By Stephen B. Armstrong
The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood from Meat Puppets II to No Joke!
Rowman & Littlefield
In the late-1970s, after rolling through London and into New York City, punk rock music continued its North American migration all the way to California, where bands like the Germs and the Flesh Eaters banged out aggressively anti-establishment songs with angry guitars, caterwauling voices and crashing drum kits.
Punk in the West differed in one big way, however, from the stuff that emerged in Britain and up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Instead of reworking and deconstructing traditional pop music structures and themes as the U.K.’s Clash and New York’s Ramones and Blondie had, bands like X, Rank and File and the Gun Club drew inspiration from country music, lifting riffs from Chet Atkins, sneering like Johnny Cash at social injustice and wearing, more often than not, the boots and bolo ties that Buck Owens had made popular playing gigs in and around Bakersfield.
One of the early perpetrators of this countrified sound—“cow punk” as the critics called it—was Meat Puppets. A trio comprised of brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood and their friend Derrick Bostrom, the band did not hail as so many other western punkers had from southern California but emerged instead out of the working class suburbs of Phoenix. The first couple of records the band released were harsh and fast, with leader Curt Kirkwood’s reedy voice calling and screaming above waves of pretty noise that owed as much to Richard Hell and the Voidoids as the Louvin Brothers and Ralph Stanley. But with the band’s 1985 release, Up on the Sun, an hallucinatory sound emerged—more often psychedelic than punk, more jazz than country—thanks primarily to Curt’s wheeling guitar, which seemed to be guided at once by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, the then-living Jerry Garcia, Neil Young and Pat Metheny. This rich, swirling quality has infiltrated the Pups’ sonic output ever since.
Unfortunately lost at times, perhaps, amidst the beauty and strangeness of the band’s music are the complexity and resonance of Curt Kirkwood’s lyrics, which Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder thirty years ago described as “Dylanesque.” One person who has long recognized and admired the song’s verbal properties, however, is Matthew Smith-Lahrman, a sociologist by training who grew up listening to punk rock. With The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood from Meat Puppets II to No Joke!, he has set out to do what no rock and roll scholar has before: to give Kirkwood’s lyrics a close reading, classifying the images, symbols and ironies that surface in the songs in order to explore and articulate their thematic meanings.
Published earlier this year after more than a decade’s work, The Meat Puppets and the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood narrows in on the nine albums that the band’s original lineup—the two Kirkwoods and Bostrom—made together between 1983 and 1995. Writing in an exceptionally clear and thorough manner, Smith-Lahrman examines each album in chronological succession. “The songs are interpreted,” he explains, “in the order in which they were made available to the public.”
A characteristic example of the author’s exegetical approach comes through in his reading of “Scum,” from the original band’s final release, No Joke! For the reader’s benefit, he includes the lyrics in their entirety, and then unpacks them piecemeal. For instance, of the song’s refrain—which reads “Under the stone / We find the scum / Under the stars / We find the scum”—Smith-Lahrman explains that “The use of the word ‘scum’ is a provocative term suggesting…that people and the beauty of the Earth under the stars are no more grandiose than the world of things under rocks….Curt’s use of ‘scum’ plays upon the negative or derogatory meaning of the term. This is what makes it provocative. He could have used ‘antelope’ or ‘jelly beans’ or ‘puffy white clouds’ to make his point about people being no more or less important than everything else, but he uses ‘scum.’ Because ‘scum’ is seen as something people don’t want to be, the term connotes nastiness and grossness. To suggest that we are no different than scum is to point out the arbitrariness of our classifications of beautiful and ugly.”
In addition to his interpretive efforts, Smith-Lahrman provides insights about the history of each album’s creation along with information about the band members’ experiences outside of the studio, ranging from their friendship with Nirvana to Cris Kirkwood’s devastating heroin addiction, and how these experiences contributed to Meat Puppets’s evolving sound. Through the process of writing the book, as well, he interviewed the original Puppets extensively, and he quotes from these talks liberally, which, in turn, broadens our understanding not only of how Curt went about writing the band’s songs and lyrics but also what meanings the lyrics may or may not have.
In a telling passage, for example, Derrick Bostrom reveals that “Curt never would cop to meaning anything in his material. We used to have jokes on what the song[s] might be about. And usually they weren’t really about anything so much as just very basic imagery. He was very into Shakespeare. What he got off of Shakespeare was the notion that language could stand on itself with or without meaning, that it could have a lyricism apart from concrete meaning, and obviously he was liberated by that.” Smith-Lahrman, it has to be noted, never claims that his interpretations are definitive. Instead, he admits candidly that Kirkwood’s language is so often oblique that it infers rather than declares—and that it is open to multiple, even contradictory readings. All the same, one leaves this book with a better sense of what Kirkwood has achieved technically as a songwriter and a richer understanding of what he’s said through his music and verse.