Exclusive Book Excerpt: 'Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets'

In this preview of the new oral history of the band, read the story of 'Meat Puppets II,' what Flea calls 'the warmest, coolest fucking record'

Meat Puppets Book Excerpt
Courtesy of Greg Prato
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The Meat Puppets' story is one of many ups (guesting on Nirvana's Unplugged) and downs (bassist Cris Kirkwood's drug addiction derailing the band). The new book, Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, is a comprehensive oral history of the band's career, assembled by Rolling Stone writer Greg Prato. It features all-new interviews with band members past and present, as well as with Flea, Peter Buck, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Kim Thayil, and Scott Asheton, among others. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the book, which tells the tale of the group's classic 1984 release, Meat Puppets II. Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets is now available here.

MEAT PUPPETS II [1984]

Cris Kirkwood [Meat Puppets bassist]: I remember getting up one morning – we all lived together, and Cinda may have been pregnant...or maybe [Curt's children] were real teeny-weeny – and he was sitting at the table. He was like, "I've got a new song," and it was "Lake of Fire." He played it, and I was like, "God...that's great, dude! What cool imagery and satisfying chord changes."

Curt Kirkwood [Meat Puppets singer/guitarist]: It was Halloween. Everybody wanted to go to a Halloween party – we all were living together in the same house with some girlfriends. I thought the Halloween party was a really dumb idea. Being a new adult myself at the time, I was like, "Adults are always in disguises. Everybody's got a dumb costume on constantly. Whether they know it or not, they're all in costume, and they want to go out and put on a different costume and act like children." I guess I was being a party pooper.

They all went to the party, so I dropped a hit of acid, and wrote "Lake of Fire" and "Magic Toy Missing." I sat out in the backyard and wrote them, when it was a full moon, too. "Magic Toy Missing" was from looking at the moon and it was making a kaleidoscope happen, when you're tripped out like that. I tried to make a musical version of the Spirograph sort of thing that the moon was doing. I wrote them both in about 20 minutes. "Lake of Fire" was kind of like, "Oh, the bad people! They're out tonight – look, it's Frankenstein and the Mummy!" Just making fun of my friends, really.

Cris Kirkwood: "Plateau," I thought the lyrics in that were great. Curt started writing really bitching lyrics. And it became a hallmark, it made the band what it is.

Curt Kirkwood: Whereas I remember writing "Lake of Fire" and "Magic Toy Missing," I don't remember writing "Plateau." I was experimenting with moving an open G chord up and down the neck, so I came up with that one. "Oh, Me" was kind of a ponderance on something that Derrick [Bostrom] and I were into, which was "me-ism." Ego-ism. Just worshipping ourselves. Blind faith in ourselves.

Cris Kirkwood: But "Plateau," those songs have taken on extra cache or whatever, because the Cobain/Nirvana thing [Nirvana would later cover several Meat Puppets II tunes for MTV Unplugged]. And they were good choices by Nirvana. That kid really got Meat Puppets II in the way that I didn't realize people were getting it back then like that. I didn't realize that anybody noticed at all, because all the more straightforward punker stuff had an easier time of it in a way.

Curt Kirkwood: We did Meat Puppets II, we had an ounce of ecstasy. We just snorted X the whole time, and it was "MDMA" back then. We were really into putting things into these double locked capsules full of MDMA, and getting high as shit. Nobody knew what X was yet.

Yeah, we were having a blast. See, we didn't drink, that's the thing about the Meat Puppets. My brother would drink some, but Derrick and I didn't drink at all in the early days. We smoked some weed – we weren't your typical partiers. It wasn't "rock" really, it was peer surrealist art for us, like we get to do this and emulate our heroes.

Derrick was way into surrealists like [Francis] Picabia, and then cartoonists like Jack Kirby. We were trying to find some sort of forum for high art. And also just trying to integrate our psychedelic experience into it intentionally.

Derrick Bostrom [Original Meat Puppets drummer]: I think we did the first vocal pass, and that's when Curt realized his old way of singing wasn't going to match this new music. So we had to do another pass with the vocals, and it was hard for him, because before, it was just straight Captain Beefheart-style growling. And to actually sing, it wasn't that he wasn't able to do it, it was just that he hadn't been used to it. It took a different strategy, and it took him a while to figure out what it was.

Curt Kirkwood: The first album [Meat Puppets], I was high when I did that, so I screamed a lot. And then I started chilling out, and going, "I don't want to scream my whole career." Metallica came around, and it was like, "God, they do that a lot better anyway." The vocals have always been what I tried to have stitched stuff together, get some nice harmonies going, and sing it pretty straight – no matter what's going on. A lot of my favorite bands as a teenager were the Stones, Zeppelin. They had different kinds of music. No limitations stylistically.

Derrick Bostrom: We weren't entirely satisfied with Meat Puppets II, in the sense that the start of it was in March, and we didn't get it mixed until November that fall. It basically languished for at least six months, and by the time it finally came out, in March of 1984, the impact that we had wanted it to have, with our country leanings and whatnot, had been somewhat blunted by the delay. That made us very uncomfortable. We felt that this was our first inkling that how you're going to manage your label relationship to make sure you get what you want. You can't count on anybody else but yourself to do what's best for you. And the way that SST – who were a little weary about putting out this country rock crap on their punk rock label – started to throw a wedge in it.

