Meat Puppets I: “The Sound of a Lawn Mower in the Process of Choking to Death”
There was no album more mysterious to my friends and I than the first Meat Puppets LP. We’d listen to it for hours, scratching our heads and trying figure out what the fuck was going on.
We weren’t the brightest bunch, and we were wasted as the Manson Family, but the meaning of Meat Puppets I eluded the comprehension of brighter folks than the likes of us. The Meat Puppets’ Kirkwood brothers—guitarist and vocalist Curt and bassist and vocalist Cris–and drummer Derrick Bostrom were playing a kind of desert-influenced psychedelic hardcore that could only have come out of the American Southwest. But it wasn’t the music–which was great and so much more fascinating than 99.9 percent of the totally generic harcore that was cluttering up the record stores at the time–that mystified us.
What mystified us was why the Kirkwood brothers were singing like clogged-up lawnmowers. They certainly weren’t singing in human. It was hilarious. They made Darby Crash, that garbler extraordinaire, sound like Mel Torme. And DNA sound like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. What made it even more hilarious was that the album came with a lyric sheet, with real words, not a single one of which you could make out on the LP. It seemed like genius to us, this utterly useless lyric sheet, the ultimate Dadaist statement.
I recently got the opportunity to speak to Curt Kirkwood and Derrick Bostrom by phone, and to settle the mystery of the clogged-up lawnmower vocals once and for all. Not to mention to find out what the Meat Puppets 1 recording sessions were like–the band, or so legend has it, tripped all three days of the session–and to learn what it was like to play for the goonish likes of Black Flag’s and Suicidal Tendencies’ skinhead fans when you had long, bleach-blonde hair.
In the understatement of the year, Bostrom told me by phone that, “Some people really dig the album, some hate it.” If I recall correctly it was a Grade A room clearer, with only the people who’d listened to appreciable amounts of jazz skronk loving it. In an amusing moment, Bostrom said, “It’s certainly not one my wife enjoys. She was dutifully buying the albums to find out what I was all about, and when she heard Meat Puppets I she said ‘What the fuck is this?’ To my credit, I never tried to explain it to her.”
Malcolm McLaren said, “Rock’n’roll was getting up there, stepping out and creating the greatest possible imperfection.” That’s the way we looked at Meat Puppets I. As the amused and willful creation of the greatest possible imperfection, either as a pure surrealistic statement or as a hilarious fuck you to the hardcore scene, with its lyrics of deep personal and political import. On their first album Meat Puppets seemed to be saying this is what it all comes down to–so much beautiful, meaningless, unbearable noise.
There was no doubt the Meat Puppets were a strange and brilliant band—much like No Trend, they were going to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, audience expectations be damned. As Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore said on Derrick Bostrom’s webste Bostworld.com last year, “When they first started, [Meat Puppets] were just so fuckin’ weird. They were really twisted. They would come out and play a hundred songs, each one shorter than the last. Singing this Mickey Mouse gobbledy-gook. Then they’d break into a 20-minute Grateful Dead thing. The audience just did not know what to think of these guys. And they had long hair which was unheard of.”
But before we get to the meat of the matter first we have to go back a little, to when Curt Kirkwood started playing guitar back in the Kirkwood’s hometown of Phoenix. He told me, “It started in the fifth grade. I played clarinet but I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I picked up the guitar. I was probably 9 or 10. I didn’t play a lot in high school, I picked it up again my senior year. People were playing at school and I said I can play guitar. We’d play “Ridgetop” by Jesse Colin Young for like an hour straight. [A friend] turned me on to Steven Stills. I got turned onto Leo Kottke and The Grateful Dead. Keith Richards, he was pretty good. I saw Rod Stewart with The Faces. First concert I saw was David Bowie doing Diamond Dogs. I didn’t know that much about this stuff. I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was the kind of stuff in high school that I saw.
Then Curt played in a couple of cover bands. “My first band was Kili, it’s an Apache band that means lawyer. We wore powder blue suits and played mostly disco. “Crocodile Rock” was as close as we got to rock. That’s when I was 17. My next band was called Granite Leaf, more of a hard rock band. We played Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas. Straightforward cover bands.”
Phoenix was a no-joke town back then. According to Bostrom, “Band members got beat up by chicks when they played in redneck bars in Phoenix. In about 1980, a club opened that had bands from LA. Then other clubs opened. None of them stayed open very long. In 1977-79, if you got into a club to play, it was usually under false pretenses.”
SST advocate and writer Joe Carducci’s e-mailed me to say, “Curt Kirkwood was the young lead guitarist in a gigging Phoenix cover band while his older brother Cris had mastered the oblique improv approach of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. The brothers must’ve been getting bored or they would never have let their non-musician pal Derrick Bostrom convince them to form a punk band. The Kirkwoods used Derrick’s early rudimentary drum-rush to jettison their careful craftsmanship in favor of revving up the rougher aspects of seventies psychedelia that they figured might be relevant in a punk rock approach. They were correct.”
