Few people in underground music retain the unvarnished status, proclivity for chance and change, and ductile dedication to musically honesty that Mike Watt does. His relationship to comrade D. Boon extends back to 1973, when the Californians formed the Bright Orange Band, then re-grouped as the Reactionaries, then settled in as the Minutemen by 1980. Considered uber poet-cum-punks armed with endless San Pedro slang, their music deftly fused dollops of Creedence Clearwater and Blue Oyster Cult with Pop Group and Wire. Their catalog alone is seminal and titanic, a working-class tome that impressed writers from Richard Meltzer to Mikal Gilmore and Michael Azerrad.
When D. Boon died in 1986, Watt briefly contributed songs to Sonic Youth for Evol and soon planted his feet in fIREHOSE, featuring Midwest exile Ed from Ohio (Crawford) as singer but retaining floppy-haired Minutemen drummer George Hurley as backbeat captain. From the trio’s days on Greg Ginn’s (Black Flag) iconic label SST to its foray on Columbia, fIREHOSE’s sound transformed from loose-knit Americana jazz-punk to big rock ’n’ roll blends, shaped by producers like J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
After fIREHOSE folded, Mike Watt become a solo man, serving as temporary player in Porno for Pyros, J. Mascis and the Fog, and later the Stooges. He also helped assemble an endless number of projects and units — Banyan, the Wylde Ratttz, Watt and the Missingmen, Watt and the Jom and Terry Show, Watt and the Secondmen, and Watt and the Pair of Pliers — each different and distinct from their predecessors. Meanwhile, his records formed impressive “rock operas” that mined deep into Watt’s history and heritage.
Lately, as always, his workload has been phenomenal. His ventures with the Missingmen, such as The Hyphenated-Man featuring guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales, is a tour de force mustered after his departure from Sony Records. In turn, his new efforts with Dos, the Unknown Instructors (featuring members of Pere Ubu and Saccharine Trust), and Floored by Four (featuring Nels Cline) continue to inspire.
10. Mike Watt – “Against the 70’s”
(Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, 1995)
The track’s potent power easily transcends the confines of the mid-1990s. Likely the only near “hit” Mike Watt has yielded, putting its chin at the #21 spot of the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks, the best version of this bare-knuckled pop rock cruncher, featuring both Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Watt, is the well-recorded bootleg of a mid-1990s show in Chicago during the “Ringspiel” tour. The song’s underlying guts and romp are soaked in pure Watt ideology. As defender of the DIY faith, Watt injects his lyrics with jabs at empty nostalgia for stadium rock embodied by parts of the grunge rock movement. Such 1970s drivel is “Not a reality / Just someone’s else’s sentimentality” imposed by old hacks on youth, who deserve their own soundtrack. Mike Watt help cut the punk path, and he won’t cede ground to reactionary music, then or now.
9. Mike Watt – “The Bluejacket’s Manual”
(Contemplating the Engine Room, 1997)
The album’s “rock opera” or song cycles offer dizzying biographic immersion from tales recounting Watt’s chief sailor dad and hometown San Pedro to fellow companion D. Boon. This whiplash tune explodes in the midst. Nels Cline’s screechy guitar notes build to a “whirling Dervish” frenzy, broken only by a lull — an atmospheric pause in a sonic tempest — followed by more guitar shrapnel and Watt’s soaring growl. The actual Bluejacket’s Manual is the U.S. Navy’s basic handbook, but the song deftly works a parallel narrative too, capturing both the drills of boot camp maritime service and pogo pits of early era punk, when “spits… fits… slams… and kicks” shattered the glass menagerie of 1970s soft rock. This well-oiled song is fierce and frenetic.
8. Mike Watt – “Bursted Man”
(The Secondman’s Middle Stand, 2004)
Healing from a bike injury and a horrendous infection, Watt headed back to the studio. Using Pro Tools for the first time, he was joined by Hammond-organ gyrator Pete Mazich and nimble drummer Jerry Trebotic, who demonstrate acrobatic structures akin to No Means No. Indebted to Dante’s Comedia, Watt musters the will to explore his own debilitating illness — “this insane dance of each spasm” — that left him profoundly changed. Watt sounds like poet Allen Ginsberg at times, yelling for Roman poet Virgil (Dante’s guide through Hell) and Beatrice (Dante’s guide through Heaven) as the three musicians spar and riff. Watt dramatically recounts his body ablaze with a fever’s catapulting torments, represented by the organ’s middle-of-the-tune caterwauling. It’s as honest and gripping as any allegorical memoir.
7. fIREHOSE – “Relatin’ Dudes to Jazz”
(Ragin’, Full On, 1986)
Less than a year after Minutemen suffered the death of D. Boon, Watt returns in full form. With the spry, skittering guitar work of Ed Crawford, this Watt and Kira Roessler (Watt’s ex-wife and companion in the band Dos) composition works in torqued fIREHOSE fashion. Riddled with Watt’s bops, pops, and percolations and George Hurley’s roiling drum fills, the song offers abrupt stop’n’starts, heady lyrics (“My place in a time is a big nada-history”), boyish personal spiels about friend Raymond Pettibon (“We were jumping fences / Jumping for freedom”) and jazz memories (“A drum and a sax / Both of them talking”). Epitomizing Watt’s writing, in which abstract and specific blend, such fIREHOSE pop-leaning fare jams super-econo, right in the vein of the Minutemen.
