It's not the meat, it's the motion

David Bowman reviews the Meat Puppets' re-releases

Topics: Music,

Arizona’s Meat Puppets played Minneapolis for the first time in 1982. Prince didn’t pay tribute, but H|sker D| did. “Grant [Hart] came up after our show,” ex-Meat drummer Derrick Bostrom recalls. “He said, ‘All right. We’re H|sker D|. You’re Meat Puppets. We must bond. Now we show you White Castle burgers.’” What a fitting communion. After all, it was White Castle, not McDonald’s, that was America’s original hamburger joint, founded in 1921 by two members of the Wichita Masonic Temple. Certainly 1980s “indie” rock was as closely knit a fraternity as the Masons. Indie rockers may not have had secret handshakes, but they all played the same national network of clubs. If a band couldn’t sneak eight people into a single motel room, they all crashed on some local band member’s floor. The musical prejudices of all these groups swung toward hardcore triple-time macho/fascist rants, but the Meat Puppets soon evolved into a unique combination of progressive and country and feedback-creating music that was the sonic equivalent of Diane Arbus’ beautifully grotesque photographs of elderly retards wearing Halloween costumes.

But consider the White Castle metaphor once again. Just as the Golden Arches soon dominated every aspect of the once holy American hamburger, every significant indie group worth its salt signed to a corporate label.

“They stripped us and tattooed ‘A-l-t-e-r-n-a-t-i-v-e b-a-n-d’ across our backs,” Bostrom claims. Whether or not this is true, the Meat Puppets were the last to get marked. And they wanted so badly to sell out. They weren’t proud. Who would walk away from all that dough? But H|sker D| was signed first. Then the Replacements. The Minutemen. It galled the head Meat, Curt Kirkwood, that Kurt Cobain — who had been just a snot-nosed kid when the Meats were traveling from indie chautauqua to indie chautauqua — bestowed legitimacy on the Meats by covering three Kirkwood songs on MTV’s “Unplugged,” Nirvana’s unintentional swan song. “Cobain had a nice voice,” Kirkwood once told a reporter, then shrugged. “I’m sorry he’s dead. Outside of that, big fuckin’ deal.”

Cobain was the least of it. Once the Meats were signed to London in 1990, they released three lackluster records and then bass player Chris Kirkwood — Curt’s kid brother — left Phoenix to become a nonfunctioning Hollywood junkie. “We had to put the group in mothballs,” Bostrom reports. As this decade ground to a close, Curt hightailed it to Austin to form a false Meat Puppets with Texan players while his kid brother married a Canadian junkie and moved to Tempe, Ariz., where he let his bride croak from an overdose of morphine and cocaine. Meanwhile, faithful Bostrom remained in Phoenix, sorting through the master tapes of the Meats’ eight SST albums to prepare them for re-release. Since the start of March, Rykodisc has blessed us with two Meat Puppets records every few weeks. Welcome to a Meat Puppets spring.

If you’re unfamiliar with Meats music, you should pass over their first self-titled release. It’s crude and noisy and points into Black Flag territory. It is the Meats’ second and third albums, however — “Meat Puppets II” and “Up on the Sun” — that define their reputation. No records like these two have ever been recorded before unless there are Violent Femmes outtakes floating around where everyone in the band is fucked-up on crystal meth.

On both records, the elder Kirkwood’s guitar slides all over the place. Sometimes it sounds like he’s playing with his fists. Most times he sounds like Yes’ Steve Howe suffering from a migraine. The songs jump from honky-tonk ballads to buffalo stampede instrumentals. The only problem is the vocals.

Spend your money. Buy “Meat Puppets II” and “Up on the Sun.” You’ll know they’re masterpieces. But you may never play them again because the Meats revel in warbling together out-of-tune. On their later 1990s corporate releases, the Kirkwoods’ singing is as pretty as the Everly Brothers, so their earlier horrible harmonies are a deliberate aesthetic statement. But for what purpose?

For my money, the Meats’ fourth album, “Huevos,” is their best. Rather than attempting to remake another thrash “Sgt. Pepper,” their only ambition is to be ZZ Top. In the middle of each straight-ahead kick-ass song, a guitar gives an inappropriate twang, or a Kirkwood will suddenly yelp out-of-tune, dissonant touches that work because the boys are energized; pumping musical iron. Their work on the second and third records was a little too relaxed for my taste, and the only one who ever got away with laid-back grunge was Neil Young (and he only succeeded once, on “Tonight’s the Night”).

All these words about the Meats are just words, of course. And music is music, not language. Except for lyrics. Let me quickly scrutinize the lyrics of a particular Meats song, because it contains the same crazy beauty found in the best of their music — which also includes 1986′s “Mirage” (forget ’89′s “Monsters,” a failure — the less said the better). The tune I want to examine is “Lake of Fire,” captured
on “Live in Montana.” You must know it. Nirvana covered the song:

Where do bad folks go when they die?

They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly

They go to the lake of fire and fry

Don’t see ‘em again, ’til the Fourth of July

It’s a dopey song, but historically important because hell shows up in songs all the time. And movies. Comic strips. Comedy skits. But always as some pseudo-Catholic dungeon or field of fire, populated with stray devils with pitchforks. But if you’ve ever sat in a Southern or Midwestern or Northwestern Baptist pew, you know that the lord intends for sinners to cook their goose in a lake of fire. And the Meat Puppets — formed by two brothers growing up in Phoenix, growing up with a succession of white-trash stepfathers, one of whom burned down the family house; growing up to the Monkees and Gong, being educated by the Jesuits (for Christ’s sake) — are the first rock group to make public this unspoken bit of Protestant Americana, which is apparently unknown in Los Angeles or New York.

To listen to the music of the Meats is to hear the familiar being reinvented. To go back to “Lake of Fire,” the Bible says nothing about sinners revealing themselves on the Fourth of July. But the lyric works because there is an intuitive poetic connection between exploding fireworks and hellfire. I can’t tell you what that connection is, except the image is dumb and beautiful at the same time, just like America. Just like the best work of the Meat Puppets.

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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