“Applying Nirvana Theory to the Meat Puppets’ Too High to Die.”

The “Nirvana Theory” I’m referring to here applies to a kind of interesting phenomenon which boils down, perhaps exclusively in art, to a “necessary element of impossibility,” as in an a priori impossibility, a problem rendered by preconceived theory and thinking. For Nirvana, of course, the “necessary impossibility” would be the delicate art of blending two seemingly disparate musical styles — hard Melvins grunge sound and Beatles pop song structure — into one amalgamated whole. 

In the case of the Meat Puppets, the element might be a little more subtle. Then, so many misconceptions and false notions surround this band that they represent a pretty ready, and worthy, entity to unpack regardless. It seems like no two people can ever agree about this band — I’ve even heard one impish, sophomoric critic try to reductively claim that they’re a lot like The Vaselines (yes, THESE Meat Puppets, who’ve got a hardcore punk album to their name and ride the distortion pedal). Some people define them by II, somewhat pretentiously, I might estimate, because of its associate with the unplugged Nirvana album. 

Anyway, most people know about “Backwater,” the lead single from Too High to Die [1] (1994), and really, “Backwater” isn’t as far of an intergalactic trek away from what I’m talking about here in this post as it might ahve seemed. The song I’ll be focusing on hereby is “Flaming Heart,” track five on Too High to Die, a song that blends a catchy chorus and a veritable monsoon of kick-a** guitar riffing, both in an introduction/verse tandem and in this grooving bridge in the middle that mocks a scripted guitar solo, or thereabouts. 

An interesting, if perhaps unrelated, discussion here would be whether it’s possible that Nirvana’s style fed into the creation of Too High to Die, a development which would interestingly entail one band being influenced by, and then subsequently also influencing, another. There is “Backwater,” sure, with the guitar punch that seems to a little harder. In such a case it’s debatable, but to be honest, with “Flaming Heart,” the sonic interface could have come from Blind Melon (maybe an incarnation of Blind Melon with a slightly more grunge-minded producer) and the verse/chorus things going on in the song were actually at play on the Puppets’ precocious’ 89 album Monsters and catchy numbers like “Light,” hence posing the question of where this flair might have originated. It could have been R.E.M. and for all we know it could have been some small fry band from Britain that never even made it big but that made a record that Kurt Kirkwood scored for three bucks at the local record store… Marine Girls? 

In his book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce, Bob Stanley writes “I wanted to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false.” I’m actually in this post going to be kind of difficult and steer things in the other direction: actually the crux of my project will be kind of juxtaposing musical elements I hear in the Puppets which are distinctly “rock,” and, in other portions, distinctly “pop,” and illustrating how the band combine these in a way that’s galvinizing and even singular. And by singular, here, I actually mean that it’s a trick that can only be done once, and only the Puppets did it, and that because of this “Flaming Heart” carries a special kind of brilliance and potency. 

Just to attempt to negate what Bob Stanley seems to be trying to portray in his book, I would offer the Grateful Dead as proof that “rock” and “pop” cannot be confined within the same stylistic or cultural receptacle. Actually, in the case of the Dead, this definition is even more pronounced than it is with, say, Pantera, or perhaps even TOOL, two bands which, though they cranked up the distortion and fuzz, still abided with relative obedience to the pop structure. On the other hand, the Dead’s very mission statement seemed to play around with time, to make their songs temporally expansive and multifarious, and, in this way, debilitate its ability to subsume radio, or the “pop” world, in other words. Now, you could say that this is “jam,” inherently, and that this “jam” aspect stands apart from what “rock” is at its core. I disagree staunchly and would like to remind readership that pretty much the accomplishments of all rock bands are based on “jamming” — this is how the primary bulk of rock songs were written, at least in 1998 and before, when said entity had perhaps a greater sense of vitality (preceding Internet file sharing and streaming, as it were). 

And you’ll never believe me, but I am going to compare the Dead and the Puppets here — the middle guitar “solo” in “Flaming Heart,” that is, which features some bona fide “jamming” on effects pedals but also, perhaps more interestingly, this curious adamancy to constantly return to the same arpeggio riff every couple of bars or so. This solo portion of “Flaming Heart,” which is, otherwise, very much a pop song, stands as an imitable cavalcade in guitar methodology, in how it saturates the proceedings with this dizzying combination of psychedelia and melodic excellence. It’s like a fun, exhiliarating sort of identity crisis infused into the mid-section of one single song and would stand apart from, say, Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” for this very heterogeneous dynamism, like the case of a spaced-out, Pink Floyd fan fighting with a classically trained Jethro Tull fan brother for rights to the same guitar solo. Why is “Flaming Heart” not considered the best alternative rock song not by the band Nirvana? I’m not here to answer that, I suppose, but hopefully this post will turn some people on to a band and to an album on which most of the songs don’t even have a million streams on Spotify, but that stands high and mighty for its songwriting prowess, awesome vocals and, again, a revolutionary approach to guitar soloing. 


[1] By the way, if you want the very definition of an underrated grunge rock album, here it is, raw and juicy, so loud, unruly and original that it cuts the din of hipsters discarding it for its major-label denizenship and hit single (as well as just all the dipsh**s scared off by the band name or album cover). 


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