6. fIREHOSE – “For the Singer of R.E.M.”
Lyrically dense and circular, Mike Watt addresses all things, including R.E.M. (with whom Minutemen toured) singer Michael Stipe. It’s a delirious mix of alliteration (“dismantle”… “door”… “desk drawer”), assonance (“Stolling rone is famous for”), and fecund wordplay (“You object to objects actually meaning more”). In the narrative, two writers wrestle with each other while seeking new forms, aesthetics, and “uncharted shores”. Mysterious references abound. Who is the “Pathetic, lame aesthetic stolling rone” (referencing Rolling Stone and Bob Dylan), and who exactly is over-reaching? Both Watt and Stipe practice extemporaneous, randomly associated, and freewheeling surreal lyricism. Hence, drowning old forms is the modus operandi of honest new music in a dishonest time, Watt contends, when he pens, “Grab a firehose and point it at the door.”
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5. fIREHOSE – “What Gets Heard”
Though a more adrenaline-reeking, muscular version sung by Crawford is found on the Live Totem Pole EP, this slower take features Watts’ deep barrel baritone delivery. The insistent downbeat and interplay of pummeling, pouncing bass lines and often snaky, slithering guitar notes overlay Watts’ acute dictum: “What gets heard / That’s the word / What gets felt / Is something else.” He insists listeners read between lines, unwrap subtexts, and not simply believe convenient truths. “What gets heard” is contested space, he infers. For music to be authentic, or truly matter, it must not bow to programmed pressures to become easily packaged and digested. As a longtime devotee of punk and jazz, Watts knows this too well. Art must challenge and collide with false strictures and norms.
4. fIREHOSE – “The Red and the Black”
(Live Totem Pole, 1992)
Mike Watt has covered innumerable acts, including Richard Hell, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, and Parliament/Funkadelic: each time he embodies them to the hilt, making them inroads into his own personally stamped universe. This song, a core of his set dating from the time of Minutemen, is the nimble work of Blue Oyster Cult (dubbed by D. Boon as “pre-reactionary” in a concert from 1984), but it feels like his second skin. This smoldering version, caught during the peak of fIREHOSE’s popularity, is a duel between Watt’s burly yelps and Hurley’s barely lighter shade of power. Watt might have disdained the fascist elements of singalong stadium rock, meant to dope the masses, but he possessed this renegade roadhouse song from the inside out, pumping the wattage, riffage, and rock ’n’ roll with thrusting finesse, hard roiling ruckus, and punk brouhaha.
3. Minutemen – “If Reagan Played Disco” / “Search” / “Validation”
(Ballot Result, 1987) / (The Punch Line, 1981) / (Paranoid Time, 1980)
These short, sharp titular tunes embody much of Watt’s ideology, style, and zest for compressing pop and politics into a combustible cauldron. The songs marry the panic-speed of hardcore with the knowingness of poetry and protest. D. Boon’s tinny guitar shreds ears, Watt ripples and rollicks, and Hurley dishes out choppy jazz-punk. In clarion clearness, Watts imagines Reagan as a false working class hero using lame disco to reach the public. “Search”, sung with deep-down soul punk, examines the fury of the same demographic (“Son of a martyr / Son of a father / You can look inside you / You can look inside me”) and reveals the band’s tightly wound, hybrid, and offbeat music blends. The Minutemen were adamant shit/shiftworker advocates, putting words to the ire of everyday people they loved. At 41 seconds, “Validation” observes the contradictions of convictions and positions, embroiling the listener in a war of tongue-tying words.
2. Minutemen – “Tour Spiel”
(We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen documentary, 2005)
Unveiled during the band’s fecund “Mersh” era, this acoustic hootenanny reveals flannel flying Americana music. Rejecting the boilerplate speed of punk, later Minutemen flourished in rootsy rhythms. It’s a locus of Watt’s lyrical tendencies, like stitching together allusions to E. Bloom and Joe Bouchard (both of Blue Oyster Cult) to SST sidekick Tom Troccoli. This live acoustic version features the Minutemen’s laconic ease in the laidback turf of their tunes. The lyrics don’t veer and pingpong: if fact, they remain a rather straight telling of “jam econo” theory (“bits and pieces of a working thesis”) and band history, including symbols such as beat-up vans, typewriters, and empty gas tanks while the Minutemen zoomed across “the USA in Van”. The tight crosshatch between candor and cantos, musical exploration and the mapping of self, typifies Watts’ model.
1. Minutemen – “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”
(Double Nickels on the Dime, 1984)
A fave of Watt’s (his pick to begin Side Mike on the album), this tom-tom thumping cut honors his lyrical forays. With driving aplomb and residual rock leanings, the lyrics give weight to basic human rights and action (“Being born is power”), Walt Whitman candor (“Me naked with textbook poems”), Woody Guthrie-style anti-fascism (“Spout fountain against the Nazis”), succinct self-reflexivity addressing both the band and self (“We’d cuss more in our songs and cut down the guitar solos”… “I must look like a dork), and philosophical quandaries (“Is your life worth a painting?”). Covered by Das Damen and instrumentalist Helen Money, the song remains seminal and succinct, a bellwether of Watt’s talents as a knotty lyrical genius.
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An interview with Mike Watt by David Ensminger will be published in Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons, due out Dec 2012 from PM Press.