Okay, I admit it: I started listening to punk rock in high school because of the cool T-shirts. Nate Robb and Ferdie Zogbaum* would shamble down to breakfast at Westtown school wearing exquisitely faded Minor Threat shirts (the one with the sheep on it), or a big-skull Misfits shirt in the last stages of falling apart. The best T-shirt I had was a 1986 Black Dog T-shirt, which was pretty cool, but only to some people that you might not want to impress anyway. At this point, I was only a couple of years away from Members Only jackets (size small) and knee-high crew socks (size exx-tra long.)
So, saving my allowance, I bought the album corresponding to the coolest T-shirt at Westtown:
Meat Puppets II. I listened to that album all through the summer after 10th grade, when I was working at Carlucci’s Italian Meat Market in Paoli, PA. “Meat Puppets II” was my primer for the punk-rock attitude, and under its influence, I tried to be as punk-rock as possible:
- I’d roll up the door on the loading dock and blast the pimply Acme stockboys across the alley with the hot-water hose.
- I removed the rubber bands from all the lobsters in the live lobster tank, in order to give them a fighting chance.
- I made four-dollar hoagies with ten dollars’ worth of prime prosciutto, and handed them to customers with what I thought was a knowing, conspiritorial wink.
Okay, I was making an ass of myself, but there was some precedent — my first job at Carlucci’s was to cross out all the expiration dates on the egg cartons with a black magic marker. When I did it and kept my mouth shut, I was promoted to the deli counter.
When I was the only one in the store, I’d play the Meat Puppets album on the store’s PA system. Domenick Carlucci, a nice, middle-aged man with two sons my age, would visit the store in the afternoons, and the sound of Curt Kirkwood’s warbly, off-key voice would bring a worried, puzzled look to his face. Actually, a lot of things I did would bring a worried look to Mr. Carlucci’s face, including the perfectly-aged Nike Air Pegasus shoes I wore. In the middle of July, Mr. Carpani presented me with a pair of brand-new, shiny white leather Nikes, a half-size too large. To my teenage imagination, the shoes looked like giant glowing banana boats, but I was so pleased at actually being mistaken for a glamorous, hard-luck streetster** that I didn’t mind wearing the shoes. In the store, that is — I’d carry them in my backpack and change into them around the corner from Carlucci’s. While keeping an eye out for scalded Acme stockboys.
So, the reason I brought it up is, I just picked up my old Westtown tuck box from my dad’s storage space, and I discovered my old Meat Puppets II tape inside. I played “Lake of Fire” for Kate, who knew the song from Nirvana’s cover on MTV Unplugged. Kate was working at the Experience Music Project in Seattle when Nirvana was big, so she had a bootleg tape of the show. She knew that Kurt was always talking about the Meat Puppets as an influence, but she had never heard the song. So we compared them:
Lake of Fire, Meat Puppets version (1984) — Curt Kirkwood really can’t sing, he wanders all over the place in a plaintive, lost manner. This is what I liked about punk and hardcore, anyhow. There’s some teenager screeching off-key about how all they wanted was a Pepsi, and their thin voice is lost in a thundering swell of fast guitar and fast drums. It’s a good aural description of the surging hormonal teenage condition. Not all punk is like that: Henry Rollins probably never sounded plaintive or lost in his life, but when you hear the Meat Puppets wandering in and out of key on “Lost on the Freeway Again”, you get the feeling that, like you, this band doesn’t really know what the hell they’re doing, either.
Lake of Fire, Nirvana (1993) — Okay, Kurt Cobain is a way better singer that Curt Kirkwood. For the first time, I could hear the damn lyrics “…they go to the lake of fire and fry…” “Oh, THAT’s how the song goes!” Plus, Kurt is good at melody. So overall, the song is way more assured, and Kurt even preserves some of the Meat Puppets psychedelic tripped-out sundazed Arizona vibe with little ky-yi yips at the end of each line. It’s grunge rock, now, not punk rock. Where the Meat puppets sound like unlicenced drivers put at the helm of powerful, gas-guzzling death machines (again, metaphor for being a teenager), Kurt’s fully in control. The song is more controlled, more angry, and more sarcastic, and it’s easier to listen to.
So, if punk spoke to the teenagers of the 1980s, did grunge speak to the teenagers of the 1990s? It’d be easy to make an argument that it did: “1980s:1990s::confused angst:assured sarcasm”, but I wonder.
Next time: how my cooler sister showed me Repo Man and changed my life forever.
* A name like “Ferdie Zogbaum” cuts both ways; if you’re cool, it makes you cooler. If you’re not, it’s an albatross around your neck. Fortunately, Ferdie was, like, Zaphod Beeblebrox cool.
** I realize now that I exuded about as much street cred as Martin Prince from the Simpsons, but hey — if the clean Jersey kids panhandling on St. Mark’s place can pretend they’re dirty, rawboned punks, then so could I. Anyhow, Mr. Carpani was really nice to me, even though he couldn’t understand where I was coming from at all. He was a heck of a guy, even if he did sell expired eggs.