Mike Watt's Midlife Journey
PORTLAND, ORE. If life's a lesson, Mike Watt is at the top of his class. He's prevailed over life's toughest tests and, as a result, created a lot of great music over the past couple of decades.
His 46-year journey has not been an easy one. His sailor father and hero died
of cancer when Watt was just 33. His best friend, Minutemen bandmate D. Boon,
died in an auto accident in 1985, when Watt was 27. And Watt himself almost died
twice: once of pneumonia at 22, and again from an infection exactly 20 years
His latest solo recording, The Secondman's Middle Stand, is an operatic piece that tells his experience of enduring and surviving the sickness in three parts, inspired by and paralleling Dante's Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise (the sickness, healing and surviving).
The album also finds Watt entering and exploring middle age, which is not at all what he expected. But that's to be expected.
Turns out, as a middle-aged dude, he's never felt better. In fact, middle age is where he's found himself in the best shape of his life, physically and emotionally.
It also seems to be a time of reflection for Watt. "Wherever you go, there you are," says Watt, sitting in the passenger seat of "the boat" the same old white van he's been touring in since his Minutemen days.
Further into our conversation, the root of the van's name would surface Watt's father used to come home from service and spiel sea stories on long car rides. "All of a sudden I have my sea stories," says Watt, his face lighting up. "And I take him in my boat, and he's listening, and I'm telling him stuff he couldn't even imagine."
As outsider college students in the Southern California port town of San Pedro,
their minds recently blown by the birth of the wild L.A. punk scene, Watt and
Boon formed Minutemen with drummer George Hurley in 1979, offering the scene
a new, free-jazz-inspired brand of punk but an original, DIY perspective on music-making.
"'Work together this will be interesting if the conversation is interesting,' that's what D. Boon used to say," Watt told me, gazing out the passenger door window. "If we got the drums and guitar and the bass talking to each other and it's interesting, then we can make something that won't bore the shit outta people."
And that's precisely what they did and more. Driven by strict, independent ethics, they made a new kind of punk. Their songs were short, like those of The Ramones, but they incorporated a wide range of eclectic influences, from the Blue Öyster Cult to Bob Dylan, from John Coltrane to Creedence Clearwater Revival. They made mini songs, usually less than a minute long, that were glimpses of life, big thinking captured inside offbeat arrangements and urgent vocals. The Minutemen the second band signed to Greg Ginn's SST label (the first being Ginn's own band, Black Flag) would record five amazing albums before D. Boon and his girlfriend died in a 1985 car accident.
"I think of him every day," Watt says, sounding lost. "When he was around, I always asked him things 'What do you think about this? What do you think about that?' I still do it; I just don't get an answer anymore. It's so hard on me."
Devastated and unsure if he would continue with music, Watt was approached by a Minutemen fanatic who persuaded him to form a new band so fIREHOSE was born. Each of the trio's five albums was dedicated to D. Boon. fIREHOSE was the most commercially successful of Watt's post-Minutemen projects, but quietly sputtered out in 1995.
A year later, Watt released his first solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, which boasts a star-studded guest list, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Nirvana's Dave Grohl. In 1997, Watt released a concept album/ode to his father and D. Boon called Contemplating the Engine Room.
Now, eight years later, Watt is back with The Secondman's Middle Stand,
the album we discussed for nearly three hours last fall, before Watt's gig at
Portland, Oregon's Berbati's Pan. We started in "the boat" and thanks
growling stomachs and cotton mouths moved to the bar we'd sat parked in
front of for some pizza and club soda.
The way Watt talks might remind you of the blue-collar guy down the block. In the '70s, Creedence and their workingman ethics inspired the flannel shirts he still wears, as well as his down-to-earth mindset. Tonight he pins a John Coltrane button to the pocket of his light-blue plaid shirt. "Coltrane was playing punk too he was just older," notes Watt with a smile.
Watt seems to have a lot of admiration for those who strain against the demands of society, as Dante (who, thanks to being in the wrong faction of a political dispute, spent most of his life in exile from his beloved Florence and longing for his home) did in his quest for the meaning of life. And like the San Pedro longshoremen, dealing with each day's struggles and joys. Surrounded by a hard-working ethos and a past he'd rather not let go, Watt has lived in "Pedro" his entire life and he has no plans to leave. "My music history is there," says Watt matter-of-factly. "I can go to the tree where D. Boon jumped out of I do it all the time." Plus, when you've publicly traveled the world twice over, having a sentimental, not to mention beautiful, and private place to call home is a must.
Like the wandering Dante, Watt has worn through many pairs of shoes, so to speak.
have granted him enlightenment, but an acute connection with his soul always
brings him back home.
Your words have so filled my heart with desire to
come with you, that I have returned to
my first purpose Dante Alighieri, "Inferno," Canto 2, line 136
In person, Watt might sound like the blue-collar guy down the block the
He’ll tell it to you straight. But what he tells you will force you to see the
world in a new way. And one thing I can assure you, you've never met anyone like
Come on, get in, let's go for a ride and, as Watt puts it, "spiel."
