The Desert Trilogy: Out My Way, Mirage, and Huevos
After a year of hard touring in support of Up on the Sun, Meat Puppets recorded and released Out My Way in the Spring of 1986, a six-song EP which was meant to be a stop-gap record, one which they could tour on for a few months before recording a proper full-length follow-up to their third LP. A broken finger, however, forced the band to take some time off in 1986 and Out My Way had to stand on its own. In the Fall of ’86 and into the Spring of ’87 they recorded and released Mirage, a full-blown, detail-oriented, studio album. Frustrated with their inability to play the songs from Mirage live, and with a host of new live-friendly tunes written and ready, they turned right around and recorded and released Huevos in the Fall of ’87; two full-length records in one year.
I put these records together in one chapter because they have some important things in common. First, all three were recorded in Phoenix. The first time they had done this, and they wouldn’t record in their hometown again until No Joke! in 1995. Two of the three records (Out My Way and Mirage) were recorded at the same studio, and all three were recorded by Steve Escallier, an engineer with big-name major label credentials. Finally, artistically, these three records are of a piece. The first, Out My Way, finds the band opening up and extending the pop sensibilities that they first put down on Up on the Sun, but the songs on this latter record feel more like jams than tight-knit pop songs. Mirage is the band’s psychedelic studio epic; a lot of time and effort were spent in the studio getting the songs just right. Finally, Huevos finds the band at arguably their rocking best, playing live in the studio without too much concern about technical or mechanical flaws. The three records make-up a career transition trilogy taking them from their classically naïve early period into their major label mainstream careerist period.
Meat Puppets toured the U.S. hard after the release of their third full-length record, Up on the Sun, in March, 1985. Upon coming home from touring it hit them, they were a working rock band and needed to start acting like one. Furthermore, Curt was the father of toddling twins and the band was his job, his way to support them. With this careerist mindset front and center in their heads, Curt, Cris, and Derrick dedicated themselves to working on the band not just as an art project, but as a job. They paid more attention, for instance, to the business end of things. They rehearsed more often and got together every day even when not rehearsing.
Importantly for their career legacy, one area of their career that they consciously focused on improving was their live shows. And improve they did. From ’85-’87 or so, Meat Puppets went from being a really good live act to a devastatingly good one. Dave Schools, bassist for Widespread Panic, talks about seeing them around 1986 on “one of those raucous nights, where there was slop rock, ridiculous covers, caterwauling, and blistering guitar solos. Trademark Meat Puppets” (Prato 2013, p. 133). Similarly, Troy Meiss (future second guitarist with the band) remembers seeing them about a year later on “one of those nights that was a total foray into beautiful depravity and debauchery” (Prato 2013, pp. 152-53).
By 1986, with five years of constant touring, one EP, and three LPs under their belts, Curt, Cris, and Derrick were brimming with confidence. Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun both received high critical accolades and the audiences at their live shows had, according to one observer, tripled in size (Prato 2012, p. 131). They were a band that, in the face of rave critical success and decent commercial success (for an indie label band), were entering a career phase in which they knew what they wanted (artistically, anyway) and knew how to go about getting it.
Meat Puppets had a plan. They wanted to keep touring and playing live; after all, they were becoming very good at it. But they also knew that professional rock bands made a record a year and they now definitely saw themselves as a professional rock band. Their plan was to release an EP to assuage the critics, tour for a few months to satisfy themselves and their fans, and then record an LP. Another part of the plan was that these things would be done in a way that would enable Curt to be as involved of a father as he could. They would also break from SST Records tradition and make the records themselves, selecting their own studios and engineers, and produce the records themselves. They decided to forsake recording in California and find a studio and recording engineer in their hometown of Phoenix.
Enacting the above mentioned plan, Meat Puppets booked time at Chaton Studio in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in March, 1986, using “major label” recording engineer Steve Escallier to run the boards. Out My Way was released soon after, in Spring 1986. However, while touring for the record a roadie shut Curt’s finger in the van door, breaking it. The band’s plan was derailed, at least until Curt’s finger could heal.
