The phone is no friend of Curt Kirkwood. Too often, the tidings it bears are foul. He calls them "incomings from Tempe." They go like this:
Your brother's wife overdosed this morning; She's dead.
Your brother got busted again last night, and he told the cops he was you.
Your brother showed up at my house yesterday with a crack pipe and a bag of needles, and he looks like hell.
Your brother took off from rehab.
Your brother's holed up in a Motel 6, smoking rock like it's Judgment Day.
Born in Texas but raised just outside Phoenix, Curt and his brother Cris became the most famous modern-rock stars ever from that desert metropolis. Curt played guitar and wrote a lot of songs. Cris played bass and wrote a few. When they sang together, the Kirkwoods were purposefully seldom in tune.
But as the lens of retrospection contracts, their band, the Meat Puppets, is viewed as one of the most influential groups of the past two decades of rock music. Six months before he splattered his brains, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain cited the Meat Puppets as a primary source of inspiration. All at once the Puppets were lifted from underground heroes to certified-gold recording artists by sales of their 1994 album Too High to Die. That title now haunts the band.
Curt says the last time he saw Cris, his brother was probing inside an abscess on his stomach with a needle, searching for a vein. This was in mid August, three days after Cris's wife, Michelle Tardif, had died of an overdose in the master bedroom of their Tempe home, where the two had been holed up for months.
It was Cris who found her body. He had been passed out in the living room, and when he came to in the early afternoon, Michelle had been dead for hours. Cris called the band's manager in Austin, then fled the house before police arrived. He may have run because he had felony drug warrants out for his arrest, or because he cracked up ... or both.
Regardless, according to his brother and close friends in Arizona, Cris Kirkwood is lurching pell-mell toward the reaper, track-marked arms open for the embrace. He's smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in death-wish quantities. Overweight from binging on Ben & Jerry's ice cream, he's pocked with the sores and boils that result when a junkie misses a vein and shoots impure, infectious heroin directly into muscle tissue.
After numerous futile attempts to convince Cris to step back from the abyss, Curt now seems resigned to his brother's fate. He describes Cris as "a suicide in progress." The two haven't played music together for almost three years.
"Basically we have a nonfunctioning member of our organization," remarks Curt, who now lives in Austin, where he has formed a new band under the Meat Puppets banner. "My brother is on all the Meat Puppets records up to this point, so he's still a Meat Puppet. He's just a Meat Puppet in outer space. I can't say he's in the band when he doesn't know what fucking day it is."
The Meat Puppets were always a drug band. But they were known for pot and acid, not coke and heroin. There's a world of difference. Rare is the pothead who picks through the fibers of his living-room carpet for hours looking for a tiny nugget, or the acid eater who finds himself paging a dealer at 4:00 a.m.
Thirty-nine-year-old Curt, the older of the two brothers by a year, admits he misspent a few nights of his youth staying up all night, snorting coke. And, he says, he and Cris both toyed with heroin in their early twenties. But all that was over years ago, and neither of them ever spun out like Cris has now. Not even close.
Efforts to locate and interview Cris Kirkwood for this story were unsuccessful. Friends haven't seen him since late October.
Curt says drugs began taking control of Cris about four years ago. The Meat Puppets were playing a sold-out stadium nearly every night, opening for Stone Temple Pilots, whose lead signer, Scott Weiland, developed a heroin addiction that would soon be chronicled. Too High to Die had been out for almost a year, and, for the first time, the Meat Puppets had a hit single, "Backwater," which was all over MTV and commercial rock radio.
Alongside the rush of their overdue fame, the Meat Puppets were suddenly making serious money. The members of Stone Temple Pilots were already multimillionaires. "All that loose dough brought out the weasels," Curt says. "I observed the weasels and learned their ways. Wherever you are, the weasels find you after the show and push really good dope in your face."
The partying on that tour was epic. Curt tells of many nights when a weasel would slit open a corner of an ounce bag of cocaine -- $900 worth -- then squeeze the contents out like frosting into one big line and set down a box of straws. "It was Hollywood Babylon at its finest worst. The refuse of that tour is still floating around, in the form of Scott Weiland and my bro."
Cris Kirkwood was high on heroin and catatonic in the studio during the early 1995 recording sessions for No Joke, the first Meat Puppets record after Too High to Die, and the last one they made. The hype preceding No Joke's release in the fall of 1995 was acute. The album was good, but doomed. The band's record label eviscerated promotions of No Joke, including a video, and canceled support for a national tour when they learned Cris was riding the needle.
"My brother cost himself, me, and [original Puppets drummer Derrick] Bostrom millions of dollars," Curt claims. "His drug abuse was this band's only catastrophe. The record company had high hopes for our last album, but when they saw the internal problems, they decided to cut their losses. I don't really blame them. It just got away from us because I wouldn't let him go. Our managers at the time [the Meat Puppets were then managed by Gold Mountain, which also managed Nirvana] knew all about this kind of shit, and they were not fucking into it at all. They told me to get him out of the band, and I wouldn't because he was my brother. I figured he might pull his head out with the album going down the tubes, but he didn't."
Rock-star meltdowns have swirled around Curt Kirkwood without pause for years now, poisoning the air inside his bubble of hard-won success. Before the Meat Puppets toured with Stone Temple Pilots, they went on the road with chart darlings Blind Melon, whose lead singer Shannon Hoon died from a cocaine overdose inside his tour bus in October 1995
In November 1993 the Kirkwoods appeared onstage with Nirvana for the live recording of that band's legendary MTV Unplugged concert and performed three songs from their 1984 album Meat Puppets II, a landmark in American indie rock. Kurt Cobain had asked the Puppets to open a series of huge shows on Nirvana's In Utero tour, and when Too High to Die came out in early 1994, around the time MTV first aired the Unplugged concert, its packaging included a sticker with a quote from Cobain: "The Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music. I owe so much to them."
