Friday, April 22, 2011

My old Mike Watt piece from the Nerve

I revere Mike Watt, but I haven't done a very good job of promoting his Vancouver appearance on Tuesday. The Straight chose Alex Varty for their article on him (see below), and tho' I also pitched something at Beat Route, they had their own writer in mind. Fact is, I have a lot of interview material still in the can from a talk we had a couple of years ago, for a piece that I'd proposed to do for Razorcake, before the editor and I had a falling out; I still hope to shape it someday into something readable, and if all goes to plan, on Tuesday, I'll be able to get the photos that I need to put something together for online publication, later this year. In the meantime, best I can do at present is reprint my old Nerve Magazine article on Mike Watt, and direct y'all to Youtube for links to songs off his new opera, Hyphenated-Man.

By the way, Iggy has since ceased stage diving, we gather...

Mike Watt: Sidemousin’ the Stooges (2007)
By Allan MacInnis

I dunno how it is for you, but for me, the Stooges recruiting Mike Watt to tour with them is like God Himself manifesting His Divine Presence and announcing publicly so there can be no further debate that the deities of a relatively neglected cult (that I happen to belong to) are in fact the correct ones, and that everyone else must heretofore pay heed. As attentive Nerve readers will know, tho’, when I saw the Stooges in Seattle a few months ago, I couldn’t escape my sense of disbelief long enough to really enter the experience: watching a 60 year old Iggy Pop in total command and fine physical form bellowing, with complete conviction, “Do you feel it when you FUCK me?” and leaping, writhing, into the audience fit far enough outside the framework of consensus reality that I might as well have seen a fuckin’ UFO. Watt, rapturously workin’ the bass, was really all I could grok – though the audience, mostly in their 20s, didn’t seem to be havin’ such a hard time of things.

“You’ve gotta give a lot of credit to young people, for bein’ that open-minded, and not sayin’ ‘Hey, you fuckin’ old shit!’” Watt says by phone. “Like, when I was a teenager, you wouldn’t listen to music five years old. So I give a lot of credit! I think it’s a trip – ‘cos rock and roll was always marketed on a youth thing – to see a man 60 years old stage diving. He invented the stage dive and he’s still doin’ it. I think – fuck the marketing, this guy has got it in his blood. And you know what, maybe you’ll be 60 one day – maybe. And it just gets rid of all those fuckin’ phony things that don’t have anything to do with anything except sellin’ you shit. So a lot of respect to the audiences – to the cats watchin’ Stooges.”

Didn’t Iggy seem kind of otherworldly – a God descended – even to Watt, though?

“They’re ‘60’s guys,” Watt replies. “I think the whole country, everything was in a different place. My Missingmen’s drummer Raoul is 20 years younger than me, and I’m only 10 years younger than Iggy, but I’m much closer to Raoul. Things changed after punk. I can even rap with a teenager at a Warped Tour gig and be closer than to these guys, because it was a different scene. They’re very interesting gentlemen, though” – having primarily experienced Iggy via his onstage persona, I would never have thought of him as an “interesting gentleman,” but I have no doubt it’s true – “and it’s one of the only times when I’ve played the little brother, y’know? Suddenly I’m the youngest guy in the band – I mean that never fuckin’ happens. I mean, in all senses, I’m the little brother, even though I’ve done tons of gigs, probably more than, y’know? It’s just different.”

Watt is pleased when I tell him he seemed totally in-the-zone when I saw him onstage. It amused me a bit, in fact, because his tour diaries – which, if you’ll pardon me, are a hoot to read – make him seem like he’s constantly worryin’ he’ll slip up. “But there’s a huge legacy. I don’t think there’d be a punk scene without the Stooges, so that weighs on me!” Watt gives an understated little laugh.

