact that hard drugs were rampant in this particular scene, that Vera, the Kirkwood’s mom, was battling cancer, and that Curt and Cris had never been ones to shy away from drug ingestion, and you have a perfect recipe for a Meat Puppet to come down with an addiction himself, and it was Cris.  Furthermore Cris was now dating Michelle Tardif, a woman who had a taste for hard drugs herself,[2] so now he had an intimate with which to share his addiction.  Top this off with the fact that it was Cris who moved in with Vera to provide hospice as she died, and you end-up with one sick Puppet.
      According to Derrick, it was par for the course that Cris would become increasingly unstable as Meat Puppets’ tours progressed.
The first week or so of any tour throughout our career was fine until one of Cris’s tent posts came undone and then his tent flaps started flapping in the wind and then all the posts would come undone and the next thing you know he was a freakin’ mess and unbearable to be around. (personal interview, 2012)
The addition of Troy to the band’s touring line-up didn’t seem to help the situation.  Troy gave Curt someone other than Cris to hang-out with on tour, leaving Cris to his own devices, many of which involved hard drugs.  One result of Cris’s estrangement from Curt was that Cris did not treat Troy well.  Indeed, according to Troy, “the guy fucking tortured me” (Prato, p. 260).
      The combination of coming off a year of intense touring, Curt writing songs for a new album, taking care of Vera, Cris’s disabilities due to drugs, and the Unplugged in New York payday, led to a relatively quiet early 1995 for Meat Puppets.  Curt, who had had enough of Cris and his habits, and was not dealing well with his mother’s illness, moved to California after the recording of No Joke!, ostensibly to find a new touring rhythm guitarist, and stayed, living by the beach in Venice, for two years.  He did eventually hire Kyle Ellison to play on Meat Puppets’ final tour with their “original” line-up, with Primus in November, 1995.[3]

According to Derrick, Meat Puppets were looking forward to making a “proper major label record with lots of money and lots of big nerdy engineering stuff” (personal interview, 2012) this time out.  To this end Curt spent the first few months of 1995 writing songs and the band cut demos of these songs which they dutifully sent to London as any proper major label act would do.  Following their laissez-faire attitude toward the band, London accepted the demos out of hand.
      As Derrick suggests, “During the No Joke! sessions Cris’s drug problems were in full effect.” (personal interview, 2012)  There were days, says co-producer Paul Leary, when Cris simply wouldn’t show up, putting recording on hold until he would (Prato, 2012).  They would even schedule days just for Cris to come in, and sometimes he wouldn’t.  One day he came in, promptly laid face-down on the floor of the studio, and slept for three hours (Prato,2012).  Sometimes he nodded off while playing. (Cris, personal interview, 2012; Prato, 2012).  In short, as Peter Koepke, President of London Records and the man responsible for signing Meat Puppets, told Greg Prato (2012), Cris was totally unreliable at this point.
      As for the relationships between Curt, Cris, and Derrick as band members during the recording sessions, things were strained.  The pressures of making a record and having two seriously unhealthy family members (his brother and mother) was taking its toll on Curt.  According to Dennis Pelowski, a long-time friend of the band (and current manager, 2008-present), Curt was “the most uptight I’ve ever seen him in his life (Prato 2012, p. 268).  Curt and Cris, especially seemed to be at odds with one another, Cris’s addiction-fueled (non) activities being the main cause.  But overall, according to Derrick, none of the band members were speaking to each other much.  They lived apart, came to the studio separately, did their parts, and left.  Separately.
      Despite the interpersonal troubles Curt, Cris, and Derrick were having during the making of No Joke!, in an interview with Greg Prato for his book Too High to Die (2012) Curt actually claims that the recording of the record was actually “fun” and “easy.”  The reason being that it was the first major label record they were able to make at home, “in town,” in Phoenix.
      Fun and easy though it may have been to make the record in town, in the end Curt, Paul, and engineer Cris Shaw ended-up finishing the record at Westlake Studio in Los Angeles, without letting Cris know.  In Prato’s book this seems to be a pretty big deal.  Both Paul Leary and Troy Meiss remember the move to L.A. as a fairly definitive moment in the recording of the record (Prato 2012).  However when I interviewed Curt in 2012 he had a hard time recalling the move, and Derrick (again in a 2012 personal interview) said, “I didn’t even know they went to California to finish it.”  Eventually, after a little prodding, Curt said, “Maybe we did go out there.  I guess that’s true.”  He continued by saying that he and Derrick had done the same thing when recording 1989’s Monsters:
Cris was drinking a lot and being obnoxious, so Derrick and I went out there and started Monsters, got a whole lot of it done before we had him come out. (personal interview)
In the end, as Curt’s memory of the event came back, he says they only went to California to do final mixes.  The vast majority of the record was made in Phoenix.
What Puppets Say about the Record
      The general consensus among Meat Puppets is that No Joke! sounds good but, unlike Too High to Die which, according to Curt,
pretty accurately nailed how the band sounded at the time.  No Joke! was a little bit more of a process in the recording to where it sounded like a record more than the band. (personal interview, 2012)
It sounds like a record, they say, which is to say it doesn’t seem to have the looseness and intersubjectivity of feel that had come to characterize the band’s live sound by this time.  It sounds, to Derrick, like a “cut-and-paste” record, one that’s good, but “the vibe’s not there.” (personal interview, 2012)
      Curt suggests the “heavy” sound of the record is the result of the rock music sounds that were around at the time, the sounds that Curt and the band were around at the time:  “With that album we were playing a lot of big, loud shows, so the record came out more rock, or heavy rock.” (personal interview, 2012)  As for the content of the record, the songs themselves, Curt and Derrick agree that it is dark, probably due to the circumstances under which it was made.  Furthermore, the scene in which they were caught up influenced the record’s “dark” nature,
It's really just a bunch of my stuff filtered thru the "alternative" scene that we were sort of caught up in...lots of hard rock with teen angst overtones.  Perhaps a bit of influence from my own band’s plight, but plight was all around as we toured with Nirvana, STP, Blind Melon, etc.  Lots of drug use around and I wasn't using...just watching others fuck their lives up.  I tried to make it beautiful anyways but with a little sting. (Curt, personal correspondence, 2012)
What Others Say
      Reviews of No Joke! are mixed, with more writers rating it on the negative side than probably any other Meat Puppets’ release.  Some reviewers fall on the side that the record is decent, nice to listen to, average, competent, standard rock with songs that are okay. (!-mw0000645644,  The sense here is that the record is alright, but not as outstanding a record as one might expect from such a mighty band.  Thus, it’s a bit disappointing.  Along these same lines are writers who feel the record is not inspired, not glorious (as if glory was expected of this band), and bland.  (  Furthermore, some writers accused the record of sounding “samey,” ( suggesting a lack of sonic texture from song to song, resulting in a record that, rather than challenging the listener, is something more like “easy listening” ( music.  Again, bland and probably insignificant.
