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Puppet on a String

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By David Holthouse

The phone is no friend to Curt Kirkwood. 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.

Curt and his brother, Cris, were born in Texas but raised just outside Phoenix, a city with about as many native rock stars as natural lakes. 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, can be seen as one of the most influential rock groups of the past two decades. Of the legendary outfits that made SST Records the independent label in the early 80s--Black Flag, the Minutemen, Husker Du--they were the last still standing when grunge blew the underground wide open. In 1991 they put out their first major-label album, Forbidden Places, on London Records. They were signed to London by Bettina Richards, whose disillusionment with the mainstream music industry later led her to start the Chicago-based independent label Thrill Jockey.

Many former indie bands disappeared into the belly of the whale in the 90s, but thanks in part to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who cited them as a primary source of inspiration and covered three of their songs on MTV's Unplugged program in 1993, the Meat Puppets managed to win over a new generation of fans. In 1994, their ninth album, Too High to Die, became their first gold record.

But Curt and Cris haven't played music together in more than three years now. The last time Curt saw Cris, he was probing an abscess on his stomach with a needle, searching for a vein. That was in mid-August, three days after Cris's wife, Michelle Tardif, died--not technically of an overdose, it turned out, but of complications from IV drug use--in the master bedroom of their Tempe home, where the two had been holed up for months. Cris had been passed out in the living room, and when he came to in the early afternoon, she had been dead for hours. He called the band's manager in Austin, Texas, then left the house before police arrived. He may have fled because he knew there were warrants out for his arrest, or because he cracked up, or both.

According to his brother and close friends in Arizona, Cris is lurching pell-mell toward the reaper. He's smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in death-wish quantities. He's overweight from bingeing on Ben & Jerry's ice cream and pocked with the sores and boils that can result when a junkie misses a vein and shoots impure heroin directly into muscle tissue. Though he's been spotted in Arizona and Los Angeles, efforts to locate and interview him for this story were unsuccessful.

After numerous futile attempts, Curt has stopped trying to halt his brother's "suicide in progress." He now lives in Austin, where he's started a new band under the Meat Puppets banner. But he still hasn't officially kicked Cris out of the Meat Puppets. "Basically, we have a nonfunctioning member of our organization," he says. "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."

The Meat Puppets were always a drug band. But they were a pot and acid band, not a coke and heroin band. There's a world of difference.

Curt, who's 39 and a year older than Cris, says he misspent a few nights of his youth snorting coke, and that both brothers toyed with heroin while in their early 20s. But neither of them ever spun out like Cris has now. Curt says Cris began to lose control in the summer of 1994. The Meat Puppets were playing a sold-out arena nearly every night, opening for the Stone Temple Pilots, whose lead singer, Scott Weiland, had his own dope problems. Too High to Die had been out for almost a year, and for the first time, the band had a bona fide single, "Backwater," all over MTV and commercial rock radio.

Along with the rush of overdue fame came serious money. "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." On many nights, Curt says, a weasel would slit open a corner of an ounce bag--$900 worth--of cocaine, squeeze the contents out like frosting into one big line, and set down a box of straws.

Cris was often catatonic in the studio during the early 1995 recording sessions for No Joke!, the first Meat Puppets record after Too High to Die and to date the band's last. The hype preceding No Joke!'s release that fall said the album was good, but doomed. The band's record label, London, eviscerated promotions, including a video, and canceled support for a national tour once it came out that Cris was using heroin.

"My brother cost himself, me, and [drummer Derrick] Bostrom millions of dollars," says Curt. "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 [Gold Mountain, the company that had 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."

Cris's meltdown may have been the Meat Puppets' first, but it wasn't the first to affect the band. In November 1993 the Kirkwoods appeared onstage with Nirvana for the recording of the Unplugged concert, backing the superstars on "Plateau," "Lake of Fire," and "Oh, Me," all from the 1984 album Meat Puppets II. Cobain had also asked them to open a series of shows on Nirvana's In Utero tour, and when Too High to Die came out a few months later, around the time MTV first aired the Unplugged concert, its packaging was stickered with his endorsement: "The Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music. I owe so much to them."

But Cobain barely survived a drug and alcohol overdose in March 1994, shortly before the Meat Puppets were supposed to meet Nirvana in Prague, and in April he shot himself.

"Cobain was a lot of fun to hang out with," Curt says. "I always enjoyed talking with him....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."

Curt, the heartthrob, is finally starting to look his age. He wears glasses now, with big, black Buddy Holly frames. And his hair, which used to cascade past his shoulders, has been cut into a kinetic black ball around his head. The first few streaks of gray have appeared.