Contemplating Middle Age
Jenny Tatone: Tell me about the relationship between the new album and where you're at in life now.
Mike Watt: Middle age God, the word sounds so boring but there's also this crisis part, and I see it a lot with guys my age in my town. My town's a working town, so most guys are longshoreman and there's the crisis: I've done everything I'm supposed to do, what's it all mean? They want to be 20-year-olds again. So they get divorced and they get the young girlfriends and a convertible. I leapfrogged all that and went back to 9. I like riding a bike, but I didn't ride a bike for 22 years; I'm not a jock or an athlete, but I like playing, so maybe there's some of that in touring.
I can't say I'm totally not grown up, 'cause I've never had a manager. In some way I'm very responsible, I'm very self-motivated. No one tells me what to do. But in other ways it is arrested, a little kid's thing. Like Perry (Farrell, who Watt played with briefly in Porno for Pyros) told me, "The child eyes of wonder. You don't have to be naïve, you could get very lit up over simple things, it's OK."
The sickness, it almost killed me, just to play my bass, just to go outside and walk... I could be bedridden and hurting and hurting. It had incredible importance in comparison to materialist shit, hoarding objects, status and what people think it seems so little compared to all the simple things. I use a lot of literal words in [Secondman's…]
but I don't know if it's all about sickness. In some ways, it's a weird allegory,
although I might've wrote it unconsciously that way. It's totally about me in
my middle years: I'm definitely not a beginner, but hopefully not at the end.
Tatone: Yeah, well, you're forced to learn a lot of things through life-threatening experiences.
Watt: You always got time to get everything done, and then something like that happens and you have all these regrets you should've done this, you should've done this and now look at me. I'm weak, I'm dying. I have so much work to do, and look at me. Yeah, that made me very angry at myself. I was only 42.
Tatone: Do you think it was something that was important for your life?
Watt: When I was 22, I almost died of pneumonia and I healed up, but it was horrible; I didn't wanna write a song about it. And 20 years later I write an opera. I do think it was because of where I was in my life. There's neat things about middle age you're not totally enfeebled, but you have life experiences, which is riotous of course. When you're in your 20s, you know everything so there's that loss [laughing]. It is a trippy place.
Here I got a drummer with me the guy who played on the record [Jerry Trebotic] couldn't do the tour, so I have a young man from Pedro named Raul [Morales], he's 20 years younger than me. So I'm thinking, maybe middle age is mentoring, something I never thought about. When you're young you think of old, but you don't think of the middle. It's a weird place.
Tatone: And it's still you, no matter what age you're at.
Watt: Yeah, that's what someone told me once: "Wherever you go, there you are." This guy here, who interviewed me for the Willamette [Week, Portland's alternative weekly], asks, "How have you changed? What's different about you?" I couldn't really tell him. I dunno, I've got more experience under my belt, but the ideas of punk rocker... those are just steppingstones to becoming the real Mike Watt.
A lot of things were formed when I met D. Boon at 13. My mama put me on bass so I'm like, "I'm gonna be a bass player." I didn't even know what bass was. I went to college, I got a degree in electronics, but I guess I majored in punk rock.
I like working the towns. I feel part of a fabric well, the arts in general. Everybody, writers, painters, my best friend [Raymond] Pettibone [who's known for doing the artwork on many of the SST Record sleeves, and whose work is now exhibited in museums and galleries around the world], the arts are a weird fabric for us humans. But it's essential, it is. It's very real, especially when the cycles of materialism let us down it's there to bind us without having us bound.
Art, Punk and Growth
Tatone: Did you always feel like you were drawn to something outside the normal, everyday kind of stuff? Was there something that you felt separated you?
Watt: I tell you one thing, our dinners, our chows were much different form other families. I never understood it. Not until I toured Italy my mama's people are from Italy was I like, "Well, we're not such weirdos." It'd take us three or four hours to eat dinner, talkin' and talkin', spiel, yeah. And then I went over there, that's the way they are, so there was some old country in me that I didn't know until I started touring.
I always felt weird in school. I think that's what drew me to D. Boon, 'cause he was an outsider person too. He was a painter, and him being a little heavy, like "Piggy" in Lord of the Flies, you know how mean kids can be.
Then, in college too, I hung out mainly with foreigners, 'cause they were not so quick to judge, 'cause they were all being judged on.
So I did feel a real attraction to the punk scene in Hollywood. It was very small and everybody was weird. It seemed neat, like it was a world unto itself, a lot of artist people. I didn't grow up with artist people, really. D. Boon could paint, but when I met Raymond [Pettibone] and he played me John Coltrane, it opened a whole world, Coltrane was playing punk too he was just older. So these people taught me about Dada and surrealism and all these things, and I could see that punk had history, a lineage. So, yeah, I felt apart, but at the same time I felt a part of something too maybe not so majority in the numbers, but still valid, like a world inside a world.
Tatone: Does it feel like something that you feel you're born with, just a sort of artistic sensibility that's...