      Never-the-less, of course, there are those who write positively about No Joke!.  Mark Prindle, for instance, wrote that it was one of the best CDs of the year, containing “nine great songs’ (out of thirteen), and Nick Karn suggests it has “traces of greatness.”  It is seen as a “fun ride” and “you will like it.” (,
As with any band that reaches “legend” or “godfather” status, and Meat Puppets were on the cusp in 1995, new recordings are measured (artistically and commercially) against the successes of their past.  No Joke! is no exception.  In one paragraph, for instance, the reviewer for the All Music Guide suggests that Meat Puppets “didn’t mess with the formula” of their past records, “the band’s essential sound” hasn’t changed, and that “the tunes and riffs are cut from the same mold as before” (!-mw0000645644).  No Joke! is variously seen as “one of your finer Meat Puppets albums” (, “the same great stuff” (, “a return to form” (,,298709,00.html),  and “no exception” to the band’s immaculate rhymes of the past (  A few reviews, of course, compared the new record with its predecessor, Too High to Die, wondering if it could duplicate the former’s success, noting No Joke! to be a “darker” version of its more successful cousin.  Finally, there were those who wrote that this mid-1990s version of Meat Puppets had changed, they weren’t “the same set of Puppets that roared out of the blocks in the early ‘80s” (,
      Reviewers also noted that, similar to Too High to Die, Butthole Surfers’ guitarist Paul Leary was once again hired-on to co-produce No Joke!, and along with this is the mention that the record has a “heavier” sound than its predecessor.  It’s also considered more “straight ahead” with more brisk tempos that Too High to Die.
      Again, the important point to the above comparative reviews is that by the mid-1990s Meat Puppets were already enshrined as an essential forerunner of the bourgeoning grunge scene, and their best records were considered to have been made a decade previous.  The playing of three Meat Puppets II songs on Nirvana Unplugged (and nothing from any other point in their career) served to solidify this perception of them.  Reviewers, then, really couldn’t help themselves from comparing “current” Puppets fare with their output from the early 80s.
      Many writers commented on the contrast between No Jokes!’ guitar heavy sound and its melodic vocals and harmonies.  It is said to have “distorted chord washes,” “scorching rock riffs,” and “bone crushing,” “lugubrious thrashing” (to emphasize its dark tone) mixed alongside a “smooth voice” and “soft melodic vocals” that make for a “pleasing chorus” made up of “off kilter yet on target harmonies” all, again in comparison with earlier records, delivered in Curt’s “distinctive vocal drone.”
      Of course writers, as they are apt to do, reviewed No Joke! as it fit within their perceptions of already existing musical genres.  Most common, is the case for Meat Puppets’ records dating back to their first full-length in 1981, they are seen (heard) to have a strong country strain:  they are written about as “countryish,” “country-western folk,” “twisted country,” “hillbilly,” and “breezy country rock,” as well as “rootsy” and “southern fried” (be sure to catch the drug reference with that last one).  Also, however, writers made sure to highlight Meat Puppets’ hardcore punk rock roots and how these roots link the band to the then modern grunge and alternative movements.
      Though Curt claims that at the time he didn’t notice the dark themes within the record (though he says that now, with time and distance from the record, he can see how others might see it that way), many writers did.  Maybe, as Cris says, it was the influence of their dying mother, or maybe it was Curt’s difficulties in dealing with a brother firmly in the grasp of heroin addiction, or possibly it was the impending demise of his band at the precise moment when they were poised to make it big).  Whatever the reasons, critics saw No Joke! as lacking the humor of the band’s past records (again, comparing this one to their earlier catalogue), as having a “more brutal vision” than previous records, “brutish,” “grim”, “absurd and dark,” akin to a “Poe short story” that contains “distorted observations of humanity.”  As Derrick might say, in a catalogue full of dark-themed songs, No Joke! is a particularly dire sounding record.
      Of course the critics didn’t avoid Cris’s fall as they wrote about the album.  One writer chastised London for “throwing away one of the best CDs of the year” simply because “your bass player is a drug user.”  While another makes reference to the “drug fried” Cris.  On a positive note, however, a few writers liked the contributions Cris made to No Joke! in the form of two songs:  “Inflatable” and “Cobbler.”
      Finally, Curt’s lyrics don’t go unnoticed by reviewers of No Joke!.  They are described as “catchy” “super-smart poems.”  As was his style by now, his songs are filled with “bad-trip metaphors” and “outright nihilism,” seen as “lyrically absurd.”  Indeed, one criticism of the record as a whole is that the lyrics are “getting a bit too absurd for their own good.”
Post-No Joke!/The End of Meat Puppets V.1
      No Joke! was recorded in April, 1995, and released six months later on October 3.  As Curt says, London Records was prepared to throw their heavy guns into promoting the record (Derrick isn’t quite so sure about this).  They pushed the first single, “Scum,” getting it in rotation at a number of mainstream rock radio stations early on.  Then, as Curt also says, when they got wind that the band was “messing up on the dope” (Curt, personal interview), they pulled the plug.  No Joke! reached #183 on the Billboard 200 charts (compared to Too High to Die, which reached #62).
      Between the recording of No Joke! and its release not a lot happened.  Curt moved to California to, in his words, “detach” himself from his brother’s habit and his mother’s terminal illness (Derrick remembers Curt going to California ostensibly to look for a new bassist).  Derrick, as far as he was involved in band-related activities, worked on designs for the CD insert.  Cris took care of his ailing mother and became firmly addicted to heroin.
      Three days after the release of No Joke! Meat Puppet’s again played Wavefest in South Carolina.  They also appeared on Conan O’Brien in October, playing “Scum” with new second guitarist Kyle Ellison, and on MTV 120 Minutes.  On October 21, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, another alternative/indie/grunge colleague of the band, died of a cocaine overdose, yet another reminder for Curt of the “scene” in which his band was a part.
      Soon after the record’s release, Meat Puppets’ management, Gold Mountain, began to badger Curt to replace Cris, who’d become too much of a liability for a label that had only a year or so before had to deal with the drug addictions and suicide of Curt Cobain.  They told Curt that either Cris goes or the entire band goes.  That didn’t sit well with me,” says Curt, “so they got rid of us all.” (personal interview, 2012)
      In November Meat Puppets headed-out as a support act for Primus, a tour that would be their last.  Derrick says that this was the third leg of Primus’s 1995 tour and, thus, they were playing tertiary markets.  Many of the gigs played were in college basketball arenas that held anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000 people:  SUNY Albany, Western Connecticut University, Lehigh University.  Cris, in his own words, was pretty messed-up at this point:  That was the only tour I did when I was actually addicted to dope.  It was hellish.” (personal interview, 2012).  Additionally, it was becoming apparent to Curt that London had withdrawn support for the record:
Nobody even knew we had a record out even though the record company was like, “This is getting a lot of adds” and all this stuff.  It went away pretty quickly.  They lost faith in us because the band was messing up with the dope and stuff.  They could tell. (personal interview, 2012)
      Curt finally had to accept reality, he had been living in denial about Cris’s habit.  Maybe, he suggests, he was too involved in the situation to recognize what was going on:  “I was just too close to it to see it.  I think other people saw it a little more clearly.” (2012)
The writing was on the wall.  Curt cancelled any and all engagements that the band had planned for 1996.  The last show of the original Meat Puppets was on December 31, 1995 at the Hard Rock Café in Chicago.
      The actual end of the original band writes more like a fade away than a clean break.  There was never an actual “break-up.”  As Curt sees it the band stopped working because he, its leader, let it.  In his thoughts letting everyone cool-out for awhile, letting Cris see that nothing professional would happen if he didn’t get his act together, would bring the band back together.  But that didn’t work.
