Watt Plays Mohawk Place
by Bill Nehill
Mike Watt and the Missingmen comes to Buffalo this Friday
Mike Watt is a punk rock pioneer. Since 1980, he has challenged the expectations of what punk is and what it ultimately can be. As co-founder of the seminal Minutemen, Watt recorded landmark albums that fused punk, classic rock, and free jazz into songs which seldom passed the two-minute mark. Continually confounding audiences expecting nihilist cliches and empty rage, Watt has always pursued the difficult road, knowing that it would ultimately be the more rewarding one. Scant few others in the music world have persevered with ideals and credibility intact. Growing up in San Pedro,
California, during the 1970s, Mike Watt was artistic at an early age and, during the the age of bloated arena rock, obsessed with the organic sounds of Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Walking in a San Pedro park, Watt’s life was altered forever when he met Dennes Dale Boon (a.k.a. D. Boon). Despite portraying himself as a “regular Joe,” D. Boon was an intelligent and cultured individual who was wise beyond his years. Bonding over their love of both Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult, the pair yearned to play music of their own, but such a thing seemed impossible. In their young eyes, rock musicians were untouchable icons of the type that mere mortals such as Watt and Boon could never aspire to be. However, upon discovering the emerging punk scene in New York, the two found not only a music that could speak to them but also an attitude and outlook that told them that they too could do this.
With Watt on bass and Boon on guitar, the duo recruited drummer George Hurley. After a brief stint with a vocalist as the Reactionaries, the trio honed their sound and became the Minutemen. A chance meeting outside a show with Greg Ginn led to the Minutemen’s first show opening for Black Flag. Not only was Ginn Black Flag’s founder, he also owned the seminal SST label and soon asked the Minutemen to be the second band on his roster. Spastic and unpredictable, the band differed from their peers in their approach to music. Borrowing the nervous and jagged structures of UK groups such as Wire and the Pop Group, and integrating it with such American musical forms as jazz and soul, the Minutemen had no regard for musical barriers. With Watt and Boon taking turns on vocals, the group often challenged the unquestioned institutions that surrounded them, both concrete and abstract. Unlike many in Black Flag’s audience, Ginn saw the Minutemen as an integral component in the evolution of punk. Although it may have been difficult to see at the time, the Minutemen were modern Amercian folk music.
The Minutemen recorded and released music at an alarming rate. Within the first few years of the 1980s, albums and EPs such as Paranoid Time, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat, What Makes a Man Start Fires?, and The Punch Line mapped out their vision and philosophy. Along with relentless touring, the Minutemen had soon become the flagship band for SST, epitomizing a kind of Americana that, although vastly different than the one Ronald Reagan portrayed at the time, was no less patriotic.
Such an idea was solidified with the masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, released in 1984. The Minutemen had recorded a single album’s worth of songs until they realized that SST labelmates Husker Du were releasing a double album at the same time, the now classic Zen Arcade. Taking that as a challenge, the Minutemen wrote another 20 or so songs and released their own double album. Making a double record was taken as a very unpunk thing to do, and covering songs by artists as Steely Dan and Van Halen even more so. However, the Minutemen not only flew in the face of the mainstream, they ignored the tried-and-true conventions of punk or underground music.
A few records, such as the fine Project: Mersh and Three Way Tie (for Last), followed, but the Minutemen were tragically cut short when Boon was killed in a van accident in the last days of 1985. Not only was it a blow to the band but also to the punk and indie community who had learned and adapted many of their ideals from Boon and Watt.
The loss of Boon was difficult for Watt and he swore off music. It took the urging of a young Minutemen fanatic named Ed Crawford to convince him to play again. Reluctantly, Watt regrouped with Hurley and formed fIREHOSE with Crawford. Stylistically, the band was often far from the herky-jerky rhythms of his previous band but instead delved into genres such as traditional rock and folk. Albums such as Ragin’ Full On and If’n were staples of college radio in the late 1980s. Watt became an icon on the indie music scene, namechecked by Sonic Youth and Red Hot Chili Peppers in both print and in song. He embodied the do-it-yourself ethic of remaining true to your values and true to your muse.
fIREHOSE was often overlooked in the so-called alternative boom of the early 1990s. After releasing one last record in 1993, Watt quietly broke up the band and went to work on his first solo record. Always uncomfortable in the spotlight, Watt chose to work with various friends and disciples such as Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Evan Dando, and J Mascis.
Ball-Hog or Tugboat won rave reviews and edged him closer to mainstream attention. Watt veered from the limelight as quickly as he got there. He briefly joined Porno for Pyros and formed Banyan, a free jazz outfit, with Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction. He also recorded Contemplating the Engine Room, a “punk rock opera” based on the lives of his father and D. Boon.
Watt fell ill and came close to death at the dawn of 2000. Successfully recuperating, he collaborated with such notables as J Mascis, Thurston Moore, and his old comrade George Hurley. He also formed the Secondmen, a bass, organ, and drums trio whose sole album documented Watt’s illness and subsequent recovery. Most notable, however, was him joining the reformed Stooges, a band whose influence looms large over most punk and indie bands.
Watt released his most recent record, Hyphenated Man, last year—a concept album loosely based on him listening to the Minutemen for the first time since D. Boon’s passing in 1985. It’s the closest he’s come to recapturing the spirit and ideals of his former band. One might be tempted to say that he’s come full circle but that’s highly unlikely. Mike Watt will always prefer to get off the highway and take detours and dirt roads. Some may lead into a ditch, but all lead to a good story.
Mike Watt and the Missingmen play Mohawk Place on Friday, Ocober 16. Tickets are $15.blog comments powered by Disqus
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