Watt: That's different than destiny? It's an aptitude? Richard Hell was talking to me about destiny, like everything has been destined; all these choices are really just set up.
People in my life are real important; I'm influenced by people. I know that doesn't sound too independent, DIY, but I'm very influenced by people. They inspire, like the Greeks think about the muse; the muse touches you, like everything is totally conceptualized from the beginning. You're grabbed by a situation, by a person, and it fires you up, and that's what draws you to trying to do some work in an artistic manner.
For me, I don't think I'm a total zealot, just chameleon to things. But I know certain people have energies that inspire me big time; writers too. Like this new piece I paralleled to The Divine Comedy, and this cat was 700 years ago, I never even got to meet him, except the little steps I read about him in the book; he touched me big time. I do maybe have an aptitude for that.
Tatone: Is there something that you think that's already there by the time you're born that draws you to that?
Watt: D. Boon had a theory about that. He said it had to do with shit and first getting potty trained. If you packed it in, then you were gonna be uptight, a square Johnny; but if you liked to shit all over, play with it, then you gonna be an artist.
I dunno about it. That's one thing about middle age, you find out how much you don't know. In the 20s, you know everything. That goes backward; you find out you know less and less. I've learned to be much more receptive to thoughts and not have so much judgments, but views or perspectives; kinda shift a little bit. I can't see me doing a whole costume change, but I am interested in other perspectives. It seems the big point is to keep learning.
One thing about this gig is you think school is gonna be over, but you're always having to get in front of the class and read your paper. The whole idea of school being a part of your life I don't think you ever can quit. I read this thing Buddha said: "When you stop learning, you stop living." And that's the truth. I'm not always the boss. I found you can't learn everything when you're the boss, so I've done things where I'm helping other cats. I did it with Perry [Farrell]. I did it with J. Mascis [on his 2000 solo release More Light] and now I'm doing it with The Stooges. There, I'm the little brother, I'm the helper, I'm the deckhand, which is more like life, I think.
In life you play a lot of roles. Though I don't know if the costume changes that much, but you do play different roles. Like when you inhale and exhale you don't do them at the same time. So always having a band, always being the boss, always getting your way that's not the way to learn anything.
Being in that situation, and especially with those gentlemen, they're very interesting. I've learned a lot from [The Stooges]. I did a bunch of gigs with them this summer. Like last week, I opened for Madonna at a castle in Ireland [laughing]. She was intense. She's only six months, eight months younger than me. She was singing and dancing. She was great, and so in control of the situation, running the whole thing but being the star of the thing. It was bizarre; she's not a hand puppet, that's for sure. She's incredible.
I wanted to talk to her but I didn't want to force myself. I was standing there with my mouth open the whole time. I watched her sound check and I watched her gig. She talked a little to Iggy. She goes, "So, is that what you're gonna wear onstage?" You know, just jeans and boots. He goes, "Yeah," and she goes, "Woah." She was really singing and playing, she played guitar a little, it was amazing. All of us we were watching it, she's a real deal. She does do the work, man, and that's admirable.
Learning From The Stooges
Tatone: What was that whole experience like for you with The Stooges?
Watt: How many things are fifth-, sixth-, seventh-hand in here? I can go right to the source, they wrote the blueprint. You listen to Funhouse [The Stooges' 1970, and arguably best, album] and it sounds like it could have been recorded last week. It's bizarre, and they were only 19, 20 at the time, way into Coltrane and Motown. They were into lots of different things; you can see it in the music. Maybe that's why it's still so vibrant and so alive and not in a museum. So, me, I'm really a student in their school. I'm also one of the kids watching, but I have a bass on and I'm playing along, it's a trip.
Iggy's quite a conductor; he runs the stage, he works the stage, and he's aware and totally abandoned. Fifty-seven years old and stage-diving face first, but at the same time he's hearing every note and all the syncopation and the big picture and conducting us. It's quite amazing for me to be part of something like that.
In a way, it was Stooges music that helped me from the sickness, because I had tubes in me and shit and couldn't play. And I hadn't stopped playing since 13 and when I went back to play I couldn't play, and it scared the shit out of me, so I started doing Stooges songs to get strong and develop rhythm again. There's not a lot of chord changes, and one thing led to another, and then, yeah, The Stooges finally the youngest guy in the band.
Tatone: How did they approach you? Did they just call you up?
Watt: Yeah, Iggy calls me, I was in the middle of a tour. I flew back from Memphis to do it and then I went back in five more weeks and we played with [Stooges guitarist] Ron [Asheton}. Like I said, I was helping J. Mascis out before, he asked me to be part of The Fog; I asked him to do some gigs of just Stooges songs, so when we came to Ann Arbor [Mich.], he goes, "You know Ron, why don't you call him up?" So he ended up coming down and playing with us.
