article by jennifer kelly. photos by hayley murphy.|
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Mike Watt, one of punk's best and most passionate bassists, veteran of the influential Minutemen and fIREHOSE, nearly died in 2000. An untreated infection in his perineum (you can look it up, or just take my word that it's a place where no one wants anything going wrong) burst, pouring bacteria into this system. He had a fever for 38 days. He didn't sleep for six months. Even after the doctors pulled him through, Watt was too weak to do the things he loved -- play the bass, ride his bike, paddle his kayak in the bay he'd lived near all his life.
Watt slowly fought his way back to life, plunking alongside the Stooges' "Little Doll" until his strength and skill came back, and then, finally, transforming his experience into The Secondman's Middle Stand, a punk rock opera modeled after Dante's Divine Comedy. Now, Watt is back to doing what he does best: touring the country in a white Econoline van, playing his songs and sharing his rough-hewn philosophy with friends, fans and the next generation of people inspired by punk. Here's what he had to say to Splendid.
Splendid: So, thanks for doing this.
Mike Watt: You're welcome. I'm in Lexington, Kentucky right now. Gig number 30 of my 53rd tour. I'm doing 65 gigs in 66 days.
Splendid: You're probably sick of telling this story, but could you just briefly talk about this near-death experience you had that became the subject of your album?
Mike Watt: Did you go to the Hoot Page?
Splendid: Yeah, I did.
Mike Watt: There is a little thing I wrote about it. I call it "The Illness". Basically, literally...words don't express that experience. That's why I made the record. It's kind of an allegory for me, being middle-aged. In my strange way... I don't think I'm typical middle aged. But what happened was in January 2000, I was diagnosed and treated for an infection in my perineum that grew and grew inside of me and then exploded. I had emergency surgery and the doctors saved my life. And it took many months to heal up later, and in the meantime, I hadn't played my bass... it was the first time I had stopped since I was 13. So when I got out of the hospital and tried to play again, I couldn't. So I panicked.
Then I did Stooges songs and got stronger, and I learned how to do that again. And I was able to ride my bicycle again and paddle my kayak. I had a new perspective on being alive. I didn't want to die. I had a lot of stuff to do. And now I want to make an album every year, like I used to do in the Minutemen days. The gap between this album and the last one is actually bigger than my whole Minutemen career.
Splendid: Why were you not making albums for so long before?
Mike Watt: I was just touring. Touring and playing for people is important, but it's not the whole story. I think you have to have works, too. You know, because, well, for example, I paralleled my piece with Dante's Commedia. I would have never known of the Commedia, because it was created 700 years ago, if Dante hadn't written it down -- if he had just told it to people. So, that shows you that in a way your works are kind of like your tombstones. They're there after you're gone.
Splendid: You had read the Commedia a long time ago. It wasn't just something you discovered during your illness.
Mike Watt: As a teenager. I re-read it after this sickness and it was a whole different thing.
Splendid: How was it different?
Mike Watt: It's just like ... you know, at 22 I was almost killed by pneumonia. I didn't even write a song about it. And then this happens to me 20 years later and I wrote a whole opera. Obviously, the difference is me and my life. I'm at a different place. I think it might be like that for most people. Life is a journey. It's got a beginning, a middle and an end. D. Boon used to say that about Minutemen songs. They were only 40 seconds long, but they still should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
It's a funny thing about this record, because it's got these six and seven minute songs, which is not my tradition. But one of the things about this sickness is the way it fucks with time. I had to have a longer format like that.
Splendid: You mentioned that in one of the songs. You talk about no past and no future and only the present.
Mike Watt: Oh, yeah, well, that was a big joke that life played on me. Because my last record, Contemplating the Engine Room, was about my past. So I wanted to make this next record about being in the moment. There's an aphorism, you know, about "being in the moment"?
Mike Watt: Well, it's one of those things where you've got to be careful for what you wish for, because when you're sick, all you have is the moment. It's a nightmare. Time stretches in weird, weird ways. I didn't sleep for six months...
Splendid: Oh my god.
Mike Watt: And in fact, the hell part, like I said, it's parallel to the Commedia so the first -- it's really one song in nine parts -- but the first three parts are the hell part of the sickness. The second three parts is the purgatory or the healing. And then the third three parts are Paradiso because I get to play my bass and ride my bike and paddle my kayak again. But during the hell part, I had 38 days of fever, and that's really insane. I was out of my fuckin' mind. And a second would take, like, days.
Splendid: You were hallucinating a lot of the time?
Mike Watt: Yeah, big time. And having a lot of regrets. You always think you've got enough time to get stuff done, and then that comes on you and you can't get shit done.
Splendid: It sounds like you were already thinking about writing the album, while you were still too sick to really do anything about it.