Curt kept busy during the band’s time off from touring by writing songs and acquiring new electronic gadgets for use in the studio. And by the fall of 1986 he had a host of songs ready to record (two albums worth, as it would turn out). Once again they would use Chaton Studio in Paradise Valley and once again they hired Steve Escallier as engineer, this time giving him co-production credits on the back album cover. However, they would spend as much time making this record as they would on virtually any album before or since, spending time in Chaton through the early spring of 1987. Mirage was released in April, 1987.
The band members found the heavily produced songs from Mirage hard to play live, and since they still had an album worth of unrecorded songs, they went back into the studio a mere six months after recording Mirage to record its follow-up, Huevos. Recorded and mixed in just five days in August, 1987, Huevos is a ZZ Top influenced fun-to-play-live record that found Meat Puppets back to their loose-rocking selves. Following in-step with Out My Way and Mirage, Steve Escallier was again employed to record Huevos, but this time they chose Pantheon Studios (though still in Paradise Valley) over Chaton.
Huevos capped an important stage in the history of Meat Puppets. It was a stage in which the band took full control of their career, both artistically and commercially. They made three records which, artistically, found them exploring terrains they had yet to explore: fine-tuned noodle-jamming on Out My Way, extremely focused studio manipulation on Mirage, and straight-out live recorded boogie rock on Huevos. From a business perspective they made these records the way they wanted, in Phoenix in their own time.
Unfortunately for the band, the desert trilogy of records didn’t go over too well artistically or commercially. Whereas their fan base expanded exponentially from Meat Puppets II up through Out My Way, after this they seemed to hit a commercial ceiling; their records were selling at a steady but not increasing rate. As I’ll show a bit later, they even began to lose a few fans during this period, at least in the record market (their live shows would continue to draw decent though, again, not necessarily increasing crowds). Critically, these three records drew, for the first time, mixed reviews. Because the band chose to make records that they wanted to make rather than following some sorts of market trends, the critics didn’t know what to think, they seemed confused. Some critics found the records bad and self-indulgent, others found them self-indulgent and artistically brilliant. Others just lost interest.
The writing was on the wall. If Meat Puppets wanted to be a viable mainstream commercial success they would have to leave the indie rock world. After the desert trilogy they would release one more album, Monsters, on SST Records (though they would try to get it to the majors) and then jump ship to boats on bigger oceans.
Out My Way
As mentioned, coming off the success of Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, Curt, Cris, and Derrick had a plan; a professional plan. They were now a band with a career, and they were going to act like it. They had been touring hard throughout 1985 and early ’86, wanted some new songs to tour on, but hadn’t had time to put enough together for a full LP. Instead, they thought, they would record and release and EP, tour for a couple more months while gathering more original material, and then record and release an LP.
For step one, the EP, they booked time in March at Chaton Studio, “a converted guest house behind the home of a wealthy Paradise Valley couple” (Derrick Blog, 2012). It was also the first record they recorded with Steve Escallier as engineer. Escallier was a relatively high-profile engineer at the time having worked in various capacities on albums by the likes of the Doors to Cheech and Chong, Burt Bacharach to the Grateful Dead, and Glen Campbell to Alice Cooper. But, according to a current website from a studio at which he now works, Escallier has always had a passion for recording “aspiring new artists” (http://www.qualityrecordinghawaii.com/engineer.html).
Two factors played an important role in the band choosing to stay in Phoenix to record the record and to use an engineer outside of Spot at SST Records. First and foremost was that Curt had his hands full raising twin toddlers. Staying close to home, of course, allowed him maximum father time (at least as much as a person who tours for a career can have). Second, the band decided to take things into their own hands, to do it themselves. They chose the studio, they chose the engineer, they chose the time frame for recording the record. In short, the members of Meat Puppets chose to take control of their careers.
In spite of their DIY and punk pretensions and history, choosing Escallier to engineer shows that the members of Meat Puppets had mainstream aspirations and were looking for ways to break out of the indie world and into the popular rock world. To this end the band put a lot of time into the recording and into other band (live shows, business aspects) activities. Curt says that he continued to progress in his understanding of studio techniques, and on Out My Way he figured-out how to make a “live sounding” studio record. For his part, says Derrick, he used a click-track in the studio for the first time; this being a nod to the creation of a more professional sounding record.
As for the record itself, Derrick suggests on his blog that the songs were technically difficult. The fact that Cris and Curt play so well on the album, he writes, shows how they were becoming top-rate rock musicians. Derrick, on the other hand, says that he never really warmed-up t the songs. None-the-less, the record showed, to the band members themselves if to no one else, that they could conjure the discipline it takes to make a professional record. In the end, writes Derrick, Curt and Cris were proud of the record, Derrick was “perplexed” (Bostrom blog, 2012).
Looking back, Curt says, the band knew that the record wouldn’t sell. For one thing, the loping country funk of an album with songs that all clocked-in at over four minutes (except for “Good Golly Miss Molly”) wasn’t really radio-friendly. Furthermore, being on SST and making the record themselves meant little to no label push would be behind the album; radio stations, the driving force behind record sales at the time, probably didn’t know it even existed. This, of course, was artistically liberating for Curt in his songwriting and arranging. He could make a professional sounding record that sounded like he wanted, without concern that they would have to please label executives whose interests were on the bottom-line of financial success.
What Others Say
For whatever reasons, it seems a number of Meat Puppets fans stopped paying attention to their records after the incredible one-two punch of Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun. Prato quotes a few people in his book, including Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers (who would co-produce a couple Meat Puppets records in the early nineties), who say they simply stopped listening after those two records. Derrick also mentions that as the three records that make-up the desert trilogy came out it became apparent that they had hit a plateau in record sales.
Even with the commercial eddy that Meat Puppets hit after Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, reviews of Out My Way are generally positive, glowing even. Trouser Press, for example, calls it “superior” (T.P.). Wilson and Allroy praise its “brilliant tunes” and suggest the only weakness on the record is that it is “too short” (w&a), and Brooklyn Rocks says there “isn’t a bum track on the disc” (BR). A general consensus also emerges in the reviews of the record’s diverse collection of songs and that it is an album that was like nothing Meat Puppets had done before. This had become a regular comment about the band by this point, and it would follow the band for the rest of their career. Meat Puppets were a band that constantly changed genres and sounds, not only from album to album, but from song to song within an album. Genres identified on Out My Way included punk, traditional rock, ZZ Top, pop rock, hippy music, John Fogerty, cow punk, high-speed fifties rock, sped-up country, straight forward seventies country rock, funk, and psychedelia, all within six songs!
There were almost no negative reviews save Mark Prindle’s comment that the album consisted of “bad songwriting.” In the same review, however, Prindle points out the album’s “terrific guitars” and “strong mix” while saying that it sounds “confident and professional.”
An interesting focus of virtually every review of the record had to do with its final cut, a punked-up version of the Little Richard classic “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Long included in their live sets, Derrick suggests that this song was added-on to the record as “a tacit admission to the paucity of our offerings” (Derrick blog); they needed something more to fill-out the record (even to just make it into an EP). For whatever reason, probably because its’ frenetic freak-out pace stood in stark contrast to the more bucolic feel of the other five songs, “Good Golly Miss Molly” drew the attention of the critics. While Mark Prindle felt that the song was, well, “bad,” and the Rolling Stone Album Guide referred to it as “pure gimmickry,” others gave it a more favorable review. The All Music Guide called it “explosive” while Wilson and Allroy say it is “hilarious,” and Trouser Press labeled it a “crazed rave-up.”
With Curt’s finger healed the band once again took up residency at Chaton Studio, once again employing Stever Escallier as engineer, although on Mirage (as well as on the next one, Huevos) Escallier is given co-producer as well as engineering credit whereas on Out My Way he only receives the latter. This time around they would take their time, spending three months in the Winter of ’86-’87 making the record, about as much time as they would spend on any record before or since. The result was what Curt calls a “pure studio album” and Derrick has alternately referred to as the band’s “psychedelic epic” and, in reference to the Brian Wilson produced Beach Boys class, their Pet Sounds.
Staying in Phoenix to record Mirage once again allowed Curt to engage in his fathering duties as well as allowed Cris and Derrick a bit of rest from touring. It also allowed the band to be more meticulous in the production of the record. In his time off from touring Curt wrote a lot of new songs. Indeed, as we’ll see, too many to put on one record. So Curt and the band had to choose which songs to put on Mirage and which to leave off. Also, Curt brought in a Roland Guitar Synthesizer for the record while Derrick had a new set of Midi drums. New gadgets meant new sounds, but also meant time had to be taken to figure-out how to best utilize them.