So we took him on tour and did gigs in England, and then Sonic Youth got invited to curate this All Tomorrow's Parties thing. They said, "Why don't you come do this, but have Scotty [Asheton] on drums?" He brings Scotty aboard and we do some more gigs in Europe. Then Iggy decides, after 29 years, he wants to do Stooges gigs and he really likes playing with the Asheton brothers yeah, he really does, man, there's a thing there. It's trippy seeing them right there in their 50s, and I see them all together in the room and there's a neat thing, there's something about a band in a perfect political state perfect state of little-boy humanity. Here, we're gonna go make songs and play them for people, and even though the years go by, you can see it there and they like it a lot, and I love it a lot.
God, me and D. Boon were 16 years old listening to The Stooges [laughing]. If he would've told me, "In 30 years, you're gonna be playing with them" What?! They wrote songs, so I think there's an album. Iggy sent me 11 songs. He sang onto a little mini disc with those guys, Scotty on a toy drum set "Hey, can you put these on CD for me?" Yeah.
Tatone: What are the new songs like?
Watt: They're neat, they're really neat. And they're writing more. Ron went to Miami a couple days ago to write more songs, so I think that's the next plan.
Exploring New Sounds
Tatone: I want to talk about your new album, which is great. When you went in to record or to start writing for this album, did you have any musical ideas about sounds that you wanted, or did that just kind of happen?
Watt: For sure, even before the sickness I wanted to make a trio record with the organ. The organ is a trippy instrument. Me and D. Boon, growing up, we didn't know anybody that played the keyboard. Early '70s, they were expensive, so I don't have a lot of experience with them. And it seems like a one-man band; you have a bass part on the left, you have a treble part on the right and you've got notes. I thought, "Woah, the keys got notes lower than me even," so maybe the way to learn is to keep putting myself in challenging situations. Number one, I don't have to worry about competing with the guitar, 'cause there won't be one. Number two, I can shirk some responsibilities off, holding the low end. After [1997's] Contemplating the Engine Room, I didn't want to make a record about my past, 'cause that record was all about my past; I wanted to make something about the moment.
It's funny with sickness, all you have is the moment. It's horrible [laughing], careful what you wish for. The thing comes on me and it fucking takes so much from me, such a hell ride. I figure I can take a record from it, so I write all the organ parts and the drum parts in my head. I can't even play organ or drums, these are just things in my head.
I was developing this all in my mind. This is where the parallel with the Comedy came. I had read it as a teenager, so I re-read it after the sickness. It was like, man, this guy was on a journey; I was on a journey. The hell was a sickness and healing purgatory, and the days riding my bicycle, that's definitely the paradise.
D. Boon told me, "Sure, they're little songs, but they have beginnings and middles
and ends." And it was like, "Yeah, that's what a song's about." I never planned
on writing operas, believe me; I'm from the 40-second-song tradition. But it
seems like the way the time stretches out so long, it had to be opera. Again,
I never thought I'd write six- or seven-minute-long songs, but seems like everything
becomes a device to tell a story. That's the way it went down, reading it as
an older man. I saw all these numbers, all the structure he's got in here, so
I thought, "Wow, maybe I could have that too." So I used number 3 a lot in the
piece. I used it for motifs, I used it for timings, I used it for literal allegories.
There's something about numbers that's real trippy. It is a way to keep you from
doing tract housing, where you just keep fucking putting the porch on this side;
sometimes it can help steer you so you don't just retrace yourself.
An even heavier number is three times three: nine. Nine is the big number, which is OK if you don't try to get all superior about it, like you found some way to rule everybody. It's just an interesting way to look at something where you can reinvent yourself a little bit. Still, wherever you go, there you are, remember what you told me? Another guy told me: The only thing new is you finding out about it. Yeah, it's all these aphorisms that run a life, but this is what I needed. Somebody else once told me, you want a good crop? Here's a lot of manure. This is what went into it; I did have to make it live and breathe.
Tatone: And the musicians, they understood what you were looking for?
Watt: Yeah, well they're trippy guys they're longshoremen. I don't think they've ever written a song although [organist] Pete [Mazich] played the organ 20 years in a wedding band and it makes it even more earnest. I've found with a lot of musicians God, what a pampered class, like the U.S. version of royalty. I've been very fortunate to meet people like [guitarist] Nels Cline, who don't treat it as just punching the clock or connecting dots and that they deserve a tiara and can feel a pea under 45 mattresses and shit. But I like to think that it's fucking an opportunity to get to play, and you can't take it for granted. Peter's name comes from "petros," which means rock, and not rock 'n' roll so much, but rock like solid. He's a great guy, always open; he always wants to know more. And Raul Morales, too, is a young man; he's part of a little scene in Pedro where these people live in these three houses like a collective.
I always thought the end-all was D. Boon, me and [drummer] Georgie [Hurley], Minutemen; there was the SST scene and those were our brother bands. But I've learned that Pete didn't come from a punk scene or anything, didn't hardly know about it. So I've learned to open up more and not be so... people are so mean and belligerent. You've got this insulated thing now as years have gone by. I'm not as sensitive about that. I've learned that it's not where you're from, it's where you're at.
Writing and Inspiration
Tatone: I wanted to talk more about you being so inspired by the infection and going through that. Do you think had you not ever got an infection at all, you still would've gone on with music regardless, because it's part of you?
