I first met Mike Watt was in 1995, when he was on tour for his album Ball-Hog or Tugboat?. I wasn't familiar with much of his other work, but I wanted to interview him because I was interested in roots music, and Watt's former band the Minutemen was roots music--the roots of American punk rock. Ball-Hog or Tugboat? was billed as his first solo album, but it functioned as a tribute album as well, featuring guest appearances by members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Bikini Kill, the Germs, the Meat Puppets, and other punk and punk-influenced bands. Joining Watt on the tour were drummer Dave Grohl, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, and Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando. I wanted to know why guys like Grohl and Vedder--they were genuine rock stars; they sold millions of records, they were all over MTV--wanted to hang around someone who was basically unknown outside of college radio. So I met Watt one night backstage. He was wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt, his hair was turning gray, and he had an unusual way of avoiding eye contact: he'd look at the table or the floor or sideways at the wall, but the moment I looked away his eyes were on me, staring with a gaze that peeled my skin. He seemed shy and self-conscious one moment, a roaring bear the next. I didn't have to ask many questions, because despite his apparent discomfort, Watt talked almost without pause, using vocabulary words like spiel and thudstuff that were strange to me, making references to people or places from his punk-rock past that went over my head, and stringing together thoughts and reflections in an improvisatory way that I couldn't always follow.
Despite these gaps in communication, there was something about Watt that I did understand, something weirdly beyond words or explanations. See, I'm not punk rock. I like melodies, I'm very amenable to violins and folky sounds, I've never dyed my hair or punched anybody, I've never crowd-surfed or been spat upon, I'm not an outward antagonist, and I think there's a valid case to be made, as far as the history of rock is concerned, for the conformity that pop music represents. When I was thirteen in 1979 a kid named Ed Biehl sat next to me on the bus, ranting about how great punk rock was and I shouldn't believe what they said on the news and I should really check it out because he thought I would like it, and I looked at him and said flatly, "I would never listen to that music." Well, I grew out of that narrow-mindedness, thankfully, but even after I got into college and worked at the radio station and heard Sonic Youth and the Birthday Party for the first time, punk rock remained kind of scary to me, and when I got into my twenties and wasn't scared of it anymore, I still felt a little uncomfortable around really extreme expressions of it, and left hardcore and most of the Homestead Records catalog alone. But when I met Watt, suddenly punk rock revealed itself to me in a new way. I realized that I didn't have to practice it, so to speak, in my daily life in order to love it and appreciate why it mattered. It was as though I met punk rock itself that day, not just a person who played it. I guess that's a weird thing to say. But from that day on, Watt has been my touchstone, my living embodiment of what punk rock means. And I think I'm not the only one. Maybe next-generation musicians like Grohl and Dando and Vedder feel that way, too, and that's why they like being around him. As long as Watt is here, punk rock stays true to itself. He nurtures it, helps it stay healthy, and in doing so points the rest of us in the right direction. He's the lighthouse keeper.
What I've learned through Watt is that some of the conventional wisdom that has grown up around punk rock over the past twenty-five or thirty years--that's it's loud, angry, violent, confrontational, macho, primitive, harsh, unpleasing--doesn't always pan out; those surface truisms contain deeper complexities. Punk rock at its best is thoughtful, inquisitive, hopeful, redemptive, illuminating, eloquent, passionate. In the fall of 2004 I went to see Watt on his "El Mar Cura Todo" tour in support of his most recent album, The Secondman's Middle Stand. This is his "sickness" opera, written about a perineal infection that had almost killed him. The music was a vehement marriage of avant-garde jazz and prog rock, with stop-and-start drum rhythms and complex bass patterns battering a shrill wheez of Hammond organ. The sound system that night wasn't very good, so I couldn't hear many lyrics, but I caught phrases about vomiting, piss bags, and tubing. Watt was singing and playing his bass so intensely that the veins on his neck jutted out. It was difficult music, but I hung in there for it, and I got the feeling that I always get with Watt: that he lays himself on the line, that he pushes himself as far as he can go, that he gives up every ounce of his brainpower, bodypower, heart, and soul. And while the sickness opera is probably never going to be my favorite work of his, it brought something to light that night that I'd never noticed before. Like a real artist, Watt puts what he's got out there; he doesn't edit it or censor himself in order to please the audience. He makes sense of his world and his life through his music, and doesn't flinch from the tougher parts. In that way he reminds me of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, two other rock guys whom, at their best or even not-best, you always want to keep an eye on. And what that made me realize was this: that the best punk rock transcends punk rock, and enters into a realm more glorious and revolutionary, which is art.
