Too high. Period.

The phone is no friend of Curt Kirkwood's. Too often, the tidings it bears are foul. He calls them "incomings from Tempe." They go like this: Your brother's wife overdosed this morning; she's dead.

Your brother got busted again last night, and he told the cops he was you.
Your brother showed up at my house yesterday with a crack pipe and a bag of needles, and he looks like hell.

Your brother took off from rehab.
Your brother's holed up in a Motel 6, smoking rock like it's Judgment Day.
Born in Texas but raised just outside Phoenix, Curt and his brother Cris became the most famous modern-rock stars ever from that desert metropolis. Curt played guitar and wrote a lot of songs. Cris played bass and wrote a few. When they sang together, the Kirkwoods were purposefully seldom in tune.

Yet as the lens of retrospection contracts, their band, the Meat Puppets, is viewed as one of the most influential groups of the past two decades of rock music, and arguably the most. Six months before he splattered his brains, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain cited the Meat Puppets as a primary source of inspiration. All at once, the Puppets were lifted from underground heroes to certified-gold recording artists by sales of their 1994 album Too High to Die.

That title now haunts the band.
Curt says the last time he saw Cris, his brother was probing inside an abscess on his stomach with a needle, searching for a vein. This was in mid-August, three days after Cris' wife, Michelle Tardif, had died of an overdose in the master bedroom of their Tempe home, where the two had been holed up for months.

It was Cris who found her body. He had been passed out in the living room, and when he came to in the early afternoon, Michelle had been dead for hours. Cris called the band's manager in Austin, then fled the house before police arrived. He may have run because he had felony drug warrants out for his arrest, or because he cracked up...or both.

Regardless, according to his brother and close friends in Arizona, Cris Kirkwood is lurching pell-mell toward the reaper, track-marked arms open for the embrace. He's smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in death-wish quantities. Overweight from bingeing on Ben & Jerry's ice cream, he's pocked with the sores and boils that result when a junkie misses a vein and shoots impure, infectious heroin directly into muscle tissue.

After numerous, futile attempts to convince Cris to step back from the abyss, Curt now seems resigned to his brother's fate. He describes Cris as a "suicide in progress." The two haven't played music together for almost three years.

"Basically, we have a nonfunctioning member of our organization," says Curt, who now lives in Austin, where he has formed a new band under the Meat Puppets banner. "My brother is on all the Meat Puppets records up to this point, so he's still a Meat Puppet. He's just a Meat Puppet in outer space. I can't say he's in the band when he doesn't know what fucking day it is."

The Meat Puppets were always a drug band. But they were known for pot and acid, not coke and heroin. There's a world of difference. Rare is the pothead who picks through the fibers of his living-room carpet for hours, looking for a tiny nugget, or the acid eater who finds himself paging a dealer at 4 a.m., jonesing for another hit.

Curt, at 39 the elder of the two brothers by a year, says he misspent a few nights of his youth staying up all night, snorting coke. And, he says, he and Cris both toyed with heroin in their early 20s. But all that was over years ago, and neither of them ever spun out like Cris has now. Not even close.

Efforts to locate and interview Cris Kirkwood for this story were unsuccessful. Friends haven't seen him since a few days before Halloween.

Curt says drugs began taking control of Cris about four years ago. The Meat Puppets were playing a sold-out stadium nearly every night, opening for the Stone Temple Pilots, whose lead signer, Scott Weiland, developed a heroin addiction that soon would be chronicled. Too High to Die had been out for almost a year, and for the first time, the Meat Puppets had a hit single, "Backwater," all over MTV and commercial rock radio.

Alongside the rush of overdue fame, the Meat Puppets were suddenly making serious money. The members of Stone Temple Pilots were already multimillionaires.

"All that loose dough brought out the weasels," Curt says. "I observed the weasels, and learned their ways. Wherever you are, the weasels find you after the show and push really good dope in your face."

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David Holthouse