The phone is no friend of Curt Kirkwood's. Too often, the tidings it bears are foul. He calls them "incomings from Tempe." They go like this: Your brother's wife overdosed this morning; She's dead.
Your brother got busted again last night, and he told the cops he was you.
Your brother showed up at my house yesterday with a crack pipe and a bag of needles, and he looks like hell.
Your brother took off from rehab.
Your brother's holed up in a Motel 6, smoking rock like it's Judgment Day.
Born in Texas but raised just outside Phoenix, Curt and his brother Cris became the most famous modern-rock stars ever from that desert metropolis. Curt played guitar and wrote a lot of songs. Cris played bass and wrote a few. When they sang together, the Kirkwoods were purposefully seldom in tune.
Yet as the lens of retrospection contracts, their band, the Meat Puppets, is viewed as one of the most influential groups of the past two decades of rock music, and arguably the most. Six months before he splattered his brains, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain cited the Meat Puppets as a primary source of inspiration. All at once, the Puppets were lifted from underground heroes to certified-gold recording artists by sales of their 1994 album Too High to Die.
That title now haunts the band.
Curt says the last time he saw Cris, his brother was probing inside an abscess on his stomach with a needle, searching for a vein. This was in mid August, three days after Cris's wife, Michelle Tardif, had died of an overdose in the master bedroom of their Tempe home, where the two had been holed up for months.
It was Cris who found her body. He had been passed out in the living room, and when he came to in the early afternoon, Michelle had been dead for hours. Cris called the band's manager in Austin, then fled the house before police arrived. He may have run because he had felony drug warrants out for his arrest, or because he cracked up ... or both.
Regardless, according to his brother and close friends in Arizona, Cris Kirkwood is lurching pell-mell toward the reaper, track-marked arms open for the embrace. He's smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in death-wish quantities. Overweight from binging on Ben & Jerry's ice cream, he's pocked with the sores and boils that result when a junkie misses a vein and shoots impure, infectious heroin directly into muscle tissue.
After numerous, futile attempts to convince Cris to step back from the abyss, Curt now seems resigned to his brother's fate. He describes Cris as "a suicide in progress." The two haven't played music together for almost three years.
"Basically, we have a nonfunctioning member of our organization," says Curt, who now lives in Austin, where he has formed a new band under the Meat Puppets banner. "My brother is on all the Meat Puppets records up to this point, so he's still a Meat Puppet. He's just a Meat Puppet in outer space. I can't say he's in the band when he doesn't know what fucking day it is."
The Meat Puppets were always a drug band. But they were known for pot and acid, not coke and heroin. There's a world of difference. Rare is the pothead who picks through the fibers of his living-room carpet for hours, looking for a tiny nugget, or the acid eater who finds himself paging a dealer at 4 a.m., jonesing for another hit.
Curt, at 39 the elder of the two brothers by a year, says he misspent a few nights of his youth staying up all night, snorting coke. And, he says, he and Cris both toyed with heroin in their early twenties. But all that was over years ago, and neither of them ever spun out like Cris has now. Not even close.
Efforts to locate and interview Cris Kirkwood for this story were unsuccessful. Friends haven't seen him since a few days before Halloween.
Curt says drugs began taking control of Cris about four years ago. The Meat Puppets were playing a sold-out stadium nearly every night, opening for Stone Temple Pilots, whose lead signer, Scott Weiland, developed a heroin addiction that soon would be chronicled. Too High to Die had been out for almost a year, and, for the first time, the Meat Puppets had a hit single, "Backwater," all over MTV and commercial rock radio.
Alongside the rush of overdue fame, the Meat Puppets were suddenly making serious money. The members of Stone Temple Pilots were already multimillionaires.
"All that loose dough brought out the weasels," Curt says. "I observed the weasels and learned their ways. Wherever you are, the weasels find you after the show and push really good dope in your face."
The partying on that tour was epic. Curt tells of many nights when a weasel would slit open a corner of an ounce bag of cocaine -- $900 worth -- then squeeze the contents out like frosting into one big line and set down a box of straws. "It was Hollywood Babylon at its finest worst. The refuse of that tour is still floating around, in the form of Scott Weiland and my bro."
