Alive In The Nineties?

by Derrick Bostrom in

I wrote this in 2003 for the "Alive In The 90s" DVD. But I decided it was too much of a downer, and besides, it hardly talked about the DVD at all. So I shelved it and started again from scratch. But I still like this piece. It's got lots of good info and offers a reasonable perceptive persective on our major label days, dark though it may be.

January 1990 found the Meat Puppets in a definite career slump. Though our long deteriorating relationship with SST Records had finally collapsed under the weight of mutual acrimony, we had no clear path to the next level. We’d had no luck in landing a deal with a major record label, despite years of trying. In fact, only one company, Atlantic Records, had shown any real interest in signing us. Those talks had stalled, however, when our contact at the label quit to move back home to Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We couldn’t help be feel discouraged and a little desperate. We’d just celebrated our tenth anniversary and we had no money, few prospects, and the gnawing fear that we just might have reached the end of the line.

But a couple weeks later, we got a call from another executive at Atlantic who invited Curt to meet with him in New York. There, over a shared piece of chocolate cake, he revealed his plans to head up the newly activated US division of London Records for the Polygram Label Group. While he assured Curt of a contract, he also warned that it would be at least six months before his plans were in place. We spent that spring and summer playing locally, borrowing money from friends, anything to keep from going broke. Finally, we finally got a massive stack of legal documents in the mail. The contract was the kind of standard agreement new bands always get. That is to say, it was grossly inequitable.

Nevertheless, we signed it in good faith, and in equally good faith we began sending the label 8-track demos of our newest material. Soon enough, we learned just how hard our devil-may-care D.I.Y. ethic would break upon the rocks of real-world corporate practice. It quickly became apparent that to get taken seriously, and to garner any kind of meaningful promotional budget, we needed not only a hit single but also a hit producer. Abortive attempts to produce ourselves had been received with something somewhat less than enthusiasm. We finally agreed upon Pete Anderson, a country producer who’d seen success with Michelle Shocked and Dwight Yokum.

The sessions with Pete took place in Los Angeles, and went quite smoothly enough, for me anyway. I recorded my basic tracks, click-track accompanied of course, in two days. Afterwards, fishing for permission to return back home, Pete told me that it was case of mind over matter. He didn’t mind, because I no longer mattered. We all had a good laugh over that one, then it was Curt’s turn to get the “producer” treatment. He was induced to sing his parts over and over and over again. Pete then used a sampler to stitch together complete vocal tracks from the various takes, modulating the pitch of each syllable to attain an in-tune performance. For Curt, the whole experience was humiliating.

The finished project, “Forbidden Places,” was as clean and professional a record as we’d ever made, even sterile to some, reflecting Pete Anderson’s tastes as much as our own. The album displayed a marked “country” flavor, which Polygram calculated was the best way to market us. Ironically, just down the street, Geffen Records and Nirvana were all set to usher in the “grunge” era, thus rendering our “country” approach commercially obsolete. In the process, they created a juggernaut that would eventually pull us, and practically every one of our “indie” counterparts, along in its wake.

But that was still in the future. For the time being, we had more mundane details to contend with. The time had come, we were informed, to discard a decade of self-management and hire outside representation. We quickly met with a half dozen different management firms, spending in the process more on plane fare and power dinners than we’d earned in our entire career up to that point. And when we finally chose one, we received another “standard issue” contract in the mail.

We spent the rest of 1991 and the spring of 1992 doing all the things bands are supposed to do: we made a video, bought touring vehicles, hired a tour manager and toured our butts off. But all this did little to dampen an opinion that we became painfully aware of: our record label thought we were shit as a live act. Not that we helped matters any. While “Forbidden Places” was a not unpleasant showcase of our various styles of writing and playing – a little hardcore, a little classic rock, a little funk, a little country, a little fusion, you know the drill – we made no attempt to duplicate it on stage. We refused to stick to what we’d rehearsed, playing songs we didn’t actually know and driving audiences away with interminable encores of earsplitting noise. We played too many notes, too fast, too loud and too long. In other words, we rocked out as hard as we could.

We had always thought this was the best way to go; apparently, we were mistaken. As far as our label and our manager were concerned, this was not a party; this was business.  And before we knew it, plans for our next album became hopelessly bogged down. We were told we couldn’t sing, we couldn’t play, we weren’t pretty enough, our songs weren’t “radio ready” and we didn’t know what was best for our own careers. In an act of good faith desperation, Curt enrolled in a series of sessions with a vocal coach and I signed up for some drum lessons. (Both actually helped us, but that’s beside the point.)

Eventually, we arrived at a compromise. We would enlist our old friend Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers to a produce a session in Memphis with an eye towards releasing an “unplugged” EP on one of London’s smaller affiliate labels. We accepted this galling solution, calculating that if the label liked the recordings, they’d agree to scrap the EP idea and green light us for a full-length Leary-produced album. In the end, this is exactly what happened, thanks not only to the delightful sessions we had with Paul, but also to the appearance of a little song called “Backwater.” Curt didn’t consider it one of his better efforts, but the label grudgingly anointed it as an acceptable single.

