The Truth Will Set You Free
By Raoul Hernandez
JANUARY 4, 1999: The failure of the mainstream music press to unglamourize drug use -- and in particular, heroin -- has never been as clear as it is than upon finishing "Shooting Star." Originally published November 12 in The Phoenix New Times, Tempe, Arizona's free newsweekly, David Holthouse's in-depth account of heroin's toll on brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, of that city's seminal punk band the Meat Puppets, is absolutely devastating in its brutally frank depiction of the type of drug abuse common to the music industry. Unsettling, unflinching, unrepentant, "Shooting Star" not only disabuses readers of the notion that there could ever, ever exist such a thing as "heroin chic," it does so in such a grim and shocking fashion that it challenges followers of the rock & roll press to name even one other periodical piece quite as powerful.
"From a subjective point of view, the article was pulling punches for sure," reveals Holthouse's main source, Curt Kirkwood. "And I kind of made it that way, too. It had to be. There was too many people that are also my friends who are still among the living that stand to be touched, and it really has touched a lot of people in ways that they can't describe -- people that know us. It's actually made its way into so many people's lives in such a fucking pathetic way that the story deserved to be grim.
"That was a fine slice of the horror. It's full-on."
Receding into the corner of a big, dirty-white couch in his dimly lit studio space at the Austin Rehearsal Complex, Kirkwood looks haggard. Tired, thin, his eyes are dead. When the subject of his brother Cris is broached, he doesn't tense at the topic, he plugs into it, or rather it plugs into him, and if you're in the same room when that happens, you can feel the same sort of sickening jolt he must feel every day. And yet he talks about it all with a fair amount of ease. Faced with the choice of keeping the ongoing horror of the whole situation inside or talking about it, the latter obviously gives him somewhat of a release. Is this why he was so remarkably candid with Holthouse?
"I really have nothing to hide," he says serenely. "I have friends who've told me, 'Hey, we don't air our dirty laundry in public.' I can relate to that. As far as what's dirty, well that's been fucking changed."
He sits up, agitated, eyes alive now. Grabbing a pack of cigarettes off the low, cluttered coffee table in front of him, he lights one up, and after taking in the smoke, he exhales and leans back into the couch, trying to relax. Asked why he chose to go on the record with such a wrenching personal problem, again, something almost never -- if ever -- seen in print, let alone the music press, Kirkwood says he saw the potential clear for an affecting cautionary tale, not that he's on a crusade. If anything, he thought Holthouse's article would be more Jerry Springer-like.
"You can start crusading," says Kirkwood, "and maybe there is something to the concept that the truth will set you free, but I don't like crusades and I don't like to proselytize. I believe that part of my problem and my brother's problem and a lot of people's problems is that it's not a problem -- that it's nobody's fucking business. Sex and drugs are people's private-life business. And that's what I believe. That's why we got into trouble, because I don't believe it's anybody's right to tell anybody how they get off. It might not sit well with society -- they get put in jail -- but you're not gonna change them.
Kirkwood says he met Holthouse through mutual friends in Phoenix, and knew that the journalist had known his brother Cris and his sister-in-law Michelle. Holthouse had already done quite a bit of legwork on the story, but it wasn't until Kirkwood consented to an interview that the piece became, in the musician's words, "one of the nastiest things ever printed in a big publication." The only thing he says he didn't like about "Shooting Star" was the mention of Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, who is cited as one of a group of musician/peers who Kirkwood knew had had problems with heroin in the past.
"Yeah, the mention of a Spin interview that I had done," says Kirkwood. "I was on the fly where I said, 'Oh, these people were junkies, and we were always going, 'Wow, we lucked out.' I didn't like that because, you know, I see Haynes a lot [here in Austin], and Paul [Leary, the Butthole's guitarist]. Those guys are all my friends. At this point, it's weird to have mentioned all of that. There was a point when I didn't really understand it, when I said that to whoever from Spin.
"But I was real proud of David for writing [the piece]. It's nice that somebody wanted to step in. I don't have much family, so I basically don't talk about it that much. So it was really nice to have someone come in, and just for me, give me a different perspective. Perspective is everything. My perspective is getting a little bit rusty on the whole thing.
For his part, the story's author, David Holthouse, says he's seen his own share of drug addiction and death. In fact, the 27-year-old journalist and New Times staff writer says he's flirted with addiction in the past himself.
