Mike Watt: Mr. Engine Driver
Mike Watt sends me sunsets by e-mail.
Not just me, I’m sure. The Minutemen’s legendary staff-thudder — Watt’s laid-back San Pedro slang for “bassist” — has got a MySpace page and mailing list just like everyone else. He hits it with a heads-up whenever he’s working — which is always — whether with the reincarnated Stooges or one of his million other bands, like Dos, Banyan, the Missingmen, Hellride and onward. How to put it? He’s a working-class hero in a music world invaded by postmodern weekenders.
“The world used to be about everyone working for the weekend,” Watt cracks by phone. “Now, we want every day to be a weekend.” Which recalls the photos: They’re often blinding tableaux of the sun, or seals, pelicans or other groggy life you find out on the Pacific at the crack of dawn. That’s usually when Watt rolls out of bed, gets into his kayak or onto his mountain bike, and snaps them.
“I’m up at 4 a.m., but I conk around 8 p.m.,” he admits. “The older you get, the earlier you wake.”
Mike Watt embraces existence on sea and land partially because he’s an all-or-nothing workhorse. And he knows that legacies cut short could have lasted so much longer, something he learned after the death of punk soul mate and Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in December 1985. The tale leading up to that unhappy birthday was chronicled by Keith Schieron and Tim Irwin in their recent rock-doc We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen.
But Watt also stays feverishly productive because he himself almost keeled in 2000 from a deadly infection. He recorded a concept album about the incident in 2004 called The Secondman’s Middle Stand, using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a literary antecedent. Books, you see, make him want to play the bass.
“The guys who can wrestle words are a big part of what I draw upon,” he explains. “Joyce, Dante, Faulkner. There is something about their art form, the way it engages my mind with words. I can fit my life into it.”
Right now, he’s squeezing in 50 years, celebrating a half-century on Earth on December 20 by, what else, playing a show with one of his bands. That one is called Banyan, a jazz-punk mindfuck including Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins (“The Perk,” as Watt tags him), trumpeter Willie Waldman and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. Meanwhile, Cline, a frequent Watt collaborator, is celebrating his 52nd birthday a couple of weeks later at the Mint — with Watt and Banyan. He’ll also drop riffage for Watt’s forthcoming effort under the moniker Black Gang.
“Nels is so fucking busy, so I’m going to do that one first,” Watt says. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been doing a lot more gigs than records. I had to tour the world.”
Always the dynamo, Watt has an after-plan with another band, called the Missingmen: his third miniopera in a row, called Nine and Thirty, the sequel to Contemplating the Engine Room, his second solo effort, and The Secondman’s Middle Stand. For that one, he’s dispensed with the books and tapped the art vein.
“I’m basing it on the creatures in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights,” he confides. “I found out they were visualizations of proverbs and aphorisms, but I don’t know 500-year-old Dutch, so I made up my own interpretations. Bosch was a kept man who married into wealth; he looked at everything from afar, kind of like me looking at the Hollywood sign from my pad in Pedro. It’s the idea of stepping back and looking at the silly shit we go through. It’s a middle-aged thing.”
Yet even into “autumn,” as Watt calls his middle age, he’s still cranking on all cylinders. His day planner is a clusterfuck of activity, reaching critical mass by the month. It’s enough to make most of us old, although it is Watt’s Fountain of Youth, so to speak, as well as his therapy.
“I’m freaking out, but it’s okay to get into the middle ground, into autumn,” he adds. “Black Gang and Missingmen are middle-age records, but that’s natural because I’m there. I can’t make The Punch Line,” the Minutemen’s blistering 1981 debut full-length. “I’m in a different place in my life. I wrote all those songs for D. Boon. Now I write for Watt.”
Writing for Watt, however, does not mean that there is life without D. Boon and the Minutemen as much as that there is life after them. As the years pass and memories fade, the Pedro art-punk trio only grows in stature, marked for life as influences on those moving units and those making movements. When the music lifers are assembled and counted in the year 3000, the “corndog” Pedro clan that wrote the jagged classic “Cut” will have indeed made the cut. That’s the juice that just keeps on giving.
“To be honest, it is the biggest reason I’m still doing music,” Watt confesses. “At the time, it was the movement: We didn’t think it was music, but expression. We had a weird style, but it was empowering. And we met some daring people, like Bad Brains, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth. They weren’t afraid, we figured, so why should we be? And I want others to think that if I can do it, they can too. That’s why I helped those kids put out We Jam Econo.”
And from the Fountain of Youth to snapshot sunsets, Mike Watt is stacking his future with expressions to be dissected and discussed by open-minded come-ups in love with everything from Daydream Nation to Ulysses. It’s a remarkably dense body of work, like all of the greats, which starts unassumingly in San Pedro with talented friends trading riffs and ends who knows where. Who knows? All that matters is that he’s working. Hard.
“They are here when we are gone,” he concludes. “That’s why they call finished art ‘works.’ There’s no shame in it; natural individualism is what expression is for. And everyone has got to work. It’s the creative burden.”
Mike Watt celebrates his 50th birthday on December 20 at DiPiazza's in Long Beach. Performing will be the Nels Cline Singers and Banyan. For more information, call (562) 498-2461.
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