Mike Watt: Well, it took so fucking much from me, I figured I could take at least a record from it. I'm not really like a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. It's like a scrap heap. People make an impression on me or a situation like that and that's what I use to grow a song.
But then when I got it done and I started teaching my guys this stuff, it read to me more and more like, whoa, this is Watt at 46. When you're younger, it's all about material stuff and all these complicated formulas as to what's going to add up to what life's all about. You get to this place where you've got some life experience under your belt, but you're not totally enfeebled yet, you're starting to... A lot of guys in my town and my age don't roll around to the towns with a band and work towns with a bass. They have a huge crisis. They've done everything they've been told. The mortgage, the family, they've done all that in their twenties and thirties, all this stuff. And now what's it all mean to them? So they try to... a lot of them want to be 20 again. They get their convertibles, their young girlfriends. I think I went through all that and went back to nine. It's the simple little things. Like when you're a kid, it's just about playing. I'm not trying to be naive about it or infantile, but there are simple things that have become very valuable.
Splendid: Like, for instance?
Mike Watt: Like the bicycle. I didn't ride a bicycle for 22 years. Playing the bass. Here, I'd done that since I was 13 and never stopped. It was not really to be a musician. I got into it to be with my friend. It had all these very personal connections to me. And then, oh my god, I lost it. It was a freakout for me.
Splendid: That must have been frightening.
Mike Watt: And a lot of people say, oh, music, that's little kid stuff. Unless you become a rock star, and what's that about? Just making money. They've got this show on MTV called Cribs where they show people's houses... My father was a sailor, so I think I kind of have this in my blood. There's something about it, working the towns. I think this is what I'm here to do. So, like I say, it was a personal connection that got me into it. But I didn't want to let it go.
My best friend is Raymond Pettibone, the painter. I'm very influenced by writers and painters. I come from working people and not really high culture and stuff, but I'm really a big admirer of the arts, which is all kinds of things. I don't think it's just stuff in galleries or on the top ten Billboard list. The guy fixing your carburetor, I would hope, is an artist trying to do his most creative work. I think it's a fabric that humans share that really helps when the cycles of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, these things that go through these cycles of crisis. I think that the arts, in a weird way, is the fabric that pulls us together through these shallow periods.
Splendid: Yeah, I think you're right. I think the arts can be very spiritual.
Mike Watt: Absolutely. But on the other hand, you have to keep a perspective, because the arts can get all twisted up. Every military unit had a drummer unit. The arts get perverted into weird things. Every army commercial has rock and roll.
Splendid: With the Minutemen, your music was very political...
Mike Watt: Yeah, we were trying to be real personable. If you met us off the stage, we were the guys playing the songs and that was what was on our minds. With this new record, it's more about the body politics. But I haven't changed at all since those days. My songs were a little spacy, but they weren't (that way) on purpose. I thought they were very clear. I always felt like me and him together was like something to give people a little confidence, so that they could express how they might be feeling. Because we didn't really know what words to the songs were like before punk rock. We always thought about the lead guitar. The punk people didn't know how to play so well, but they sure as hell wanted to express themselves. This was profound to us and we liked it. We didn't think it was a style. We thought it was more like a state of mind. The rules were wide open.
Splendid: So, do you feel like you're still a punk in that sense?
Mike Watt: Oh, absolutely. I owe that movement a huge debt, because we actually come from arena rock where people are cowed in, herded like sheep and cows. That was not very empowering at all. It's kind of funny when I think about.
Splendid: It's really interesting. What do you think about the punk that's out there now?
Mike Watt: Well, you know, everything goes through cycles and gets co-opted. If you look back 60 years ago, Pat Boone sold more records than Little Richard. What's that about? It's not really a new game. There are a lot of people who are interested in the old days of punk as ethics, so that they can try to make it their own so they can try to be creative, and not out of nostalgia or some kind of phony sentimentalism, but as tools. So they can learn how to express themselves. It's a state of mind, so it can never be dated or trapped.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the songs on the album. One is "Angels Gate", which I really like, and that's the one where you're learning how to play your bass again.
Mike Watt: Yeah. Angel's Gate is the hole in the breakwater out in the harbor. There's a breakwater and they call it the Angel's Gate. The song right before it is the first time that I'm out of my house in all those months. And to get out, that was like a breakthrough. But one of the things that makes me happiest is the bass, and I couldn't play the bass, and it upset me a little bit. Part of the joy was rediscovering it. I don't think happiness or joy or whatever is always something that's given to you. Sometimes you've got to invent it.
AUDIO: Angels Gate
Splendid: So you're sitting in your bed, weak as hell, and trying to play "Little Doll" in that song.
Mike Watt: Yeah. And that's another strange thing, because now I'm the bass player for the Stooges.
Splendid: Yeah, I know, I was going to ask you about that.
