Taking a Meat

In Tempe, Arizona, across the street from a golf course with winter-brown grass, behind a white wall that probably keeps in more than it keeps out, sits the low-slung, spacious home of Curt Kirkwood.

That's Curt Kirkwood -- father of twins, fearless interviewee, marijuana enthusiast, Meat Puppet.

A pit bull stands by the swimming pool, looking through the glass doors -- at what? The massive plastic head of Buster Brown up on a shelf? The old acoustic guitar propped against the wall? Or maybe at his master. Kirkwood, sipping coffee, relaxes on the couch, bong at the ready.

It's a nice place, chez Kirkwood, but this is not the home of a famous rock star. Don't be fooled by the die-hard international Puppets fan base, by the MTV hobnobbing, by the near decade and a half his band has survived. "We're not famous," says Kirkwood in a tone more confident than bitter. "I don't think we're famous anywhere. We're not on the tip of everybody's tongue. Money's not pouring into our larders. I've seen famous people. They can pay their bills. We're not famous."

He takes a delicate nip of coffee; leaning forward on the couch, he seems all knees and elbows. Hair ponytailed, glasses round and rimless, Kirkwood speaks with a thoughtful, laid-back intensity that is almost professorial. And he says "fucking" a lot.

"I know that [fame] can happen eventually, but I think you're really just responsible to who you are," he offers. "That's why interviews are fun, 'cause I don't really have to be artistically responsible in an interview. I can stand on my work. I can be as oblique as I want about who I am and what my public image is. I can say anything. It actually serves the mystery to try and be more descriptive and be hypocritical. It's all in the realm of humor. We're not talking about fucking atomic weapons here, we're musicians. I'm a fucking bone-brain in a lot of ways....all it means is you better be able to stand up for what you say. It's like, if you're out there peddling rabbits and someone gets ptomaine poisoning from eating one of 'em, you're going to have to atone for it."

Given that disclaimer, here're a few ptomaine-free facts: Kirkwood, 35, his brother, Cris, and Derrick Bostrom started the band fourteen years ago, back in the hazy days of punk rock -- or was it New Wave? -- certainly a long time before "alternative" became a blurred catch phrase encompassing everything from Sting to the Revolting Cocks.

And while the evolution of categories has placed the Meat Puppets among the A-word crowd, the band is still creating music uniquely its own. Main songwriter Curt Kirkwood can turn out tunes with pop hooks that smack of Herman's Hermits's simplicity and that have the lyrical sensitivity and melody of Lennon's and McCartney's best solo stuff. The Kirkwood brothers harmonize as only brothers can -- like stoned Everlys -- their voices separate but equal.

All of this is there within the laser grooves of the Puppets's eighth and latest release, Too High to Die, produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary. It's the best kind of album, one that grows on you. "Severed Goddess Hand," "Shine," "Roof with a Hole," Cris's "Station" and "Backwater" (the one you hear on the radio) are songs that simply won't let you down. And the Meat Puppets's music fits anywhere, because it's not an exact thing.

Which is maybe because Curt Kirkwood is not an exact fellow. The question is perhaps not what makes him tick, but what makes him tock. "I thrive on negativity, and I'm just filled with hatred," he says, practicing the art of being oblique in an interview. "That's probably one of my main motivations; it always has been. Spite and revenge." Hey, sounds like an Elvis Costello quote, circa '77. But maybe it's the reefer talking.

And this hatred is for? "Anything and everything. Just totally lashing out, Nineties style, irrational violent tendencies." Kirkwood says the sheer quantity of lashings-out has left him unable to remember his last act of physical violence, but that he tries to engage in "at least one a day." Like taking vitamins.

But it doesn't stop there for the poor, tortured artist. "I'm in a constant state of mental violence," he explains, face as straight as the road to redemption. "That's not to say I'm an aggressive person. I'm not. I come to the arts from a humanitarian angle, and I come to it with an open heart, and that's what I feel. When I go to the grocery store, I'm on an artistic mission. I'm there to buy food, but there's a lot more going on. I have wars with people in the aisles, cyberwars. Over the fucking macaroni and cheese. It's a scummy fucking world, but I find it refreshing and beautiful. In the face of oblivion, what else is there?"

Television, of course. Kirkwood admits to watching late-night TV "on the zombie channel," and says he likes MTV as much as "any of the Ron Popeil infomercials."

"I don't have any consistency with following the media at all in this business," the musician says. "I don't have a subscription to anything except Guitar Player, which I've had for twenty years. I think in the best case, people who do rock journalism enjoy music and want to write about it. In other cases, you have people who are more journalistic paparazzi and just want to take a picture of somebody's butt. But I enjoy it all. Opinions about music are like entertainment for me."

Opinions about bands are usually attendant with comparisons, something else Kirkwood doesn't put much stock in. "I don't see comparisons between any bands, generally. Just the way bands proceed through the music business is always different."

The Puppets continue their own procession. Too High is the band's second major-label release, but it could be the foot in the door of the mainstream. And the group still has its underground sensibilities. For Curt Kirkwood the process of keeping the meat of the Puppets fresh is "organic, but I have to do things to protect it. It's not like it thrives by itself. I have to do business; it's plain old pragmatic business dealings with people.

"As we've started to grow -- the growth has happened really slowly for years, and in the past couple of months, it's been escalating at a pace that really shows the cracks. And there's cracks that show bigtime right now. On a certain level, it's a gleeful adventure, what's happening right now, but we have to fill in those cracks, 'cause they could get huge."

And this is one crack: trying to get his record label to hire someone to drive the band's touring vehicles. "I don't see why we shouldn't be able to. We're a fucking priority at PolyGram right now," he says, wincing. "It's one of the mysteries in my business right now." That's right, after fourteen years, these guys still drive themselves. All over the world. It's not just comfort Kirkwood is after: "I've taken a Winnebago with a U-Haul off the road at 60 miles an hour 'cause I fell asleep," he says. "I know the difference between pampered and safety."

Mortality becomes an issue, particularly when you've got kids at home expecting daddy to come off the road in one piece. Kirkwood seems every bit the devoted father, at one point bragging with pride about the detailed brain his son Elmo has drawn over George Carlin's head on a nearby magazine cover.

Home is Tempe, the town Kirkwood was raised in, and though he may gripe about it, he's as much an Arizonan as Barry Goldwater. "I'm not particularly fond of Tempe," he says. "The boring stability of this place is what I like. It enables me to work free of interference of social bullshit or civil bullshit; overtures of civility. I'm not into it. I'd rather have human contact be chosen instead of random.

"That's what I hate about East Coast cities. They have aldermen and block watch, and they have to live in each other's laps, and I just don't want to do that. I just want to live in my imagination a lot more than that. I can only handle so much, trying to lead a life doing something as fragile as keeping a music career together."

The Meat Puppets, with Stone Temple Pilots and Red Kross, perform at 7:30 tonight (Thursday) at James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave, 372-0929. Tickets cost $18.50.

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Peter Gilstrap