One thing is certain, at this point in time Meat Puppets were formidable musicians with boundless imaginations. They did want commercial success but they had no interest in recreating their earlier, critically acclaimed records in the name of future sales. This combination of exceptional musicianship, time off of the road to heal, and a lot of time in the studio resulted in a thickly-layered, musically dense record. The result was a curveball of a record that soured some of the band’s fans. Record sales didn’t increase as they’d hoped (something that would indicate a career on the upswing rather than flat lined). Overall, however, consistent with their “be true to thyself” artistic spirit, Curt and Cris were proud of the record while Derrick, on the other hand felt it was “flawed,” a career misstep.
Nevertheless, writes Derrick in his blog, the band hunkered-down. They worked harder on their live show during this period. They rehearsed more. Derrick, who was starting to feel tired both toward the end of individual shows and as tours drew on for weeks on end, started exercising, doing aerobics. Curt, Cris, and Derrick got together every day, sometimes rehearsing, sometimes focusing on band business. If they were going to be professional then they were going to have to act professional.
What Others Say
For the most part, those who’ve written about Mirage like it. At the time when it was released, based upon the one available review of the record from 1987, Joe Sasfy wrote that it is their finest record. Significantly, he highlights the typically wide-range of styles on the record, not as detracting and unfocused, but as a positive, as something of their own. In a good way, the record “doesn’t resolve the confusion” evident in their first four records, it “doesn’t tie up loose ends.” Mirage, wrote Sasfy, is “real psychedelia” reminiscent of “Hendrix at his most sensual.”
Criticisms leveled at the record are of a few sorts: production, songwriting, and vocals. Mark Prindle, for instance, writes that the production is empty and unsympathetic, while the Brooklyn Rocks accuses it of having a dated, ‘80s sound. Brooklyn Rocks also claims the record lacks the off-kilter charm of their earlier works, creating an album that is, well, boring. As for the vocals, Prindle lists them as simply bad, flat, hitting the wrong notes. Finally, Trouser Press comments on Curt’s “cringeably tuneless singing.”
Negative reviews of Mirage, however, are in the distinct minority; most applaud the record. Some see it as a return to Up on the Sun, a record of poppy yet intricately constructed rock/country songs. The record is described as melancholy, “drifting, yet concise”; “surreal, sad, and humorous.” It’s seen as “audaciously dense and disarmingly supple.” “Every song is great,” exclaims one writer. It contains some of their best material and is, positively, ridiculous and thought provoking.
The writers find Mirage a bit hard to categorize, placing it alongside, inside, and outside a number of conventional pop music genres. One writer, after hailing the record for its “genre bending” uniqueness manages to categorize it as punk, folk, and psychedelic (the latter, a characterization mentioned by a number of writers) while s heard it as straight country. Some writers, of course, compare the record (and the band, for that matter) to other artist in an attempt to translate what they hear on the record into printed media: Chet Atkins, Robert Fripp, King Crimson, Spin Doctors, and Dire Straits (the last three being used derogatorily) are a few artists to whom the music on Mirage is compared.
As should be the case, many reviews focused on the level of musicianship exhibited on the record, especially Curt’s guitar playing. They mention his intricate finger-picking and plectrum work as being relaxed and technically accomplished. Curt is given dues as a “Travis-picker,” referring to Merle Travis, the Kentucky country and western artist known not only as the writer of “Sixteen Tons,” but as a uniquely gifted finger-picker. This focus on Curt’s finger-picking style accounts for those who see the album as a country music style effort. Generally, Curt’s guitar work is seen as impressive, fluid, and intimate.
While, as I already mentioned, some critics site Curt and Cris’s vocals as a weak point on the album, there are some who actually liked the singing. Weingarter, in the liner notes to the 1999 reissue of the record, writes that although the vocal harmonies are conventional, the fact that they sound “real” is endearing. Another writer likes that they had “cleaned-up” their vocals in comparison with their previous releases, while another writes that the vocals are “strong.”
