Route 7 Review
Issue #2 2014
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1950 the population of Phoenix, Arizona, was 106,818. By 1960 that number had jumped 311 percent to 439,170. Among those who moved there were Iowan Ed Bostrom and Minnesotan Sandra Thomson, who, in 1960, gave birth to Derrick Bostrom, future drummer for the seminal country/punk/psychedelic rock and roll band the Meat Puppets. By 2013, when the following interview was conducted, Phoenix was the nation’s sixth largest city with a population hovering just short of 1.5 million. Derrick conjectures that he is of a rare species, a person who was born in and has stayed in Phoenix his entire life.
In what follows I talk with Derrick about growing up in a growing city, about being a liberal punk rocker in a high school full of cowboys and disco queens. He talks about Phoenix as a city that has never been much concerned with conservation of resources, instead opting for offering attractive economic incentives and welcoming all comers to this desert oasis. He also tells me why the Meat Puppets first broke in Los Angeles rather than the Valley of the Sun and why, nevertheless, they stayed in Phoenix though the rock music industry was located a six-hour drive to the west.
Finally, Derrick tells me what he’s been up to in the eighteen years since he stopped playing in the band: his job as a top IT tech at a grocery store chain, his blog, his photography, and the Internet radio show he produces every week.
Matt Smith-Lahrman: You’re a lifelong Phoenician, aren’t you?
Derrick Bostrom: Yes. I was born here in 1960. My folks went to Arizona State University. We lived down in kind of a suburb off the downtown drag until about 1968 when we moved up to Paradise Valley, when my mom remarried. Paradise Valley being a farther out suburb of Phoenix, more of an upper-middle class kind of place.
I started my band in 1980 with the Kirkwoods [brothers Curt and Cris]. I had gotten into punk rock about 1977 and had tried to get just about everybody I knew who played music to start a band with me. The Kirkwoods were the ones that stuck. They were the most interested in actually performing out. So we created our own little hippie North Phoenix upper-middle class band. Played with the other punk rockers. Did well enough to attract attention in California. Got some records made. Got opportunities to tour. And then stuck with it for fifteen years. Put out ten records or so. Got a Gold Record. Got most popular from our affiliation with Nirvana, who liked our early records and invited us on tour. Those tour dates we did were right before their [MTV] Unplugged show, and we were able to arrange to appear on that program, cuz he [Kurt Cobain] was looking for material to play, and he wanted to do some of our songs from our second record, Meat Puppets II. His Unplugged record—we appeared on it. It had some songs on it and did well enough to allow us to cash in on our fifteen years of struggle. Doing that one record made us much more money than we ever made on our own. By that time we were so exhausted that that little payday was all it took for us to basically retire, which we did until that money ran out, at which point the Kirkwoods went back on the road, and I, in the meantime, got a job working for Whole Foods Market. I am now the lead IT supervisor for the Arizona area, which is seven stores.
MSL: Do you live in Phoenix proper now?
DB: I still live in Phoenix.
MSL: Are you of a generation in Phoenix to be born and stay your whole life in Phoenix?
DB: I don’t think anybody is born and stays their whole life in Phoenix. I know very few people who were born here and are still here fifty years later. My mother’s father got an opportunity in the late-fifties to run a development financing company. My father’s father was a Methodist minister who got a parish here. So they met while they were here.
MSL: Were your parents born in Phoenix?
DB: No. They were born in the Midwest. My mother’s folks are from Minnesota, my father’s folks are from Iowa, I think.
MSL: That’s a pretty standard story for people in Arizona.
DB: I suspect that the generation before ours, mine anyway, was a little more rootless because of the mid-century depression and war, et cetera, et cetera. Whereas the era I was born into was much more stable.
MSL: So your grandparents moved your parents to Phoenix?
DB: Yeah, but actually both of my parents were adult by that time. Both of them were college age by the time they moved in.
MSL: In the little research I did for this interview, if you look at the numbers, the city of Phoenix in the year you were born had 439,000 people. By 2010 it had 1.4 million people. Then if you look at the entire Phoenix metro area in 1960 only 663,000 people, and by now it’s over 4 million. How do you account for that growth in your lifetime?
DB: Personally, I account for that growth from the fact of the Rust Belt phenomenon and loss of industry jobs in the Midwest and also the rise of extremely business-friendly government here. I think a lot of that has to do with trying to attract people to the desert by letting them do whatever they want. So, like, you had Motorola move out here, created a lot of jobs. A lot of aerospace. I know that in parts of the city the pollution regulations were quite a bit laxer. So you can find plenty of evidence of groundwater pollution and “cancer corridors,” as it were. Plus making it easier for developers to build. Same thing as Las Vegas. Another town hard hit by the recession.
So in the post-war United States not only was there air conditioning, there were also freeways and airports and things like that, making people spread out more. And also the irrigation phenomenon, which came around as a response to the Dustbowl. They began to irrigate more and spend more time focusing on dams and water management. Obviously water management is a huge thing here. We are basically fed by the Colorado River through a series of uphill waterways that are run by pumps called the Central Arizona Project, which keeps the city from having to use its polluted groundwater.