Watt: Elvin Jones [jazz drummer known for his work with John Coltrane] just died, and he played a gig two weeks before he died; that's very big. Yeah, there's something about it. Especially the D. Boon experience; he put a momentum in me that I cannot stop. Even when I doubt a little bit, I get scared, he's like, "You're my bass player."
Tatone: Does that experience losing D. Boon, has that shaped who you are today?
Watt: It's been almost 20 years now. I think of him every day. When he was around, I always asked him things what do you think about this, what do you think about that? I still do it; I just don't get an answer anymore. It's so hard on me. Without even thinking about it, too; it's just a reaction now.
Tatone: I want to hear more about the experience you had writing for the new album.
Watt: I wrote them on my bike. Yeah, you're sitting there with a machine in your hand and you're just building tract homes with the porch in the center 'cause you're on the bike. You have to learn to listen so they don't run you over. I'm hearing the pedals, I'm hearing the chain, I'm hearing the wheels turn. This is where I get the rhythms; this is where I get all the ideas.
I got a car at 16; I didn't ride a bike for 22 years. I thought bikes were for kids. And now I'm a big man, I have a car, and I found out I was an asshole. Like I was telling you before, I leapfrogged back to 9. My middle thing wasn't trying to be a 20-year-old but a 9-year-old; certain things about it, simple, like, and healthy. You don't just build tract homes and "I Love Lucy" reruns. You learn how to play more and more notes. Like with a bicycle after you ride awhile, you don't fall down, but then what's to be done? You ride upside down, no hands?
It's important where you take the bike. Me living in my town, I'm lucky. The geography I can go by the docks and the warehouses and the cliffs, and all this I call eye gifts, so I open up enough up to let the shot fall in. I let something lame as sickness that almost kills me become this allegory of me being in the middle, riding a bike [laughing]. I'm not a jock, I'm not an athlete, but there's something about the body-mind connection; somehow they live with each other.
Tatone: When you're writing, is it something that feels like your ideas suddenly come to you?
Watt: Yeah, I'm not a Tin Pan Alley [guy]. I can't say, "Here's the blues tunes, here's the reggae tune." It's like that Greek thing with the muse, it just grabs me; it's profound on me. It doesn't always have to be a heavy sickness, somebody unique, somebody who says something to me.
I'm not really a musician. I got into this with my friend, so there's always been this personal connection with music. I don't know if I'm really close, like how a mathematician would see math or a musician would see music. I'm dirtied up with people connections.
Books are really heavy on me. What's amazing about it is how detached you can be, 'cause the art form is so personal. I have to gather with this man [Dante] what he's saying to me, a collection of symbols; it becomes so abstract, especially on tour. My tour starts following the book, it don't matter when the book was written, how many hundreds of years ago or last week, my tour starts following, and everything that's happening on tour has already been written in the book. 'Course this is me reading myself into it.
This is what happened when I wrote songs too I immersed myself in the fabric of it. And, like I was telling you before what D. Boon said, "You got to have a beginning, middle and end." So D. Boon was really heavy about economy; he said, "Work together, this will be interesting if the conversation is interesting." That's what he used to say about the band if we got the drums and guitar and the bass talking to each other and it's interesting, then we can make something that won't bore the shit outta people.
Those things are very heavy on me when I go to make things, but there's something trippy about this record I never really paid attention to before. People are asking me about being accessible. I guess I never really thought... I come from a scene that was so small everybody hated you anyway, except your other buddies doing it. None of my stuff to me is really accessible. I never really had focus groups, or had multiple endings that I played in front of people to see which went over best. It's almost like baitin' in a way.
We made this comedy record, a record called Project Mersh [Minutemen's 1985 EP release]; "mersh" is whatever at the end of the day is sold in units. The idea of what mersh is, is such a fucking fraud to us. Mersh, when we heard that word when we were boys that was the $100 a pound mota [pot], that was the cheapest mota, that's why it was called mersh. So you could say it was gonna sell 'cause it was econo. This whole idea that you could hedge on people's tastes, what they're gonna acquire with their money that they've been working all week for, they're gonna set aside to the arts, you're gonna get a hedge on that by somehow knowing what they want. Otherwise you're self-indulgent, you're a greedy fucker, you're a shit hoarder and you really don't wanna share with anybody, you're all about yourself and arrogant. I don't know about those arguments.
I remember when I first heard punk, punk was a word in our town for a guy who got fucked in jail for cigarettes. Why somebody called their music this... right away, my whole idea of labeling things was shot down. You know what? I'm gonna have to give up on this. I learned this way and it don't work, so I had to let go of all that. The biggest bugaboo to let go was this stuff I was strained in called "talent": you only like people with talent, which is really you talking about yourself, 'cause you would never like anybody without any talent that would be very telling of you.
Tatone: So talent wasn't the priority or a necessity?
Watt: You know what I said to D. Boon? Me and him saw the first gig; I told him, we can do this. That was my first feeling without even thinking about it: we can do this; we can be part of this. And it wasn't like we were gonna work this system and start running it, but, man, we can be part of this. And I never felt about anything before in my life like I did about that.
