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Against All Odds, the Meat Puppets Are Rocking Again

Alternative icons return after bassist’s 10-year struggle with drugs

Austin Scaggs Jul 21, 2009

The day after Christmas in 2003, Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood pulled into a post office parking lot in Phoenix in a demented rage. He was a mess: Years of heroin abuse had left his body riddled with needle marks, his teeth had fallen out, and he weighed more than 300 pounds, thanks to another addiction ”“ Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. An old lady claimed Cris cut her off, and Cris was fired up. “She squawked at me and I told her to fuck off,” he remembers. The incident quickly escalated: The woman called a post office security guard, whom Cris ended up clubbing with the guard’s own nightstick. As Cris walked away, the guard fired a bullet into the musician’s back. “I was like, ”˜God, you shot me!’ ” says Cris. “ ”˜I thought we were just having a tiff! Fuckin’ A!’ ”

Today, Cris, 48, is sober and back down to 165 pounds. After his release from jail in July 2005 ”“ where he served 18 months for assault ”“ he has begun piecing his life back together: kicking his addiction and, most important, getting back -together with his brother, guitarist Curt Kirkwood, 50, to play music. In May, the Meat Puppets released their 12th album, Sewn Together. It’s a set of sunbaked psych rock that’s their best record since 1994 ”“ and a testament to the healing power of rock & roll. “We’re still as fuzzy and freaky as we ever were, but now there’s something even more musical about us,” says Cris. “It’s a trip.”

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The Arizona trio rose to fame in 1994 after appearing on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special. At that session, Cris and Curt backed Kurt Cobain on three songs culled from 1984’s Meat Puppets II. “[They] gave me a completely different attitude toward music,” Cobain said at the time. Soon after the show aired, the Puppets released their bestselling album, Too High to Die, featuring the hit ”˜Backwater.’

After a tour with Stone Temple Pilots in 1994, Cris got deeper into drugs. “We were never prurient in our approach [to drugs] ”“ it was always reasonable,” says Cris. “But it started to get out of hand.” By the time the band met in early 1995 to record its next album, No Joke!, Cris was a full-on junkie. “He was nodding off throughout the sessions,” remembers Curt. “I said, ”˜You need to get into rehab in 24 hours.’ Cris called me back after 23 hours and 59 minutes and told me to go fuck myself.”

Though the band was at the peak of its popularity, the Puppets were finished. They cancelled a tour, and their management (whom they shared with Nirvana) dropped them. “I wrecked the Meat Puppets,” Cris says. “This thing that we’d cherished, that we worked our whole lives for, I fucking wrecked it.”

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For the next 10 years, the brothers led separate lives. They saw each other at their mother’s funeral in 1996, but Cris was a recluse by then, holed up with his wife, Michelle Tardif, in their Tempe, Arizona, home. When Tardif died of an overdose in 1998, police found 113 used syringes and blood-spattered walls. Tardif weighed 88 pounds.

Still, it took Cris’ prison stint to turn his life around. “I knew I was done with dope,” he says. “I was finally able to contain myself.” In 2006, the brothers sat down for the first time in eight years. “I said, ”˜I’m ready to put a good spin on the shit story that you’ve written,’ ” recalls Curt. At that very first reunion, the Kirkwoods started jamming.

Currently on tour, the band sounds as good as ever. “What was special about us is alive and kicking,” says Cris. “The other stuff is a footnote ”“ a significant one. My story is a tragedy. The things that were lost can’t be retrieved, but I’ve managed to rise from the ashes.”

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