I followed Watt's path to punk rock; he laid his own. He was born on December 20, 1957 in Portsmouth, Virginia, the son of a navy sailor. Dick Watt had enlisted when he was seventeen, and attended boot camp in Chicago. Watt's mom, Melinda, had grown up in a coal-mining town in Wyoming; when the coal ran out, the town closed, and her family resettled in Peoria, Illinois. "For midwest people, I think Chicago is the big town," Watt says. "So she went up there, and that's where she met my pop. That's where I was conceived. They married young. I was born when he was nineteen."
Military life had a huge impact on Watt. For one thing, the family--soon to add two daughters--moved around to such far-flung places as Schenectady, New York, and Blackfoot, Idaho. "My pop was an engine-room guy, but for nuclear engine rooms," he says. "This was a new program: nuclear energy to run boats. Not weapons--boats. The advantage of having a nuke-run boat is that you don't have to fuel 'em for years. They can run at forty, fifty knots for, like, eight years. He was on a nuclear cruiser and he was on the Enterprise, which was an aircraft carrier. He also worked at plants. A lot of this nuke stuff they hid deep in the country, in case something went wrong. So I lived in some weird places." Watt's dad rose to the rank of chief (the army equivalent of a sergeant), and they lived mostly in navy housing. "Navy housing is like tract homes," he explains. "All the houses look the same. Everybody's pop was the same rank. There's a lot of negative to the military--like, most of it. But one good thing was I lived with all kinds of people, as far as ethnic background or whatever. Because the navy was integrated. That was kind of neat. And with everybody's pop being chiefs, you could see that no one was above or below anyone else. You know how neighborhoods get all caught up in different things? Well, in the military you're not like that. You're all together. So I will say that was one positive thing that came out of it."
By 1967, with the Vietnam war on, Watt's dad needed to be near the Pacific. The family moved to San Pedro, California. "With military life, you get the orders and you've just got to move," Watt says. "That was very hard on my mother. She'd have to start all over, take the kids out of school. By the time we got to Pedro I was almost ten, and my mother said, 'No more. I want to stay still.' Of course my pop got other orders, but my mom said, 'No. I ain't gonna move anymore.' So that's how I ended up staying in Pedro. They divorced when I was twelve. But before that I didn't see him a lot, either. So it wasn't like a big change at twelve, because my sisters and I had already been used to it."
The family moved from navy housing in a project called Park Western, and it was there that Watt became friends with future Minutemen bandmate Dennes Boon. In the 2004 documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, Watt explains how they met: "He was playing army, and he fell out of a tree on me." The two bonded listening to music in their respective pads, and pretty soon they were playing it, too. "I'm not really a musician," Watt says. "I tried music in the seventh grade and they kicked me out after ten weeks. The teacher said I tried hard but I just didn't have it. I never tried that academic thing again. I just did it to be with D. Boon."
D.'s mom suggested that Watt switch from guitar to bass. "I didn't know what the bass was," Watt says. "In arenas you couldn't really hear it. But we saw on album covers that every band had a bass player, except the Doors and the Seeds. So we knew it was a big part of the band. In the pictures it looked like a guitar that had four strings. I didn't know they were bigger. I didn't know it was lower." He was equally naive about songwriting. "We never thought about lyrics much as kids," he says. "Most lyrics sounded like lead guitar or something. We weren't thinking about the meaning of the words. My whole teen years, I wrote one song. It was called 'Mr. Bass King of Outer Space.' Stupid song. It was about playing the bass so low[long? tk] that it was blowing everybody off the stage."
Punk, arriving first in the form of records by the Ramones and Television, and soon after through gigs by L.A. bands the Dils and the Germs, completely changed Watt and Boon's outlook. Lyrics suddenly seemed more crucial: "People were trying to tell you something about themselves," Watt says. And the fancy musicianship of '70s arena rock bands went out the window, too. "Before punk, bass was kind of where you put your retarded friend," Watt theorizes. "Left field. It was a real inferiority complex dumped on me because of the bass guitar. But with punk, you had everyone lame, so all of a sudden the bass player was elevated and everybody was brought down. It was a lot more equal, and the bass drove the songs more. They were all learning, they were all beginning." With high school friend George Hurley on drums, Watt and Boon formed the Reactionaries at the end of 1978, then refitted themselves as the Minutemen a year later. "The 'minute' meant more like minute," Watt explains. "Like we were small compared to a big arena rock band. And the other reason for the name--I had a bunch of names on a paper, and D. Boon picked that one. He liked it because there was some right-wing group who used the name. We thought, we'll call ourselves the same thing--there goes their power! It'll dilute it and confuse things."
