Too High to Die: The Meat Puppets Never Fit in, Which May Have Been Their Saving Grace

The Meat Puppets' first—and, until this week, only—Knoxville performance, some time around Thanksgiving in 1982, was an utter fiasco. The band cruised through town at an odd juncture of an evolving music scene that was fighting to stay alive: Bundulees Lounge had closed, leaving the hardcore contingent with no place it could call its own. And the Meat Puppets were, as ever, a band caught between genres, a hybrid of country-rock, psychedelia, and hardcore punk that always defied categorization. Meat Puppets auteur and guitarist Curt Kirkwood remembers the event with a surprising degree of clarity, considering how long ago it was—and what happened.

"I, uh, I threw up during the show, then went backstage and passed out," he says. "The promoter woke me up and was telling me to get up and play more songs. We played with a band called Kuru [actually Koro] and they gave me a bunch of stuff. And I told them to stuff it up their ass in true punk-rock fashion."

Consistent with the sound of the album they were pushing at the time (their self-titled SST debut), the band was a shambolic mess. And the audience, a handful of slam-dancing teenagers in full hardcore regalia, came expecting to hear something like Black Flag or MDC. Everyone, including the Meat Puppets themselves, probably left the venue wondering exactly what had happened that night.

The show was symptomatic of the Meat Puppets' career: The band never fit any of the numerous genre classifications foisted on it through the years; substance abuse got in the way of the playing; and no one ever knew quite what to expect.

The band's square-peg status has been its blessing and its curse. The Meat Puppets' catalog will never sound dated. And the group's psychedelic country/rock 'n' roll/punk/whatever sound will thus remain influential, if perhaps peripheral, to both the mainstream and underground music scenes. The group's oeuvre is remarkably consistent, and the high quality continues with their 2007 release, Rise to Your Knees.

"We never really fit in anywhere, and that's why we're alive now," says Kirkwood. "Back in the hardcore era we were really into the Eagles and Poco, but we weren't like any of that cow-punk stuff. I felt like punk rock was a lot like rockabilly—like a spirit you couldn't control—and I really related to it on that level. Oddly enough, I think the songs have held sway over any style classifications. I mean, Meat Puppets II was like [a] straight-up Hank Williams, Neil Young, Eagles kind of thing. We never wore cowboy boots and we hate cowboys—well, not really. But [avoiding trends] is why we're alive. We're like Led Zeppelin or the Stones; our whole goal is to have a platform to play any kind of music that we want."

And what a wild ride the band has had. After relentless touring with Black Flag, the Meat Puppets overstepped the boundaries of hardcore, releasing college-rock staples like Meat Puppets II, Up on the Sun, and Huevos on SST. The band then went through a major-label period in the 1990s, where they were often considered to be grunge progenitors. (Cris and Curt Kirkwood appeared on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, for example.) This era reached its apex with Too High to Die, the sort-of alternative radio hit "Backwater," high-profile tours with Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, and an eventual derailing due to bassist Cris Kirkwood's drug problems.

"Cris was a drug addict, so people construe that as a breakup," says Kirkwood. "I just kind of waited for that problem to get fixed, and now we're playing together again. I've always been pretty permissive, but I never took that many drugs myself. But we had some totally awful drug problems for a while, though—and I've always been really honest about that. I mean, when we recorded Meat Puppets II, we were rolling. Chemical engineering has taken us, as a society, to this nihilist, fake system of today that's all about drugs, even hard-ons."

Asked to plot future directions for the band, Kirkwood is reticent. "i'm just having a blast getting out and playing our music," he says. "We have a deep catalog of good music and these days we don't have to go out and hump for a new product. We haven't done some of those songs in so long, it's a luxury to play them again. But I don't really like to think about things like the future. I mean, there's another presidential cycle in five years, and I could be running by then. If there's a god, maybe we'll become spokesmen for Viagra."