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.
"Anyone who knew my mom will tell you she's one of the craziest fuckin' people they ever met," Curt says. "But she'd run circles around everybody. She didn't need anything from anybody. She was doing them favors all the time. Odd as she may have been, my mom was a beautiful and energetic woman. She was just really hard to follow in a conversation."
Curt laughs and sips a Beck's. He all but quit drinking earlier this year, and one beer lasts him an hour.
"Psychiatrists said my grandfather wouldn't have been such a bitch if he was on lithium, at least," Curt says. "There's always been a demon, and a real heavy one, in my lineage. My mom had it, and I think my bro got it from her."
There is another Meat Puppets birthday to report today. This time, a Happy Birthday is going out to Cris, who is celebrating his 38th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Cris!
-- Meat Puppets fan web page, October 22
Curt looks different when he talks about his brother. He looks tormented. Wizened. For a change, he looks his age. He wears glasses now. Big, black, Buddy Holly frames. And his untamed hair, which used to cascade from his shoulders to his abdomen, has been cut short, into a kinetic, black ball around his head. The first few streaks of gray have appeared. Curt says watching your brother shoot up into an open sore will do that.
He spends most of his days hanging out in his rehearsal space and newly outfitted recording studio, within the catacombs of the fabled Austin Rehearsal Complex. His space there is a sanctuary. There's no phone. Some days Curt jams, some days he writes songs. He says he's writing some of his best ever these days. Some days Curt records, some days he just sits around with the guys in his new band and draws cartoons. Curt was going to be an animator before he became a rock star, and his artwork has graced the covers of most Meat Puppets albums.
When Curt is able to clear his mind of trouble, to forget about Cris just for a little while, the transformation is remarkable. When he puts on a tape of his new music, takes off his glasses and closes his eyes, he looks for a while to be at peace. His eyes are bright, his face smooth, his limbs loose. He looks like he did and should. Intense. Free. Weird. And loving it.
But always, the pall settles back over him like a shroud.
"I hope the record company gets my ass busy, soon," he says. "I don't want to sit around, thinking about all this awful shit every day anymore." No, Curt says, he doesn't want to talk about his brother's late wife. "I'll just spit vitriol. I'll say this much: She was a groupie. Also, I always thought she'd kill my brother first. Beyond that, I don't believe she deserves any coverage, to be quite honest. If she's out there in ghost land right now, and she knows you're doing this article, she's laughing. She's going, 'Fuck, this is so perfect.' "
Among the Kirkwoods' close friends in Tempe and Phoenix, Michelle Tardif is not remembered with fondness. They say she was combative, in your face, and behaved as though she were on camera most of the time. Curt still calls her "queenie" and remembers her pulling a chair from beneath a 10-year-old girl at a party "just because she could."
"I don't think anyone ever figured out exactly what Michelle's deal was," he says. "She always just seemed really out of place and trying way too hard to compensate. She was just heinous with that mouth. Her whole deal was, 'Here I am. Now, deal with me.' She was just so, so punk rock all the time ... She set her sights on my bro, who's always been weak where women in his life are concerned."
Cris had had a junkie girlfriend once before. Curt says his brother saved her life when she overdosed on heroin in a Tempe home the brothers shared. The three of them had been doing heroin together, and Curt was in the living room when his brother yelled from the bedroom that his girlfriend was dying.
Curt took one look at her, dialed 911, then went into his room, closed the door, plugged in his guitar, turned the amp way up, and started to wail.
"I didn't know how it all turned out until this lady cop walked into my room," Curt says. "My brother had given her CPR and kept her alive until the paramedics got there, and she made it. I think it was about then me and my bro decided it was time to edit drugs out of our lives. The truth is, Cris and me, our lives were always rife with drug abuse -- our own and others' -- so it's no wonder one of us wound up fucked, really. Still, my bro and I conscientiously stopped shooting up dope more than ten years ago. I thought we'd come out the other side unscathed.