Thusly, in the summer of 1993,“Too High To Die” was granted life. And all of a sudden, people were talking about us, “Backwater” was on everybody’s buzz list and independent promoters were working on our behalf. It was almost as if somebody somewhere had called in a favor. Then we lucked into a guest appearance on Nirvana’s “Unplugged” special for MTV.  We were on tour with Nirvana the week prior to the taping of the special, and Kurt Cobain had asked the Kirkwoods to teach him a couple of tunes from our 1984 album “Meat Puppets II.” But Cobain was under a great deal of pressure and there had never been enough time to sit down and learn the songs, so Cris and Curt offered to come on the show to provide the accompaniment themselves. Always a great booster of his favorite bands, as well as a great believer in safety in numbers, Cobain agreed (much to the chagrin of MTV, by the way).

Armed with this little coup, we were nearly unstoppable. When “Too High To Die” was released in January of 1994, we were already out of the gate. We traveled non-stop, opening concerts for Blind Melon, Cracker and Soul Asylum and appearing at as many radio promotions and industry shindigs as we could. That summer, we spent ten weeks on tour with Stone Temple Pilots and Redd Kross. Meanwhile, “Backwater” continued its ascent, reaching the number two position on the alternative charts (beat out for number one by Collective Soul’s “Shine”) and even climbing as high as number 43 on the pop charts. Around this time, we also learned that “Too High To Die” was to be awarded a gold record, commemorating sales of more than half a million units.

The spring and summer of 1994 was the high watermark of our career. We played to massive crowds, achieved new heights as a live band, appeared on national television and rubbed shoulders with our fellow celebrities. We were in demand. By my calculation, we averaged at least one airplane ride a week for the entire year. Then Kurt Cobain died, and we had the distinctly dubious honor of appearing almost hourly on MTV, as they played and played and replayed the “Unplugged” special.

And in the end, of course, all the success took its toll on us. As the weeks went by and demand for us increased, we found ourselves continually whisked this way and that, back and forth across the country, constantly busy, constantly tired. And all the while, we piled up recoupable expenses for promotion and tour support at a rate of around fifty grand a month. When the dust settled, we were into Polygram for nearly a half a million dollars. That may not be a lot of money by any real measure of how the game is played, but it was enough to grease within us a growing feeling of uneasy unreality and an almost profound attitude of undeserved entitlement.

When work began on our next album early in 1995, it was plain how much the terrain had changed. We rehearsed perfunctorily, if at all, putting in as little face time with each other as possible. Recordings were conducted lackadaisically, and were received equally so by Polygram. Whereas previously they had micromanaged us incessantly, now their strategy seemed to be one of giving us as much rope as we needed in order to hang ourselves. Paul Leary was back in the producer’s chair for this go round, but for both Paul and us, the stakes had changed. We weren’t hungry this time out; no longer feeling we needed to prove ourselves, we acted instead like we deserved everything we’d gotten. Previous recording sessions always had their share of creative tension, but the “No Joke” sessions were marked by uneasy silences, no shows, sudden eruptions of rage and locked bathroom doors.

In the meantime, the “alternative” trend had pretty much played itself out. Many of the movement’s key players had burned out, died, or broken up their bands. Along the way, rebellious groups were replaced with more career-minded artists who could embrace aspects of the form while still ceding proper respect to their masters. When “No Joke” was finally released in the fall of 1995, it was almost a foregone conclusion that it would not do well.  While there was plenty of great stuff on it, the album struck people as bloated, downbeat and self-conscious.  Our previous records had been so lighthearted; this one seemed to take itself too seriously.  Pronouncing our earlier success a fluke and citing poor sales, Polygram pulled the plug on their promotion plans. Curt in turn cancelled our tour plans and moved out of town. Cris and I found other things to do.

In the ensuing years, we made of show of having “not broken up.” Curt managed to convince Polygram to do another Meat Puppets album, albeit with him as the only remaining original member. But the label reverted to previous form, and in the end they rejected Curt’s album, forcing him to release it on an independent label. He did one tour with the new lineup before calling it quits. I concentrated on the band’s place in history, maintaining a Meat Puppets web site and working with Rykodisc to reissue the seven albums we recorded in the 80s for SST Records, along with a live album culled from my collection of board tapes. Then last year, when Cornerstone offered to a compilation of live video footage, I decided to use the opportunity to tell the next chapter of the story. Whereas the Rykodisc project was devoted to our work in the 80s, the live video would focus on the 90s.

I hit upon the idea of making the project a fan driven one. I enlisted the help of some die-hard Meathead tapers whom had followed us around with their cameras over the years, and they came through with flying colors. One of them sent us terrific footage I had never seen before of a concert broadcast on Italian television. Another had a copy of what turned out to be the very first acoustic show we ever did. Another had all this great backstage footage from the summer ‘94 tour. Since it was impossible for me to be objective about the material, I let the filmmakers at Cornerstone choose what tracks to include. I figured this would fit in well with the concept of it being a fan-based project and it would free me from the kind of second-guessing criticism that I received over the live Rykodisc album!

Watching this old footage, I’m struck by how many conflicting feelings I have about those years. On the one hand, we never actually reached the goals we set for ourselves, both professionally or artistically. We were cavalier in our approach to business as well as music, and let too much slip between the cracks. On the other hand, as cockeyed and off-balance as we were, we still had something special, a unique perspective as impossible to duplicate as it is to describe. Under different circumstances, we might have gotten a better chance to find the balance we were looking for. But in the end, we did what we did, and despite the disappointments, we had a great time doing it.