Even the Minutemen's songs were little. "We got the idea from this band from England called Wire. They had this album Pink Flag. The basic idea was to make the gig like it was one big song with all these little parts. They weren't supposed to be individual songs so much as little tributaries of a big river. We were doing these severe device type of things to find out what we were about, what was our sound. We didn't want to be just like Creedence or Blue Oyster Cult--we wanted to find out what Minutemen were. We would put the limitations on ourselves in order to bring a focus, to try to get some kind of originality. You could make up any rules you wanted to. That was something we gained from the movement. Like with the Pop Group, where they took Captain Beefheart and mixed it with P-Funk. You know, why not? Why not do anything you want? I mean, that sounds naive now, but in those days, from listening to arena rock and records that were more conventional, we thought there were formulas you had to abide by. And the punk movement exploded all that for us."
The Minutemen released five albums, but ended prematurely in late 1985, when D. Boon was killed in a car crash. Watt has dedicated most of his career since that point to Boon's memory. In 1986 songwriter Ed Crawford looked up Watt's number in the phone book, and traveled from his home state of Ohio to San Pedro to convince him to make music again. With Hurley again on drums, they formed fIREHOSE and released the albums Ragin', Full-On (1986), If'n (1987), and Fromohio (1989) on SST. The band then signed to Columbia, releasing Flyin' the Flannel (1991) and the EP Mr. Machinery Operator (1993) before disbanding. Watt's first solo effort, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, was meant as a kind of philosophic inquiry into the nature of bass playing, although that aspect of the album got lost underneath the avalanche of big-name guest stars. "The title Ball-Hog or Tugboat--I'm talking about the bass," he says. "What is it? Is it going to aid and abet, or is it going to bogart? What am I? The dumb bass player. So it was like this test. But hardly anyone got that. What's obvious to me isn't always obvious to other people."
For the past ten years, Watt has shied away from putting together a permanent band. He recorded his 1997 solo album, Contemplating the Engine Room--a reflection on both his father's life in the navy and his own experiences in the Minutemen--with a trio called the Black Gang, featuring Nels Cline on guitar and Stephen Hodges on drums. Drummer Jerry Trebotic and keyboardist Pete Mazich backed him on his album The Secondman's Middle Stand. On the side he performs in Stephen Perkins' punk/free jazz outfit Banyan; his longest-running band to date is the two-bass duo Dos, with former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler. "After fIREHOSE, I kind of wanted to stop having bands," he says. "Like, with D. Boon, this was who I played with, so all the music ideas were sent through this paradigm of D. Boon, which for me was okay. But with Ed from Ohio, it seemed kind of unfair to him. Some stuff he liked. Some stuff he was like, 'What the fuck?' I couldn't blame him for that. That's kind of why I ended fIREHOSE. Now I don't really have a band. I put bands together around different projects. Maybe it's like, when you're younger it's easier to have roommates. I'm older. I'm not trying to say, 'Oh, there was this trapped voice and the band was stifling me.' I'm just trying to say that my life has changed a little bit, so the way I make music has changed, too."
And sometimes he prefers not to be in charge. Over the course of the past several years he's done stints as a sideman with Porno for Pyros, J. Mascis's the Fog, and most recently, with the reformed Stooges. "It's trippy, because I feel so tiny," he says. "This is the fucking Stooges. They're a source. They're not derivative of anything. I'd heard them when I was 16. If D. Boon had said, 'In thirty years you're going to be playing with them'--it's just very strange. On purpose I've put myself in a couple of sideman situations, because what I've learned is that you can't learn everything always being the boss. You miss out on a lot, always getting your way. If I'm going to ask people to follow direction, I should learn myself. Life's about playing different roles, anyway. Sometimes you've got to be the skipper, but then sometimes you've got to be deck hand."
Over the next several months, Watt plans on recording three new albums. He's finishing his fourth record with Dos, plus he's currently writing new material for a new guitar-bass-drums trio he's calling the Missingmen. "It's going to be little songs, like in the old days," he says. The Missingmen will tour with the new material in the spring of 2006, then record the album for release in the fall. "Then I've got another plan to go to Cleveland with a bunch of songs and just play 'em with whoever--like John Petkovic from Cobra Verde, and some other people. I liked the idea of Ball-Hog so I want to do it again, but not with such famous people."
I asked Watt toward the end of our conversation what he thought punk rock meant today. I told him that I bummed out when someone gave my five-year-old daughter a London Punk Bratz doll, and that I was disheartened by the huge number of bands who packaged punk for radio and MTV. But he cut through the noise and got at the hear of the matter, reminding me that punk rock is a process, not a product. "If it's some style, especially some shrink-wrapped thing hanging on a wall at Toys 'R' Us, then it won't live, it won't be dynamic," he said. "It becomes exactly what the marketing people want--a genre, something to make their job easier. But if it's something like, 'Everybody's telling me the wall's over there, but I'm going to push against it and see if it's really there'--to me, that's what punk is. An idealistic attitude." That's why I never tire of Watt. I don't have to be punk rock, as long as he is.