Meat Puppets

SST Records SST 100

“The best rock ‘n’ roll,” Curt Kirkwood told Spin magazine, “reminds me of teenagers on angel dust fucking.” While Kirkwood’s vision is hardly straight out of hippie canon, it does represent an authentically 80s version of the counterculture’s dream of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as one ecstatic reach for the stars. Kirkwood also offered Creem magazine this idyllic portrait of his band, the Meat Puppets, on a weekend lark: “We used to go out and get wasted and romp around naked and throw rocks at each other.” That’s also pure 60s, at least if you substitute Frisbees for the rocks.

No, Kirkwood is not some paisley-clad nitwit fumbling through the latest volume of Nuggets or Pebbles in search of a cool cover. In fact, when I talked to him a couple of years ago, Kirkwood told me he was never into 60s psychedelic music. Walt Disney, yes. The Grateful Dead, no. He also told me he didn’t need drugs to get messed up, admitting that “my thoughts are confusing enough.” With no psychedelic inspiration via music or drugs, I asked, how exactly did the Meat Puppets end up sounding so . . . so . . . psychedelic? “What we’re trying to do,” Kirkwood replied, “is evoke the essence that holds the leaves to the trees.” Roll over Jerry Garcia, tell Walt Whitman the news.

What Kirkwood really evokes, in interview and in the Meat Puppets spacey and fanciful amalgam of American music, is a cheerfully confused young man heeding the call of his very own 80s era Mr. Tambourine Man. Since their start in Phoenix in 1981, the Meat Puppets have embraced neither the rage and rant of punk nor the doom and gloom of postpunk. Instead, this shaggy trio came staggering out of their desert suburbia, still rubbing sleep and dreams from their eyes, and fell right into the fields of experience. That may be why the Meat Puppets are the 80s’ only real psychedelic band. I’m not talking postpunk psychedelia or pop psychedelia or neopsychedelia, but the real stuff — wide-eyed and western, shaky at the center, ragged around the edges, fitfully beautiful, occasionally transcendent, and thoroughly whacked-out.

Like Dylan circa ’65, the Meat Puppets, in life and song, seem “ready to go wanderin’.” Of course, labeling something “real psychedelia” is critical and semantic folly, but the open-minded, sidewinding musical path of the Meat Puppets should earn them at least a free copy of Rand McNally’s Maps of Consciousness: Desert Edition.

Besides, I can’t think of another band that could crank out a piece of guitar-frenzied surrealism like Mirage’s “Liquefied” and honestly claim they don’t know Rimbaud from Roky Erickson. Sample lyric: “Cowtown on the horizon/Boiled in twisted jade/Pearly wooden fishfight/Calico cascade/Portable nylon lobster/Big bad Southern brew/Dried up aluminum water/Spilling down on you.”

What I mean by “real psychedelia” is that the Meat Puppets sound like they’ve stumbled onto something of their own, as opposed to all the psychedelic revivalists who simply can’t update their record collections. The Meat Puppets aren’t slaves to history or to the studio skills that shape the music of Prince, XTC, the Three O’Clock, or Robyn Hitchcock, all acts that graft psychedelic ornaments onto their pop songs with calculated precision. Appropriately, the Meat Puppets’ somewhat fractured live performances pay little obeisance to the late and heavy 60s. Instead their choice of covers reflects whimsy (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Earth Angel,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream”) or real roots (Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” or their Zeppelin-like cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly”).

Mirage, the Meat Puppets’ fifth album counting last year’s Out My Way EP, is their finest, as close to a polished artistic arrival as you’d want from a frisky antipop band committed to musical spontaneity and adventure. Mirage doesn’t resolve the confusion, self-discovery, and play that mark the group’s path, but it does resolve the stylistic restlessness of the last four records. Curt Kirkwood sings more expressively, adding some randy growls and throaty imprecations to his typically flat delivery, and his writing succumbs to the notable hook and economy of form as never before. Regardless of the visionary lyrics, a song like “Quit It” is the kind of tuneful and visceral rock ‘n’ roll you might expect from the Replacements. The Meat Puppets’ newfound passion is also heard in “I Am a Machine,” which transmogrifies James Brown’s “Sex Machine” on the fresh-faced and exciting terms of Kirkwood’s latest discovery — sex.

Mirage doesn’t tie up all the Meat Puppets’ delicious loose ends, but it does, in 60s parlance, get it together. The hard and speedy pulse of Meat Puppets I is still heard in the metalish meltdown of “Liquefied,” while the country-delta of Meat Puppets II goes clip-clopping across the suburban frontier in “Confusion Fog.” Even the hard-rocking Out My Way materializes here, albeit couched in Kirkwood’s fanciful imagery and florid guitar work. Since 1985’s Up on the Sun, it is Kirkwood’s tripped-out sensibility, in which the rapture and horror of the impressionable mind are mirrored in a fantastical natural universe, that defines the Meat Puppets.

While it Would be easy to read Kirkwood’s hippiness as mere dippiness in these cold, investment-oriented times, I think it’s encouraging to see a young man who’s unhip enough to be hippy. Who else is going to write genuinely romantic but not sappy paeans to the elements (“The Wind and the Rain”) or to kids (“Love Our Children Forever”)? “The Wind and the Rain” is introduced by an ornate and stately guitar figure worth of an Elizabethan ballad, and the tone of “Love Our Children Forever” is set with a slow, molten intro that recalls Hendrix at his most sensual. If Kirkwood’s imaginative plucking and picking seem more anchored than ever before, it’s partly because the anchor, bassist Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom, have become nimble. If the group is still compared to the Grateful Dead, it’s partly because Kirkwood’s guitar style, like Jerry Garcia’s, evokes the fleet-fingered work of American bluegrass, Middle Eastern bouzouki, and Far Eastern koto players.

More than either of their distinguished peers, the Replacements and Husker Du, the Meat Puppets represent the flowering of hardcore punk that insists on further flowering. Their music, in all its flaky wonder, offers neither the punk-plus-pop verve of Husker Du nor the boozy catharses of the Replacements. Maybe that’s why they are still on the SST label. It’s hard to outfit the Meat Puppets with an image, and their audience remains an unidentifiable collection of oddball adventurers. Most rock fans simply won’t rally behind a band that contemplates, as “The Mighty Zero” does, the mysteries of the null set, emptiness, the void, the number that adds up to nothing, the goose egg, naught on none, and so on. Maybe Beckett or Sartre would understand, but then again, they’ve never been to Phoenix.