Postpunk icon Mike Watt contains multitudes, all wearing flannel
Published: March 30, 2011
Mike Watt’s new album Hyphenated-Man is an “opera,” as he styles his solo efforts, in which he renders 30 short, sharp jazz/spazz-rock thumbnail portraits of various individual figures from Hieronymous Bosch’s lurid turn-of-the-16th-century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Take that, Decemberist dude. In his gruff monotone, the former Minuteman and underground-music legend grumbles and sings and crows his takes on Bosch’s tiny figures, from “Arrow-Pierced-Egg-Man” to “Head-and-Feet-Only-Man” to, yes, “Man-Shitting-Man” over short, mercurial bursts of tune and pound—part punky Minutemen spurt, part granddaddy boogie. In short, it’s just another Mike Watt album, of the same high level of idiosyncratic creative fervor as the handful of previous albums that even most die-hard Minutemen fans have generally ignored. At the same time, it’s a Mike Watt album, and in 2011, its existence—his existence—is not to be discounted. He’s coming to Baltimore on April 1 to play Hyphenated-Man (released on his own Clenchedwrench label) in its entirety. Here’s a subjective survey of a few of his own hyphenates.
Townie-Man If Watt is ever beatified (it sometimes seems he’s halfway there as it is), the list of things he should be the patron saint of should definitely include townies. That is, bright, curious kids whose socioeconomic provenance doesn’t necessarily destine them for conspicuously bright doings. The kids who go to the local state school, or the community college, or no college at all, but who are curious and passionate about reading and music and art and thinking and talking, even more so because they maybe aren’t taken so seriously in that way. Watt, a navy brat (his dad was a chief, not an officer), and his boyhood friend D. Boon tried to figure out the world outside of blue-collar San Pedro, Calif. through Blue Oyster Cult and Creedence Clearwater Revival records. They stumbled across punk rock and were ambitious enough to try it as the Minutemen and defiantly townie enough that they didn’t feel like they couldn’t go ahead and do it their own way.
Loyal-Man People still mourn Boon, who died in a car accident in 1985—none more than Watt, who quit music entirely for a while after his childhood friend’s death. He soldiered on, first with fIREHOSE, and then as a solo artist, along with various side bands and projects, but has never stopped repping Boon whenever the opportunity arises. He maintains a long-running collaboration with guitarist Nels Cline, among others, and he’s still an active member of Dos, the two-bass duo he formed with his then-wife Kira Roessler more than 25 years ago. His current trio features guitarist Tom Watson, with whom he’s played for more than 10 years. Axl Rose he is not.
Spielin’-Man I interviewed Watt once, backstage at what used to be Fletcher’s in Fells Point, hoping for a couple of quotes for a story to which he had a tangential relationship. I asked him two questions; he talked for more than an hour. His loquaciousness, or “spielin’,” is legend, spilling out in endless tour diaries on his web site (hootpage.com) and on an internet radio show (The Watt From Pedro Show, twfps.com), as well as reams of lyrics. He doesn’t use his Twitter feed (@wattfrompedro) much, maybe cause there isn’t much room for spielin’. While spielin’, he slings his own lingo, featuring personal terms such as, well, spielin’, “thud staff” (i.e., bass), and “econo.” The latter describes and encompasses his ethos in a number of ways, referring to being admirably thrifty (e.g., touring in a van instead of a bus) but paradoxically also to the terse, fat-free nature of the Minutemen’s music—and now of the music on Hyphenated-Man. Say what you need to and get out.
Blue-Collar-Man Watt is not a rock star. He’s an artist, sure, but he’s as much a craftsman, a tradesman even. He works hard, he isn’t profligate, he keeps his overhead low. No one wears flannel shirts and jeans every day that long without meaning it.
Side-Man One of the great tragedies of D. Boon’s death was that it left Watt alone. He had always written songs and sung, but Boon was the de facto frontman. Watt always seemed like the steady first sergeant—or, even better, the dependable master chief. When Watt started playing music again, he didn’t form the Mike Watt Band—he formed fIREHOSE and let a punching-above-his-weight guy from Ohio named Ed Crawford essentially take over Boon’s spot in the Minutemen line-up. Which is not to say he wasn’t the dominant force, or that he had any insurmountable trouble at last launching a solo career with 1994’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, but, again, Axl Rose he’s not. He still seems perfectly happy as a sideman—witness his stints on bass with Porno for Pyros and the reunited Stooges. I’m now taking odds on there being any other musician who has done session work for both Sonic Youth and Kelly Clarkson.
Broken-Down-Man Watt’s image of working-man stalwartness is rivaled/undercut only by his well-documented health problems. He has been plagued for years (decades, at this point) by bad knees; he has played while seated on occasion. And in 2000, an infection of the perineum (don’t do a Google Image search) laid him low for months and threatened his life. This led Watt to write The Secondman’s Middle Stand, an “opera” linking the stages of his illness to the stages of Dante’s Divine Comedy, of all things. Lemons, lemonade—Watt mixes it up good.
Survivor-Man Watt survived the death of his best friend and key artistic partner. He followed up one of the most loved bands of the ’80s alt-music explosion with a somewhat underrated band that, at worst, made its predecessor no less loved. He launched himself into the post-grunge waters of major-label-dom and made a handful of joyful, weird-ass albums on Columbia’s dime. He survived serious health problems (so far). He still makes music, he still tours, he still jams econo. He’s still Mike Watt. It’s like a little miracle.
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