"The ironic thing about Cris being all wiped out is, I was always the crazy one. I was the one who got all fucked up on drugs in high school. My mom used to have to send him to come get me because I'd get too dusted and not know where I was. That was 20 years ago. Same locales, though. Same fuckin' places. He had to come scrape me off the floor one time from a place in Tempe just around the corner from the house where he lived with Michelle, and that was back when Tempe was a long way from Sunnyslope. He was pissed that time. He was like, 'Mom made me drive all the way down here, you stupid motherfucker. I hope she kills you.' "
Curt puts a flame to an American Spirit cigarette and bends forward to rub his temples. He exhales blue smoke through his knees, then looks up and leans back.
"The other anomaly here is, I always thought the Meat Puppets were a relatively stable band. Cris and I would sit back and watch our friends in the Butthole Surfers or the Chili Peppers or Nirvana or whoever dealing with serious drug problems in the band, and we'd go, 'Wow, through the grace of God, we're doin' all right. We're 12, 13, 14 years old as a band, and we're doing better and better, and none of us are junkies.' We were congratulating ourselves on negotiating the minefield when Cris went boom."
Michelle and Cris were married in February 1995; Curt wasn't invited. Michelle began introducing herself as "Mrs. Meat Puppet." The couple became known for throwing intense, all-night parties, where Michelle would make the rounds in her lamb's-wool jacket, literally pushing pills on people.
After Cris returned from the Stone Temple Pilots tour with a significant cocaine and heroin habit, the couple became increasingly reclusive. "They fed on one another," says Curt.
During early 1995 recording sessions for No Joke, Cris was a mess. Butthole Surfers guitarist and band friend Paul Leary, who produced Too High to Die, was back at the console for the follow-up. Curt says he and Cris were fighting like pit bulls over Cris's drugging, his marriage, "basically his whole fuckin' deal."
"At first, Paul was like, 'This is some brother bullshit you need to put in a drawer until we finish this record.' Then, after a few days, he came up to me like, 'You know, I think Cris might have a drug problem.' Meanwhile, Cris is nodding out with his bass in his hands, and I'm like, 'You think so?' "
Where do bad folks go when they die?
They don't go to heaven where the angels fly
They go to the lake of fire and fry
Don't see 'em again, till the Fourth of July.
-- From "Lake of Fire," Meat Puppets II
Early in the afternoon of Wednesday, August 12, Curt Kirkwood's phone rang in Austin. It was his manager, Tammy Blevins, of Austin-based Blevins Entertainment. She told him Cris had just called, hysterical, saying he thought Michelle was dead. Blevins had told Cris to check for a pulse. Cris put down the phone, and Blevins could hear him yelling Michelle's name. He came back on, crying, and said his wife was clearly dead.
"I can't handle this," he told her. "I can't take this."
Blevins told Cris to hang up and call the police, but he refused. He told her he couldn't live without Michelle. Afraid he was about to kill himself, Blevins broke the connection and dialed the Tempe Police Department, then called Curt.
A police dispatcher immediately called Michelle and Cris's house. Cris answered.
"Yeah," he said.
"Hi, is this Cris?"
"This is Tricia with Tempe police. Is something going on there?"
"Oh, hang on just a second. I'll be right back with you."
Cris never came back on the line. The dispatcher sent two patrol officers to the scene. They arrived, and, when no one responded to repeated knocks, they entered the home through the back door, which was open.
Not five minutes had passed since the dispatcher had talked to Cris, but he was gone. A burst from the officers' police radios alerted them that Cris had two warrants out for his arrest. Otherwise, the house was quiet.
The officers began a room-by-room search.
"The entire house was quite dirty/cluttered and there were large piles of clothing, miscellaneous personal belongings, and housewares stacked in each room," one of them wrote in his report. "When we came to the first of two bathrooms, the light was on and I noticed what appeared to be dark colored excrement smeared on the side of both the bathtub and toilet, and on the bathroom floor.
"Throughout the house, I noticed what appeared to be circular blood spatter patterns on the walls and ceiling. The circular patterns resembled what appeared to be the contents of a syringe being squirted against the walls and ceiling."
The house was littered with used syringes -- 113 total -- and other drug debris: bent, burnt spoons; glass pipes; and "cupcake-type ... wrappers," lightly dusted with cocaine residue.