He spends most of his days hanging out in his newly outfitted recording studio in the catacombs of the fabled Austin Rehearsal Complex. There's no phone. Some days he jams, some days he writes songs. He says he's writing some of his best songs ever. Some days he records, and some days he just sits around with the guys in his new band and draws cartoons. Curt wanted to be an animator before he became a rock star, and his artwork has graced the covers of most Meat Puppets albums. His favorite character right now is the Wandering Klown, a stick figure in a dunce cap who, in one piece hanging over the studio couch, sodomizes Hitler.

When Curt is able to clear his mind of Cris, even just for a little while, the transformation is remarkable. When he puts on a tape of his new music, takes off his glasses, and dances a mad spontaneous jig in his faded jeans and burnt-orange cowboy boots, he looks like he did, like he should. Intense. Free. Weird and loving it. But sooner or later 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."

He doesn't want to talk about his brother's late wife, either. "I'll just spit vitriol. I'll say this much: She was a groupie," he says. "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.'"

Michelle Tardif was born in Quebec in 1962. She was 36 when she died. She was tall, five-foot-nine, with long brown hair, and spoke with a French-Canadian accent. Her father was a surgeon, and she toured Europe with her mother as a child and young teen. Her mother, Simone, says that while Michelle was studying literature at Concordia University in Montreal, she met an older Greek filmmaker who was teaching there and followed him back to Europe. She modeled in Paris for about three years, then returned to Montreal and finished her degree. Curt and Cris met her after a Meat Puppets concert in Toronto in 1985. But when she moved to Tempe in 1988, Curt says, "it was like she just descended from the clear blue."

A few months before she died Michelle told her mother that she had begun doing heroin following her return from France, but didn't let heroin start doing her until she moved to Arizona, where drugs came cheap and easy from Mexico.

Among the Kirkwoods' close friends in Tempe and Phoenix, Michelle is not fondly remembered. They say she was combative, that she behaved as if she were on camera most of the time. Curt still refers to her as "queenie," and remembers her pulling a chair out from under a ten-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."

Curt says Cris had had a junkie girlfriend once before, when he was much younger. She overdosed on heroin in the Tempe home the brothers shared at the time. The three of them had been shooting up together, and Curt was in the living room when his brother yelled from the bedroom that the girl was dying. Curt dialed 911. Then he went into his room, closed the door, plugged in his guitar, and turned the amp way up.

"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, 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. 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 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 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 threw some infamous all-night parties, at which Michelle would make the rounds wearing a Pamela Morrison-esque lamb's wool jacket, pushing pills on the guests. But after Cris returned from the Stone Temple Pilots tour, they became increasingly reclusive.

During the recording of No Joke!, Curt says, he and Cris were fighting like pit bulls over Cris's habit, his marriage, "basically his whole fuckin' deal." Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, who had also produced Too High to Die, was at the console. "At first, Paul was like, 'This is some brother bullshit you need to put in a drawer until we finish this record,'" Curt says. "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?'"

Curt says the last time he saw Michelle and Cris together was at his mother's funeral, in December 1996. "My bro was already going down, but obviously our mom dying didn't help," he says.

Their mother, Vera Pearl Renstrom, was the daughter of Omaha millionaire Carl Renstrom. The Kirkwoods' grandfather founded Tip-Top Products, a multinational corporation that made hair clips, curlers, combs, and other products, including barbed-wire throwers that were used during World War II. He died in 1981, at age 79.

Vera Pearl, who in the last years of her life ran a southwestern furniture store in Scottsdale, had to fight her half sister for her share of his estate. She married six times--the Kirkwoods' father was her first husband--and Curt says at least two of his stepfathers beat her. "When I was a sophomore in high school, my mom and stepdad at the time had a row, and lit fire to our house," he says. "He just immolated our whole fucking existence. And it was a big deal in my neighborhood, because people already knew how fucked my family was. I took my mom to the hospital to get sewn up half a dozen times before I could legally drive.

"There's always been a demon, and a real heavy one, in my lineage. Psychiatrists say my grandfather wouldn't have been such a bitch if he was on lithium, at least. My mom had it, and I think my bro got it from her."

Vera Pearl died of cancer in a Phoenix hospice at age 59. She divided her estate evenly between Cris and Curt, laying a small fortune atop the one they had already made for themselves.

"Crazy, bad shit like that crosses all cultural and economic boundaries," says Curt. "It doesn't matter how much money you have, the insanity will get in there."

On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 12, the Meat Puppets' manager, Tammie Blevins of Austin-based Blevins Entertainment, got a call from Cris. He was hysterical, and said he thought Michelle was dead. Blevins 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 she 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 hung up on him and dialed the Tempe police herself. Then she called Curt.

A police dispatcher immediately called Michelle and Cris's house. Cris answered.

"Yeah," he said.

"Hi, is this Cris?"

"Yeah."