The really important question, though – and God help me if this sounds like the sort of question a reporter for a supermarket tabloid might ask: why wasn’t Watt allowed to wear flannel when performing? “I think it’s that Ig wants me to look like I’m with them. Although, you know, I got the idea (of flannel) from John Fogerty; it’s not really my idea. I just thought he had neatest rock shirts. I didn’t know they were farmer’s shirts! I grew up in Navy housing” – Watt’s Dad was in the military, which informs the theme of his second solo CD, Contemplating the Engine Room – “so I didn’t really understand so much about it. But now – at the beginning of the year, (Iggy) called me up and said ‘Mike, I got an idea, what about jumpsuits, boilersuits? So that’s what I’ve been wearing, this year. And he says, ‘Get a blue one, for that nautical look.’ So that’s what I wore in Seattle, was a boilersuit.” I told Watt it looked really hot, and I think he understood that I meant hot-and-sweaty, not hot-and-sexy. “It was,” Watt replied, “But then I was thinkin’ of Townshend in them white ones during the Woodstock days, so, y’know... Me and D. Boon were way into Townshend, so that’s cool.”

“You know, to let go for something like that, it’s no big deal. I get my way in my own bands, you know, so if I have to wear different clothes, it’s okay, it’s no real affront to me. You’re trying to help the guy in his thing – the same thing I’m asking of my guys, like, Tom and Raoul, now, with the Missingmen.” Watt seems amiable. “You can’t learn everything, always bein’ the boss, and probably the same with bein’ a sidemouse, but there’s important lessons to each that you can learn only by doin’ those different gigs, you know?”

A couple of Vancouver bands get mentioned in our talk. Watt on Nomeansno: “Excellent band, the Wright brothers... I have a lot of respect for that band, man, I love that band. In the old days, I thought them and a Dutch band called the Ex were like, the closest to Minutemen.” Watt shares with Nomeansno bassist Rob Wright a love for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which fans more literate than I will already have seen in his lyrics. “There’s like ten songs on Double Nickels that are totally from Ulysses,” Watt says. “There’s one called ‘June 16th,’ which is Bloomsday, when it happens. But there’s all kinds of it, like, ‘The World According to Nouns,’ and ‘My Heart and the Real World’ and ‘It’s Expected I’m Gone,’ ‘Retreat,’ “The Big Foist” – there’s just a lot of ‘em. That book was really profound on me. And then I read it again in my 40’s and it was way different, but just as strong. Just different – which is a trip, because the words didn’t change. Obviously I did.”

Watt got to play the Starfish Room with Rob Wright, before that venue was levelled. “I think I done 61 tours now. It was one of those. I played there three or four times and one of them was with Mr. Rob Wright, opening up with his solo ‘Mister Wrong’ set. It was righteous.” Watt is also a fan of DOA: “Me and D. Boon loved that band – Joey Shithead – [imitates Shithead and sings]: ‘You’re fucked up Ronnie!’ Great, great songs – great band – great energy on that level. It’s like, ‘You know what’s on my mind? I’m gonna let you know,’ y’know? ‘How is the power bein’ divvied up?’”

I ask Watt if he feels that punk has lost a lot of its edge since the old days. “I think part of it came from being little and stomped down. It was not a popular thing, so a lot of self-reliance was built up, and a lot of questioning: ‘Why are things the way they are?’ Now you got a good lookin’ young man with tattoos and he’s a star – it’s hard for him to write songs about that.” Watt laughs, then archly adds, “You know, unless there’s a market for it.”

Back when Watt was on Columbia, the label would call him in sometimes as a coach for their younger bands. “They wanted me to talk to a lot of them about touring, because man, they don’t come from the old punk scene. Everyone wants to be stars and be fuckin’ catered too, you know? You hear them cry later about bein’ puppets and shit, but you don’t see ‘em tyin’ on the strings! Sure, I’ll talk to them, but they don’t want to hear it, because there’s all this myth... See, to us, the music was the big thing. Everything else was secondary. It’s hard to fuckin’ fire people up with that - you gotta get kinda bit by the bug, I don’t know. Shit, I’ve tried to talk people blue in the face about it. Some of ