Mike Watt: musician, diarist, raconteur, philosopher, punk rock's favorite uncle and San Pedro, California's goodwill ambassador to the world. He built his reputation by helping to lay the foundations of West Coast punk rock (the music, not the fashion statement it has become) with the tensile manifestos of the Minutemen in the early '80s, then furthered his cause with fIREHOSE, another three-piece that fought against the current with a string of idiosyncratic releases (consider Big Bottom Pow Wow, a collection of singles cut with conversations about the bass by notables Flea, Chris Kirkwood, Watt and Les Claypool). Since the 'HOSE's breakup in 1994, Watt has steamed ever onward, recording two solo albums, playing in the reconstituted Stooges and appearing as a guest artist in countless other bands and side projects, from Porno for Pyros to Watt's own sincere Madonna tribute band, the Madonnabes. Along the way, Watt introduced to the world the concepts of jamming econo, spieling and working the thumpstaff as a noble profession (that's "plying one's trade with a blue-collar work ethic," "talking/singing with honesty" and "playing the bass"). If one man could possibly stand as an icon for all that is right and honest and good in the realm of punk rock, that man is Mike Watt.
So why would he risk everything by releasing The Secondman's Middle Stand, a sprawling opera that draws on Dante's Divine Comedy and Watt's brush with death, which was caused by an abscess on his perineum (delicately described by Watt as "the taint," or that section of skin that separates ass from balls)? Why would he scuttle the Watt formula by removing the guitar from the guitar/ bass/drums recipe, replacing it instead with the decidedly un-punk Hammond B3 organ? Is that a backup singer? (It is. Petra Haden, in fact.) Why are songs stretching out past five minutes? And why are these songs about puking to high heaven and being catheterized by your sister?
Because he's Mike Watt, that's why. Didn't you read the intro? He's always piloted his boat upstream, charting his own course. And before punk rock became codified as three chords, mohawks and leather pants, anyone who called themselves punk did the same thing.
Talking about the response to Secondman, which has ranged from people telling him it's like "Emerson, Watt and Pedro" to disgust at his graphic lyrics about having his taint operated on, Watt seems not so much defensive as perplexed. "I wasn't tryin' to gross anybody out. I also wasn't tryin' to make a tribute to prog rock," Watt says, addressing some of the criticism lobbed his way online and in person.
It was Watt's Madonnabe bandmate Pete Mazich who originally got Watt thinking about creating a band with an organ as the central instrument. "His Hammond organ can actually go lower than my bass guitar! It has notes lower than my bass, so I thought, 'Whoa -- well, maybe, number one, I won't have to be competing with the guitar, worried about sounding like him, or maybe even try effects or something. And number two, since Pete can go as low as me and even lower, I can kinda shirk some low-end responsibility there.'"
That's pretty econo, no doubt. And besides, Watt notes, his impetus for writing for the organ was the same as with any other music he's written. "Way I look at it, it's like writing a song for D. Boon [Watt's childhood friend and co-Minuteman, now deceased] that he could really get into and play for people. And I was doin' that for Pete and Jer," he says, referring to Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic. "And, of course, myself."
And repeated listenings of Secondman bear Watt out. From the near-gospel of "Puked to High Heaven" to the psychedelic ripples and howls of "Burstedman" right through the pulsing fuzz of "Beltsanded Man," Watt and his crew swing with a passion rarely found in punk these days. Even if that swing is driving lyrics describing catheterization with the chilling line "like starting a lawnmower and then stuffing a turkey" -- so what?
"Coming from the old punk scene, it was very small and you made records without asking permission," Watt points out. "Some of these guys are like, 'Wow, how could Watt write something so inaccessible?' But I mean what the fuck have I written that is accessible? I guess whatever they decide. I never really check in on that. You had to get a self-reliant thing, like, 'Well, we like it, and that's good enough.' There wasn't a lot of affirmation from the general public from the old days, and I think I still kinda carry that around. It's not like my stuff's too good, or too private or personal, it's just the way the circumstance shaped the way I made things."
Indeed, as Watt states in "Pluckin', Pedalin' and Paddlin,'" "What works, works: Parts is parts." Live with Secondman for a few days, and the initial shock of the newness of the sound and the less-than-spacey lyrics (long a Watt staple, even by his own admission) wears off, and the album reveals its true beauty, hidden in lines about the art of Raymond Pettibon and the basslines of Dave Alexander giving him the strength to carry on, and of course the sweetest bass ever pulled by human hands. Watt's playing -- by turns sinuous, terrible, terrified and, finally, reinvigorated -- thumps at the heart of it all, translating the thoughts of a man who sees the world more clearly for the journey.
"When I hear it -- and I can't expect other people to know what's in my head -- but when I hear it, it does seem like an allegory for me for being in the middle years," Watt says. "I'm 46, and I hear that even more than sickness."
"Yeah," Watt laughs. "You say middle age, and it's such a bummer to people. Oh my God, pedestrian and worn-out and tired and stuff. But I don't know that middle age is always like that. In my case, well, I don't think I would trade it for the younger days. OK, I'm not as resilient in the body, but I'm not totally enfeebled! I'm probably in better health than in any of my thirties. But you have life experiences! Of course, in your twenties, you know everything so you do lose that...." Watt breaks off in more laughter.
"In a way, middle life is kind of a trippy place. I have to say, I never, ever thought of it. When I was young, I thought of old -- and 'don't wanna be that!' -- but never thought of the middle. And then on top of that, middle-aged punk rocker!? I mean, what the fuck is that? That's a bizarre vocation. But you know what? It's OK. It's really OK."
Based solely on the evidence of The Secondman's Middle Stand, it's more than OK. It's the best Watt's ever been.