Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Punk Pilgrimage

The first time I became aware of Mike Watt was June the 6th, 1992. I was seventeen years old.

Actually that's not true. The first time I actually beheld Mike Watt's image was sometime in the mid '80s while watching an episode of MTV's "The Basement Tapes". A memory of the video for "This Ain't No Picnic" by the seminal L.A. punk band 'The Minutemen' exists in some tiny cluster of neurons in my skull, but that's it. My pre-pubescent brain stored the memory of seeing that video, but I think I was too young to have appreciated the music, so I can't really count that.

On that mild June evening in 1992 I found myself in the front of the pit at the Greek Amphitheater in Berkeley, California. I was a budding teenage bass player and I had made my way to the Greek that night to see Primus, whose frontman, Les Claypool, was what I believed to be the bearer of the bass standard. This was at the height of Primus' popularity as they had two decently rotated singles off their album "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" at that time and I was excited to see them live.

The two supporting acts were the band Cracker, who had a pretty big single with "Stoned", and another group called fIREHOSE that I'd never heard of. They were first.

Outdoor venues are cool at night. They're not too sweaty if you're standing down in the pit, and the lighting looks cool, but the opening acts don't benefit from that. They have to slug away at their songs in broad daylight, without the dramatic assistance of fog machines and fancy stage rigging. That was how fIREHOSE took the stage. The sun was in their eyes.

That was when I truly became aware of Mike Watt; though in that moment I wasn't completely convinced I was seeing a band take the stage at all.

The guys who walked out into that sunlight didn't look like rock stars. They looked more like groundskeepers and janitors. Watt was a thick dude wearing a flannel shirt and some tattered, ill-fitting jeans. He was also fully bearded (mind you this was 1992, before the hipsters starting doing it) and he walked out to his amp with his index finger stuck in a half-empty bottle of Budweiser. All he was missing was a janitors key ring hanging off a belt loop. I honestly thought he was a roadie.

They tuned, got their levels and started playing very gently. I still wasn't sure if this was a sound check or an actual act at this point because it just wasn't happening the way I'd seen other concerts start. The bearded guy with the bass walked up to the mic as the guitar and drums just flowed textural sounds to the still sparse crowd.

"Badges?" the bass man said, "We don't need no badges. We don't need no stinking badges"

I knew this line from "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", so I still half suspected this was a roadie having a laugh, then he changed tack.

"But what we do need . . . is a REVOLUTION!!!"

Then he howled into his microphone like a werewolf and the band broke into the song "Revolution Pt.2", which was a legitimate punk rip. They caught my attention. I spent the next hour pretty much mesmerized by fIREHOSE and specifically Mike Watt. He was just what I needed to see.

To understand why, you'd have to have some familiarity with Primus and Les Claypool. Primus' music put the bass way out front as a lead instrument, and Les played it with a wacky unconventional style that had a hypnotic effect on my impressionable young mind. I didn't really know anything about music or the role of the bass, but I was sure Les was doing it the way it needed to be done. Lots of triplets and thumb work and fast 'bippity bippity' type stuff . . . The trickier the better.

I don't mean to take anything away from Les or Primus. I still have a soft spot for all of that stuff, but from the perspective of a youngster learning the fundamental value of bass it was exactly the wrong thing to fixate on. It made me aspire to play a mid-rangey lead instrument and re-invent the wheel. That was the wrong idea.

Watt was not demonstrating superior skeletal muscle control by manipulating his bass with deft precision. It wasn't about doing tricks or executing the hand acrobatics that send teenage boys like me running off to the woodshed with bass in hand. What he did was impossible to copy. He was cooperating with his bass. He was working it like a tool. There was a proletarian honesty to his style and you got the feeling he was expressing himself completely with it, while somehow never asking it to be something other than what it was.

Les Claypool dazzled by tapping crazy themes all over his fretless six-string, but Watt made the case for clubby plumbers fingers, pounding the throaty low end out of a no-frills, standard P-bass. It was what I needed to see.

I saw fIREHOSE again a few months later. This time it was across the bay at Slim's. Watt was playing a Gibson Firebird instead of the P, but aside from that it was the same deal. It was honest work and a great show. That was the last time I saw him.

In 1997 Watt released a solo piece called "Contemplating the Engine Room" which he described as a 'punk rock opera'. I describe it as fucking brilliant.

With "Engine Room" Mike chronicles his own life in the emerging L.A. punk scene and draws parallels to his father's life working in the belly of a Navy ship. I don't want to over-describe it, but it brought tears to my eyes for different reasons.

In 1992 I was a careless teenager. In 1997 I had a wife, a mortgage and a baby. My band from my teenage days had long since disintegrated. My musical footprint did not extend beyond my CD player, my one bass and the small amp next to my bed. Hearing "Engine Room" just floored me. The honesty I saw that day at the Greek was there again. It was simple themes and pure textures layered upon each other and composed in a way that made a lot out of very little - like a painting done only in primary colors which is no less complete than one rendered in a million hues.

It was a story of a father, a son, a band and an engine room. It was about struggle and being hidden away in the basement of a larger thing and never getting to see the sun. It was about friendship and exuberance and drunkenness and loss.

It was what is beautiful about music. It communicated a story through a feeling that doesn't have a name. Not purely happy nor purely sad nor purely anything except for honest. It made me feel proud of Watt for having accomplished such a noble feat and it made me wish I had the wherewithal to do the same.

I've been keeping up with Watt via his web page and his Facebook page as attentively as my weird life schedule permits and I noticed he was touring Europe in support of his latest opera "Hyphenated-Man". Since I live in Europe now it seemed that I might have a chance to catch up and see him for the first time in 22 years. There were no dates in Holland, but I don't mind a pilgrimage.

Once I had a first world internet connection I bought "Hyphenated-Man" and took to it straight away. It is the real thing. This is what 'punk' means. It's not about turning the distortion up to 11 and donning eyeliner while singing pop themes, it's about honesty. Sometimes the guitar is clean, sometimes it's dirty. Sometimes the melody climbs angrily through a minor key and sometimes it basks without shame in major key happiness, it doesn't matter. It's all legit. Most of the songs are under 2 minutes, which is enough time for a verse and chorus, or a primary and secondary theme and that's it. Next song.

Throughout it we hear the signature accessible elegance of guitar, bass and drums rightly composed. Watt's words are just frames that give shape to the texture of his voice. The listener is free to make sense of them, or not . . . as it should be. This is punk after all. I like it. Once again I am made happy by Watt. I was 17 the first time, I'm 39 now.

I've been either busy or outside of Europe for most of the tour but that all ends tomorrow. I'm hopping a flight from Amsterdam to London, then taking a train down to Brighton where Watt and his 'Missingmen' are playing in a club in the basement of the train station.

This is what it's all about.

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