There is a Jerry's Restaurant -- sort of the Denny's of Florida -- attached to a Best Western motel in St. Petersburg, Fla. Last Friday, Jerry's marquee advertised a "Super Champ Special -- $2.99" and, right beneath: "Meat Puppets."
Just why the Puppets, one of America's most imaginative, young rock bands, are on the musical menu at Jerry's seems unfathomable to everyone but the group's leader, singer-songwriter-guitarist Curt Kirkwood. He's delighted with the sheer absurdity of the gig.
"Unbelievable," howls Kirkwood. "This is a prime example of the synchronicity effect. We were eating at a Jerry's the other night."
Eating and playing at Jerry's Restaurant obviously leaves the Meat Puppets unfazed, even amid a blitzkrieg tour of America's rock clubs that has them doing something like 45 shows in 45 days. They will play at the 9:30 club tonight in support of their third album, "Up on the Sun."
"Up on the Sun" is already being hailed as part of the flowering of America's hard-core punk scene, a phenomenon that finds acts like the Meat Puppets and their notable SST Records label mates -- the Replacements, Black Flag and Husker Du -- growing past punk's loud, hard, fast and short syndrome to a new stylistic expressiveness. Mostly because of Curt Kirkwood's fanciful guitar work and lyrics on "Up on the Sun," the Puppets' music has been labeled "psychedelic." When it's suggested to Kirkwood that their music seems less drug-inspired than childishly whimsical in its humor and freedom, he's pleased.
"That's more accurate. I've never been into psychedelia or any of that stuff. I was too young for most of the '60s music. I only like the Beatles because of the Beatles cartoon show that used to be on TV on Saturday."
The truth is it's hard to find any easy labels for the Meat Puppets' three albums. While their 1982 debut, "Meat Puppets," was fast and short enough to be called hard-core punk, "Meat Puppets II" found the group fuddling the hard-core scene with a dada-like excursion into a kind of eccentric country-western music. Kirkwood's impressionistic imagery and adventurous guitar work on "Up on the Sun" recalls such worldly visionaries as the Grateful Dead and early Pink Floyd. So what's their inspiration?
"Walt Disney was a big influence on me," explains Kirkwood. "He assimilated the whole world into his work. I have a lot of influences, including the other guys in the band, but what we're trying to do is be creative. The music is a form of release. Derrick's Bostrom earliest influence is barbershop music. Cris Kirkwood and I had a Petula Clark album and my mom was into Frankie Laine."
The Meat Puppets formed in Phoenix in 1981 when Kirkwood, an evictee from several rock bands, joined forces with his brother Cris and drummer Bostrom. The group's rapid musical evolution and adventurous spirit quickly earned critical accolades, while leaving other rock fans just scratching their heads. Kirkwood is nothing if not provocative, championing everything from Duran Duran to country music and irritating in the process those who want rock music to draw cultural lines.
"Some of the hard-core punks get annoyed," Kirkwood says, "but those are people we want to alienate. I know a lot of kids grow up in America feeling depraved, but I don't subscribe to this punk thing. I think it's narrow-minded . . . One of the reasons we quit playing it was because we discovered that most punks were just rednecks in disguise. By changing styles, we've successfully eliminated most of the idiots who might come to our shows."
A Meat Puppet show now attracts one of the more interesting audiences in rock -- an oddball assortment of punks, aging hippies, bohemians, preppies and others in search of open-ended musical experience. That audience is growing and, with some of the major labels showing an interest in the group, the Meat Puppets' musical derring-do seems to be working.
"We aspire to the success of a Barry Manilow or a Madonna," Kirkwood deadpans. "We have never tried to be signed by any record label. SST Records asked us to join . . . I'm delighted that the music world has made room for us at all. What we're trying to evoke is the essence that holds the leaves to the trees. That's not something you can buy in the supermarket."