"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 officers to the scene. They arrived about five minutes later, and when no one responded to repeated knocks they entered through the back door, which was open.

The big-screen television in the family room was on, but the sound was muted. Cris was gone. A burst from the officers' radios alerted them that there were 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."

"I noticed throughout the house, what appeared to be circular blood spatter patterns on the walls and ceiling," wrote a detective who came later. "The circular patterns resembled what appeared to be the contents of a syringe being squirted against the wall and ceiling."

The house was littered with used syringes, 113 total, and other drug debris: burnt spoons, glass pipes, and plastic wrap dusted with cocaine residue. There were also two guns, neither of them loaded.

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 Michelle's hands were "thin and shriveled." The officers recorded needle marks and sores on her neck, arms, and legs, and a bloody discharge from her anus. Her eyes were open and glassy. She had been dead for several hours.

The Maricopa County medical examiner found cocaine and morphine in her system and ruled Michelle's death an accident due to "complications of chronic intravenous drug abuse." The autopsy found that Michelle was suffering from an infected pulmonary valve, severe acute bronchopneumonia, and 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. He promised he would pay me back quickly. So I sent it."

Simone now realizes she probably 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," she says. "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.

Shortly after Michelle died, Curt flew into Phoenix. He came only because he had to. In April, Cris had been stopped for a traffic violation. He told police he'd forgotten his license, and gave them Curt's name, birth date, and Social Security number. He was subsequently arrested for driving without corrective lenses, because Curt wears glasses. In a search of the car, police found cocaine on the driver's side floorboard and a glass pipe in Cris's jacket pocket. He, or rather Curt, was charged with possession of narcotics and possession of drug paraphernalia. In order to clear his name, Curt had to make a court appearance and be fingerprinted. He was there to clean up a mess, not to console or help his brother. He'd already given up on that.

But when Curt saw his brother, he says, Cris was still Cris, at least part of the time. "He'd alternate between being a fiend and crying a lot and acting like my bro."

Curt decided to try one more time. He paid a professional interventionist from California to come help him get Cris into a private, expensive residential rehab center in Los Angeles. Curt, the interventionist, and a group of the Kirkwoods' old friends spent four days with Cris in a Phoenix hotel, trying to talk him into getting on a plane. The tense situation nearly exploded when a hotel security team came into Cris's room.

"Cris wasn't making any noise or scaring anybody, he just wouldn't let the maid in the room, four days straight," Curt says. "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."

Cris eventually did board the plane and check into rehab, but he checked out five days later and went to a friend's house in LA. When Cris called a limo to leave, his friend tried to stop him from getting in, but Cris shoved him out of the way.

Cris ended up back in the Phoenix area, where he was arrested on September 11 for the charges he'd tried to pin on Curt. Out on bail, according to mutual friends of the brothers, he lived in his car for a while, then in a Motel 6. On October 6 he was arrested outside a Scottsdale motel for possession of stolen property and false vehicle registration. A police officer became suspicious when he saw a cracked window and crooked license plate on Cris's Infiniti, ran the number, and discovered the plate was stolen. Those charges, along with the drug charges, are still pending.

Curt's new band includes Bob Mould bassist Andrew Duplantis (who also plays with Son Volt) and two refugees from the San Antonio heavy-metal band Pariah: drummer Shandon Sahm, son of famed Texas singer-guitarist Doug Sahm, who played with the Sir Douglas Quintet; and guitarist Kyle Ellison.

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 and killed himself earlier this year. "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. We help each other out in that respect," Curt says.

The band made its debut in March during the South by Southwest industry conference, under the name Royal Neanderthal Orchestra. One prominent Austin critic dubbed it 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 still under contract with London, the label that put out 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.

Curt says he has about four albums' worth of new material, and plans to start recording early this 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 mean, if this new band puts out something under a name other than Meat Puppets, what's the first thing every fan and critic is going to do? Compare it to the Meat Puppets. So what's the point?

"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 Bostrom has not been involved with Curt's new project. But he's still an integral part of the Meat Puppets. He tends the band's Web page, answers 40 to 60 pieces of fan mail a week, and is organizing the reissue of the first eight Meat Puppets records on the Rykodisc label. Bostrom says the enhanced CDs 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 this spring on Rykodisc.

Bostrom, who says he never did hard drugs and quit smoking pot long ago, hasn't seen Cris since Vera Pearl's funeral, and he hasn't tried.

"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 is waiting for the sunset on the huge wooden deck of his 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 hardwired 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."

The sun paints a veil of clouds on the horizon orange and pink. The air is cool and sweet. In the morning, Curt says, the buzzards rise from the valley below and fly in a vortex, high overhead.

"Fuck," Curt says. "I really wish I could get my brother up here to see this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joseph Cultice.

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