Thursday, June 2, 2011

The early Meat Puppets (1981-83): the IN A CAR 7", compilation tracks, the first LP, and a digression into the BETHEL cassette compilation

Meat Puppets circa 1982

Of all the bands featured on SST Records’ THE BLASTING CONCEPT compilation LP, only Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü had released records outside the label. Most of this pre-SST activity was subsequently integrated into the label’s catalog, so for many later listeners, these early rumblings are often thought of as just part and parcel of the whole grand whoosh of the SST experience. And it was that, but it also deserves to be given its own bit of the spotlight. I’ll hopefully deal again with the Dü at a future point, but first let’s look at the early Meat Puppets. Hailing from Phoenix and then Tempe Arizona, the Puppets were a bit outside of the close-knit L.A.-zone that erupted on the first bunch of SST releases. The band’s early sound was a cross between sun-baked hardcore and damaged art bashing that endeared them to such Cali outliers as the Happy Squid label and the prolific weirdness of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Made up of Curt Kirkwood on vocals and guitar, Cris Kirkwood on bass and Derrick Bostrom on drums, they announced their presence to the world with the 5-song IN A CAR 7” EP in 1981, released on the World Imitation imprint.

It’s a quick blast of a debut, with no song lasting much over one minute in length, and it focuses mainly on a slobbering, deranged plunge into the heart of the then upstart hardcore nation. Where a lot of stuff from the hardcore scene now suffers from sounding formulaic or generic, giving off a strong vibe of “you really had to be there”, that’s not the case with this one for a few reasons. First, Curt’s vocals spend most of their time alternating between an unrestrained shriek and the agitated gibbering of a man that’s lost every last one of his marbles, and the hyperactive looseness of the music matches his overwrought performance. In addition, “Big House” is a scrappy, addled take on popish punk, and the instrumental “Out In the Gardener” already points to the psyche-rock that would become the Pup’s international calling card (as does some of the guitar in the largely hardcore “Dolphin Field”). I won’t deny that if IN A CAR had been the band’s only release it wouldn’t register as much more than another welcome curiosity from the punk-era, but I do think the record deserves a significantly higher rep than it generally gets. This single is often lumped in with the first LP and denigrated as the Meat Puppet’s formative period and I think that’s a big mistake, basically because spending substantial time with the material has given me much pleasure. And these moments well spent have really assisted me in nailing down the strength of their early work. I get the impression that many reviewers spun IN A CAR a handful of times when it was reissued by SST in 1985 and concluded that it was unredeemably sloppy. That’s the wrong approach. The whole record is five minutes long: play it thirty times in rapid succession (that’s one half of an hour) and the ears will start to pick up on the shrewd blend of yes overt sloppiness but also the underlying energetic togetherness that makes this more than just another example of a group’s unruly  but undistinguished origins. It’s not a piss-take or the fitful seizures of a band outgrowing punk. The standalone worthiness of IN A CAR is one of the myriad small examples of what makes the punk impulse still such a big deal. With this said it wasn’t a straight jump from the 7” to the SST album. 1981 saw them appear on Vol. 2 of the L.A.F.M.S.’s LIGHTBULB magazine EMERGENCY CASSETTE, where they rubbed shoulders with such notable names as Bruce Licher, Asmus Titchens, BPeople, Pep Lester, Dennis Duck and Phranc.

The track is called “Meat Puppets” (not to be confused with the same-titled different cut on the first LP), and it’s halfway between a punk band falling apart and some impressively cacophonous art-splatter. This was apparently the first thing the band ever recorded. Detractors will retort that it sounds that way, but I think it has a definite cockeyed upstart appeal. The same year also found them contributing to the seminal Cali-art-punk comp KEATS RIDES A HARLEY via Happy Squid.  That disc deserves its own post (as does EMERGENCY), detailing major names like The Gun Club, 100 Flowers, The Leaving Trains and Human Hands, but suffice to say here that “H-Elenore” finds Meat Puppets in the very fine and deranged form that permeated the first LP. The guitar stutters and scorches, the drums are heavy and fleet, the bass rumbles and thunders and Curt’s spraying lung debris all over the place.

The real wild card is the band’s contribution to the self-titled LP by the L.A. band Monitor. I lucked into an original copy of that album roughly twenty years ago and it’s given me some fine times since. Released on World Imitation, the record finds Monitor wiggling like greased-up eels between something vaguely Residential (very keyboard driven) and a pricklier/wonkier early-‘80s West Coast art-rock impulse. Not far from the gentler side of the L.A.F.M.S, the record’s something like a lost classic of the early-‘80s California underground in all its highfalutin glory.

Throw in the Meat Puppets factor (plus the fact that some backing vocals are provided by future film director Allison Anders [she of BORDER RADIO and GRACE OF MY HEART] and her daughter Tiffany) and I’m stumped as to why the disc isn’t better known. “Hair” finds the Pups wailing along with Monitor member Steve Thomsen’s keyboards and the result is a nice bit of shuddering racket that sticks out on the record like a throbbing appendage. And that was precisely the point.