Michelle's body was in the master bedroom. She was lying across the foot of the bed, clothed only in a white T-shirt. A blue elastic hair band was tightly wrapped around her left arm, just below the elbow. Inches from her left hand were a small baggie with cocaine residue, a syringe, a lighter and a piece of cotton in a burnt spoon.
"The body was very thin and emaciated, almost having a skeletal appearance," one officer noted. "The pelvic bones protruded grossly from the hip area." The fingers on both Michelle's hands were thin and shriveled. The officers recorded needle marks and sores on her neck, both arms and both legs. Her eyes were open and glassy. She had been dead for several hours.
The county medical examiner ruled Michelle's death an accident, because of complications of chronic intravenous drug abuse combined with an overdose of morphine and cocaine. The autopsy found that Michelle was suffering from an infected pulmonary valve, acute bronchopneumonia and severe malnutrition at the time of her death. She weighed 88 pounds.
Two nights before Michelle died, Simone Tardif says, her daughter called her from Tempe. She sounded sick. She begged her mother to wire her $200 immediately. "I said, 'My God, why? Cris has more money than I will ever make.' She just said, 'Please, please.' "
Cris came on the line and reiterated the plea. "He told me he couldn't get any more money from his accountant for a few days, and it was just a passing thing, but they really needed the money right then, not in a few days," Simone recalls. "He promised he would pay me back quickly. So I sent it."
In so doing, Simone Tardif now realizes, she likely bought her daughter's final, fatal high. "The sad thing is, Michelle told me she was supposed to go to the Betty Ford Clinic the next week. So you see, I wish I would not have sent the money. She just sounded so weak."
Cris kept his promise. He wired Simone Tardif $200 a week after Michelle died.
We're not a band; we're nasty little microbes eating away on the skin of this big dumb rotting fruit. We're going to plod along like the Galapagos rock trolls that we are. We'll continue to hawk our wares to the voracious consuming public. Then, a few years after that, death.
-- Cris Kirkwood, July 1994
Shortly after Michelle overdosed, Curt flew into Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. He came only because he had to. In order to clear his name on the false drug charges Cris had tried to pin on him, Curt had to make a court appearance and be fingerprinted. He came only to clean up another mess Cris had made, not to console or help his brother. He'd already tried.
When Curt saw his brother in August, he says Cris was still Cris, part of the time. "He'd alternate between being a fiend and crying a lot, and acting like my bro."
It was enough to make Curt try to help, one more time. He paid a professional interventionist to come from California and help him get his brother into a private, high-dollar residential detox and rehab center in Los Angeles. Curt, the interventionist and a group of the Kirkwoods' old friends spent four days with Cris in a hotel near the Biltmore in Phoenix, trying to talk him into getting on a plane. The tense situation nearly exploded when a hotel security team went into Cris's room.
"Cris wasn't making any noise or scaring anybody," Curt recalls, "he just wouldn't let the maid in the room, four days straight. So these security guys show up, and all of a sudden, this situation where we're just trying to get my brother on a plane becomes this big fucking thing, because there's a lot of shit in his room, and the security guys are threatening to call the cops, which would have been a catastrophe."
The interventionist was able to mollify security. "He's an older man, about 60, and a real respectable pro. He dealt with them. He said, 'Look, we're just trying to get a very sick man to a hospital,' and even when he put it in that light, they were just like, 'Good.' They treated us like shit, just because my brother was in a bad way with drugs.
"This stigma our society puts on junkies is fucked. My brother is not a bad person. It's a sickness. I wish someone would force medical treatment on him. But the law says you can't force medical treatment on people. Instead, you put them in jail. Well, fuck, that doesn't make any sense. To someone in my position, that's infuriating.
Cris eventually got on the plane and checked into rehab, but he checked out five days later and went to a friend's house in L.A. When Cris called a limo, his friend tried to stop him from getting in, but Cris shoved him out of the way. That was in late August. Cris showed up in Tempe in early September. Curt heard from mutual friends that Cris was living in his car for a while, then a Motel 6. Curt says no one has seen him since a few days before Halloween.
On October 6, Cris was arrested outside the Royal Inn Motel in north Scottsdale for possession of stolen property and false vehicle registration. A police officer became suspicious when he saw the license plate on Cris's Infiniti was haphazardly attached, ran the number, and discovered the plate was stolen. Those charges are also pending.
