The Tour

By  |  May 30, 2019

 

“Children of the eighties, this is your Woodstock.”

—Joan Baez, Live Aid, 1985

 

“I guess we’re the Meat Puppets, and we’re supposed to play here.”

—Curt Kirkwood, The Tour, 1985 

Imagine you’re a lizard on the wall: It’s 1981 and the temperature in Phoenix hovers around 106. In a practice room in the drummer’s mother’s home, two brothers and their buddy have been at it for hours, through joints and beers and the specific hallucinatory properties related to mushrooms and long-term exposure to sweltering heat. How long have they been at it? Hours, weeks, months? And what is it, exactly?

They play ferociously fast—as fast as any band in the country—but not like hardcore. Within the seams you can hear a supple groove and an almost jazz-like interplay. Like Captain Beefheart and DEVO and the Dead before them, this is genuinely weird American music. No coincidence: these are genuine American weirdos. In time, they’ll be America’s strangest household name, if only for a moment.

Every punk scene has its own hierarchy, and Phoenix is no exception. Here, the leaders of the pack are the Feederz (featuring Frank Discussion) and Killer Pussy, bands that never made much of a splash out of town, but meant everything to the kids in the region. Unlike the media savvy, entertainment-adjacent world of the L.A. punk community some six hours west, the random chaos of central Arizona’s underground ranges from lysergic jam-bands to speed-addled metalheads. The venues are Club Chaos, which is chaotic, and Madison Square Garden, which is insane. Booked by the Victor Brothers, it’s a part-time lucha libre venue where bands play in a wrestling ring.

Central Arizona is a place not many people come from and only a select few end up. The hippie runoff of L.A. meets the marginal drifter cowboys of the desert plains meets East Coast émigrés running from something, and not eager to get caught. A strange, off-the-grid place, with its own way of doing things.

From these circumstances the Meat Puppets—soon to be the best Phoenix-bred band in the known world—would emerge. They are comprised of the Kirkwood brothers—Curt and Cris—and their drummer Derrick Bostrom. Bohemian children with a fractional bit of family money, set free on the desert plains during the last truly weird days of the Wild West.

There is purported to be magic in the Arizona desert. There are stories, for instance, of how horned toads once did battle with murderous giants and outwitted them despite being a hundredth of their size. The Meat Puppets are musical horned toads. After a long-shot signing with the legendary punk label SST, their recorded output begins as utterly primitive documents of acid-crazed reprobates and proceeds year by year to become something sublime, surprising, and frequently beautiful.

Their 1982 debut Meat Puppets is a menacing dose of amphetamine-damaged, Zappa-style surrealism played at supersonic speeds. Two years later, the follow up Meat Puppets II is an entirely different animal: bluesier, more legible, and packed with memorable songs evoking everything from Highway 61-era Dylan to Little Feat. And then 1985’s Up on the Sun brings it all back home and beyond. Punk is present as an attitude but essentially nowhere to be found as a musical style. What remains is the pastoral beauty of Van Morrison, the enchantingly loose instrumental conversation of the Bloomfield-Stills-Kooper Super Sessions, and the hippie-naturalist wing of Neil Young’s aesthetic mansion. It will take time and a toll, but one day the Meat Puppets will best giants, too.

 

“There’s ways of living / It’s the way I’m living / Right or wrong”

—Pavement, “Range Life,” 1994

I was ten years too young to be initially aware of the glory days of SST but started catching up as fast as was feasible. Constrained by access and allowance but profoundly encouraged by my well-thumbed Trouser Press Record Guide, I undertook weekend record-shopping trips that were pure adrenaline-driven adventure. To ride the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan was to tug subtly but meaningfully at the fabric of my quiet upbringing.

Up in the racks of the record stores along St. Marks Place, the SST-marked products appeared pregnant with illicit promise—hand-stamped logos and lawless artwork, capricious in their seeming disregard for looking “finished.” Compared with the high-gloss packaging of U2 and Billy Joel, they looked downright seedy. I may have been a schoolgirl, but I knew what I liked.

First I bought Flip Your Wig, and then Double Nickels on the Dime and eventually Huevos. I processed the information, and the information was shocking. All over the world weird kids were making outré art projects without anxiety or inhibition. I discovered Swell Maps, the Clean, the Young Fresh Fellows, and Yo La Tengo. I found out about They Might Be Giants, then became obsessed with They Might Be Giants. I wrote them a letter. They wrote me back.

What it all represented to me was a way of living and thinking that seemed astoundingly unconstrained by convention or expectation. Each of these scenes and bands was highly specific, daring, and individual. Most had no chance to reach a mass audience, and hardly fell over themselves trying to amend that state of affairs. For a small, shy, quiet girl with some roiling ideas about art and politics, their examples were a relief and a revelation.

 

“Thanks for being a great crowd! We’ll play for you anytime.”