Finally, a number of writers see Mirage as a landmark of sorts. One sees it as an artistic transition from the art pop of Up on the Sun to the heavier rock of Monsters. Another, following along with many who stopped listening to the band’s new records around this time, saw Mirage as Meat Puppets’ “last great record.” Another simply saw Mirage as the “culmination of the first stage” of the band’s career with, as just mentioned, a heavier, more rocking set of recordings to come.
“Huevos” means ‘balls’ in Spanish,” says Cris in Greg Prato’s Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets (2012). “We called it ‘Huevos’ because we had the balls to put out two records in one year” (p. 145). In just five days in August of 1987, four months after the release of Mirage, an album on which they’d spent a couple months recording, Meat Puppets recorded and mixed the tracks that would be released as Huevos; it was released in October, six months after Mirage. As the band tells it, there were a couple reasons for the quick recording and release of the record. One was that they didn’t like playing the Mirage songs live; it was a studio album replete with many layers of guitars and vocals. Second, Curt had written an abundance of songs during the rehabilitation of his broken finger, but the band had only recorded one album’s worth; they had enough songs to get a good start on another.
At this point in their career Meat Puppets were determined to “make it,” to succeed in the mainstream rock world. To this end they had put a lot of effort into Mirage, a tight and determined studio record. They had also become a formidable live band by this time. Future manager Dennis Polowski, in Prato’s book, suggests that every Meat Puppets’ show was the start of something new, the beginning of a new creative venture. At the same time (and in the same book), future second guitarist Troy Meiss remembers shows from this period as experiences in “beautiful depravity and debauchery” (Prato 2012, pp. 152-53). This is, of course, a compliment for a hard-rocking psychedelic country punk band.
At the same time that they wished for commercial success, however, the band was determined to mine their own artistic fields. They considered themselves artists, first, makers of exploitable product, second; they may have left the musical terrain of punk rock behind a few albums earlier, but they retained the attitude. To this end, rather than put out a record that mimicked anything they’d done in the past (whether punk, country, or psychedelic) they put out a rocking blues record, not a lot of which were making it up the charts in 1987.
Curt, Cris, and Derrick were also a bit frustrated by the fact that they hadn’t yet found major label success. Two of their post-punk contemporaries – Hüsker Dü and the Replacements – had released major label records and a slew of other “indie” bands were set to do so in the next year or so. This frustration was another reason behind the quick recording and release of Huevos: they had put time and effort into Mirage without much commercial or critical success, why not go back to the formula of Meat Puppets II and, especially, Up on the Sun? They’d play it fast and loose on this record. Their fans may be a bit confused and the media may not understand what the band was up to, but Curt, Cris, and Derrick knew what they were doing. They were making a rock ‘n’ roll record that they would enjoy playing live.
As they had with the previous two records, Meat Puppets recorded Huevos in Phoenix (Scottsdale, precisely), but rather than Chaton Studio they used Pantheon. They also stuck with recording engineer Steve Escallier for a third time. As mentioned, however, rather than put a lot of time, money, and effort into it, they spent but five days in August to record and mix the entire record. Curt says the record was recorded live with no affectations, as opposed to the “fake-as-we-could-get-it sort of thing” they had done on Out My Way and Mirage (Prato 2012). They gave it to SST quickly and SST released it quickly.
Although Curt suggests artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ten Years After, and Muddy Waters are apparent on the record, there is an overwhelming consensus from insiders and the band themselves that Huevos is Meat Puppets ZZ Top record. The story goes that an interview and story with Curt in Guitar Player magazine included a couple of Curt’s drawings of Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s guitarist. Gibbons saw the article and dropped Curt a postcard claiming his admiration for Meat Puppets. Add to that the fact that Curt, Cris, and Derrick had gone to a few ZZ Top shows in those particular years (mid-80s) and Curt felt “it was time to pull that up” (Prato 2012, p. 146).