Cris turned 38 on October 22. Curt didn't send him a present or call. "I have no idea how to get in touch with him."
Months before that last failed intervention, Curt stopped waiting for Cris to come back and moved on without him. In the fall of '97, he formed a monster new band with Bob Mould bassist Andrew Duplantis (now on tour with roots-rock notables Son Volt) and two refugees from the San Antonio wunderkind heavy-metal band Pariah: guitarist Kyle Ellison and drummer Shandon Sahm, son of famed Texas singer-guitarist Doug Sahm, of Sir Douglas Quintet fame.
Curt says Ellison is one of the few people who can relate to his bitter conundrum. Ellison's brother, Sims, played bass for Pariah. Sims went into a deep depression after Pariah was dropped by Geffen Records and killed himself two years ago.
"I think it's a day-to-day struggle for both Kyle and I to deal with our reality right now and keep from irrationally thinking we're pathetic worms because it's all our fault," Curt says. "We help each other out in that respect."
Curt's new band debuted in March at Austin's South by Southwest, the music industry's largest annual conference. They played under the name Royal Neanderthal Orchestra and received ecstatic reviews. One prominent Austin critic dubbed R.N.O. the most promising new band to emerge from the city in years.
"Everyone just assumed we'd be signed to some fat deal in a matter of weeks," Curt says.
The thing is, though, Curt already has a deal. He's under contract with London Records, the company that released Too High to Die and No Joke. And unless he's willing to give up the rights to the name Meat Puppets, which he's not, Curt is obligated to provide London with two more Meat Puppets records, which he's now happy to do, with or without Cris. Curt says he has about four albums' worth of new material and plans to record a new Meat Puppets album early next year.
"It seems like every time I've picked up a music magazine in the last two or three years, I've read about how the Meat Puppets disbanded in '95, or I see myself described as 'ex-Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood.' And I'm like, 'Hey, I didn't say a fucking thing about the band breaking up, did I?' No. It's my band. Just because I've got a junkie brother, that means no more Meat Puppets? Whatever.
"I had enough money to take as long a break as I wanted, so I did. I have enough money to retire now, but I don't want that. Every other kid in the mall has at least heard my band's name, so I'd say I still have places to go."
So far, original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom has not been involved with Curt's new project. He is, however, still an integral part of the Meat Puppets. Bostrom tends the band's Web page, answers 40 to 60 pieces of fan mail a week, and is organizing the coming reissue of eight Meat Puppets albums on the Rykodisc label, which will contain live concert footage and bonus tracks. He is also overseeing the compilation of a live album of Meat Puppets concerts in 1988, due out next spring, also on Rykodisc.
"My future role in the Meat Puppets is somewhat up in the air," Bostrom says. "But, obviously, the Meat Puppets as an entity will continue, new album or not."
Bostrom, who says he never did hard drugs and quit smoking pot long ago, hasn't seen Cris since the Kirkwoods' mother's funeral, almost two years ago.
"I can't help other people slay their dragons," Bostrom says. "The situation as it stands is very sad, but I've known Cris a long time, and I've never thought of him as fundamentally weak. I think he may get out of this mess alive."
Curt also admits he holds out hope.
"No matter how logical or cynical or realistic I try to be to protect myself, of course I still have hope. He's my brother. There would have to be a tremendous amount of mending, but there's always a place for him."
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Curt is waiting for the sunset on the huge wooden deck of his new, beautiful home in the hills that skirt Austin. There is a hot tub on the deck and a swimming pool and Curt's bulldog, Lulu. His silver Lexus is parked in the garage. He doesn't look happy.
"I'm unrequited," he says. "It's just hard to fuckin' deal with what's happened in my life in the last three years, with my mom and my brother. I mean, here I am, with my shit so fucking hard-wired and together. I got lots of potential left, and a lot of bread. But it's a cold comfort having real money for the first time in your life when your family is dying off around you."
In the morning, Curt says, the buzzards rise from the valley below and fly in a vortex, high overhead. The sun paints a veil of clouds on the horizon orange and pink. And the air is cool and sweet.
"Fuck," Curt says. "I really wish I could get my brother up here to see this.