The Sound His Head Makes: ‘On and Off Bass’

The stereotype of the rock bassist is that he’s an underappreciated second banana. But Mike Watt, who burst onto the scene in the late ‘70s with LA punk pioneers the Minutemen and whose artistic energy hasn’t flagged since, has never been content to let his instrument do the talking. This is lucky for us, because as On and Off Bass demonstrates through its lush, contemplative photography, prose and verse, Watt has plenty more that deserves to be heard.

Although it reads at times as a kind of existential travelogue, the book is firmly rooted in the Los Angeles port city of San Pedro, where Watt grew up and still lives. It was here in the ‘70s that Watt teamed up with his classmate D. Boon to form the Minutemen, one of the seminal punk/post-punk bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their best-known album, Double Nickels on the Dime, came out in 1984, shortly before Boon was killed in a van accident.

Watt fell into a deep depression after his friend’s death, and though he ultimately went on to continue his career and find success playing with the bass duo Dos in fIREHOSE and on tour with the legendary Stooges, it’s obvious that the loss of his great friend and first collaborator remains acute. Indeed, Boon’s presence is palpable throughout On and Off Bass. The book is dedicated to him and in it, Watt explores the idea that things — and people — can be present after they’re gone, and in places that seem incongruent. It’s one of several paradoxes that the book addresses.

“The sun’s going down and I’m staring at the water,” Watt writes. “Once in awhile, it’s good to be alone like this to get my thinking together. The peacefulness of the boats is in such conflict with the hell in my head.” This chaos — punk, post punk, and everything that came after it — comes to a head off the waters of San Pedro, as capurted in his photos. The industrial landscapes of San Pedro have always contrasted with the glamour of Los Angeles, which annexed the gritty port town in 1909. In Watt’s world, the hard lines of heavy port machinery contrast with the soft wattles of pelicans and the blubbery skins of seals.

The nonstop motion of touring with The Stooges — most of the entries are datelined London, Moscow, New York, etc. — is contrasted with the meditations on origins; Watt’s own, as well as those of The Minutemen and the punk scene, the latter which must serve as a kind of spiritual home to a man frequently on the move. He takes a self-effacing view of the whole thing, writing, “For me, the punk scene was a means — not the end in itself.”

In fact, some of the best poet/rock musicians rose to prominence around the same time as Watt, including Leonard Cohen, Jim Carroll and Patti Smith, whose 2010 memoir, Just Kids, is an account of the diverse artistry of the era. It’s not surprising that the chaos surrounding the birth of punk, at a time when everything was questioned and nothing was sacred, gave rise to these artists’ need to explore their own depths.

Recalling standing near the banks of the Hudson River in New York, Watt writes “I put my hand on my face to know it was there. It felt like a bass string — a big, giant one and I wanted to pluck it. I wanted to hear what note my head would make if it was rung.”

This book is one big tune, the one that Watt and his bass have been carrying through the years. It’s a warm, beautiful sound.

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