The L.A. scene, they were like myths; they were really empowering people. I know that sounds funny but we would've been doing just crazy Blue Öyster Cult/ "Bad Moon Rising" [the Creedence song] forever without these guys, it was so wild. Those guys, a lot of those initial experiences carried through for me.
D. Boon asked me, "What are we gonna get out of something like this? What are you trying to pull? What are your hopes?" My ideas were what those cats did for me, man. If I can put out confidence, "This guy can sing about a sickness thing," well, maybe you can come up with something too. Too much shit is by the numbers, too much Xerox, rubber stamp. People aren't takin' the '90s as the petri dish it should be, know what I mean? It's too homogenized in a lot of ways. Not like I'm the boldest motherfucker alive, no way, but I feel a debt to those older days, getting my mind blown. I want to somehow be able to hand that down a little bit.
That scene, those guys kicked things open so wide, that wild stuff could still happen, it wasn't just something that happened in the old days. If it can happen there, it could happen anywhere. Guess we need people with gumption.
I never thought of middle age when I was younger. When [Germs frontman] Darby [Crash] died, I didn't want to write a thing about it then, but for some reason I wanted to write about it now, because the finiteness of the voyage gets more real in middle life got more stuff to do. I want to do more. You're too little to resent when you're younger, and that don't weigh on you as heavy, so you think you got time for everything. So I'm a little more earnest and maybe that's why I wanted to write about it. It grabbed me really hard too.
Not being able to play bass when I got well was really upsetting for me. Isn't that weird? It means I'm not a natural bass player. It means I have to do this shit every day or it's going to go away. For me, that's a good thing. I dunno if that's such a bad thing.
Like he was saying, the meat on the bone, it's gotta be lived. Why should it be under a glass box and everybody just walking around it sleepwalking? Then no one has to be in the doing.
Living in the Moment
Tatone: The songs you were writing when you were sick were they about being sick, or were they about the sickness making you slow down, and looking at where you were in life?
Watt: It's about me dealing with that idea about living in the moment; I was really caught up in that at the time. I had just made a record about my past, and here life hands me this situation where all I had was the moment, and it stretched the motherfucker out. All you have is the moment.
Sometimes you should have to live with your wishes. In a way, those bacterias, they just wanted to live. My argument was with them, that I still had work to do; it wasn't my time to leave yet.
Tatone: Life feels like to you that it's an ongoing learning process?
Watt: Absolutely, and I can't stop. Me and bass playing, something trippy about it I don't really understand. Politically it's a really neat instrument. The bass is weird, it's mysterious; nobody really knows its role. It's nice because it makes other people look good; it's really generous. Like [Charles] Mingus said: it's the underdog. A lot of people want me to graduate from punk to... I dunno, whatever, or they want me to graduate from bass to the guitar and the piano, but there's so much to explore with the other things; so much that I feel lucky. I'm glad my role is there.
Tatone: Is it something you feel you have to do?
Watt: Absolutely, I'm driven. I told you about touring, you get to be
Don Quixote. There's a really romantic side to it; you can get caught up with
the romanticism of doing it, the impossible dream. I read the book and it's so
much different from "Man of La Mancha" [the musical based on <I>Don Quixote</i>],
the book is very cutting and very funny, making fun of chivalry and all this
in a way, he's still being very romantic about it, an old soldier.
And it's two books. He actually gets famous in between the two, so the character in the second book is so much different. He writes about being famous, the guy was a prisoner for eight years, he was a slave, he had an interesting life. This notion of physically being places and then writing the song: John Fogerty, not born on the Bayou, still a good song. Very Northwest Bayou Berkeley, flannel shirts... so funny, I didn't know they were farmer shirts, I thought that was his kind of rock.
They found this room with all of Dante's shoes. The guy walked like crazy. He wore out like 500 pairs of shoes. You always see him, he's got a hood on, I guess they were punk, they didn't like to show a lot of skin. It was sad about him, though, 'cause he was forever on a tour, they never let him home, 20 years. Some people think that's why he wrote that thing [the Divine Comedy], it was his get-back-to-home ticket and it never worked, never got him home.
Tatone: You've kinda had two lives where you've been settled in the same town for your entire life but you've also toured quite a bit.
Watt: This is my 53rd tour. My first tour was 65 gigs in 66 days. So it's exciting, you gotta keep the little kid's eye not naïve or infantile, but wondering. You think you got it all figured out, but boy...
You know who had a big profound experience on me was my father coming back from tour. He was a sailor, and he had to tour eight, nine months. He'd come home from the tour and he'd get me in the car and drive six, seven hours and just spiel the entire time.
He'd have the fish stories. They weren't about war and shit like that; he was in the engine room, he didn't fire weapons. But he had been to all these towns and it just planted it in me that I wanted to tell fish stories. He died of cancer 22 years ago, I was in my early 30s and I started sending him postcards. He didn't even know I made a living in music, but then all of a sudden I have my sea stories and I take him in my boat and he's listening and I'm telling him stuff he couldn't even imagine. It was my turn to do the sea stories. But it was him who put it in me, this idea of sailing forth and learning keep your eyes and your ears open and try to absorb all the shit you can.