Cris Kirkwood:  I remember when Curt painted that picture [that became the cover of Meat Puppets II]. We were still living at my mom's house. We used to hide in the bathroom and smoke grass. We were in the bathroom getting stoned, and he picked up this little piece of canvas, and real quickly, whipped off this thing. And that's the cover. It took him about a minute to do that – we used it a few years later as the cover for the record. It's Curt's acrylic work, and definitely Van Gogh-inspired painting technique. It was back when you still had vinyl, so you were making this shit in terms of being "an album."

One of the cool things that we did was we did a photo session with this guy, Anvil Blockhammer, here in town. We drove around West Phoenix, and we were out in a field, an agricultural thing. It was Derrick's cool arty idea – that picture that's on the back, where we're in silhouette.

Dave Pirner [Soul Asylum singer/guitarist]:  It was right before their second album came out [the first time Pirner saw the Meat Puppets]. I distinctly remember hanging out with them and watching them play live. Then their second record came out, and it seemed to bring another level of awareness to the band. It surprised the shit out of me, because it was so easy to understand. The music before that was really frantic, and it was really exploring I think what they wanted to do, and they didn't really know what they wanted to do. The second record seemed sort of like, "This is what we can do, without even really thinking about it."

Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist]: Meat Puppets II, man, it's the warmest, coolest fucking record.

Lou Barlow [Dinosaur Jr. bassist, Sebadoh singer/guitarist]:  When they became more of "a country band," the way that they switched between the really crazy material and the county-esque material was really almost like a blueprint for Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. Mike Watt told me that when D. Boon first heard Dinosaur Jr., he thought we were "the east coast Meat Puppets."

Peter Buck [R.E.M. guitarist]:  I got Meat Puppets II before I ever saw them. But I saw them on that tour. I traveled so much in those days – I know I saw them in Athens a couple of times. I think the first time might have been in New York. The whole post-punk thing in America was happening. It was blossoming everywhere. Everywhere you went, there was some new, different kind of band, that you'd think, "That's interesting." When I heard the Meat Puppets, it was like, "I can get some of their influences – there's a little Grateful Dead in there, maybe a little Neil Young." But there was interplay between the instruments that was just insane. It sounded like when you think of when you look at a magician, and go, "That guy spent a huge amount of time just sitting in his bedroom all by himself, learning to do that." The Kirkwood brothers' interlocking parts were so weirdly intense. I remember going, "This is more like jazz than anything, in its own weird way."

Kim Thayil [Soundgarden guitarist]:  1984 comes along. That year, you had My War by Black Flag, Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü, Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen, Meat Puppets II, Surviving You, Always by Saccharine Trust, and the first Saint Vitus album [Saint Vitus]. That was the golden age of SST Records. I remember anticipating the Meat Puppets II release, because they'd become probably my favorite band of that time. I just had to hear what they were going to do next. Soundgarden formed in September of 1984. So I was tripping out to Meat Puppets II before Soundgarden formed. But when Soundgarden formed, it got played a lot. I remember playing it for Hiro [Yamamoto, original Soundgarden bassist] and Chris [Cornell, Soundgarden's then-drummer, later singer] all the time.

The first song I heard off of Meat Puppets II was "I'm A Mindless Idiot," which is an instrumental. I heard it on the radio, I think it was KCMU. My jaw dropped, because it wasn't fast and it wasn't punk rock and hardcore. It was like the trippy thing I heard on side two of the first Meat Puppets album. They expanded upon it, and it sounded great. To me, the production sounded great. And it was an instrumental, which tripped me out even more. I was blown away.

Here's the weird thing – I still don't have Meat Puppets II on vinyl, because a good friend of mine in college gave me a homemade cassette. On one side is Blue Cheer – it had a bunch of stuff off Outsideinside and Vincebus Eruptum. And the other side of the cassette had Meat Puppets II. That thing, I would just play it and watch the sun rise, I would play it and watch the sun set. I'd come home from college from classes – I'd go by a local convenience store and buy a couple Buckhorn Beers, a pack of cigarettes, and some string cheese, and go and sit in my bedroom. My bedroom was a sort of walk-in closet and the window faced west. So I laid there eating string cheese and drinking my Buckhorn Beer, and I'd put on Meat Puppets II and watch the sun go down. I had to do that all the time. It tripped me out, and it was the coolest feeling – being mildly intoxicated.

And Meat Puppets II was great if I smoked pot, which I rarely did, but on the occasion I did, I was like, "I've got to listen to the Meat Puppets!" And on the occasion of doing MDMA or anything else that may cross the path of a 22-year-old musician who is a student. That album tripped me out – it seemed to be heavy and wild in these other ways. Psychologically and emotionally. I loved it. It had these elements that I found in the Velvet Underground, the MC5. And that Meat Puppets' second album became not only my favorite Meat Puppets album, but perhaps one of my favorite albums of all time.

From the Book:  Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets by Greg Prato Copyright © 2012 by Greg Prato, Published by Greg Prato

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