By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Cris Kirkwood was high on heroin and catatonic in the studio during the early 1995 recording sessions for No Joke, the first Meat Puppets record after Too High to Die, and the last one they made. The hype preceding No Joke's release in the fall of 1995 was acute. The album was good, but doomed. The band's record label eviscerated promotions of No Joke, including a video, and canceled support for a national tour when they learned Cris was riding the needle.
"My brother cost himself, me and [Puppets drummer Derrick] Bostrom millions of dollars," Curt says. "His drug abuse was this band's only catastrophe. The record company had big, high hopes for our last album, but when they saw the internal problems, they decided to cut their losses. I don't really blame them. It just got away from us because I wouldn't let him go. Our managers at the time [the Meat Puppets were then managed by Gold Mountain, which also managed Nirvana] knew all about this kind of shit, and they were not fucking into it at all. They told me to get him out of the band, and I wouldn't because he was my brother. I figured he might pull his head out with the album going down the tubes, but he didn't."
Rock-star meltdowns have swirled around Curt Kirkwood without pause for years now, poisoning the air inside his bubble of hard-won success. Before the Meat Puppets toured with Stone Temple Pilots, they went on the road with chart darlings Blind Melon, whose lead singer, Shannon Hoon, overdosed on cocaine inside his tour bus and died the next October.
In November 1993, the Kirkwoods appeared on stage with Nirvana for the live recording of that band's legendary MTV Unplugged concert and performed three songs from their 1984 album Meat Puppets II, a landmark in American indie rock. Kurt Cobain had asked the Puppets to open a series of huge shows on Nirvana's In Utero tour, and when Too High to Die came out in early 1994, around the time MTV first aired the Unplugged concert, its packaging included a sticker with a quote from Cobain: "The Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music. I owe so much to them."
Cobain barely survived a heroin overdose in March 1994, shortly before the Meat Puppets were supposed to meet Nirvana in Prague for a European tour. Those plans were trashed, and Cobain killed himself with a shotgun in April.
"Cobain was a lot of fun to hang out with," Curt says. "I always enjoyed talking with him. We were supposed to meet up with him in Europe, but he was hiding out, killing himself. I don't know what the hell's going on, but it seems like in the past four years, way too many people around me with good things happening for them have gone fuckin' belly-up. They all turned themselves into floaters."
The Meat Puppets have improbably turned out to be the most enduring band to emerge from the stellar class of '84. Although they never had a moment where they occupied center stage as dramatically as did HYsker DY, the Replacements or the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets have hung in there by avoiding the drama that ripped those three bands apart.
-- Spin magazine's Alternative Record Guide, published in 1995
One of the last interviews Cris Kirkwood gave to a writer for a major publication was in August 1994, for a story on the band that appeared in the Boston Globe. "Rock star opulence has, seemingly, not set in," wrote the Globe's pop critic, Jim Sullivan. "Right now, Kirkwood's main concern, as he's talking on a Chicago pay phone, is to avoid being busted. 'There's this big, huge undercover cop who's been staring at me for 15 minutes,' Kirkwood whispers."
Sullivan asked Cris if he had cause to worry.
"I'm clean enough as long as he doesn't look in my pockets."
Sullivan then asked Cris to compare playing arenas with the Stone Temple Pilots to playing clubs in the past.
Cris responded, "I'm just so damaged, I can't remember the past. I have nothing to compare it to. You tell me. How was I? How am I? Who am I? Are you my mommy?"
Cris was flaunting his new toy. Presumably, though, he still knew who his mother was -- Vera Pearl Renstrom, daughter of the late Omaha inventor and millionaire Carl W. Renstrom. The Kirkwoods' grandfather founded Tip-Top Products, a multinational company that made plastic hair curlers he invented, among other products (including barbed-wire throwers during World War II). Carl Renstrom died in 1981 at the age of 79.
Vera Pearl died of cancer in December 1996 in a Phoenix hospice. She was 59. Her will divided her estate evenly between Curt and Cris, placing a second small fortune atop the one they already had made for themselves.
"The doctors never were sure exactly what killed my mom, but I'd say it was probably hard living," says Curt. "She always partied like a motherfucker. It runs in the family."
Vera started a Southwest-style furniture store in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1987 and made frequent buying trips to Mexico, even after cancer began to consume her. Vera's vibrating personality got her marked as a rich eccentric.