The reason the thing came to a halt for awhile was because I just didn’t do anything about it.  I quit talking to Derrick and quit talking to Cris.  I was like, “Well, maybe this will work itself out.”  And it didn’t.  There wasn’t anything that was, like, an event or something like that.  I tried to get Cris to go to rehab.  He wouldn’t do it.  I figured he’d get over it pretty quickly if I quit doing anything.  But it didn’t get any better.  So time just went on. (personal interview, 2012)
      Derrick’s story of the original band’s demise is similar to Curt’s, peppered with a bit of bitterness at Curt claiming sole ownership of an enterprise that had included Derrick from the start.
Curt cancelled the tour and moved to California.  And it was like, “I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”
      I was like, “Great.  I’ve got money from Too High to Die and I don’t have anything lined-up with the band.”  So I got on with my life.  Eventually he was like, “So, uh, yea. . .,” two years later or whatever.
      And I was like, “I got other things to do.  Here’s my schedule.  If you can fit into my schedule.  I have a life, too.  I’m not just sitting around waiting for you to call me.”  Once I put it to him like that, I was like, “I’d love to work with you again, but here are the things that I need to do.”
      He didn’t call me back.  He just got his own band together.[4]
      So ended Meat Puppets version one.  No Joke! is an underrated record containing some solid songs recorded in a professional manner.  But it wasn’t meant to be for Derrick, Curt, and Cris.  Derrick, anxious to get on with his professional life outside of music, found himself a regional position with Whole Foods Market.  But he still had a little music left in him:  In 1996 he released Songs of Spiritual Uplift and in 2000, The Sounds of Today, both under the moniker Today’s Sounds.
      Cris continued to battle his family and drug demons.  In a fairly short span after the end of the band his mother died, his wife died, and a good friend died (on his couch).  In 2003 he began a twenty-one month prison term for assaulting a security guard at a Phoenix post office.  The prison stint did, however, work in Cris’s favor as he was finally able to kick his habit while inside.
      Curt continued on.  After the break-up of the original band he put together a new one with the name Royal Neanderthal Orchestra.  However, label pressures encouraged him to rechristen the band Meat Puppets.  This version of Meat Puppets released an EP (You Love Me, 1999), and LP (Golden Lies, 2000), and a live LP (Live, 2002).  Furthermore, he teamed up with Krist Noveselic of Nirvana and Bud Gaugh of Sublime to release one eponymous record under the name Eyes Adrift (2002).  He then released another album with Bud Gaugh and other friends, the self-title Volcano (2004).  Finally, in 2005 Curt released a solo record, Snow.
      In 2005 Cris was released from prison.  In 2006, through Curt’s son Elmo, he got in touch with Curt.  In 2007 Curt and Cris released a new Meat Puppets record, Rise to Your Knees, with new drummer Ted Marcus.  They then began a regular touring and recording schedule releasing new records in 2009 (Sewn Together), 2011 (Lollipop), and 2013 (Rat Farm); the last two using Shandon Sahm on drums.
      And that’s where they stand today.  Meat Puppets (Curt Kirkwood, Cris Kirkwood, and Shandon Sahm) are today a professional rock group touring and recording at a regular clip.  As always, it’s Curt’s band.  He writes the songs, makes most of the “important” decisions, and writes the lyrics.

[1] Other videos nominated were “Everybody Hurts, R.E.M. (winner), “Amazing,” Aerosmith, “Human Behaviour,” Bjork, “Sweet Lullaby,” Deep Forest, “Kiss the Frog,” Peter Gabriel, and “Disarm,” Smashing Pumpkins.
[2] Cris and Michelle would marry in 1996, she would die of a drug-related infection in August of 1998.
[3] Kyle would also play guitar in Curt’s next version of Meat Puppets (also known as the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra) that released one EP, You Love Me, in 1999, one studio LP, Golden Lies, in 2000, and one live record, Meat Puppets Live (2001).
[4] In 1999 Curt put together the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, a band that included current Meat Puppet’s drummer Shandon Sahm.  He eventually rechristened that band Meat Puppets even though Curt was the only member left from the original band.  This version of Meat Puppets released a studio EP (You Love Me, 1999), one studio LP (Golden Lies, 2000) and one live LP (Meat Puppets Live, 2002).  In 2006, after Cris’s eighteen month stint in prison for assaulting a post office security guard, the Kirkwood brothers reformed Meat Puppets without Derrick,

They had a third party say, “So, you wouldn’t really be interested I doing this, would you?”
                “No, not really.”
“We didn’t think so.  Thanks.” (Derrick, personal interview, 2012)
As of this writing, the current Meat Puppets have released four LPs:  Rise to Your Knees (2007, with Ted Marcus on drums), Sewn Together (2009, with Marcus again on drums), Lollipop (2011, with Shandon Sahm on drums), and Rat Farm (2013, with Sahm on drums).

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Too High to Die": A Deleted Element from "The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood from 'Meat Puppets II' to 'No Joke!'"

Too High to Die
      With the dismal commercial showing of Forbidden Places and the overwhelming popularity of Nirvana and grunge fresh on everyone’s minds, Meat Puppets set out to record their next album for London Records.  The problem, at least from the band’s point of view, was that the label was dragging its feet on “letting” them record.  The problem, from the label’s perspective, was figuring out an angle with which to market this eclectic band.  What to do?
      First off, indeed, the label did drag its feet.  Meat Puppets dutifully turned in numerous demos, all of which were termed as not being radio friendly.  Next, the label gave the band the go ahead to record an album of acoustic versions of previous “hits.”  Finally, based on a series of fortuitous live performances, a cover of the Feederz “Fuck You,” the agreement upon an indie-hip producer, and the radio readiness of what would become their highest charting single, London gave the go ahead to record and opened their promotional coffers.
      The experience with London, however, left a bad taste in the mouths of Curt, Cris, and Derrick.  Their artistic freedom seemed to be squashed and their ability to work how they wanted with whomever and whenever they wanted was gone.  The band was angry at best, hopeless at worst.
Context of the Record
      As discussed in the previous chapter, in 1991 Nirvana’s Nevermind came out just two months after Meat Puppets’ Forbidden Places.  Similarly, Nirvana’s next record, In Utero was released in September of 1993, four months before the January ‘94 release of Meat Puppets’ next album, Too High to Die.  In the two years between the bands’ releases Nirvana became the world’s most recognizable rock band while Meat Puppets floundered to find an audience larger than they had while on SST and London Records struggled to find a marketing strategy for pushing their musically eclectic band.
      So in the Spring and Summer of 1992 Meat Puppets did what most bands do after releasing an album, they toured.  But this was their first time touring in support of a major label record, and the tour reflected this.  For one thing, as they had required the band to hire a general band manager, London also required them to hire a tour manager.  For a band that had been self-managed for the past twelve years, it wasn’t clear why another layer of management was necessary, but perceiving that they had little choice, they went along with it.
      The Sociology of organizations suggests that businesses within the same industry tend to mimic one another structurally; this is known as isomorphism.  Businesses mimic each other because (A) this is the way things have always been done and (B) this is the way everyone else is doing it.  Structural isomorphism is often followed at the expense of organizational learning and change; businesses continue to mimic each other often to their own detriment.
      The major label music industry of the early 1990s is no exception to the rule of structural isomorphism.  With the huge success of Nirvana, as well as the successes of other punk/indie projects and bands like Lollapalooza, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane’s Addiction, “alternative” was born, and labels were putting big resources into packaging a set of disparate bands (some new and naive [i.e. Paw], some old and weathered [i.e. Sonic Youth]) as a marketing genre.