So this had a profound experience on me. The other thing was D. Boon. When I met him, I never read nonfiction; I only read stories. D. Boon was way into history and he got me into history. When we actually got to go to places that we read about, he was so into that, and 'cause I really dug him, I got into it too. It was those two things: my pop and his sea stories and D. Boon and getting to go places you read about in history.
I have to tell you, as a boy my music thing was arena rock. There was no clubs when me and D. Boon were boys. I never had a dream about playing an arena or touring the way the rock stars would roll it out: "Oh, this part of the hell, this is why it's not a total prince's life," none of that shit was appealing. It was this whole other experience, our first tour, all 10 of us, us and Black Flag, in the same van, called the "Slave Ship Tour." We're head to toe, everybody lay very still, but it was righteous; it wasn't really hell, a little uncomfortable maybe. It was wild for us it was like being a pioneer.
L.A. is really a lot of towns in a way. Pedro is so separate. But I'm telling
you, the scene up there was very inclusive ah man, it made me feel so
part of something, more than even being a part of Pedro. I couldn't even tell
people I liked T. Rex until a few years later when the girls liked it; then of
course the jocks would paint their fingernails. The town was so strict that way.
Hollywood was a meeting place, I don't know that they all sprung up from there,
I think they met there from other towns.
Black Flag's second gig was playing Pedro with us, and the cops literally had to lock them in because of the neighborhood. There were guys with "White Riot" on their jackets. This is a minority neighborhood you don't do that shit. One thing about living in Pedro, you don't get too insulated or not know how to live where people are different from you, especially when they're econo and minority. For one thing you don't write all over the posts that they just fixed up, oh my God, and "White Riot" on the jacket? Oh boy, that was interesting.
Tatone: What's made you stay in Pedro all these years?
Watt: My music history is there. I can go to the tree where D. Boon jumped out of I do it all the time. In a way, playing gigs and shit, I'm a public person, so sometimes you gotta not be on the stage. At home, I don't even use the phone hardly. The only thing I do socially is the email. I do that a little. I'm learning more and more every day to have respect for the written word. The spoken word you gotta be careful of; the written word is something else, it's art.
Raymond [Pettibone] has really inspired my writing. He loves [early 20th Century novelist] Henry James. Henry James is his favorite; for some reason I can't fathom that guy. Henry was an expatriate in Europe. Most the time, the shit is so dense, but Raymond gets inspired big time, so I'm trying to learn something about that through Raymond, 'cause his work's just spreading out, man.
You know what me and him are gonna do? We're gonna do a film of [Shakespeare's] Richard II. So I'm reading all about [Queen] Elizabeth. I didn't know much about Elizabethan times so I'm reading all about this now. His mother actually shot it. His mother's from Estonia, she's an immigrant. Raymond's a weird mixture.
We made one where I played a member of the Weather Underground, I played a 19-year-old economics major [laughing]. Another, I played a punk rocker in the '70s, another I played Jim Morrison. Yeah, Red Tide Rising: Venice and Mars. I'm a shy person but, for Raymond, I humped a pole in front of the Whiskey during rush hour.
So we're gonna make Richard II, which is the only time Shakespeare picks a man of action over a man of ideas, that's why we picked it. So now I'm seeing with the Elizabethans, where one word would fit, use a hundred. I guess they were just inventing English as an acceptable thing, and man they were just flowing with it.
Events are important on me even. Raymond teaches me about this shit all the time, he's got such an eye; it inspires me. He's a guy I see a lot more than others, but only a couple days a week.
He's huge in Europe, in the U.S. too. He just won this prize, $100,000, this Ludenberg thing in New York City. He didn't even know his name was on the list, he just does his work. At the Whitney, he has a show right now. The Getty has just commissioned him to do art.
He just had a Japanese show at that Tokyo Opera pad. Art, that's a weird hustle. The dealer gets half the money; politics haven't made it so easy. It's funny about Raymond, he never changed any of his ethics.
Anyway, 46 was the year I felt like I physically hit the wall. I thought of myself as a kid until I was 42 and then I looked in the mirror when I was 42 and I felt like, "Ah, I'm not a kid anymore." Zero to 17, you're just a zephyr, you don't know nothing. So I had 25 years of youth, 17 to 42, and at 42 I was grown, and then I hit 46 and I was very grown up and I felt like I was middle-aged.
But I dunno if it's the idea of middle age that I was taught as a kid. I didn't think of middle age, I thought of old. I'm in better health than any of my 30s, maybe it's 'cause of the pedalin', my state of mind too. I gotta be earnest, 'cause you really don't know how many years are left, somethin' that hit me hard when D. Boon got killed, but I didn't understand the consequences then, that you only get so much time. I'm not a worrywart. I was a worrywart more when I was laying there dying, that's when I had all this fucking regret and anger at myself. But when I got well, it was like, "I can only do what I can do and I'm gonna try hard; I'm gonna make a record every year." The space between my last records is actually longer than my whole Minutemen career. [laughing]
Tatone: So what's next for you?
