What they got were two longhaired acid-punks from Arizona. Kurt Cobain had been a fan of the Meat Puppets’ psychedelic hardcore ever since he saw them open for Black Flag as a teenager, and he invited the band’s brotherly duo of Curt and Cris Kirkwood to sit in on a trio of songs from their seminal 1984 album, Meat Puppets II. The suits grumbled, but what were they going to do? Tell the most important musician of his generation to duet with Sting instead?
Five months later, Cobain would be dead, and Unplugged in New York would serve as his tombstone. The Meat Puppets, meanwhile, have trudged on, through their own encounters with addiction and death. Earlier this year, the band released its 14th album, Rat Farm. On the occasion of Unplugged’s 20th anniversary, however, we asked the Kirkwoods—and the show’s producer, Alex Coletti—to recall how they wound up stumbling into immortality.
Cris Kirkwood: One night, we were sitting around with, what’s the one guy’s name, the blond guy? From The Kids in the Hall? The gay dude from that show? Anyway, we were sitting around one night…maybe it wasn’t that night. Fuck, I don’t know. It was Cobain’s idea entirely, obviously.
Curt Kirkwood: We got asked to support Nirvana on tour in the fall of ’93, when they were doing In Utero. We went out a few weeks with them and got to know them a little bit, and Kurt asked me if we wanted to go up there and play some of our songs they were planning to play on their Unplugged thing. Pretty straightforward.
Cris: He brought up that he wanted to do some of these songs off Meat Puppets II during their Unplugged thing, and we were like, “You could certainly do that. Curt can show you how the songs go or whatever.” And then Cobain just took it to the next thing and he was like, “I’m going to have you come on TV with us and do these songs with us.”
Curt: We’d been in the studio in the early part of ’93, when London [Records] was trying to figure out what we should do next after Forbidden Places. We’d gotten in there with [Butthole Surfers’] Paul Leary, and we were going to do an acoustic EP and those three songs we had already done. We’d done them acoustically a good number of times, at record stores and what not. Our stuff, there’s some riff rock and some stuff that’s a little more challenging to play acoustically, but it’s mostly folk music at its heart.
Cris: MTV didn’t really want it to happen, as I recall. They were somewhat disappointed we were the guests they chose to take on TV with them.
Alex Coletti: When [Nirvana] said they were bringing in a guest, everyone thought, for some reason, it would obviously be Pearl Jam. Why would it be? But at the same time, why wouldn’t it be? So when it was the Meat Puppets, it was like, “What?”
Cris: It was no big whoop. It was charming. “Oh, how sweet, they don’t want us.”
Coletti: I knew the name wasn’t going to send waves of joy down the halls of MTV, but when you have Nirvana onboard already, you don’t need the guest to be Bob Dylan. So Kurt wisely brought in somebody he wanted to shine a light on and sing with, other than just another name for the marquee value.
Curt: We spent a week rehearsing in New Jersey, just convening every day. We’d play the songs through kind of roughly. It wasn’t really intense.
Cris: The one thing I remember from the practices really clearly is that, one day, Bobcat Goldthwait came by. He was getting ready to go on The Tonight Show. We were sitting around talking about how he wanted to do something memorable, and my suggestion, as I recall, is that he should tip over Jay Leno’s desk. I’m pretty sure he lit the fucking [guest] chair on fire or something. I think that negatively impacted Bobcat’s real career, but it sure makes for a great memory for me.
Coletti: We did this at Sony Music Studios on 54th Street, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. So you’re not coming into, like, the MTV corporate headquarters. You’re coming into this room where we built this little cocoon of a set, with drapes and stuff, so it was a really safe environment. It wasn’t intimidating. And they clearly had a relationship, the two bands. If anyone felt uncomfortable, it was me and the crew, because we were in their space now. We were the ones playing catch-up. I don’t remember the brothers feeling shell-shocked or camera shy or any of that.
Cris: During the practice sessions, I just played bass. When we did the live thing, I took Krist [Novoselic]’s seat, and I took the bass chair, and he had a microphone set up for him. I definitely went ahead and went, “There’s a microphone here, it’s TV—I’m fucking singing backups.” It wasn’t practiced, and to my ears, it sounds like that. Also, at the end, since there was a mic there, I just wanted to say something. What do you say? “Hey, I like to thank these guys for having us on”? So I said, “Fucking Nirvana!” And the funny thing about that, I heard that song on the radio one day—and this is straight radio, those people have their standards and whatnot—and all of a sudden, really clearly over straight radio, I go, “Fucking Nirvana!”
Curt: I have a kind of overall remembrance of the feeling that, there was us musicians, including Nirvana and Lori [Goldston], the cello player, and there we are, in the little fish tank, and everyone’s pointing. The one thing about [Nirvana] is they’d been through a lot, but they were still a lot like us, in that, I don’t think they considered themselves outsiders as much as, that’s just the way it is. Even in a situation where it’s their show and all that, it’s like being a reverse Wonderland, where you’re going, “Huh huh, look at that! Here we are on MTV!” There’s a cartoon aspect.
Coletti: They did three songs together, and two of them made the initial broadcast. All of them made the record. So it wasn’t like we were trying to minimize it. Once it happened, we all realized what a great call it was.
Cris: Suddenly, we were getting played on MTV a lot when it aired. It really got played more, unfortunately, after Kurt passed away. But already, the association with those guys didn’t hurt.
Curt: The record company, on our part, started taking us more seriously. They had something they could throw at people to turn their heads rather than, “The Meat Puppets are good.” They didn’t know what to do with us. But once you can throw the Nirvana name around, that gave them something to work with.
Cris: I remember a few years ago, it was actually in Oregon—I think it was Eugene—I was standing outside the club, it was a youth center or something, and there were a bunch of kids and stuff, and I heard some girl telling her friend: “Who’s playing?” “I think it’s some Nirvana cover band.” And I’m sure half the crowd thinks we’re doing Nirvana covers when we play those things.
Curt: You have to distance yourself from your material. At least I do. I’m not writing stuff—I would say it’s personal, but it’s not like, “These are my emotions, this is my trip.” I write songs so I have something to base my jams on. I like to play guitar, and I like to sing and be the cornerstone, but the songs are just songs to me. I like to hear other people do stuff. I saw that people directly after that, and still, sometimes, they think they’re Nirvana songs, but I don’t care.
SEE IT: The Meat Puppets play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with the World Takes, on Wednesday, Nov. 20. 9 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. 21+.