As isomorphism goes, labels sold these disparate bands in a way that suggested they shared certain sonic, visual, and lyrical codes (Weinstein):  a hard rock/punk rock mix (think Black Sabbath mixed with the Ramones), ripped jeans/flannel shirts/long hair, songs of disaffection.  Of course these newly found mainstream codes had been around for a decade or more, pioneered by punk and indie rock bands from the seventies and eighties.  Major label executives simply tapped into, and sometimes bought out, the shadow indie industry discussed in the last chapter.
It was in this epoch of rock history that Meat Puppets and London Records found themselves after 1991, after the release of Forbidden Places.  For one thing, it caught the attention of London executives that many of the money making bands in the post-Nevermind alternative market, especially Nirvana, were name dropping Meat Puppets as an important influence on their own art.  For another, the general hard rock sound of Meat Puppets, especially in their live shows (a little less frequently on their records), was popular with grunge (alternative) audiences.  And Meat Puppets’ long-haired t-shirt and jeans “look,” for what it was, was now hip.  The executives at London decided alternative/grunge was the way to market the band, fit their gelatinous peg into a now well-established hole.
Another example of industry isomorphism, can be seen in the ways that London Records dealt with Meat Puppets in the first years of their relationship.  They required them to get “professional” management, a professional producer, and a tour manager, among other things.  They did this without much regard for Meat Puppets’ previous decade-plus of self-management.  Why?  Because it was the way it had always been done and the way that all the other major labels dealt with their bands.
London’s new marketing strategy for Meat Puppets meant a couple things.  First, it meant that label executives would be pressuring the band to act alternative (i.e. make music that could be marketed to an alternative audience).  Second it meant that Meat Puppets would need to find a way to make the art-based music they always had while also making it sound good to their alternative genre obsessed employers.  For a band as fiercely independent as Meat Puppets, pleasing London Records while also following a “pure” artistic musical path was frustrating.  Two early 1993 interviews I conducted with Derrick (January) and Cris (February) shed light on the frustrations the band was feeling during this time.
At the time of the interviews I was conducting research for my Sociology dissertation (1996) at Northwestern University, the topic of which was “selling out.”  I wrote the band at the address they provided on their records.  Derrick wrote back with his and Cris’s phone numbers, but not Curt’s.  In the interview I asked Derrick why he didn’t give me Curt’s phone number as well.  He said that I’d get a lot of “crap,” meaning information, from him and Cris, but that he didn’t think Curt would “particularly want to address himself to your particular topic” (personal interview).  Later on in the interview Derrick tells me that Curt is “more into being a celebrity than he is being a straight musician.  He’s into being a personality.  Somebody who has a unique outlook on life that people find interesting” (personal interview).
Derrick’s comments highlight Curt’s presentation of himself as above and beyond the frays of the major label business world.  Whereas Cris and Derrick were more than willing to talk with me (as I’ll show momentarily) about what they saw as the evils of the music industry, Curt (at least back in 1993) preferred to stay out of that argument, at least practically.  Instead, as I’ll show later, he would air his gripes more obliquely, in his lyrics.
      1993 Interviews with Derrick and Cris.  At the time of my interviews with Derrick and Cris in 1993 Meat Puppets were in the midst of a stalemate with London Records.  Forbidden Places had tanked, therefore marketing them as a straight ahead rock band with country leanings wasn’t working.  The band, of course, wanted to continue making records like they always had.  This meant putting whatever mélange of musical styles on the album they wanted as long as it tickled their own collective fancies.  London would have none of this.  After all, marketing is about focus and accessibility, not flights of fancy and self-gratification.
      The problem, it seemed, was one of art versus commerce.  Meat Puppets wanted to make art (that might sell product), London Records wanted to sell product (they may or may not be art).  But the bottom line, being employees of a major label, was that Meat Puppets would now have to view success not solely in artistic terms, but instead “view things in terms of success or failure on a financial level, which we never really had to do before” (Cris, personal interview).  And the financial level they were being asked to aim for was much greater than anything they had achieved previously.
We’re talking’ about, even the Metro [in Chicago] would only hold, say, 500 or 600 people.  And you can’t be setting your sites that low.  You have to be lookin’ to shows for, like, 30,000 or more if you want to be big. (Derrick, personal interview)
       It wasn’t that the band was against selling records or playing larger venues, it’s just that making art and commerce come together came as a new challenge in their career.  As stated by Cris:
I’m not averse to selling a bunch more records.  But it doesn’t drive me crazy or anything.  It never has.  The goal never was to only sell records.  It was to have a band and to be able to make music for a long time.  It was never something I wanted to get into and cash in on.  It’s just one of the only things I found that interested me, making music.  And that doesn’t mean being a rock star.  It’s playing the music and trying to make the two align.  It’s an interesting sort of conundrum. (personal interview)
Indeed, continues Cris,
I’d love to be huge.  The gear that would come with it.  All the little toys that you could get.  Being huge to me means unlimited supply of tape.  I could really lose myself to what I really love. (personal interview)
The problem, again, was that Meat Puppets saw themselves as artists first, commercial artists second.
Bands like us who get into it mostly for music have a harder time breaking through than people who are more oriented toward the business. (Derrick, personal interview)
They were hard to sell because, as Derrick states,
our music is uncommercial at its core.  We don’t even care about what it sounds like.  We just care about how it fits together in the connection to our brain while we’re actually doing it. (personal interview)
Cris concurred with this sentiment when he said that “we’ve always been willing to make music without anybody getting it.”
      At the same time, Cris and Derrick both felt that Meat Puppets’ music was accessible to a general audience.  It wasn’t so esoteric that they couldn’t be sold.  Indeed, people did buy their records and go to their shows.
We basically feel that what we do, what we’ve always done, people can like.  We don’t consider ourselves to be inaccessible.  We never thought that our stuff was that far out. (Derrick, personal interview)
We do fill the Metro up fairly good with people that can dig our trip.  We’re not that far out or anything. (Cris, personal interview)
      Along with their feelings that their band was at least moderately accessible, Cris and Derrick also recognized that their involvement in Meat Puppets was a career choice.  This was how they and, importantly, Curt and his kids, made economic ends meet.
Curt has a couple of kids that are almost ten.  You have to start thinking about that.  When you’re a kid it’s like “Pile in the van, let’s go to the next gig.  How much you wanna pay me?  $10?  Great!”  But you start to get older and you get more responsibilities and you have to think about it. (Derrick, personal interview)
Cris again concurs, “For my brother’s kids, I would like us to be more popular” (personal interview).  He just wasn’t sure at this point in the band’s career that they knew how to make fully accessible commercial music, he wasn’t sure Curt could write a mainstream hit.
And what I think about them asking us to write hit songs is that I know my brother, who’s our main song writer, is a really unique and strong artist.  But I don’t know how good he’s gonna be at taking his talent and imitating Bon Jovi with it. (personal interview)
      The answer to the stalemate between Meat Puppets’ artistic ambitions and London’s marketing strategy, it turns out, was Nirvana and the suddenly hot alternative genre.  Once a marketing category arose the label could, in a isomorphic fashion, push Meat Puppets as a band that was like something else.  They were an alternative band.