It’s not true that Bostrom was a non-musician; he and Cris Kirkwood were in a band called Atomic Bomb Club, and when that band dissolved, Cris and Bostrom began jamming with Curt. They considered calling their new band The Bastions of Immaturity but finally chose The Meat Puppets, after a song Curt had written by the same name.
Carducci’s calling The Meat Puppets a “punk band” broaches the question of what it was, exactly, The Meat Puppets were playing. Bostrom told me, “I wouldn’t call the album [Meat Puppets I] hardcore, people were coming at it from different directions.” Whereas Curt Kirkwood said of the phrase “psychedelic hardcore,” “That’s not a bad one, I could go with that. Hardcore was a pretty loosely thrown around term back then. Punk had the Mohawks and hardcore was the southern California scene with Black Flag Derrick said back then, ‘We’re not hardcore but we have a hard core.’”
As for Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore, he wrote to say, “Meat Puppets represented the “anti-hardcore” of bands like Butthole Surfers, Flipper, No Trend, and Culturcide, kids turned on by but quickly disillusioned with the early 80s Hardcore explosion, so they took it upon themselves to tweak, prod, or fuck with the punk conformists. You either got it or you didn’t. I remember [the Meat Puppets] onstage totally baffling the DC punkers with the shroomed-out Kirkwoods playing in long hair superfast but then came Curt spewing his shrill…” He adds, “I always thought that those two SST Blasting Concept comps–the first had the Puppets’ deconstruction of “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and on the second they destroyed “I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Foghat–was like the most punk rock thing one could do at the time.”
Meat Puppets I was actually the band’s second recording experience. The Puppet’s first was the 5-song EP “In a Car,” recorded in 1981. “In a Car” was recorded hassle free, according to Bostrom: “The first EP was produced by people who got us [World Imitations Records] and it was smooth sailing.”
Not so with the Meat Puppets I sessions, which were held in November 1981 at Unicorn Records in Hollywood. Bostrom and Kirkwood have very different memories of the environment around Unicorn. Bostrom recalls, “There were a lot of skinhead kids around cuz they were living in the studios. These kids were giving us the stink eye because we had long hair and everything.” Whereas Kirkwood doesn’t remember any skinheads, but that, “Unicorn was kind of a weird vibe. Santa Monica in the eighties. Sailors and cowboys and what not. A lively scene back then.”
But what made the Unicorn experience so difficult was the fact that the Kirkwood brothers were “insane” (Curt’s word) on psychedelics the whole three days. As Bostrom remembers it, “If I recall correctly the brothers had some psychedelics that they did not split with me, so they were disoriented during the session and I was straight. They were very frustrated, which made me frustrated. They couldn’t get comfortable wearing headphones so we set up just like we would live. Only occasionally did we turn up the guitar and bass amps. When I think of that album, I think of how difficult it was to record because the guys were so high.”
And acid (or psilocybin mushrooms, as some people contend) wasn’t the only illegal drug around. I tracked down Spot, and he wrote me to say he working on a project of his own and doesn’t want to fritter away all his great material here and there. “I will say, however,” he added, “that if too many details of this session are documented, the country would likely see a widespread repeal of laws legalizing marijuana usage.”
I ask Curt what he meant by saying the band was insane during the making of Meat Puppets I and he answered, “We were pretty stoned the whole time. Not really knowing what to do. Nobody was saying much. I don’t remember who recorded it, Ed Barger or Spot. He did a mix and Spot did a mix and we liked that one better so we didn’t hear much from [Barger] after that. We stayed pretty looped the whole time, pretty lit, and nobody was giving us any pointers. We really didn’t know what we were doing.”
I spent years thinking Curt Kirkwood sang all the songs on the album, when in fact brother Cris sings three: “Melon’s Rising,” “Electromud,” and “The Goldmine.” And Bostrom wrote, in his estimation, “90 percent of the lyrics.” The band recorded two non-originals, Bob Nolan’s “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and the traditional “Walking Boss,” and they’re the only songs on the LP where you can actually make out the occasional word.
Joe Carducci claimed that, “Spot set up a live two-track mix to catch the band’s between-song noodlings. Two of which went on the album: “Walking Boss,” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.”
However, Curt Kirkwood disagreed, saying, “We played “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Walking Boss” a lot. We meant to put them on the record. We pretty much recorded what we played. I don’t know why we didn’t put ‘Franklin’s Tower’”—their wonderful Grateful Dead cover that was included on the expanded Rykodisc reissue of Meat Puppets I in 1999—“on there.”
Finally, we get to the vocals. When I submit to Bostrom that they sound like a clogged-up lawnmower, he makes an interesting and telling distinction: “It’s not a clogged-up lawnmower, it’s a lawnmower in the process of unclogging itself. There’s a catharsis involved here. We were fans of the Germs and those guys were doing a lot of garbled vocals. Curt’s vocals have always been weaker than his guitar playing, but it wouldn’t be fun for me to sing my own lyrics because it would be more didactic than mystifying.”