Mike Watt: That's pretty insane. That's what life does. It deals you a hand. Sometimes it's really lame. Sometimes it's unbelievable.
Splendid: Well, you knew all the songs...
Mike Watt: Oh, since I was 16.
Splendid: I saw the DVD of the Stooges concert in Detroit that Creem did. It was just amazing...it would have been so great to have been there.
Mike Watt: For me, too.
Splendid: You were sick during that concert, weren't you?
Mike Watt: No. I was during the first one at Coachella. That was the third one, and I was better, but I was still scared out of my mind.
Splendid: Iggy is just...a force of nature.
Mike Watt: He's a big inspiration to me. He's a pretty interesting man.
Splendid: How did that happen?
Mike Watt: Well, their bass player died in 1975. I had played with Ron and Scotty. When I was trying to get stronger, I asked J. Mascis to do some gigs of all Stooges songs, and J. Mascis and the Fog, and we came to Ann Arbor and called Ron up. I had done a song for that Velvet Goldmine movie. Then Sonic Youth curated that All Tomorrow's Parties and they asked us to play, and then I did this awards show with Iggy. And they wanted to do the first gig in 29 years, and they called me. Nothing was premeditated. It was just a series of accidents. I also did some Stooges songs on the West Coast with a couple of the guys from Porno for Pyros.
Splendid: What's that like? You must have been a huge Stooges fan.
Mike Watt: Yeah. Since I was 16. If you'd told me then that I'd be playing with them in 30 years, I would have been like, wow. And finally, I'm the youngest guy in the band.
Splendid: Yeah, but with Iggy, if you figured out his biological age rather than his actual age, I bet he'd be younger.
Mike Watt: He's 57.
Splendid: Yeah, but he looks like a 20-year-old.
Mike Watt: And he plays every gig like it might be his last. He's so passionate about what he does. It reminds me a lot of D. Boon.
Splendid: So, this song, "Plucking, Pedalling, Paddling", that's about your eventual recovery and being able to do all these things again...
Mike Watt: Yeah, I wake up very early in the morning and I do that in my town. It's like a little kid in me that's re-emerged.
Splendid: You do the sea kayaking?
Mike Watt: Yeah. In the harbor of Los Angeles called San Pedro. I do that three days a week and I pedal my bike four days a week.
Splendid: How far do you go on the bike?
Mike Watt: About 23 miles. It's about two hours doing each.
Splendid: Did you do that before, or is that something you started after you got sick?
Mike Watt: I started before. I actually started writing Contemplating the Engine Room on my bike. I started riding the bike when I was 38. I got a car at 16 and never rode the bike again. I thought it was for little kids, and then I figured out I was an asshole.
Splendid: It's a great thing, getting out and using your body...
Mike Watt: Absolutely. I'm not a jock or anything, but there's something about moving your body -- learning how to listen to birds, paddling out there.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about "Pelicanman". It's really beautiful and I love it. What does it mean?
Mike Watt: Well, a pelican only has a song as a baby. When it gets older, it has no song. Some of these things that I'm talking about...in words...I know the words are going to fall short. Not everything in life can be expressed in words. That's why people like music. I was trying to talk about this, but I can't get the whole experience into words. They're going to fail.
Splendid: Well, hopefully, the words will get a few more people to listen to the music and then they can get the whole story.
Mike Watt: Yeah, or they read their own story into it. That's the magic thing about music, or books or art. It's not just a one way street.
Splendid: Tell me about the organ on the album. Did you know that was going to be a part of it?
Mike Watt: I wanted to use it before I even got sick. I thought it was an interesting thing. I didn't really know a lot about it. I didn't grow up with it. For me to learn it, I had to put myself into a challenging situation. The organ can go even lower than a bass, so it's kind of like a bass, too.
Splendid: Yeah, well, it's got this incredible variety of sounds. And it's also, you know, it's one of those instruments that goes from the sacred to the profane. You hear it in church and also at the roller rink.
Mike Watt: That's what's weird, when it came on me, it's this weird coincidence.
Splendid: Do you want to talk about the people that you worked with on the album, how you found them and who they are?
Mike Watt: Yeah, they're longshoremen from my town. I wanted to make an all-Pedro record with an all-Pedro band. A big part of me being as fortunate as I've been is trying to give back to my town, trying to hand down, in a weird way like mentoring people. That means just using my town as a thermos bottle to protect me from Hollywood. Or outside influences.
It's like, in a way, I'm not the end-all. I'm trying to pass something on, trying to be a link in the chain. They're very interesting gentlemen. I love them. But when I tour, it's just me and those two. It's a very small unit. We help each other out. Basically, I haven't changed the way I tour in 24 years. I do it the same way, which is ride on the deck, you know.
Splendid: In your shows, you're performing the whole album from start to finish?
