Charlie, Keith and Gary

by Derrick Bostrom


After last Friday's Meat Puppets show, their annual fall visit to Phoenix's Crescent Ballroom, I went up and introduced myself to the two tapers in the process of packing their gear. “Where you gonna upload this stuff?” They were aghast. They would NEVER do something like that!! I was puzzled. What’s the point of taping a show if no one is going to hear it?? But I gave them my email address, promising not to upload anything if they sent me a copy. I also garnered from them probably the only honest appraisal I was gonna get of my performance (except from my wife's, of course). “Yeah, it was pretty stiff…”

Curt and I had spoken briefly the night before the show. He had and idea for a jam based on Charles Manson’s “Garbage Dump” and “Come On Get Happy” by the Partridge Family. I showed up at sound check for a run through. Also sitting in was keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, whose only piece of instruction was the little arpeggiated riff that opens “Come On Get Happy,” which was going to serve as the motif which would stitch it all together. In between, we planned to trowel in copious amounts of space, which was the true purpose of the exercise anyway. We ran though it twice. Cris and Elmo weren’t really clear on how it was gonna go, but they were game. As I said to Cris after the rehearsal, if we pretend we are enjoying ourselves, the audience should go along with us.

Curt called me up midway into their set, where our loose improv couldn’t help but offer stark contrast to the band’s otherwise tight presentation. I felt a little foolish up there, playing such a strange, sloppy piece, especially after I witnessed the powerful noise jam which closed their show. I'm sure our little display went over the heads of most of the crowd. Why did we add lyrics about garbage to the Partridge Family Theme? Oh, it's a Charles Manson song?? That's weird, I guess...but what's with all the noodling?

As soon as I left the stage, I got dragged into a corner by Lucy LaMode, who once sang for Killer Pussy. First she chastised me for not “friending” her on Facebook (apparently this is a serious social crime nowadays; whatever) and then she told me of the recent demise of Killer Pussy's guitarist and Phoenix music legend, Gary Russell. Though I had't spoken to him in over two decades, Gary always had a special place in my heart. Of all the original Phoenix crew, Gary embraced the Meat Puppets most tightly. He got us right away, even asked to jam with us, something we did a half dozen times in the early eighties. You can really hear our mutual affinity on the recordings we produced at the time. Gary was brilliant and hilarious. His seat-of-the-pants approach to improvisation inspired everyone who heard it, especially the Meat Puppets. Gary's example provided the template that we emulated our entire career.

The Puppets continue to improvise during their shows, but it's a very different sort from back in the old days. With powerful young players like Shannon and Elmo at the ready, the band can take a delicate song like "Up On The Sun" and give it a real throttling. Theirs is a very controlled, well rehearsed product. But when I think of my own struggles as a musician, I'm most proud of the chances I took. My style not only allowed for the possibility of failure, it practically ensured it. But this approach gave me confidence. Sometimes it's as much about the willingness to take the journey as it is about the journey itself. You've got to take the risk. Sometimes you even have fight for your right to fail.

Thinking about Gary makes me feel good about our shambolic tribute the other night (which was actually fantastic, tapers be damned). What better way to honor to such agents of chaos as Keith Partridge and Charles Manson? But I like to think the Meat Puppets pay tribute to our chaos master, Gary Russell, every night. After all, as another famous puppet once said, "there is no try..."