When Phoenix was a smaller city, there was a lot more vegetation, a lot more trees. Trees lined the major thoroughfares. There were a lot more grass lawns. Now we have a heat island here cuz of the size and also because there is a lot of land banking in the city proper. There are a lot of failed developments that are now just vacant lots, retail-type office real estate in the city that is basically vacant lots because they just don’t want to spend the money to build them or sell them.
We also have, over the last five years, a greater rise of dust storms that are coming in from Tucson. Weather always comes up from Tucson during the monsoon season in the summer. Due to extreme developments, failed developments, and also increased development now there is so much open ground that it pulls so much dirt off of the ground when the wind comes from Tucson and Phoenix gets engulfed by dust a couple of times a year. This is a recent phenomenon. The people who are from out-of-town, they call them “haboobs,” and that is a term that we never used to use. We’ve always had dust storms but nothing like this, where you’ll see walls of dirt that engulf the city in the summertime.
They say that we’re not so much experiencing a drought as that we’re no longer experiencing a wet season. In the late-nineties climate changed a little bit, so it wasn’t quite so moist. It used to start cooling off around August or September, and now that’s pushed back by at least a month or so. We’re seeing the effects of a certain amount of climate change here.
MSL: What about something I think you’re interested in, based upon your photography, the architecture of Phoenix? Is there anybody interested in preserving the older architecture, or is it just raze a building and build a new one?
DB: It’s a city that during the post-war period, mid- to late-forties through the mid-sixties, had a strong modern architecture movement. There are a lot of celebrated architects who come out of here. There’s a strong movement to preserve buildings. Obviously Frank Lloyd Wright settled here. There was a big fight just last year to save a house that he designed for his son. That was actually saved. He has Taliesin West out here, which is a beautiful, beautiful place. It’s also getting old and needs to be restored, needs to be preserved. If you go to the Modern Phoenix website you’ll find a really well-documented website about Phoenix modern architecture: the drive to save it, some of their successes, some of their losses.
MSL: I read that “Phoenix is reinventing itself into oblivion [see downtownphoenix.com/blog, ‘An Artist, A Bar Tab and a Historic Building,’ March 25, 2010].” What does that mean?
DB: Well, there is that. You move to the outer edges of town, where there are all sorts of failed developments and future failures of tract houses and malls and areas that are not sustainable. Ten years ago, during the crash, we lost a lot of development. Lots and lots of money was lost in the construction industry. Attempts to revitalize it is usually still along the lines of what they did before. There are young people trying to do things in a scaled down, more sustainable way. Your usual suspects. Your artisans joined with your developers. Still the question is: Can a city out in the middle of the desert survive in the face of post-peak oil, post-water crisis, and financial crisis? We shall see.
Most of the stuff that gets built out here is ugly as hell. But that’s my opinion. I’m fifty-years-old. I have an affinity for the stuff of my youth.
MSL: Well, let’s talk about your youth. Did you go to public schools, Derrick?
DB: I did go to public schools. I went to Tavan public school on Osborn and 46th Street. Then when we moved up to Paradise Valley. I went to Kiva Elementary School. Then I went to Chaparral High School. Aside from a year at U of A [University of Arizona] that was all the education I got.
MSL: This is the seventies, right?
DB: I graduated from high school in 1978.
MSL: What was the public high school like?
DB: I went to high school in 1974 through 1978. Back [then], there was probably one computer in the whole school. It was kind of a scaled down mainframe. There would’ve been one computer programming class that you could do the usual punch card routine with. We had an AV class where we had a black-and-white two-inch videotape machine, and all the nerds used to like to play with videotape. It wasn’t really computers. I was the editor of my high school newspaper my senior year and was a staff member in my junior year.
MSL: What was the name of the newspaper?
DB: The Chaparral Ashes. I cut my teeth writing journalism—paste up, et cetera—for my second half of high school. That was probably the main thing that I did besides read comic books and listen to rock music. Then I got into punk rock. But I really liked the journalism classes that I had taken. They led me to some of the probing that I did later, some of the reading and the writing that I did. But obviously I was more interested in being a rock musician, so I did that.
MSL: What was the popular music atmosphere at your school? What kind of stuff were the kids listening to?
DB: Top 40. Disco. We were listening to Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Yes, King Crimson, Grateful Dead. But the average teenagers were listening to whatever was on the Top 40. Disco was massive. We hated it. I learned to like it later, after it had ended. People used to dress up with their Farah Fawcett hairdos and their disco clothes, and we dressed up in our jeans and t-shirts.
MSL: What was radio like? The stuff you’re telling me you listened to you weren’t hearing on the radio.