Kirkwood is more circumspect. “Yea, I was just being expressive, going beyond the words. Derrick wrote the words, kind of a comic book thing. There was a sense of humor for sure, and a disregard, I always felt my singing was more like Mick Jagger, only more extreme. I listen to it now and I wonder what was I thinking. It was just fun to do. It felt good to do it. There was no kind of political statement involved. I kinda thought well whatever scene we’re part of, a lot of other bands had statements, and it was political or a personal stance, and I just wanted to avoid any kind of determination about what it was we were saying, myself included.”
When I ask Kirkwood about critic Robert Christgau’s description of the first Meat Puppets album—to wit, “These Phoenix boys not only realize L.A. punk’s no-wave proclivities in brief, doomy noise songs that sound like DNA meeting the Marx Brothers, they cover “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” he bristles a little. He called the review “Maybe a little snide… You say Marx Brothers and you think antics and farce. I was never trying to be DNA. I’d read about them, I didn’t know who they were. Besides, I was more of a Three Stooges guy.” And so much for Bobby Christgau.
I ask Kirkwood whether he found including the lyric sheet funny—it always made my friends and I laugh—and whether it was a kind of absurdist statement. He replied, “We thought the lyric sheet was funny too—here are the lyrics, and it’s just not that at all. There were words and that was a rough guideline, there was a meter. I always liked a lot of the lyrics. There was some funny kind of stuff in there; it was all pretty tongue in cheek.”
Then there was touring, which sounds like it was a constant torment. Bostrom says, “By the time we started touring with Black Flag, we didn’t go over real well with the skinhead crowd.” He remembers, “People would chase you off the stage with their loogies and their beer cans. There was an outdoor show with Black Flag, I think in Oakland, and the crowd was giving us a lot of shit. Somebody spat into one of the Kirkwood’s mouths. We also did a show with the Misfits, who the crowd didn’t like either because they had long hair. We opened with Rogers and Hammerstein’s March of the Siamese Children. It wasn’t a triumphant experience. These crowds we were getting through our association with Black Flag weren’t doing us any favors.”
“That was the hardcore element,” adds Curt Kirkwood. “It always had to be fast and loud. We would play into that, be annoying. We played with Dead Kennedys, Wasted Youth, a lot of shows with Black Flag, and you’d come off with spit all over you. The only time we got shut down was playing with Suicidal Tendencies and the crowd was just not into it. I was calling them names, agitating the crowd, and they shut us down. Literally 10 minutes of playing before the curtain comes down in front of us.”
Bostrom recalls, “We stopped doing hardcore shows after that. We were associated with the LA scene, and with bands like Fear that would make fun of other band’s members and accuse them of being gay, and to the hardcore audience we might as well have been gay because we had long bleach blonde hair.”
“How do you go from a Meat Puppets I to a Meat Puppets II?” asks Bostrom. “The real answer is time, attention, and experience, and a reaction to the trends. As your band expands, your music inevitably changes. It’s a hell of a thing when you measure success in your career by not getting your head cracked open by your fans.” Then there was the question of hardcore’s built-in obsolescence. Says Bostrom, “Obviously if we’d continued to work in the Meat Puppets I vein, we’d be like a lot of other Phoenix bands nobody’s ever heard of.” He adds, “By 1982, I didn’t like anybody’s music at all. I didn’t like any second generation bands. I just focused on my own music.”
In Bostrom’s bostworld.com, Curt Kirkwood is quoted as saying, “I guess, more than anything, I didn’t know how punk rock was gonna go over. When it did start to go over, I was pretty idealistic, and I didn’t really like the audience very much. So when I took the time to think about it, I realized I needed to explore some of my other roots. I mean, we’d always had sort of a punk rock motive early on, but as a band, and individually, we’d never kept ourselves from doing anything.” In short, it was time to do something completely different.
In hindsight, Bostrom doesn’t think Meat Puppets I is the band’s best album: “I have the most affection for those early days (of Meat Puppets 1), of staying up till dawn having fun with our fellow punk rockers, but I think Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun are our best records.”
But there’s something about it that keeps people coming back for more. Steven Blush says, “When I did a recent purge of my vinyl collection, I just could not let go of those first seven records on SST. I think that says it all.” Whereas Joe Carducci wrote me, “Thanks for making me listen to it again; sounds better than ever.” And Bostrom pays it the ultimate tribute: “It’s a strange album. Back when I was in my early 20s and was still taking psychedelic drugs, I used to listen to Meat Puppets I to chill out.” I can’t conceive of it, but it takes all kinds to make a world.
As for Curt Kirkwood, best for him to have the last words. “We liked to play fast and play the way we felt it, have fun with it. We were pretty intense. We thought it was beautiful.”