'99s Best: Meat Puppets Bassist's Addiction Has Friends, Family Alarmed

Cris Kirkwood is said to be seeking help to fight addiction; the bassist's wife died of an overdose in August.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, Nov. 19.]

Original Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood is struggling to find a treatment program to fight his years-long addiction to heroin and other drugs and has been drifting since October, according to his family and business manager.

His predicament has his brother, Meat Puppets co-founder Curt Kirkwood, and others close to the band afraid for his life.

In the months since his wife, 36-year-old Michelle Tardif, died of an overdose at their Tempe, Ariz., home in August, Cris has become itinerant and difficult to reach, sources close to the band report.

"I really wish people could actually see Cris," Tammy Blevins, of the band's Austin,Texas-based Tammy Blevins Management company, said Wednesday during an interview in which her voice often welled up with sadness.

"You hear about drug abuse all the time, but it actually makes you shudder when you see him. You're just frightened. It's not just somebody who's sullen. This is somebody who is covered from head to toe in open sores."

"He's concentrating on getting into a program and staying out of jail," Blevins said, explaining that Cris has been in contact sporadically by phone in recent months.

While declining to discuss specifics of possible rehab programs, she said that Cris, 38, is making an effort to get back on track with the help of his lawyer. At the time of Tardif's death, Cris had felony-drug warrants outstanding, according to a report in the Phoenix New Times.

In a lengthy profile in the Nov. 12-18 edition of the weekly newspaper, guitarist Curt Kirkwood, 39, described the dire circumstances under which his younger brother had been living. He spoke of a downward spiral of drug use that sent Cris reeling out of control over the course of four years.

Blevins said the last time the Kirkwood brothers saw each other was in August, three days after Tardif's death. The brothers have not played music together in three years, according to the New Times.

Before Tardif OD'd, she and Cris -- who were married in 1995 -- had been holed up in their Tempe home for nearly two years, Blevins said. Drugs were delivered to the house, Curt told the New Times. A police report from the time of Tardif's death described a home littered by more than 100 used syringes, along with burnt spoons and glass pipes, according to the Phoenix paper.

Shortly after Tardif's death, Curt staged an intervention to get his brother into a California rehab center. Cris left after just five days, according to the New Times.

Since that point, friends and family said they have gotten only occasionally phone calls from Cris.

The rootsy Meat Puppets first garnered acclaim during the mid-1980s as part of the renowned roster of artists -- such as Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen -- on SST Records.

In 1994, the late Kurt Cobain -- a longtime fan -- and his band, Nirvana, saluted the Meat Puppets by inviting them onstage to perform three Meat Puppets songs during a taping of "MTV Unplugged."

It was that year that Cris' drug problem took hold of him in earnest, Blevins said.

At the time, the band had a rock hit-single with "Backwater" (RealAudio excerpt) from Too High To Die (1994). The Meat Puppets embarked on a tour with the Stone Temple Pilots, whose singer, Scott Weiland, also is said to have developed his well-documented drug problem on the tour. Weiland recently underwent a drug-rehab program. STP manager Steve Stewart was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

"It was Hollywood Babylon at its ... worst," Curt, who now lives in Austin, was quoted as saying by the New Times. He reportedly described drug dealers who would open $900 bags of cocaine onto tables and then open up a box of straws.

According to Blevins, who has worked with the band for seven years, some of the suppliers who frequented the backstage area during Meat Puppets tours had been hanging around since the early '80s. Both Cris and Curt had long acknowledged their use of drugs, such as marijuana and the hallucinogen LSD, during different periods.

"The Meat Puppets were notorious for having more people backstage than Led Zeppelin," Blevins said. "They were the party band. It just got carried away" on the STP tour, she said.

Regina Joskow, the Meat Puppets publicist at London Records and a friend of the band for a dozen years, called Cris' state "heartbreaking." Both she and Blevins described the bassist as smart and strong, but with an addictive personality. Joskow said London Records has stayed in touch with Blevins, but was not in contact with Cris directly.

"Addiction is an illness, Cris is ill and we are all hoping for his recovery," Joskow said Wednesday. "We have not written him off, and we certainly haven't written the band off."

The Meat Puppets still owe London two albums, and Curt is hoping to assemble a new version of the band to fulfill that agreement, according to the New Times. He also has a new outfit, the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, that performed at last year's South By Southwest music conference in Austin. Meanwhile, Derrick Bostrom, the Meat Puppets' original drummer, is working with Rykodisc on a 1999 reissue of the band's SST work that will accompany a newly released live recording.

Blevins said the Meat Puppets' status as cult favorites helped keep Cris' ever-worsening condition out of the public eye, despite the attention accorded other rockers' drug battles -- including those of Cobain, who overdosed in 1994 before committing suicide; Weiland; and Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon, who died in 1994 from a cocaine overdose.

"The only reason we're able to keep it from anyone is because no one cared," Blevins said. "The Meat Puppets weren't big enough."

Even in the face of Cris' desperate situation, several of those around him said they maintain a sliver of hope that he will come out from the hellish experience on the other side. Blevins suggests that his wife's death ultimately may serve as a tragic wake-up call for him.

"It's hard to say if Cris is going to be able to pull himself out of this," she said. "I'd like to think so, but this has been ongoing for four years now."

Joskow said she's watched the bass player extricate himself from terrible circumstances in the past, but that he's never been as close to the abyss as he is right now.

"It's a really, really, really bad situation, but I still believe that Cris can come back from it," she said. "I am thoroughly optimistic. And maybe I'm a fool for being optimistic. ... I just hope to God that something helps Cris out."