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Mike Watt and the Art of Sublime Punk Invention

Watt in Los Angeles on the birthday anniversary of deceased bandmate D. Boon
Watt in Los Angeles on the birthday anniversary of deceased bandmate D. Boon Photo by David Ensminger

Mike Watt occupies his own niche in the space and time continuum of punk rock. He seems to belong everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously. Although he graduated high school in 1976 and fervently took the alternative path out of stadium rock clichés by honing jazz-spiel punk escapades in Minutemen, his work ever since has been quite an immersive tangle of styles, legacies, and inputs.

That is why each of his gigs, including White Oak on October 24 with the Missingmen, is tantamount to a one-off experience. One never knows what might be unleashed. The table is set. The pot stirred. And what erupts is likely to be mesmerizing and off-kilter, like a blend of the unknown. He might unveil a Roky Erickson cover while convening and careening through his latest output or pull out a momentous Minutemen flashback.

Watt's music often nods to endless syncretism and unstable hybridity — alchemy in the sonic shape of free jazz, hard-cut funk, flexing punk, wonky experimentalism, and bursts of trad rock. He also offers a spiritualized special combo of vigor and craft too, for Watt is unafraid to tether his performances to a higher state of mind.

It all began when Watt was a youth. Music was a way to keep him and guitarist-singer D. Boon out of trouble, behind doors, safe from fights in working class San Pedro, CA neighborhoods in the port town.

“My pop was an enlisted man. I grew up in Navy housing where we were taught we were all sailors' sons. I found it trippy how civilians organized how they lived. You know how you think the whole is world is how you're growing up ... I didn't know any officers' kids, so we were kind of segregated that way,” attests Watt.

Yet, that same music eventually opened the doors to punk rock and clubs that were ... trouble spots.

“D. Boon's ma had us make a band to do that, stay in his bedroom after school. We were 12,” recalls Watt. “When we joined the movement, we were 19, different situation. There was scary stuff in Hollywood in the later 1970s, but yeah, there were and are still in my Pedro time. I would not blame the movement for that, though. The movement helped us discover music could be used for expression.”

The first gig Watt witnessed was T. Rex, yet one of his biggest influences became James Jamerson, who helped anchor the Motown sound, as well as visionary jazz pioneer John Coltrane. As such, Watt’s own musical melting pot has cohered around a blend of black and white musical legacies.

“John Coltrane said he thought musicians were looking for some kind of truth, and I like that. James Jamerson's bass always aided and abetted the tune, while he still had his own identity, and I also like that. My life is full of mixing stuff, I'm into it. You're right.”

Those expressions became explosive. His career seems to segue fluidly between markers on the musical highway. Early on, Minutemen proved immensely influential, maverick, and tireless in their pursuit of making tunes that mattered both to discerning critics and open-armed fans galore.

Band members seemed as if they punched the clock like ‘regular Joes’ and wore their flannel influences, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, with determination. However, they also produced a bewildering array of tiny torpedoes – musical haiku of the punk variety: brisk, poetic, condensed, and high-charged songs that still feel inventive and inchoate, from propulsive hard-fast “Fanatics” to the slithering snare drum background of “Anchor” to the rusted-edge crunch of “Cut.”

They performed the improbable Dr. Frankenstein too by marrying the likes of first-wave English art-punk minimalists Wire with the bombastic glare of Van Halen. Literally, they morphed the stadium rockin’ enormity of “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love”’ into a minute and half thirty second gut punch that resonated and rioted, like a murky, roughhewn dot dash Morse code signal of garage rock attitude and homespun anarchic tendencies.

After the death of singer and guitarist D. Boon, Watt weaved through projects like Dos, with Kira Roessler of Black Flag fame, in which they both played bass, but he found even a louder footing in fIREHOSE. At first, they seemed akin to a lite version of Minutemen, plumbing through tunes that were smart, poetic, and dizzyingly syncopated, which set them apart from much college rock mumbling doldrums.

fIREHOSE adopted most of Minutemen’s limber musicality, though dropped some of the searing politics. Though, during the first Gulf War, they unveiled Wire’s “Mannequin.” The original, cut in 1977, served as a critique of empty-minded, “energy void,” bone-thin beauty models but was recast by fIREHOSE as a protest of the slaughter underway. So, when the line “You’re a disgrace” catapulted through the room, it was like a chant against the powers-that-be that treat human bodies as no more than mannequins in war zones.

fIREHOSE cemented themselves in the alternative rock zeitgeist, alongside Dinosaur Jr. and Meat Puppets, making albums brimming with guitar tours-de-force, like Flyin’ the Flannel, yet they still left room for idiosyncratic indie pop, like the Do-It-Yourself musings of Daniel Johnston, whose "Walking the Cow” they warmly embraced.