—Curt Kirkwood, The Tour, 1985

Five bands share the bill as part of SST Records’ Motown revue–style package tour in 1985: SWA, Saccharine Trust, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü. At the March 1, 1985 show in San Francisco, SST plans to record the event and sell it as a VHS tape. When the bands take the stage at the Stone, co-owned by Don Cornelius and formerly headlined by everyone from Muddy Waters to Wilson Pickett, history is in attendance.

Cinematically, the results are artless in the extreme. A stationary camera lingers in the back. A second roams the area just offstage, causing the players to look a bit like captive animals motoring around a small penned-in area. The lighting is similar to videotapes of countless high school talent shows of the era. Technically, the sound falls someplace south of “professional.” In short, it’s perfect.

The Meat Puppets are third up following the loud and louche SWA and the beatnik-skronk of Saccharine Trust—both excellent bands in their own right, but acts which nevertheless hew far closer to the expectations of SST’s built-in fan base of Black Flag–worshipping punk bruisers. The Meat Puppets begin their set with a high-lonesome reading of Phil Phillip’s 1959 r&b classic “Sea of Love,” and a palpable wave of confusion overtakes the crowd.

They follow that up with an appropriately cosmic reading of their digressive-psych masterpiece “Up on the Sun,” Curt’s guitar suggesting a hallucinogenic showdown between Jerry Garcia and Billy Gibbons with Kirkwood himself playing both roles. The room is, if not entertained, then sufficiently baffled enough to nod along uneasily to this anomalous development. Most in attendance, it is fair to assume, believe this is prelude to thrash.

It’s not. The Meat Puppets’ next number is another cover—this time a jaunty, jittery take on the Jimi Hendrix ballad “Little Wing,” complete with a long, effects-heavy solo by Curt that sounds like the original was shot into space and beamed back home from fifty million light years beyond the sun. The next song is also a cover, but it’s a gear shift of a different sort: the Meat Puppets positively tear through “Midnight Rider,” briefly energizing an audience who may or may not know that they are slam dancing to the Allman Brothers.

This time Curt’s solo is deranged—his long spindly frame flails spider-like around the stage, his playing at once beautifully lyrical and threatening to derail the entire song. His brother Cris on bass and his buddy Derrick on drums hold the thing together, but barely. A high-wire circus act, an impossible stunt, surely an arrestable offense in many municipalities. The brothers engage in a middle-of-the-stage standoff. They stare deep into each other's eyes and mimic one another’s gestures: bass and guitar swing as mirror images. Then, like that, they drop their respective instruments and literally run offstage, jumping amps like hurdles as if suddenly forced to go on the lam. The audience applauds enthusiastically. Détente!

Then they come back! Now they are launching into a faithful version of Elvis Presley’s “Paralyzed,” something that comes naturally to them, Sun Records residing deep in their DNA. With their set winding down, it seems obvious they will play at least one more of their formidable originals: “Plateau” or “Lost” or any number of great songs that have recently catapulted them to national attention and presages their signing to a major label. They don’t.

The set-ending take on “Good Golly Miss Molly” is a beautiful, deconstructionist nightmare of glam, prog, and spastic blues that both honors the source material and bores entirely novel neural pathways into Little Richard’s horndog masterpiece. In all they’ve played six songs—five covers and one galaxy-traversing original. They’ve conjured Elvis and Duane and even Jimi himself. Maybe it was real. Maybe it was a mirage.

Bands like the Meat Puppets and the Fastbacks and They Might Be Giants were my heroes and they are still my heroes. They did their thing on their own terms and they made it work. We live in a time when the music industry's sundry contractions and self-inflicted wounds have made the ecosystem for nonmainstream acts smaller and more inhospitable than in any other moment during my lifetime. Journalists and publications work overtime to generate consensus around a few acts who can capture the public’s fast-moving attention long enough to make a dent in the culture. Streaming services constantly redirect listeners to a handful of revenue-generating juggernauts while cheating nearly everyone else out of a reasonable royalty. They tell us our listening options are limitless, and I guess that’s true, but it certainly feels like a highly contingent freedom based on a tyrannically enforced caste system.

It is possible, even likely, that I am over-romanticizing a past where derelicts and loonies and art-damaged kids and desert freaks roamed a vibrant underground bringing news of a whole different way of doing things. So shoot me, I’m romantic.

When we were recording the new Paranoid Style album—the companion piece to this column—the engineer was our buddy John Plymale, who has produced several Meat Puppets records. He had stories for days, and eventually the idea struck that we should try and do one of our songs in the best approximation of the Puppets’ unhinged, hair-on-fire majesty that we could manage. Here it is if you'd like to check it out. It’s called “The Peculiar Case of the Human Song Generators” and it’s all about They Might Be Giants and the letter they sent me so many years ago.

 

 


“A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

 Enjoy this story?  Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

Elizabeth Nelson is a songwriter, journalist, television writer, and civil servant in the field of education policy. Her writing appears in the Washington Post, NPR, the Ringer, Stereogum, and Lawyers, Guns & Money, as well as other places. She fronts the Paranoid Style, a D.C.-based garage-punk band once described by Robert Christgau as “better than anybody else except Sleater-Kinney.”