"I thought that I could tell the story in a way that it would be a real cautionary tale, because of the neighborhood I live in Tempe, and because I'm a couple channels away from the mainstream," says Holthouse by phone from his Tempe home, located just three blocks away from the house in which Cris and Michelle Kirkwood used to live. "I have a lot of friends I care about who are struggling with drugs, 'cause as I mention in the story, they're really cheap and easy here in Tempe. It just seems the place is flooded with it. "
Holthouse moved to Tempe three years ago and became music editor at the Arizona weekly. In the fall of '95, he went to his first local Meat Puppets show, which is where he met Michelle Tardif, who approached him about doing some freelance writing for the publication.
"She introduced me to Cris after the show," recalls the writer, "and a couple of nights later, I went over and hung out at their house, and it was obvious that they were fucked up. Michelle already had the concentration camp look going. She was just obviously cracked out."
The same mutual friends that eventually got him and Curt Kirkwood together kept Holthouse apprised of Cris and Michelle's situation over the next couple of years. When Holthouse came back from his vacation this summer, he was informed that Michelle had died of a drug overdose, at which point he knew he had to report the story. Because he never dreamed the elder Kirkwood would ever go on record for the story, Holthouse instead kept channels open, letting friends know how the piece was progressing. Finally, one day, Holthouse convinced one of Kirkwood's friends to fax a letter to the musician explaining why he needed to go on record for the story.
"He called me the next day, and the day after that I was in Austin," says Holthouse.
In all, Holthouse says the 8,500-word piece took him three weeks to report and three days to write. He hasn't talked to Curt Kirkwood since the story was published, but those ever-present mutual friends let him know the tale has been therapeutic for the musician. Asked if he thinks it's the best piece he's ever written, Holthouse takes a moment to think.
"I don't know if this is the best story I've ever done, but it's certainly the one that has generated the most response, and it's certainly the one that fucked me up the most. A lot of the stories I do are underbelly stuff, but none of them affected me personally until this one.
"It took about three weeks after it ran before I felt right. There's just certain images in that story that really stick with you. Reading the story, it comes at you hard enough, but listening to Curt describe it, and seeing how fucking tormented this really brilliant, incredible human is [was even worse]. I kept a detachment, but I've rarely been as impressed with someone I interviewed as I was with him. Dealing with it like he did."
And make no mistake: Kirkwood is brilliant. The music he's made with the Meat Puppets for the better part of the last two decades, best described as acid-roots rock, is as seminal to the Eighties post-punk movement as perhaps only Austin's Butthole Surfers. More importantly, he's not finished. As Holthouse states in "Shooting Star," Kirkwood says he has four albums' worth of material in the can, and is dying to get back in the studio. Given the fact that his label, London, is owned by Polygram, however, and that the huge media conglomerate is in the process of merging with another enormous label, Universal, he's in limbo. He hopes to get the green light early next year to start recording. When he does, it will be with the help of the band he's put together here in Austin.
In fact, Kirkwood says he moved here for the band. In 1995, when the Meat Puppets were heading out on the road to support the ill-fated No Joke album, Kirkwood told his Austin-based guitar tech Corey Moore that he was looking for a second guitarist. Moore recommended former Pariah guitarist Kyle Ellison, who had already been out on the road with the Butthole Surfers, telling Kirkwood he thought the two musicians would get along well. They did, and when the tour was canceled because of Cris Kirkwood's ongoing drug problems, Curt and Kyle continued working together as an acoustic duo.
When London decided the "artistic acoustic album" they had suggested wasn't going to fly, Kirkwood and Ellison started building another band. Unable to find a good rhythm section in Los Angeles, where he was living at the time, Kirkwood decided to move here in early 1997 after Ellison enlisted his former bandmate, drummer Shandon Sahm; he says he didn't want the two young Austin musicians continually having to fly out to the West Coast to play. Once here, Sahm enlisted local bassist Andrew Duplantis, and the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, which made its debut at South by Southwest this past March, was born. Asked the difference between RNO and the Meat Puppets and which name a new album would come out under, Kirkwood is uncharacteristically cryptic.
"We just needed a name to play the conference," he sighs. "A rose is a rose by any other name, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Now it's pay no attention to the curtain behind the man."
Several days after this interview, on the Austin Music Network, Kirkwood & Co. formally announced that the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra would heretofore be known as the Meat Puppets. That settles that, leaving perhaps only one obvious question: How does he like Austin?
"It's been a really pleasant experience by and large," he says finally. "I used to come here in the early Eighties. I started playing here in '82 for the first time. We played here in '84 with Black Flag, then another place with Black Flag, and then we started playing Liberty Lunch. The Continental used to be a lot of fun. Austin was always a fun place to play music, the way San Francisco is a fun place to play music, or New York City. There are some places like that, where there's something in the water.
"This is not like Arizona. This is my first experience living in some place where there's more attempted communal sense."
Given everything that's happened, that may be exactly what Curt Kirkwood needs.
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