DB: No. Well, that’s not entirely true cuz Phoenix was one of the birthplaces of progressive radio in the seventies. There was a station out here, which still exists, but it doesn’t have the same programming, called KDKB. It started in the early-seventies. It started as an AM radio station, and when they moved to FM, it was KDKB. It was one of the most progressive radio stations in the country. It was in the format of the San Francisco progressive stations, where DJs would do long free form sets that had a theme, which you were supposed to guess. They had alternative news. Those kind of stations were the ones that were breaking the Fleetwood Macs, Bruce Springsteens, Patti Smiths, of the period. We actually had a rich radio situation in Phoenix when I was growing up. AM radio was just the usual. You looked at the play list, and that’s what you got. You got Wings, you got the Sylvers, whatever.
MSL: Where were you getting most of your music? Record stores?
DB: Record stores. Friends and their older siblings. Most of my friends had older brothers, although I was the oldest in my family. Most of the stuff I was getting was from the older brothers of my friends. And then KDKB. They would play the latest from the Grateful Dead and Zappa and all that kind of stuff.
We also used to go to the Unitarian Church when I was growing up. So my main social group was an organization in the Unitarian Church called the LRY, the Liberal Religious Youth, that was disbanded in about 1980 for being entirely too radical and too independent. It was really big on the East Coast, not as big out here, though it was certainly big to us. But compared to the organization they were doing on the East Coast, we were nothing. It was pure counterculture, pure hippie. Much more so than the church would’ve allowed had they known. When they did find out, they disbanded it.
In fact, we used to sneak into the church and jam, and that was one of the places where I met the Kirkwoods for the first time as they started to gravitate toward our little clique of Unitarian hippies. In fact, we mentioned that in one of our interviews in the local press—that we used to break in to the church, and our minister sent a letter retracting it to the magazine, saying, “It does not reflect the views of the church.”
The LRY was a national network of countercultural teenagers. I have some newspapers of theirs from back in the times, in ’75 and whatnot. The stuff that they talked about then is the same stuff that you’re hearing about now in the mainstream press. It gives you a sense of how this stuff has moved to the mainstream a little bit, but it’s still contentious: alternate sexuality, race, women’s issues. We were big on that then, the country really wants it now, or at least a large portion of it; but there’s still a great reaction against it. The beautiful thing about the seventies was we could talk about this stuff amongst ourselves, and the disco fans didn’t know from it, and we weren’t in their faces. And we could ignore them, and they could ignore us, and now we’re all in each other’s laps. Back in the seventies, we were a counterculture. Nowadays a lot of the same stuff has become tedious in the constant back-and-forth about it. When Obama became president it was like “Great! This should’ve happened in 1968.” And now the forces of reaction against it are a worldwide embarrassment.
MSL: So then punk rock. Do you remember a moment when you realized that “This is punk rock?”
DB: Sure. I first heard about punk rock in the front pages of Creem magazine. I had gotten into Creem probably a year before punk rock happened and had noticed that the really good stuff in there was by artists I’d never heard of. People like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Creem gave grudging acceptance to Zappa and Rundgren, the bands that we liked. But they really liked these harder bands. I didn’t care for that kind of music, didn’t even care for the Rolling Stones when I was a young hippie. I thought they were too hard, but realized that guys like Lou Reed were actually saying stuff that was intelligent, that I could relate to. And then when I started reading interviews with Johnny Rotten, I was like “This guy knows what he’s talking about! I agree with this guy!”
KDKB began talking about some of the local punk rock bands, and I started hearing some of that stuff. I started realizing that punk rock was a movement that I could relate to. I started going to the shows that I could get in to. There was one show I could not get in to. I tried to, but it was at a bar, and I was underage. The New Times wrote an article the following day about how “If you didn’t go to the show, you suck.” So I wrote them a letter, going “Umm, if this is supposed to be so great, they should play where young people can see it.” I was actually contacted by the writer and his roommate, who was the singer in the band. I got to know those guys and began to go to their shows, and they turned me on to punk rock music.
MSL: The Consumers.
DB: Right. That’s what really got me into it. You could go and see Todd Rundgren or Frank Zappa, but that was just so alien and so isolated. But actually having the local punk rock heroes send you a letter, going “F*#! you! You should come and see our show!” was a revelation. So seeing the stuff up close and personal and meeting another group of older guys that I connected with was a big inspiration to me. After that I wanted to get into a band.
Most of my friends thought that punk rock was appalling. They not only thought that the music sucked, but they thought that it was a betrayal of our ideals, and that it was reactionary. The funny thing about it, of course, is that there were plenty of people who likened the hippies to the Hitler Youth movements of the twenties and thirties, and the hippies were comparing the punk rockers to the Hitler Youth. From now on, any time a youth movement comes along they get compared to the original kids who used to get together to talk about how they hated their parents. So no matter what happens, no matter who comes along, you’re always compared to the Nazis first. So it was with the hippies and so it was with the Black Panthers and so it was with the punks. But obviously I was not a Nazi.
Meet Derrick Bostrom