They saw all that alternative shit getting popular and they were like “Alternative!”  A name had arisen for it. (Cris, personal interview)
Cris, seeing the big picture of how business works, of how marketing genres come and go (and, consequently, how Meat Puppets eclectic style can only fit into a particular genre moment for a moment), recognized alternative for what it was, “ punk rock finally coming to the surface.  It’ll be gone in a couple years.  And what will be next?  Booger rock?” (personal interview).
      In looking at Nirvana and alternative rock in 1993, Cris made a distinction between the real thing (bands that had walked the same indie path as Meat Puppets) and newer, seemingly more surface oriented bands.  His criteria for the Buttholes Surfers being a deserving band as opposed to some others seems to be (A) his personal relationship with the band’s members and (b) a certain level of talent and creativity.
God, please let the Buttholes imitate Nirvana enough on this new record to sell a cajillion copies.  ‘Cuz they’re sweet people and I’d love to see them make a lot of money, ‘cuz all of them have more talent, and more fuckin’ open-mindedness which, to me, equals talent to a degree, and more fuckin’ humor and a broader consideration of everything than 99% of the shit that’s on MTV. (personal interview)
      Cris voices some of his band’s frustrations and his own bitterness toward Nirvana’s success and the rise of alternative in suggesting that these new bands were well thought out and isomorphically packaged , as opposed to Meat Puppets who, as artists, were a messy package of truly alternative music.  To start, he suggests that Nirvana are
students of punk rock.  You just distill out all the best elements of it, and it’s already getting more and more popular anyways, and you put on some cute little beads and some torn jeans and a jacket and you make it obvious how to get to it. (personal interview)
Cris went on to say that, although he liked Nirvana, he also recognized them as being a careful pop group that put out a careful record and played a “safe live show.
      My point here is not to air Cris and Derrick’s dirty laundry from 1993.  It is only to show how they felt about the situation their band was in.  Meat Puppets was a critically acclaimed, musically adept, hard rocking band that London Records couldn’t figure-out how to sell.  Then came Nirvana.  Then came grunge.  Then came alternative.
All of a sudden there was this new kind of hard rock which made dinosaurs out of just about everybody that was signed, that wasn’t wearing a punk rock sort of look and playing a little more aggressively.  Suddenly this is the new thing, grunge or alternative. (Curt, personal interview)
Seattle became cool, a certain look (“cute little beads and torn jeans” says Cris) and sound (“a new kind of hard rock”) was selling.  “All these things started adding up,” says Curt.  “You could at that point say ‘Nirvana’ and it would turn heads.”
      But, again, Meat Puppets didn’t see themselves as a grunge band.  They may have had some grunge elements, but they saw themselves as much more.  Yet they were committed to a major label path.  They were committed to the challenge of selling records to a larger audience then they had before.  In this respect, they were committed to playing London’s marketing game, to being a grunge band.  “We were going to need to fit into a grunge bag,” says Derrick,” and “we were forced to play to this grunge audience” (personal interview).
Specifics Leading Up to the Record
      It was within this context of ambiguity as to how to market the band and, ultimately, selling them as an alternative/grunge band, that Meat Puppets second album for London Records, Too High to Die, came to be made.  In this section of the chapter I describe in more detail the details by which London gave the band a green light to make the record.
      In the dog days between making Forbidden Places and the recording of what would become Too High to Die, Meat Puppets were running out of money.  They toured the first half of 1992 and were ready to make a record, but London didn’t think they were.  Rather than accepting and releasing whatever the band gave them, as had happened on SST, London would actively reject many of the demos Meat Puppets would send them.
There’s a lot of songs that are written, and once the songs are written the label generally won’t accept the first ten.  We like to go in and record.  On SST we’d get ten songs that we liked and then we’d go into the studio and record them and that would be that.  London wants us to write three times that many songs so that there can be lots to choose from. (Derrick, personal interview, ‘93)
Or, as Cris put it, “They control you more by denial rather than trying to make you do shit” (personal interview, ’93).  The band was doing what they always did, making music, and weren’t being allowed to release it on record and, thus, were not making any money.  They found themselves in a situation in which they were trying to please the label, but the label wasn’t pleased.
      The frustration of not getting to do what they wanted to do, of being on a label they felt wasn’t supporting their aspirations, led at least Cris and Derrick to have a bit of a defeatist attitude towards it all.  Going back to 1993, both of these Meat Puppets told me they weren’t confident that London was the right label for them.  Indeed, according to Cris, the gap between what the two entities wanted became so wide at one point that the band almost left London Records:
We almost got dropped.  We just got sick of them.  We almost dropped ourselves.  Just like, “You guys don’t get it.  You don’t want to try to get it.  Go die.  We don’t care.  We’ll find somebody that does.” (personal interview, ’93)
Derrick reiterated Cris’s sentiment in equally adamant terms:
Great.  Let them drop us.  Who gives a shit?  If that’s what it’s all about, fuck ‘em.  I don’t give a damn. (personal interview, ’93)
      Meat Puppets were on the back burner at London Records after the weak market showing of Forbidden Places.  But in lieu of leaving the label, they took what was given them and that was to hire professional management, find an A&R person that both band and label were comfortable with, hire professional tour management (who took a significant chunk of the band’s tour receipts), and tour (with minimal financial support from the label).  By the end of 1992 the band members were hurting for cash and this, of course, played into the label’s hands: 
“Suddenly, here’s this band that’s been this pillar of fuckin’ idealism and ‘do it your own way’ being shoved around by the one stick that everybody gets shoved around by — financial,” Cris said. In effect, he felt the band was being told, “You can’t do your work at all. You can sit at home, or I hope you like your Circle-K job.” (A & I, 163-67)
      But the band was determined to succeed; they always had been.  Says Derrick,
We were committed because that’s all we did.  We had committed to the path we were taking being three very strong-willed people.  And it’s the same thing with sports teams who go for like the World Series or the Stanley Cup.  They don’t take their eyes off of the prize.  And so that’s what we did.  We kept at it. (personal interview)
      One thing the band did in the Fall of 1992 was record a couple of songs with Tom Werman, a producer who had scored big hits in the 1970s and ‘80s with the likes of Ted Nugent and Cheap Trick.  In September they recorded “Things” (a different version of which made it on to Too High to Die) and a song called “Animal” (versions of which were released on a five-song London Records promo CD and featured on two movies, 1994’s Love and a .45 and 1995’s White Man’s Burden).  However, for reasons Curt says he can’t recall, London didn’t like these demos:  “It didn’t really pan out.  The record company didn’t like it” (personal interview).
      By the end of ‘92 the interested parties found A&R, and a compatible vision, that they both could work with and Meat Puppets went into a Phoenix studio with a local engineer and recorded a demo.
Once we finally got somebody in place who we were comfortable with, who they were comfortable with, who was in the position to reach the compromise that needed to be made and give enough assurances both to us and to them, we were able to get approval to make a demo, and we made a demo for Too High to Die in January of ’93. (Derrick, personal interview)
But the logjam didn’t end with this demo.  For one thing, according to Derrick, the band went “way over budget” on the demos, which they spent a week recording.  This, he says, led to a “bone of contention” with the label.  Most important from the label’s standpoint was the lack of an obvious radio friendly single in the demos.  They didn’t much like the sound of the original demos so they asked the band to rerecord a few of them:  “Until they were certain that they heard a single that they liked, they wouldn’t give us the go ahead to write the record” (Derrick, personal interview).
