Written by: David Fieni
The Meat Puppets
Castaways, Ithaca NY
As a DJ at the hair-metal-heavy radio station KVHS, I may have single-handedly introduced the world’s greatest psychedelic-country-punk band to the sleepy burg of Concord, California in 1985. (Well, let’s say I did it with an assist from Mr. Alex Green, whose blood runs with the consistency of a liquid vinyl groove). I never did see the band play live in its so-called “heyday,” however. When Meat Puppets II was released, I played it over and over, especially “Split Myself In Two,” and “Lost” (which the late, great Minutemen would later transform into a kind of San Pedro leftist funk anthem). “I’ve grown tired of living Nixon’s mess,” sang the Puppets. This statement was, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, infinitely appealing to me as a kid growing up in Ronald Reagan’s America, where Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe were considered very important people, almost as powerful as Yngwie Malmsteen, who, as my two church friends, Steve and Bobby affirmed every Sunday, still held the title of “greatest guitar player in the world.”
Fuck you, Yngwie.
And fuck, you, too, J. Mascis.
And don’t think you’re getting away with anything, Jack White. (Ok, let’s leave Jack White out of this.)
Here’s my point: Curt Kirkwood is the greatest guitar player in the world.
At least that’s how it felt seeing him at Castaways in Ithaca, NY on November 19, playing alongside his brother, Cris, who is himself just two years out of prison after a two-year stint on an assault charge, now touring with his brother for the first time since the original lineup split apart in 1996. Those who’ve never been to Ithaca (located in Central New York, home of Cornell University, 4 ½ hours from New York City) might be surprised to discover that despite its isolated location and small size, it is a kind of musical utopia. There is free live music downtown all summer long. The annual “Porchfest” features dozens of homegrown acts playing for free on porches all around town. A short list of performers who have passed through town in the last few months includes The Hold Steady, Sufjan Stevens, They Might Be Giants, Ani Difranco, Lyle Lovett, Built to Spill, Felice Brothers, and Peter Stampfel from the Fugs, to name just the good ones (sorry, Maroon 5). So to finally see the Meat Puppets play their first Ithaca show ever, 24 years after I first heard them, was nothing short of glorious.
Parking was free, the beer was reasonably priced, and the crowd was every bit as eccentric and bizarre as the band on stage.
Of course, all the kids cheered when the Puppets played “Plateau,” and “Lake of Fire,” the two songs covered by Nirvana on their famous MTV Unplugged concert. The closest thing the Puppets ever had to a hit, “Backwater,” sounded pretty good. But what struck me most, was the way the trio was able to continue to play with and push the sonic boundaries of the weird, desert atmospherics that make II so indelible a record, reminding you of Salvador Dali and Dolly Pardon and the Neils Young and Armstrong, of both Armand and MC Hammer. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the MC Hammer dream I had a few weeks ago, where Hammer was riding a gigantic desert tortoise on the outskirts of Phoenix, whistling like a damn fool, and then the tortoise turned into a bizarre hybrid between a minotaur and a young Tony Bennet, but then Hammer morphed into Nietzsche’s Zarathustra wielding a powder-blue Stratocaster. Needless to say, the lovechild that these two monsters produced in the subsequent bout of lovemaking (which was surprisingly tender, I must add) was the newly resurrected Meat Puppets. Other than this dream, there really is no connection whatsoever that I can think of between MC Hammer and the band in question.)
In particular, “Up On the Sun” was a thing of intricate and chaotic beauty. How to explain? You know how the Arizona desert looked when you were a little kid waking up during a long drive on your vacation, and you were utterly disoriented, the sun was pooling on the horizon, your dad and sisters are talking, but you have no idea what they’re saying, and the light glares and bounces off the window into your half-opened eyes? And then cracks start to appear in the glass, revealing the sheer instability of the visual world, like a David Hockney collage of the desert, but re-imagined in sound, in waves, in jagged lines like the cracks in fine porcelain, where talking iguanas, nomadic saguaro, and convulsive strip malls wouldn’t be out of place, and yet you don’t ask your dad, “Are we there yet,” because in fact you’re not really a kid anymore and you’re not staring out the car window at the desert. “Up On the Sun” was like that, but with guitar, drums, and bass, reverb, reverb, scaling flights of tremendous breath.
The two opening bands helped to highlight the meaning of the Pups’ kind of anti-80’s aesthetic, as both “Dynasty Electric” (who were very good in their own right), and Kirkwood Dellinger (or “KD”), featuring Curt’s son Elmo (who weren’t), evoked different elements of the retro-80’s trend that is still so much in vogue. It was a revelation to hear a band that for many people represented, along with other acts on the SST label (Black Flag, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Descendants), an absolute and uncompromising attack on the 1980’s as the decade of pop crap, poseur metal, and “Old Mother Reagan,” as the Violent Femmes affectionately dubbed the jovial and beloved leader of the free world. This timewarp suggested by the strange juxtaposition of the retro-80’s and the anti-80’s begs the question: how in the world did the Meat Puppets survive? Perhaps something of the Kirkwood brothers’ own personal ability to mutate and adapt to changing circumstances becomes audible in the music itself. Maybe in the perfect segue between an up-tempo “Lost,” and a cowpunk update of Jimmy Driftwood’s 1959 “Tennessee Stud” one can hear an echo of some kind of creative survival instinct? Or take the encore medley of “Dixie Land” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” These last two songs allowed the Puppets to fuse racist nostalgia (“Dixie”) and an affirmation of the unquestionable God-given truth of the nation (“Battle Hymn”) with the trio’s maximum combined volume, in the same way that metal fuses together in a violent car crash.
The effect was that of a loud and beautiful collision of sound hurled against virulent forms of mindless patriotism running through Nixon, Reagan, up to the belligerent contemporary voices who insist that the current president could never be “American” enough. But the concert was also a good and glorious “fuck you” to Yngwie, KVHS, and contemporary bands that mine the 80’s for fashion and haircut ideas, throbbing baselines, and other stylistic ornaments instead of looking to the weird sound experiments and contestatory noise of bands like the Meat Puppets at their best.