Mike Watt: Well, it's one song.
Splendid: It's pretty intense, isn't it? How are people responding?
Mike Watt: Yeah, well, I think it's insane. But it's just something I've got to do at this time in my life. If anything, I hope it will give people confidence to try to be creative with their art and expression. Too much stuff is by the numbers. Punk blew my mind because I didn't expect or know what was going to come next. I feel a debt to that, and I'm trying to pass it on. That doesn't mean I want everyone to write operas and work the bass or whatever, but in all good things I'm inspired by other artists. That's what I'm trying to do. It is kooky. It is not too commercial. But, you know, punk is a very small scene. You learn early not to care much what people thought. I had D. Boon and that was enough. He's been gone almost 20 years. I do not want to lose those ethics.
Splendid: Is it hard for you, reliving that experience night after night?
Mike Watt: Oh, yeah, it's insane. But I gotta do it. Like I said, to keep learning, I've got to put myself in challenging situations.
Splendid: What are you going to do when you're done with it? Are you going to play some of those songs when you tour again with new material?
Mike Watt: I don't know, because it's really one song. But that's one thing that I resolved to do when I was sick, to make a record every year, like I was telling you. I've already started planning my next couple of records.
Splendid: Are they going to be real different?
Mike Watt: Yeah. Not an opera. In fact, one of them is going to have 36 little songs. I'm going back to little songs. Then I'm going to make another record where I go to a town, go to Cleveland, and play with whoever wants to come in. I'm going to bring some songs and my bass and see what happens.
Splendid: Cleveland would be a good place to go for that.
Mike Watt: Yeah, but not real famous people. Just people with fire in their belly.
Splendid: Yeah. You've done that kind of thing before, haven't you?
Mike Watt: I did that with Ball-Hog or Tugboat but because they were famous people, no one talked about the music. That's why I'm going to try it again, but with people who aren't famous. All those guys were very sweet and great, but the perception in the public arena is one of celebrity-itis or whatever.
Splendid: Aren't you doing some covers after you do the opera?
Mike Watt: Yeah, the encore is about 20 minutes of covers.
Splendid: What kind of songs are you playing?
Mike Watt: Because of the election, I picked five or six songs that deal with that. I don't really give any speeches about the election, but I picked five or six songs that are related to it.
Splendid: Is there a Creedence cover in there?
Mike Watt: (laughs) No. Not this time. There's a Bob Dylan one, there's Roky Erikson one, there's a Blue Oyster Cult one.
Splendid: That sounds interesting.
Mike Watt: They're all related. They kind of let people know what's on my mind without me coming on like a cop and telling them what to do.
Splendid: You don't tell them to go out and vote. It seems every concert I go to now, somebody will get on stage and tell people to vote.
Mike Watt: Well, I'm trying to play some songs -- and I interpret them not exactly the way those guys wrote them. Hopefully, people will figure things out for themselves. I think that's what change really is -- not when they're told, but when they figure it out for themselves.
Splendid: Do you think you're going to be doing some more political material after you finish with this one?
Mike Watt: Absolutely. Politics is not a contest every four years. It will always be with us. There are always going to be issues for debate, at least in my view.
Splendid: I know you're doing some Minutemen songs with George Hurley at Camber Sands. How did that happen?
Mike Watt: We've done it twice before and this will be the third time. It's very exciting and very difficult because I haven't played the songs for 20 to 25 years.
Splendid: What's it like playing those songs again?
Mike Watt: Good. I love Georgie. We're doing this as a duet because I don't think D. Boon should be replaced.
Splendid: What about Spiel of a Minutemen, the book?
Mike Watt: That's my words that I wrote for the Minutemen. It was put out in Quebec, so it's in French and English. It's got some essays from Thurston (Moore) and Richard Melzer. It's got all the Raymond Pettibone artwork he did for the Minutemen. It's sort of like .. a work. Something solid of the work I did with the Minutemen. Maybe someone who wasn't around in those days might want to check it out. Or if you were around, it's kind of a reminder.
Splendid: Are you doing anything with fIREHOSE?
Mike Watt: I don't know. Edward lives in North Carolina, so it's hard. And around on the side, I have him come and play with me. I love Edward very much. Maybe, who knows? I'm very busy, though. I like what fIREHOSE did, but I don't know about doing a reunion because I'm too busy with other things. But much respect to Edward.
Splendid: So, right now you're doing this really intense tour. What else have you got on your plate when you finish that?
Mike Watt: There's a new Banyan album that's just out. I wrote most of the music. The Stooges want to record, so we're working on some new songs. I've got a couple of records I'm going to work on right away.
Splendid: Great. Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Mike Watt: Oh no, you asked me some great things. Thanks.
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Jennifer Kelly never wants to hear the word "perineum" again.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - hayley murphy :: credits graphics ]