Now the stage is set for their coming out on SST. It’s immediately striking that MEAT PUPPETS is noticeably heavier than the above detailed material, a fact that can be credited to ace producer Spot. Curt’s vocals are more whacked-out than ever and his guitar sound feels like it could inflict physical harm, Cris’s bass has advanced far beyond punk orthodoxy, filling in spaces and driving forward instead of just deepening the overall sound and Derrick’s  drums are spastically brutal. There is still the whiff of deformed hardcore, but the best way to sum up this record is to call it one of the wildest left-field desert-fried weirdo punk records that the underground ever belched out. There’s a palpable smart-alecky tone to some of the proceedings, particularly the treatment given Doc Watson’s “Walking Boss” and the near destruction of The Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds”, but this never crosses over into mere gimmickry. They are suitably much more concerned with being noisesome and rocking in a wonderfully sideways fashion. At their less disruptive moments they can conjure a vision of a scaled down violin-less early Camper Van Beethoven that’s default mode was punk grit and anger instead of instrumental adeptness and irony. “Tumbleweeds” and “Meat Puppets” were among the first punk songs I heard around ’87 or so via THE BLASTING CONCEPT, and the unadulterated strangeness of the pair (and the whole of CONCEPT in fact) informed me right quick that all the stories I’d heard about punk being a limp fad was the counterfeit wisdom of old men and squares. MEAT PUPPETS is probably in the end too proudly warped and abrasive to ever really overcome its status as a minor record by a soon to be great band and if this is its fate then sadly that’s the breaks. I feel safe making the prognostication that it’ll be handed down by generations of noise-starved malcontents until the planet finally spins off its axis. Staying power it most assuredly has.

Back in ’99 Rykodisc did an admirable job of rescuing and reissuing the Meat Puppets early catalog from SST’s despairing later environs, and the disc that couples the debut with IN A CAR and a heap of additional tracks is a stone dilly. The HARLEY, LIGHT BULB and Monitor cuts are all here, as is their contribution to ‘82’s AMUCK comp from Arizona’s Placebo Records (home of weird-meat skate punks Jody Foster’s Army, don’t cha know). The rest is all previously unissued, and it’s suitably all over the place. A relatively reserved cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”? Check. A mauling of Iggy & the Stooges “I Got a Right”? Yup. A twisted, harried and rocking run-through of Neil Young’s “I Am a Child”? It’s here. A warped and prescient take of The Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower”? Oh yes indeed. There’s also three alternate album takes, including a wildly different version of “Milo Sorghum & Maize” and a pair of unreleased originals from the period, both really showing the band itching to get into their next fruitful phase. But more on that at a later time. Rykodisc deserves great praise for collecting all of this important early material and storing it onto one CD, where the totality displays just how successful the Meat Puppets were at using their collective warped imaginations to brutalize the confines of genre. Since I have an easily bended rule about buying physical releases more than twice, I’ve thus far settled for downloads of the Ryko issue. Not to be all upstanding, but I got ‘em through EMusic, so if you use that service and want to hear this stuff go there. Of course there are no liner notes to pore over and the intriguing enhanced video that comes with the compact disc is obviously absent, but a person can’t have everything. Everything? Well a curious footnote of the early Meat Puppets relates pretty damn well to the concept of completism. In 1983 the band sent a snippet of a noise jam titled “Soup” by request to some now anonymous Euro industrial manic for inclusion on a compilation cassette titled BETHEL.

This was very homemade labor, not on a label, with only 500 made, the kind of thing that disappears without a trace, stuffed into closet and forgotten about or tossed into the trash by uncaring parents or hoarded in deafening silence by anti-social collector dudes to become the stuff of legend, spoken of in hushed tones in private conversations: I talked to this guy who knows this girl that used to date a fella from upstate whose brother might have a copy of the tape. No, since he’s on disability and lives in his parents’ basement it’s doubtful he’d sell it but it is likely that for 20 bucks or something he’d tape it for us.  Ah, the information sponge that is the ol’ internet has come to the rescue again. With a little web searching the download is easily findable and Bostrom even put up a link on the Meat Pups’ site to the excellent blog The Thing On The Doorstep that currently hosts the MP3s. What a classy, solid thing to do. As for the BETHEL tape….it’s a fascinating head-scratcher. “Soup” shares two sides of a C60 with a hard to fathom array of names; an appealingly abstract solo cut from Bauhaus Goth-merchant David J; the brutal, squalling power electronics of Pure featuring future Skullflower noise maestro Matthew Bower; the experimental genre unto themselves that is Nurse With Wound delivering some home-spun tape collage; industrial long-servers Coil providing an swell instrumental that’s a readymade for some student film sountrackery; Irish Goths and Tesco Vee faves The Virgin Prunes appear with a bit of piano driven mope; Jim “Foetus” Thirwell doles out two idiosyncratic cuts, one that sounds like crystalline pianistic New York minimalism and another that’s a collusion between a toy keyboard, a randy xylophone, some mournful horns, a siren and assorted vocal sounds; L.A. art-rockers The Romans bring a bit of keyboardy sonic drift; two tracks surface from problematic but undeniable ideological provocateur Boyd Rice in his formative industrial/noise mode; L.A.F.M.S. vets The Doo-Dooettes give some typically well-fleshed out art-screwiness; and there’s a concluding uppity live cut from post-punk rhythm-riders 23 Skidoo. If this lineup has you salivating like a famished guest at a swank banquet then rest assured that in those feelings you’re a lot like me. How do the Meat Puppets fit in to this wild scheme of affairs? They acquit themselves pretty damn nicely and much better than Bostrom’s indifferent assessment. “Soup” might be a toss off, but it’s more than okay for all that, a loose bit of free-rock noodling that won’t give Dead C a run for the money but is worth the time nonetheless. It’s certainly not a life changer but it is testament to the breadth of these guys’ impressive scope. Since it’s available for free any interested party can grab it and decide for themselves without the often intrusive expectations of rarity. And in the bargain absorbing the whole cassette will shed lovely light on one mysterious figure’s intense devotion to the thriving underground and the striking powers of selection that were the result of the effort. That the Meats Puppets are involved is just a truly bonus wrinkle. And in closing, don’t be seduced by the general line on the Pups’ early days, for their ragged beginnings are an important and rewarding nook in the labyrinthine crannies of North American punk’s volatile history.

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