When I walked into the Sweetwater Music Club to see the Meat Puppets perform the other night, the opening act was telling a joke.
“Why did Eric Clapton walk around with a jar full of semen in December of 1968?” he said.
The audience booed, but I thought it was funny. It reminded me of my very first assignment as a rock critic at the San Jose Mercury News, in which I opined that pundits around London must have misread the graffiti that peppered London at the time: “Clapton isn’t God,” I wrote. “He’s just good.”
It was the mid-1980s, and so appalling was this pronouncement that the next morning, the local shock jocks called me up to heckle me about my dastardly opinion on their idiotic morning radio show. “So who do you think is a better guitar player than Eric Clapton,” one of them sneered.
Me, my voice slanting upward like a baby, the way it always did back then until I trained myself not to do that: “Um? Curt Kirkwood?”
Needless to say, the offensive jocks had not heard that name before and used both it and the band’s name to relentlessly harangue me (Meat Puppet? What’s a Meat Puppet? Hey, want to see my Meat Puppet! etc etc etc). But forty years later, here in Mill Valley, it looked like everyone in the audience had somehow come around to my opinion. The venue seethed with men in their 60s, talking about Huevos and wearing Black Flag t shirts, but mixed among them, judging by their conversations, were the grown-up versions of those shock jock’s listeners, by which I mean, Eric Clapton fans, or worse: Dead Heads.
The Sweetwater is the kind of place where locals will go see whomever is playing, which may explain why the gig was sold out. Or, I don’t know, maybe the Meat Puppets had a bigger following than I imagine. There was that time Kurt Cobain covered one of their songs on MTV Unplugged, after all. That was a good gig for them, but what was a good gig for ME was all the other times, oh so many times, when I went to see them and they burned through their repertoire. I can see them now, three beautiful boys, heads bowed over their instruments, their music wandering crisply through the valley of the shadow of songs. It wasn’t death rock, though; quite the opposite, some kind of louder, golden, version of metal. In those days the moniker ‘punk rock’ had a much wider meaning, and a band like the Meat Puppets were welcome in its embrace, despite playing music that sounded like an arid cross between REM and ZZ Top.
It was perhaps an acquired taste though? I didn’t really know anyone who would want to go with me to this show, not at a venue up a wooded glen on a week night, but as I sat quietly in a nearby café staring at my phone while waiting for the show to begin, I saw a message on my Facebook page from someone who was in SF on a business trip and was looking for something to do for just one night.
“Grab a cab over the Golden Gate and come see the Meat Puppets with me” I wrote on her thread, and to my eternal happiness, she did. Honestly, I thought I was the only person left on the planet who would arrive in a strange city and then take a lone cab a long distance to meet up with a total stranger just to see a band from our mutual past, but it turns out that there is one other woman of my age who will do that.
Jenny and I had actually never met (although I love her old band Tsunami, and we once ran a book discussion online together), but in this situation, we may as well have been friends for our whole entire lives, because there is a very particular past experience we share which could very shortly be put as, “Going to see the Meat Puppets.” Or, Scrawl, or Helium, or Autoclave, or any of a hundred-odd other bands who you may never ever have heard of but whose gigs and music and overall outlook stitch our pasts together into one cohesive whole. It’s not something very many people have in common, especially women of our age, and those that do must now be pretty much interchangeable.
In other words, it was like we’d known each other our whole lives.
“Which side do you like to stand on?” Jenny asked briskly, as she went to the bar.
“Left,” I replied, and she nodded. Presently, she met me in the gap I had discovered on the left, the one that gave us the perfect sight and sound lines, and we nodded ever so slightly as an even better spot to watch from immediately yawned open for us, and we stepped into it together. And it was a little like we were children holding hands and entering a fairy tale because from then on it was magical. Every song we either knew or almost knew, every beat was syncopated in our collective heart, every remark we made to one another was either funny or sage and opened up to a new way of thinking about the experience. We speculated on why the keyboard player helped rather than hindered their formerly more sparse sound, if they were better now as a quartet than a trio, what words could be used to describe the very intense vibe that a single man and his brother and his child can conjure up when they’re playing in unison.
Chill. Drone. Hardcore. Meandery, a word I just made up. The Meat Puppets are all of those things at the very same time, as if you crossed Tex-Mex music with Television and then added onto each song a feedback-laden finish a la My Bloody Valentine. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in ages, and that I hadn’t known I’d missed, but as good as it was to reconnect with it, what was better was that feeling of rejoining the secret world I used to live in, with Jenny by my side in real life, instead of just in my imagination. Watching the Meat Puppets play at this obscure venue up at the foot of a mountain reminded me of a recent gig I attended, by a Led Zeppelin cover band in Woodside. That band was led by a colleague of mine, who is a simply superb musician, playing and singing note for note renditions of that really difficult music, even the falsetto bits. There were about ten people in the audience, all wearing slacks and open necked polo shirts, and they were rocking out and singing along with abandon to the song “Black Dog”, which, as you may remember, goes like this:
“Hey there child the way you shake your thing/Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting” (only the way I’ve always heard it is as, “Gonna make you bark, Gonna make you sit”.)
It made me giggle at the time because my friend is actually a professor of 19th century romantic poetry, but it also reminded me of why, in the 80s, my friends and I preferred the music of the Meat Puppets, which has some sonic commonalities with the Zep but songs that go, “A long time ago/I turned to myself and said/you, you are my daughter,” or, “Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand/To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands.”
In short, unlike Zep songs, and Clapton songs and the songs of ZZ Top, Meat Puppets songs are about nothing, but they’re also kind of about everything; the nature of evil, the banality of the working day, the landscape of the sun…you name it. Lyrically, they’re very meta, while the melodies they play are evanescent. Their work reminds me of a nice quote from Jerry Garcia, who, when asked if he minded his fans taping his shows, once said, “My responsibility to the notes is over after I’ve played them. At that point, I don’t care where they go. They’ve left home, you know?”
I love that image, of the notes themselves being shepherded into being by bands like the Grateful Dead – or, in this case, the Meat Puppets, nurtured and created and lovingly curated, and then, leaving home to join Jenny and me, huddled together in confines of a nightclub, embanking ourselves against a cold hard world, burying ourselves, briefly, back in the past. What we do there is secret. I won’t tell if you won’t.