What Others Say
And the rock writers agree: Huevos is an homage to, if not a downright imitation of, ZZ Top. Wilson and Allroy point to the “screaming guitar, boogie bass, marching drums and macho vocals” in their comparison of Meat Puppets to ZZ Top. Brooklyn Rocks uses the “bluesy, riff-rock power trio sound” of Huevos as their comparison, while The Rolling Stone Album Guide calls the album “wholeheartedly imitative” of ZZ Top, with the “only musical difference between the two [bands] is Gibbons and Dusty Hill can both sing, and the Kirkwoods can’t.” Mark Prindle’s words on this subject are worth quoting at length:
ZZ Top. That's what everybody always says about this album, so I was hoping to be the voice of dissent and say "Not ZZ Top!" But such cannot be done. Because this album is VERY clearly intended to sound like an early ZZ Top record. There's just no way around it. The wimpy light dirty distortion is the same, the vocals are hoarse and Gibbonsy, the songwriting is all Texas boogie barre chords and bluesy riffs - even the album title fits right in with Fandango!, Tejas, El Loco, Tres Hombres and all those other damned pre-Eliminator ZZ Top album titles. But does it work? Can Curt Kirkwood's songwriting match up to the classics that are "Tush," "Just Got Paid," "Arrested For Driving While Blind" and "La Grange"? We will address this question when we return.
We're back, and the answer is no. There are no ZZ Top rock and roll classics on this LP. There ARE, however, a heck of a lot of "good ZZ Top non-hits." Which is to say that even though there might not be any "Tube Snake Boogie"s on here, there are plenty of "Pearl Necklace"s.
Similar to Prindle’s paragraphs just quoted, most reviews of Huevos are positive, focusing on the band’s return from studio gimmickry to live rock riffing. The All Music Guide praises their return to straight-ahead rock, suggesting it’s the band’s best set of songs since Up on the Sun, giving particular praise to Derrick’s lively drumming. And Wilson and Allroy refer to the music on Huevos as “serious rock.
There were, as with most of the band’s efforts at this point in their career, detractors, writers who didn’t much care for the record. Indeed, even Mark Prindle, who provides the lengthy positive report above, goes on to criticize the clichéd guitar and empty mix on Huevos, while also mentioned above, the Rolling Stone Album Guide criticized the Kirkwood’s singing (a criticism that has followed the band throughout their early career). The Rough Guide saw Huevos as a “doomed attempt” at raw rock, calling it unconvincing because Curt and Cris are “too good” as musicians to play this sort of basic blues.
With the release of Huevos in the fall of 1987 the Meat Puppets finished a phase of their career that included Out My Way in 1986 and Mirage in early ’87. It’s a phase that saw Curt, Cris, and Derrick hunker-down in their home town and concentrate on their craft, concentrate on being professional musicians in charge of their own careers. This was partly brought-on by the healing required after Curt broke his finger in ’86 which, because it put a stop to their touring for a few months, allowed him time to focus on writing rather than just playing. The result was a plethora of new material played-out over two full-length albums. One, Mirage, is a multi-layered psychedelic record so full of flowering melodies, running rhythms, and complex vocal arrangements that it was difficult for the band to play live. The other, Huevos, was a straight-forward blues rock album that was filled with songs they could rock live.
With the release of Huevos the Meat Puppets had released five full-length and one EP with the independent SST Records over six years, plus an EP with World Imitation Records which was later released on SST, and though they appreciated the creative and business freedom SST had afforded them they were more than ready to make the move to the majors. But that move was still two records away. First they would release Monsters, a record that ushers in a heavier musical phase for the band and, importantly, a seemingly more focused strategic plan for leaving the indies behind.
 “The original Chaton facility called Chaton Recordings was opened in Paradise Valley, AZ in 1973 by Ed and Marie Ravenscroft. Over the years their client list included: the Gin Blossoms, Ce Ce Peniston, Kenny Rogers, Judas Priest, Lyle Lovett, Paul McCartney, Alice Cooper and many, many others” (http://chatonstudios.com/?page_id=77). The original vinyl release of Out My Way states “Recorded at Chaton Studios, Phoenix” and the original vinyl release of Mirage states “Recorded at Chaton, Scottsdale.” Both rereleases of the list it as “Chaton Studio.” Derrick says that he was never aware of a distinction between “Chaton Studio” and “Chaton Recordings” (personal correspondence, 2013).
 I first fell for Meat Puppets in the Summer of 1986 when I heard, late at night, on “Listen to This,” a show broadcast late Sunday nights/early Monday mornings on San Diego’s 91X radio station, “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
 This review is available both online and on the 1999 Mirage reissue liner-notes.
 Thanks to Derrick Bostrom for pointing me to Merle, rather than Randy, Travis.