Cobain barely survived a heroin overdose in March 1994, shortly before the Meat Puppets were supposed to meet Nirvana in Prague for a European tour. Those plans were trashed, and Cobain killed himself with a shotgun in April.
"Cobain was a lot of fun to hang out with," Curt remembers. "I always enjoyed talking with him. We were supposed to meet up with him in Europe, but he was hiding out, killing himself. I don't know what the hell's going on, but it seems like in the past four years, way too many people around me with good things happening for them have gone fuckin' belly-up. They all turned themselves into floaters."
Shortly after his Cris's wife overdosed, Curt saw his brother. "He'd alternate between being a fiend and crying a lot, and acting like my bro." It was enough to make Curt try to help one more time. He paid an interventionist to come from California and help get his brother into a private, high-dollar residential detox and rehab center in Los Angeles.
Cris eventually got on the plane and checked into rehab, but he left five days later and went to a friend's house in L.A. When Cris called a limo, his friend tried to stop him from getting in, but Cris shoved him out of the way. That was in late August. Cris showed up in Tempe in early September. Curt heard from mutual friends that Cris was living in his car for awhile, then a Motel 6. Curt says no one has seen him since a few days before Halloween.
On October 6 Cris was arrested outside the Royal Inn Motel in north Scottsdale for possession of stolen property and falsification of vehicle registration. A police officer became suspicious when he saw the license plate on Cris's Infiniti was haphazardly attached, ran the number, and discovered the plate was stolen. Charges stemming from that incident are also pending.
Cris turned 38 years old on October 22. Curt didn't send him a present or call. "I have no idea how to get in touch with him."
Months before that last failed intervention, Curt stopped waiting for Cris to come back and moved on without him. In the fall of 1997 he formed a new band with Bob Mould bassist Andrew Duplantis (now on tour with roots-rock notables Son Volt) and two refugees from the San Antonio wunderkind heavy-metal band Pariah: guitarist Kyle Ellison and drummer Shandon Sahm, son of famed Texas singer-guitarist Doug Sahm, of Sir Douglas Quintet fame.
Curt says Ellison is one of the few people who can relate to his bitter conundrum. Ellison's brother, Sims, played bass for Pariah. Sims went into a deep depression after Pariah was dropped by Geffen Records and killed himself two years ago.
"I think it's a day-to-day struggle for both Kyle and I to deal with our reality right now and keep from irrationally thinking we're pathetic worms because it's all our fault," Curt notes. "We help each other out in that respect."
Curt's new band debuted last March at Austin's South by Southwest, the music industry's largest annual conference. They played under the name Royal Neanderthal Orchestra and received ecstatic reviews. One prominent Austin critic dubbed R.N.O. the most promising new band to emerge from the city in years. "Everyone just assumed we'd be signed to some fat deal in a matter of weeks," Curt contends.
The thing is, though, Curt already has a deal. He's under contract with London Records, the company that released Too High to Die and No Joke. And unless he's willing to give up the rights to the name "Meat Puppets," which he's not, Curt is obligated to provide London with two more Meat Puppets records, which he's happy to do, with or without Cris. According to Curt he has about four albums' worth of new material and plans to record a new Meat Puppets album early next year.
"It seems like every time I picked up a music magazine in the last two or three years, I read about how the Meat Puppets disbanded in 1995, or I see myself described as 'ex-Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood,'" says Curt. "And I'm like, Hey, I didn't say a fucking thing about the band breaking up, did I? No. It's my band. Just because I've got a junkie brother, that means no more Meat Puppets? Whatever."
He continues: "I had enough money to take as long a break as I wanted, so I did. I have enough money to retire now, but I don't want that. Every other kid in the mall has at least heard my band's name, so I'd say I still have places to go."
So far Derrick Bostrom has not been involved with Curt's new project. He is, however, still an integral part of the Meat Puppets. Bostrom tends the band's Web page, answers 40 to 60 pieces of fan mail per week, and is organizing the reissue of eight Meat Puppets albums on the Rykodisc label, which will contain live concert footage and bonus tracks. He is also overseeing the compilation of a live album of Meat Puppets concerts in 1988, due out this spring, also on Rykodisc.
"My future role in the Meat Puppets is somewhat up in the air," Bostrom says. "But obviously the Meat Puppets as an entity will continue, new album or not." Bostrom, who claims he never did hard drugs and quit smoking pot long ago, hasn't seen Cris since the Kirkwoods' mother's funeral, almost two years ago. "I can't help other people slay their dragons," he says. "The situation as it stands is very sad, but I've known Cris a long time, and I've never thought of him as fundamentally weak. I think he may get out of this mess alive."
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Curt also admits he holds out hope. "No matter how logical or cynical or realistic I try to be to protect myself, of course I still have hope. He's my brother. There would have to be a tremendous amount of mending, but there's always a place for him."
Curt offers these comments as he waits for the sunset on the huge wooden deck of his new, beautiful home in the hills that skirt Austin. There is a hot tub on the deck and a swimming pool and Curt's bulldog, Lulu. His silver Lexus is parked in the garage. But Curt doesn't look happy.
"I'm unrequited," he acknowledges. "It's just hard to fuckin' deal with what's happened in my life in the past three years, with my mom [dying] and my brother. I mean, here I am, with my shit so fucking hard-wired and together. I got lots of potential left, and a lot of bread. But it's a cold comfort having real money for the first time in your life when your family is dying off around you."
In the morning, Curt explains, the buzzards rise from the valley below and fly in a vortex, high overhead. The sun paints a veil of clouds on the horizon orange and pink. And the air is cool and sweet. "Fuck," Curt says. "I really wish I could get my brother up here to see this.