Despite riding the tidal wave of grunge to a major deal in the early 1990s, the Meat Puppets have never conceded an inch to anyone else’s concept of alternative music.
Beginning with their earliest records on SST, the Kirkwood brothers have put together exactly the sort of indie rock career young music journalists like myself tend to salivate over -- and for a number of reasons. Despite riding the tidal wave of grunge to a major deal in the early 1990s, the Meat Puppets have never conceded an inch to anyone else’s concept of alternative music. Album after album they’ve subverted expectations, solidifying a reputation as a band that never swore allegiance to any particular trend or movement. Formed in January 1980, the Puppets also predate many of the most important influential bands of that decade: Dinosaur Jr., Slint, and Mudhoney -- all groups over whom a considerable amount of drool has been let fall. And let’s not forget, of course, their involvement with 1993’s fateful Nirvana Unplugged performance -- an event that now stands as one of the most iconic and moving spectacles to be caught on film over the last twenty years. The massive exposure caused by this latter collaboration must surely have introduced the band to a wider audience (throughout the ‘90s, for instance, younger Bowie audiences would marvel at the goblin king’s apparent “cover” of Nirvana’s “The Man Who Sold the World”), but nowadays it seems that most of the people going to Meat Puppets shows are longtime fans who grew up listening to them in the ‘80s. And, fittingly, it’s these fans that are most responsible for the band’s recent reformation. Tormented by tragic struggles with drug addiction through the years, the Puppets broke up twice before reuniting without original drummer Derrick Bostrom in 2006 (this time triggered by positive fan feedback over the Internet). This rejuvenated new line-up, which comprises both Kirkwoods plus New Yorker Ted Marcus on drums, took the stage at Maxwell’s to play an invigorated set of songs spanning most of their discography. For better or worse, I find it hard to portray guitarist/singer Curt Kirkwood as anything but the brooding and enigmatic epicenter of the group. He acts that way, for one thing. Extremely reticent around people he doesn’t know, he healthily maintains the kind of mystique that’s generally reserved for younger artists still in the midst of producing their best work. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to discover that he continues to play his music with a fierce intensity and concentration. There are perhaps more fitting comparisons, but I nonetheless contend that if Neil Young was a nimbler guitarist, reacted more wholeheartedly to his love of Devo in the ‘80s, and sang mostly in a grizzled monotone, he might just sound something like the Puppets’ masterful six-stringer. If Curt is the mysterious one, though, younger brother Cris more than manages to hold his own as the band’s formidable bass player and back-up vocalist. In more ways than one, his presence anchors the material. The bass guitar seems genuinely his ideal instrument and there is something effortless in his natural playing style. After the show I get the chance to ask him about a few things -- living in Phoenix, rehearsing in Austin, working briefly with Nirvana, and, most painfully, his lack of interest in professional basketball (the ‘05-‘06 Suns are a current fixation of mine). Interestingly, and belying his relative youth, Cris seems somehow older than his more dexterous sibling, exuding a generally bemused, almost wizardly, personality that I’d call charming if that didn’t seem a somewhat condescending remark. His responses tend to be measured, usually revealing precious little when it comes to my more journalistic queries. Nevertheless, watching this giant of ‘80s rock unwind is something of a revelation in itself. For, just as the casual cynicism of their name suggests, the Puppets are a band that, above all else, seems grounded. Along with an unforgettable turn at “Up on the Sun”, the show’s highlights include a note-perfect rendition of the Meat Puppets II instrumental “I’m a Mindless Idiot”. Later on in the night, I half-jokingly ask Cris whether or not the song’s title is a trap for unsuspecting hecklers. He smiles wryly and defers to his brother (who writes the bulk of the lyrics), but the more shadowy Kirkwood has characteristically wandered somewhere out of sight so I’m left to come up with a more interesting question. It’s probably for the best, as he -- likely as not -- wouldn’t have appreciated my attempt at humor, but I’ve really got nothing else and feel slightly embarrassed trying to return to the Nirvana subject, which has been, somehow, brushed aside. The band’s road manager, Dennis, says something about heading out. And so, minutes later as I’m making my own way home, trudging back to the PATH station through the driving, malicious Jersey rain, I feel as though I’m stuck, with just a couple of mental images and a tacky tour T-shirt, but no real angle. I ultimately decide, though, that there’s really no point in over-thinking these two fundamentally straightforward guys from Arizona who happened to reinvent rough-hewn, genre-bending guitar music. Besides, the rain is getting to be too much -- I’m soaked to the skin, and so I crawl into a cab not more than five blocks down the road. The cabbie grumbles something at the mention of “Brooklyn,” but soon enough we’re on our way. Back at the apartment, I look up the lyrics to “Up on the Sun”. They seem extremely meaningful to me at that moment: “Up on the sun where it never rains or snows / There’s an ocean with a wind that never blows / And if you see it closer then the finer points will show / Not too much more, too much more.”