      London explored a few different marketing angles with the band in these days.  One was to push them as a novelty band.  In particular they had the band record one song four times, a song the band adamantly insisted was not to be taken seriously, at least not as a single.
We had this one song which was kind of a joke song, that was designed to be a parody of other bands, and it got sent to them as part of the usual submission of demos process, and they didn’t get that it was a joke.  They just heard that it sounded like other bands.  And we were like, “We’re not doing that song. It’s a parody of our contemporaries.”  They made us do the song like four times before they finally gave up. (Derrick, personal interview).
Cris recalls this as a song that Derrick wrote called “Don’t Touch My Stuff.”
“(W)e recorded this song called ‘Don’t Touch My Stuff,’ with Derrick singing and playing guitar,” Cris said. “It’s a song that Derrick had written, who hadn’t written anything in years. He wrote this thing on a lark, and it was funny. He couched it in all this antimilitaristic cartoon drivel, that Derrick is wont to slant things as. It had this Nirvana kind of feel to it, like ‘Teen Spirit.’ It could have been on the record as a little Derrick song, but not as the fuckin’ single. (A&I 165, 1995)
Pushing Meat Puppets as a novelty act, of course, didn’t sit well with Curt, Cris, and Derrick who thought of themselves as serious artists.
“They wanted to push us as a joke, just like they pushed that song ‘Sam’ off the [previous] record. Like, ‘Oh, wow, listen! They sing fast!’ Well, yeah, but we’ve also got 15 years of musical history. What about us as a fuckin’ band? How about that shit that we actually do? I mean, if we were, I don’t know, the Dead Milkmen or something, it’d be one thing. But we’re not, you know?” (Cris, A&I 165, 1995)
      When it became apparent that the novelty act angle wasn’t going to work, and with the band’s manager pressuring the label to let them get to work (they needed money), marketing Plan B was implemented:  They were like, "Maybe we'll put out an EP of some of your older stuff done accoustically.  We'll put it out on our indie imprint there at London, and not spend any money."  That would have been in the Spring of '93.  We were, "Okay, that's what that is.  This is what they're giving us."  (Curt, personal interview, 2012).
Plan B, have Meat Puppets record some of their “classic” older material acoustically and put it out on a smaller imprint of an already smaller imprint label.  Band members were mixed in their enthusiasm for this project.  On one end, Derrick felt “We’re screwed” (personal interview 2012).  To him it seemed to signal a dead end, the label was throwing in the towel and marketing the band as an oldies act.  At least one other band member agreed with Derrick,
“They asked us to re-record our old crap, said Cris, indicating that the band was fairly flabbergasted by the absurdity of this request. “They wanted us to do Up On The Sun, all acoustic. And we were like, ‘Oh, okay, so you’re gonna sell us as an oldies act? Whatever.’ It didn’t matter how we felt about it. We were broke and up against the wall. (A&I, 163, 1995).
Curt, on the other hand, went along with the idea more willingly.  Indeed, he seems to give some credit to the executives at London for their prescience.
I thought it was a pretty cool idea to do these acoustic things, and they wound up later that year getting recorded by Nirvana, and they didn’t have any idea we were doing acoustic versions of those things.  So maybe there was something to the record label’s thing. (personal interview, 2012)
      It was during this time, in early 1993, that the band and label were still looking for someone to produce the next record.  The band was suggesting all sorts of people who had produced their favorite records, people who produced Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, producers who had recorded platinum records.  But the label, inevitably caught by the gravity of isomorphism, was looking for someone “cool,” someone with punk/indie/alternative credibility.  Into this void stepped Paul Leary, guitarist for Butthole Surfers, a band with unquestioningly solid punk and indie credentials.
And they were tellin’ me about it, and I just said in passing, ‘Well, hell, why don’t you let me do it?’ And they went, ‘Okay!’ I fooled somebody into thinkin’ I was cool.” (Paul Leary, A&I 164, 1995).
      Not only was Paul indie cool, he and the members of Meat Puppets were close personal friends dating back a decade or more.  Additionally, Paul had a fair amount of studio experience that Cris, at least, was impressed with.
Paul had been into studio shit, into the actual gear, how it worked.  He got so into it.  I remember this one time, they had a neat little house and they were putting a studio together and we go in there and there’s Paul doing all the welding on a patch bay. (Cris, personal interview, 2012)
Paul had also recently finished producing the Bad Livers’ debut Delusions of Banjer (Quarterstick, 1992), which Curt and Cris both liked.  So Curt and Paul had been discussing the possibility of working together.  In March of 1993 Curt, Cris, and Derrick attended the Butthole Surfers’ album release party for Independent Worm Saloon at the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.  It was here that Paul agreed to produce the band’s acoustic record.
      So in the Spring of 1993 Meat Puppets and Paul Leary met up in Memphis at The Warehouse recording studio.  As Curt remembers it they recorded acoustic versions a few songs including “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau.”  At some point in the sessions, however, the band decided to record some fully electric rock ‘n’ roll, for fun if nothing else.  One of these songs was “Fuck You,” a song written by Arizona/California band the Feederz.  Meat Puppets included “Fuck You” as part of a set of demos that included their acoustic songs as well.  A full-on psychedelic rocker, London agreed to scrap the acoustic sessions in favor of a full-length electric rock album after hearing “Fuck You,” with Leary and Meat Puppets as co-producers.[i]
The Record
      Before getting down to work in the studio, however, Meat Puppets went out on tour with Soul Asylum who were touring on their hit record, Grave Dancers Union.  Curt liked this as it seemed to provide a natural sort of break between the now aborted acoustic record and the now schedule full-on electric rock record.  He liked the laid back environment of working at The Warehouse in Memphis, too, which is where it was decided that the album would be recorded.
We were able to inhabit the place a little bit more.  I wasn’t uncomfortable at Capitol, I was just minding my own business cuz in the other room there’s Donna Summer. (personal interview, 2012)
Cris corroborates Curt’s assertion that The Warehouse in Memphis provided a more relaxed atmosphere for recording than what they had experienced a few years earlier in Hollywood, with one exception.
I was staying right out on the mighty Miss, in an extend-a-stay kind of thing, kind of a slightly beat-upish looking one, but with our balcony overlooking the river.  And the studio itself was in an old converted cotton warehouse.  So a big old building with big old wooden beams and a couple of studios in there, and the whole time we were doing it in the ‘B’ studio, there were these Memphis rappers who were like, you know, I mean rap.  The urban black experience.  There was some fucking hard-core kids in there.  It was like, “Alrighty then.  You kids aren’t just rapping about guns, you have them.” (Cris, personal interview, 2012)
Curt, however, suggests that the band’s relationship with the rappers was congenial to the point of playing basketball together.
There was more rap, the Bar-Kays were in one room.  In the others were local dudes, rappers, like Al Kapone and his posse, Skinny Pimp, and 211.  We would play basketball with these guys, play a lot of ping pong, lots of basketball because they have basketball inside.  It was an old cotton warehouse so the main area was this warehouse, and then the partitioned off studio spaces, but the main area was vast so you could play basketball in there. (Curt, personal interview, 2012)
      Another advantage to being in Memphis with Paul at the helm was the lack of direct label supervision.  The band and Leary were given money and told to make a record.  There was the occasional visit by Laurie Harbaugh, the A&R person charged with mediating between the band and the label, ”So we had to be careful and not look like we were wasting time” (Curt, personal interview, 2012).