Watt: Richard sent me some poems and I'm gonna collaborate with him and make a record. This is something that can be here after me, this is important. Gigs are good, gigs are in a moment, they go into the air, there's something about 'em, works too. Now I wanna make records, Minutemen used to make records every nine months. I wanna get back to that.
D. Boon, in those old days, we decided the world's two categories: there's gigs and flyers, and everything that ain't a gig, is a flyer. So you get people to the gig, and you have the record... the interview here is a flyer. The record's a flyer, the video is the flyer, the picture of the mustache (pointing to the picture of himself in the Willamette Week) is a flyer, everything to get people to the gig. We were so driven on this performance thing because it had a huge impact on us, seeing bands up close in a club, that blew our minds. So we forgot about everything else, even though we were really influenced by records too, like those Fall records, the Pop Group, The Wire, Germs. We would've never even saw the Pop Group or Wire play if it wasn't for those records. The reason we got into making records was because college radio had to skip through so many records, so you had to give them a new one every night.
I think my attention is getting clipped, which is bringing me back to the way we used to write songs, which is just glancing at things. Second Man is a big longer view of the Minutemen, of the sickness, maybe it was just a reaction to this stuff and not just taking glances at them. I'm gonna have 36 songs going into this next record, little ones, and it's trippy, too, 'cause I wanna make it like I made the last record, but not with famous people. I wanna go into Cleveland and just play with whoever.
Tatone: Why Cleveland?
Watt: They've got some kind of heart and soul to their music, but it never got too glamorous; there's still bands coming out of there. I play there every tour; it's a rust belt thing, some interesting people I met from there. I just figured it's a random thing, as a challenge. My idea is if the bass player knows the songs, then maybe anybody can come in and play the drums and do this guitar, put it to the test.
My whole thing with music is strange. I got into it with this guy, we had a band and then he's killed. So I go right away and do another band with this kid who just finds me, and I only know one way to make a band so I do a version of that first band. And then after seven and a half years, I get in my head: "Maybe I shouldn't be in bands anymore." But, without a band, it was strange for me, 'cause I was the center of the universe, and then it became gigs and touring. So I'm finding my footing again about making music with other people.
This opera, this sickness, is a bridge. I had constipation, fear. It was a sickness
that almost killed me, but that ain't the end-all and it ain't a tribute to prog
music. There's parts of it that are; it's organ, there ain't no guitar. It's
really one song in a million parts. It's about this sickness, but it's really
about where I am in my life right now. But since I use stuff that's descriptive
literally, I get caught up with that. Last night, young square John kids were
telling me Yes, and bands like this.
The Pain of Mortality
Tatone: What's it like to perform this live?
Watt: I have to say the last few tours I haven't been that confident. It's a freaky fucking thing; it ain't a real crowd pleaser. But for me I like it, because I have the ending, I got well. So when we get to the end of the piece I'm so glad, but I can imagine what people are thinking: What's it mean? What's this about?
Mine's about a lot of delusions. I was so afraid, that's one real thing: I was really afraid. I never wrote a song about being afraid. That shit, it had me.
It's about going back to what really matters in that instant where everything that you're thinking, all of the things from day-to-day life fall away, that fear strips everything down to a few things that really matter.
Somebody was telling me the body wants to forget physical pain. It's hard to believe that you ever get beyond being terrified. It's horrible, you don't know why you're going down, the doctor won't look at you in the eye, nobody's worrying. And having a fever for 38 days is bad on your brain; you get delirium, you get really insane, I was out of my fucking mind. That was a hell ride. When that fever broke, and the fever didn't break until after the surgery, they cut me open, they put me on the table naked for eight hours. I did the fish naked and the alarms and the machines would go off, after awhile the nurses wouldn't reset them, they just left the room and I had to go through this, no water, my tongue about this huge. The body doesn't understand surgery; it's this very evasive thing. They gave me a little shot glass of water: "You can have one of these an hour." So I would ration out that water, just little drops, I made that fucker last. The whole thing was about dealing with things in the moment. The moment came on me, man, so heavy, and then after lying so much you get bed sores, all these circulation issues, so they get me walking around with my guts spilling out of me. But I understood I had to do it.
One of the hardest pains was having bladder infections. It was like pissing fish hooks that was fucked. But still I was getting better, so all that pain during the purgatory part, it wasn't total pain like the other pain. The other pain was despair pain, like "fuck, I'm going down, I'm going out," there's nothing like that.
I had pictures of D. Boon and my pop and my cat, I had a cat for 17 years, and I kept looking at these guys like, "Am I gonna be seeing you soon? How long does this take? What does it take? How far do you get pushed? Where is the edge?" I was just hanging on, 'cause I was losing my mind. This whole mortality thing is a creepy fucking deal [laughing], it's creepy. Jenny Tatone [Friday, February 11, 2005]