And after fIREHOSE said goodbye, Watt's musical footprint was fecund. His solo albums have been complex, condensed arrays of music probing as evocative and conceptual as they are spirited and singular. They include the musical Rubik’s Cube known as Ball Hog or Tugboat?, featuring armfuls of different artists like Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl; the profound musical overview of his father, Contemplating the Engine Room; his own near-death journey evoked on The Secondman’s Middle Stand; and the Minutemen-esque Hyphenated-Man.

Yet, he also joined the Stooges, one of the most beloved proto-punk groups ever to unleash blood-curdling yelps, savage guitar wallops, and Detroit-greased beats. With Iggy Pop at the helm, and Mike Watt replacing Dave Alexander (who died in the mid-1970s), the reformed outfit felt limber and sinewy, as if age had only honed their chops. Unfortunately, since then, death has made a maximum impact on the original line-up, leaving Iggy, who began his musical journey as a drummer, as the lone force.

“Yeah, Iggy is the bow of the boat, and I miss the Asheton brothers and Steve Mackay very much. James Williamson was very nice to me and so was the Stooges' helper men. It was a righteous classroom to learn as much as I could from, and I think of those cats all the time. I like the way Iggy charges hard and at the same time is always thinking about stuff. I think Iggy being a drummer has a lot to do with what he is, yeah. I think anyone doing drums can benefit from it, I really do. Damn, I wish I could work the drums ... I think I would be a better bassman.”

To me, Minutemen felt as if they linked to Beat Generation poets like Bob Kaufman and Allen Ginsberg, writers that could feel both surreal and absurd, electrifying and enlightened. So, when Watt began working with Charles Plymell, publisher of groundbreaking Zap Comix artist Robert Crumb and renown underground writer of his own work Apocalypse Rose, on performances on material such as “Was Poe Afraid, ” they seemed to share some sensibilities about language and rhythm.

“I love Charley and saw him in his Cherry Valley, New York town — even konked in his pad. I'm doing an opera with Petra Haden using his "Planet Chernobyl" as the libretto,” tells Watt. “I used a lot of what I learned in Mr. Joyce's Ulysses for my first opera Contemplating the Engine Room and also from listening to Raymond Pettibon [artist first associated with self-published zines and Black Flag art] talk to me. I like his rhythm and way of putting things together. I was very inspired to learn John Coltrane was influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King's speaking for his "Alabama" tune. I think you're right: the arts and expression overlap in many trippy ways.”

More currently, Watt has been featured on the new album Wall of Flowers by Mike Baggetta, which is very tender and spare at times, yet also rooted in free jazz too, especially on tunes like “I Am Not a Data Point.” Though instrumental, the theme of the work seems to be: music cannot not be reduced to 1s and 0s.

Meaning, music is one of the best ways to resist the digital age, to reclaim the human.

“It's his album, and he wrote the tunes,” Watt describes the release. “As far as what I think about what you suggest: yes, I agree music ain't maybe the best when you try and reduce it to ones and zeroes. Technology threatening us? In the old days, you could use a knife to cut up a banana into bite-sized pieces or use it to stab your partner. Same dilemma with other human inventions, it appears to me."

“Look at the way people are driving on the roads these days, a nightmare ... I saw it getting really bad about two and a half years ago, on my last U.S. tour.”

So, as the roads grow more bewildering, hectic, and disorderly, Watt will continue to be restless, both behind the wheel as well as on his musical path. While many rockers settle for a sense of redux and repeat, playing the oldies and crowd pleasers to a slew of people holding up their shiny phones, Watt prepares for another leg of his obsessive journey that you would be wise to witness.

Mike Watt & the Missingmen is scheduled for October 24 at 8 p.m. at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. For information, visit All ages. $18 advance $20 day of, plus fees.
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David Ensminger