      By the time the band went into the studio to record Too High to Die, in May of 1993, Cris, Curt, and Derrick were keenly aware that London Records would like them to make a grunge/alternative album.  And they weren’t necessarily averse to the idea, either.  They were, after all, professional rock musicians trying to make a living doing what they loved.  The key, of course, was to make the record that they wanted while also pleasing the label executives.  Curt, especially, was looking to make a Meat Puppets’ record that would fit in with the current genre du jour without compromising his indie ethics:  “I was definitely aware of what was being played.  And what could I do that wouldn’t hurt my feelings to make that happen” (personal interview, 2012).
      The answer the above quandary, for Curt, was AC/DC and 1970’s hard rock:
I saw how those productions were mirroring the basic setup that AC/DC had done, or Deep Purple sort of stuff, seventies rock that we heard on the radio a lot.  And I was just like, “That’ll be cool.  That’ll work with this stuff.” (personal interview, 2012)
And Curt knew how that was done:
You layer these rhythm guitars, you know, not too many of them but definitely kind of pillar them on each side and make the drums and bass heavy.  Pretty simple stuff really.  Putting a rhythm here, and here’s your lead, kind of identical tracks, and splitting them for the rhythms and making it loud.  I just made it a heavier rock album. (personal interview, 2012)
      The result of a laidback studio, a producer who was practically a member of the band, the lack of direct label supervision, and Curt figuring out how to make a grunge/alternative record was, as Derrick puts it, “the best sessions we had ever done” (Derrick, personal interview, 2012).  Cris agrees, saying, “The cool thing about Too High to Die is that it was completely the record that we wanted to make” (Cris, personal interview, 2012).
      There were eight months in between the recording of To High to Die and its release and the band kept busy by playing live shows in and around Phoenix and touring, and London Records kept busy by finding ways to market the record.  During this time there were a few events that led to what would end up being Meat Puppets’ most successful commercial album.  Two important things happened in October of 1993 that got the ball rolling.  First, the band played Wavefest, a one-day rock music festival put on by radio station 96Wave in Charleston, South Carolina that drew in the tens of thousands.  And not only did they play Wavefest on October 3, 1993, they headlined with Hootie and the Blowfish opening.
The record company got independent radio consultant types to come down.  And here’s where you start seeing how the in-house thing works.  They outsource these people who have a reputation.  They get paid.  They go back with their endorsements to radio stations and go, “You should push this song.”  They get paid for each station that adds it, and they make a lot of money.  They came to that show and we blew it out so they hopped on to endorse what we were doing.  That was a big thing. (Curt, personal interview 2012)
Here, then, is where the label starts to get behind the new album in a real way.  Independent radio promotions people, hired by the label to check out the band, gave a big thumbs up, telling London Records that Meat Puppets were a band worth pushing.
      Serendipitusly, one month before Wavefest, in September of ’93, Nirvana released the follow-up to their smash-hit Nevermind, In Utero.  Just as Forbidden Places and Nevermind were released within two months of each other, the bands’ next two albums were released within four months of each other (this time, though, In Utero is released first).  Meat Puppets and Nirvana’s paths cross again right after Wavefest when Nirvana invites Meat Puppets to open a week’s worth of concert dates on their tour.  For this tour Nirvana invited a number of their favorite bands, bands that had undoubtedly been influences upon Nirvana, to open for them.  Breeders, Half Japanese, Jawbreaker, Mudhoney, and the standup comedian Bobcat Goldthwait each spent roughly a week with Nirvana.  Meat Puppets time began on October 27 in Kalamazoo, Michigan and ended November 5 in Amherst, New York.  This invitation to tour with Nirvana was another sign for London Records that Meat Puppets might be a band worth pushing.  If the world’s most popular rock band gave Meat Puppets a thumbs-up, then their fans might also chip in and buy some records.
What comes after their stint on the Nirvana tour, however, elevates Meat Puppets to full-push level.  The stories about how it happens vary a little, but they all suggest that during some after show partying (A) Kurt Cobain asked Curt and Cris to teach him to play some of their classic Meat Puppets II songs so he could play them on Nirvana’s upcoming MTV Unplugged special, but (B) Curt and Cris convinced Cobain that it would work better for them to actually show up to the show and play the songs with Nirvana.  Cobain thought it was a great idea.  The songs were technically challenging and he didn’t have a lot of free time to learn them, he would sing and Curt, Cris, Krist Noveselic, and Dave Grohl would play.  However it was arranged, rumor has it that MTV wasn’t happy with Kurt’s choice of performers, Curt and Cris went on stage with Nirvana and played three songs (“Plateau,” “Lake of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”) on November 18.  A month later, on December 14, the show aired on MTV.
A final piece of the puzzle for London Records in deciding to embark on a full-on marketing campaign for Meat Puppets’ new record was the discovery of a radio friendly single, “Backwater.”  The push for the song as a single, according to Cris, began back in early October of ’93 at Wavefest, the show mentioned earlier at which some big wig radio promoters caught the band’s show.
These guys saw the set and said, “These guys are rockstars!”  And they made the record company take another look at us, made somebody else at the record company come and take a look at the record.  One of them heard “Backwater” and decided that song was something.  So they made that the single. (personal interview, 2012)
“That started spreading a little bit,” agrees Curt, “like, ‘Yeah, “Backwater”.’  That’s when our manager was like, ‘Oh, that’s radio ready’” (personal interview, 2012).  Derrick concurs:
Then they started putting out “Backwater” to DJs and started getting feedback from them.  They liked it.  And they began to call in their various and sundry favors to get us airplay. (personal interview)
      And that was it.  The combination of industry consultant types pushing “Backwater,” a strong performance at Wavefest, and slots on Nirvana’s In Utero tour and MTV Unplugged sealed the deal.  London Records moved Meat Puppets’ new record to the top of their Spring ’94 promotion queue.
All these things started adding up.  You could at that point say “Nirvana” and it would turn heads.  We had the consultants on board and the promoters, and then everybody at the record company in their kind of herd-like fashion was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  It’s ok to go over here.  The herd is going over here.  You don’t want to be stuck out there by yourself.”  So by the time it came out in January ’94 everybody was pretty into it. (Curt, personal interview, 2012)
      With a firm decision made to push the record, London Records came up with a couple of promotional ideas that, in the first instance, was unique for a Meat Puppets’ record and, in the second, rubbed the band the wrong way.  First, Too High to Die is the only Meat Puppets record to this day that prominently features photographs of the band on its cover.  All other Meat Puppets’ records feature pieces of art by the band or relatives of Curt, Cris, and Derrick.  And though most of their records do have a picture of the band somewhere on the cover or inner sleeve, the close-up pink-tinted image of a dress-wearing Curt on this record smacks of an idea whose genesis was at an administrative level higher than the band itself.
While Curt confirms this, that the label was against using an art piece for the cover, he also says that he wasn’t upset by the labels request to use a photo.  For one thing, the label, says Curt, “spent an arm and a leg on that session,” using Michael Halsband, a credentialed photographer Curt would turn to again ten years later on his collaboration with Bud Gaugh (Sublime) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) called Eyes Adrift.  And while Curt remembers the dress wearing to be Halsband’s idea, Cris says it was the band’s.
That was us.  That was us just farting around.  That was a photo shoot we did up in Sedona.  They didn’t ask us to do that.  That was just a photo shoot we had done farting around with dresses on. (personal interview, 2012).
