Used with Mike Watt
A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.
From the dark corner of the small stage at a packed-to-the-gills Bottom of the Hill, Mike Watt thumps a deep rhythm on his road-worn mid 60’s Gibson EB-3 bass. His band, The Secondmen, launch into "boilin’ blazes," the second song of his recent rock opera, "The Secondman’s Middle Stand" that was released in August 2004. Watt’s on his 53rd tour of his 25-year career in support of the album, a tour that hits nearly every state in the continental U.S. and spans 65 gigs in 66 days, leaving only 24 hours of free time for the musicians for the entire tour.
The L.A. punk pioneer wrote the rock opera shortly after his brush with death in 2000 after a massive abscess in his perineum burst, sending a flood of bacteria into his system and nearly killing the legendary bass player. Go ahead and Google "perineum" yeah, it’s not an area in the male anatomy that you want too much going wrong.
The experience inspired Watt to write, comparing his ordeal with Dante’s Divine Comedy. The album’s first three songs "boilin’ blazes", "puked to high heaven" and "burstedman" represent Watt’s anguished descent into the Inferno; the middle three "tied a reed round my waist", "pissbags and tubing" and "beltsandedman" his arrival in Purgatory; and the final three "the angel’s gate", "pluckin’, pedalin’ and paddlin’" and "pelicanman" his ascent into the utopian Paradise of his seaside Southern California town of San Pedro.
As the song’s chorus ends and the band breaks down into musical chaos, Watt steps to his microphone bathed in the red hellish glow of the stage lights and utters, "A dream came…fingers through my fever-drenched hair…said, Be calm, Watt. Be strong, Watt. HOLD ON, WATT.’"
"Yeah, it’s some pretty intense shit, isn’t it?" Watt says as we crawl through late Friday afternoon traffic in the Mission. He pulls a cigarette from the chest pocket of his flannel shirt, lights up and takes a long drag the calm before the storm. Interviewing Watt is a bit like trying to lasso a hurricane Watt’s endless rants and "spiels" are notorious and can last for hours at a time, touching on subjects as diverse as wrestling, John Coltrane, hanging with Flea and the Chili Peppers and the life of sailors and longshoremen. I check the tape on my Panasonic recorder. The red light’s glowing and the wheels are turning in unison – I’m ready for the Spiel.
"Well, the illness was pretty intense, for sure," Watt says. "I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. So when I did, I figured I needed to write something about it. I almost died when I was in my twenties from pneumonia, but didn’t feel the need to write about it then. But this time…you know I’m a middle-age punk rocker, so this album not only deals with this illness, but also where I’m at in life."
"I had a lot of time while I was recovering to write it’s funny because I wrote most of the album while I was riding my bike around Pedro," Watt says. "The doctor said I should get more exercise, so I bought a bike for five dollars from a friend who was moving to Atlanta. The rhythm of riding a bike really helped to write some the songs. You can kind of hear it in the music. It sounds like a bike cruisin’ around."
Burst perineums aren’t the only thing happen’ to Watt these days. The bassist has been joining Iggy Pop for a few gigs in the new Stooges incarnation, as well as his usual involvement in Banyan with drummer Stephen Perkins. The new Stooges lineup has been well received by critics and fans alike and rumors have it that Iggy’s penned some new tunes for a new Stooges studio album.
"Playing with those guys is a trip," Watt says. "D.Boon would really get a kick out of seeing me play with these guys. We used to sit around and listen to Stooges records as kids. I hope we get to go into the studio and record something. The shows have all been really good. It’s great to get to play that music. And Iggy’s such a nice guy too."
Talk of Iggy Pop inevitably leads to D. Boon. The presence of the late frontman of The Minutemen, the seminal L.A. punk band that Watt, drummer George Hurley and he formed in 1980, is omnipresent in his bass player’s life. Watt met Boon when they both were kids living in the projects in Pedro Watt’s father was a sailor, Boon’s a mechanic. Both kids played a little guitar, though that would soon change.
"D. Boon’s mom was the one who told me to switch to bass," Watt says. "She wanted us to start a band so we’d stay out of trouble. I didn’t know that a bass guitar had heavier strings at the time, so I just played a guitar with four strings. The first songs I learned were a bunch of Creedence songs from D, because those records were around his house. D’s dad was into Buck Owens and Creedence. Creedence is the reason I wear flannel to this day. And that’s all I knew for a while just a bunch of Creedence. I learned everything playing with D. Boon."
Boon and Watt graduated from school in ’76 and started their first band, The Reactionaries, together in 1978. In 1980, The Minutemen were born. Despite only lasting five years, The Minutemen recorded twelve albums including the masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime.
"We made Double Nickels on the Dime for $1,100," Watt says with a laugh. "We mixed 45 songs in one night, in about 10 hours I think. Econo, man. It’s a trip to look back now and see how little thought was put into it at the time, but we played our hearts out."
Boon was killed on December 1985 in an automobile accident, which sent his childhood friend into a tailspin. A short time later, Watt received a call from across the country.
"At that time I didn’t know you had to pay the phone company to have your phone number unlisted," Watt explains. "This kid from Ohio, Ed Crawford, calls me up a couple of times and tells me he’s a huge fan and that I need to play music again. He came out to Pedro to my house, and ended up living under my desk for like nine or ten months. We played together some, and then I told Georgie about him. The three of us practiced songs for a month, and then we went into the studio to record after being together just two or three months. We ended up playing over 800 shows together as fIREHOSE over the next seven years."
Wandering into Amoeba, I point out the 45s section at the front of the store and Watt ambles over and starts leafing through the records. Just as he launches into a long rant on the L.A. punk scene and some of the bands that influenced The Minutemen when they started out, the batteries die in my Panasonic recorder tucked into the chest pocket of Watt’s flannel shirt, unbeknownst to me. Not even the Energizer bunny can keep up with Mike Watt. It will be another Spiel for another time.
Watt’s Picks Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame T.Rex, Electric Warrior John Coltrane, A Love Supreme Anything by Creedence Clearwater Revival Sony MDR V600 headphones for Watt’s bandmate, organist Pete Mazich