It was the record label’s idea, though, says Cris, to tint the cover image pink.
Overall, though, as Curt states, the band was okay with putting a photo on the record.  After all, the band was allowed to choose the final picture and the label was showing all signs that they would push this record harder than any other Meat Puppets had released, and this commitment showed in the professionalism of the photo shoot.
I didn’t really mind because I was glad the record was coming out, and they let us pick the photo.  We spent a lot of money.  We spent probably a week shooting all around Phoenix and then went up to Sedona.  It was definitely a whole shit load of pictures taken and some really cool stuff. (personal interview, 2012).
      A second promotional strategy employed by the label was to solicit testimonials from prominent rockers of the time as to Meat Puppets’ influence upon them.  Pasted on the jewel box of every new Too High to Die disc were the following two quotes:
The purpose of quotes from Cobain (Nirvana) and Pirner (Soul Asylum) was, of course, to promote Meat Puppets as progenitors of alternative rock.  London put these testimonials on the record without consulting the band, and the band wasn’t too happy about it but, as with their acquiescence to the album photo, at this point they were committed to doing whatever the label thought was best to market the band:  “We were disgusted by the label putting quotes from other artists on our records, but at that point we were going to do whatever” (Derrick, personal interview , 2012).  Curt sums it up well when he says that he voiced his concern to the label, but was convinced it was in his band’s best interest to play along:
I think that’s the only time I ever said anything.  I was like, “Oh really.  That’s so cheesy.”
And they were like, “No.  It’s just respect and don’t tell us how to do our business.”
And I was like, “Oh I get you.  You’re trying to sell it.” (personal interview, 2012)
What Others Say About the Record
      Meat Puppets made the record they wanted and they made some compromises with London in order to get their record to the market and have it promoted at the highest levels.  Too High to Die was released on January 25, 1994.  It was certified Gold nine months later and is still the band’s best selling record.  As with most records that sell well, critical response to Too High to Die was mixed, more so than any other record they had made.
      On the positive side, there are many who consider Too High to Die to be a “perfect record” ( and “the perfect album” (  These are reviewers who judge the record on its own terms, as opposed to comparing it to the band’s entire catalogue.  Some consider it to be “almost flawless” (, having “very few flaws” ( with “not a bum note on the album” (  It’s “superb” (, an “amazing feat” (, and “epic” (, a record “No Modern Rock enthusiast should be without” (  One writer suggested the album’s semi-precious nature when he wrote that, “I would just wig out if my copy was lost or stolen. Nothing else, just completely flip” (
      While some writers positively reviewed Too High to Die on its own merits, others compared it to their output of the last thirteen years.  For instance, Jed Leigh Mosenfelder writes that the record is the band’s “most solid effort to date” (, while another reviewer suggests Too High to Die is “the best work you’ll ever hear out of the Meat Puppets” (  Finally, Benjamin Ricci tells us that the album contains the bands “most listenable. . .songs to date” (
      Too High to Die also received its share of negative reviews, probably more so than their other records because of its popularity.  While some reviewers simply did not like much of the record, calling it “real tripe” (, and others didn’t like it because, well, “Alternative. Sucks.” and “a band like the freakin’ Meat Puppets defines everything bad about that broad genre” ( the most common criticism of the record seems to stem from reviewers’ disappointment at its general lack of creative material, a criticism that probably comes from the reviewers’ high expectations of the band’s creativity based on its previous seven LPs.  Mark Prindle, for instance, writes that the album has “few surprises” and is “generic” ( while another writer suggests songs on the album are “formless” and draw on “aimlessly” (  Again, it seems logical that many of these negative reviews stem from the fact that the album sold many copies; it’s a valid hypothesis that many of the reviewers had never heard of Meat Puppets before Nirvana Unplugged and “Backwater.”  C’est la vie.
      Some reviews mentioned Curt’s guitar playing on Too High to Die.  Curt’s guitar on the album is described as “buzzing,” “moody and atmospheric,” “rugged and dark” (, “blistering” (, and “a guitar flavor that can’t be described” (  But even Curt’s guitar suffers criticism on this album.  Mark Prindle states that the record is full of “(j)ust a bunch of over-‘heroic’ guitar riffs that are okay, I suppose” (
      There were still, of course, the usual jabs at Curt’s vocals, even though he took a few voice lessons in preparation for the record.  One reviewer, for instance, writes that the song “Why?” might have worked, “if Curt could sing” (, while another mentions how his vocals “rasp and crack beyond forgiveness” (
      As per the discipline, reviewers did their best to fit Too High to Die into an already established and easily recognizable genre.  But it wasn’t easy to do.  On the one hand, in line with the contemporary popularity of grunge, the album is seen as a “competent alternative album” (  On the other hand, numerous writers recognized a definite country and/or folk element to the record.  It is variously described as punk-country, country rock, having a country twang, folk rock, folk pop, pseudo folk, it has songs that “lean very much to the folk side” ( with a folk harmony and folky twinge.
      Finally, some reviewers fell back upon the only solid, although admittedly general, genre classification that any Meat Puppets’ record can accurately have, “rock.”  It is reviewed as solid rock, terrific rock, hard rocking, having hard rock songs.
      Some reviewers point out the record’s commercial success, mentioning that it went gold while others paid special attention to those testimonial stickers placed on the CD jewel cases.  Still others focused on the influence that Meat Puppets’ appearance on Nirvana Unplugged had on the solid sales of Too High to Die.
      “And then, God said ‘Let there be Backwater’” (  This statement represents a main focus of many reviewers, “Backwater.”  Almost universally writers praised this song.  Some focused on its “beautiful guitar work” (, while others mentioned its “super-trippy video” (  Whatever the focus, most reviewers liked “Backwater.”  Even Metal Misfit, from, the writer that mentions how much he hates alternative and how Meat Puppets are a prime example of his hatred of alternative, states that there is “ONE positive thing about this album, “Backwater” is a really good song.” (
      Despite the delays in making the record and the frustrations Curt, Cris, and Derrick felt toward the executives at London Records, all three Meat Puppets agree that Too High to Die was the record they wanted to make.  Once the recording began they were largely left alone.  The studio and lodgings were comfortable and they made the record with an old friend, Paul Leary.  As already mentioned, a month before the record’s release Nirvana Unplugged aired on MTV.  Shortly after this Kurt Cobain killed himself, no doubt influencing sales of Too High to Die in a positive direction.  These events, combined with tours with Stone Temple Pilots and Blind Melon and the radio success of “Backwater” led to the best selling record of the band’s career.  Too High to Die went Gold in October, 1993.
      But success wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  These same tours and the success they engendered brought the band into contact with the dark side of rock and roll groupies.  After show parties were filled with the worst kind of “fun,” and Cris chose to indulge wholeheartedly in the omnipresent drug taking that accompanied them.  It was during this time also that the Kirkwood’s mother became seriously ill and, eventually, died.  Cris was her main caretaker and her death hit him hard.  He chose even more drugs as his companion in her wake.
      The ups and downs of these last couple years of the original Meat Puppets are evident in their last record together.  Darkness, death, and “no fun” permeate No Joke! like no other record they made prior to or after.  The next chapter looks at these last turbulent months.

[i] “Fuck You” didn’t make it on to Too High to Die, however it was released as part of a promo single for “Backwater.” (London, 1993, CDP 1118)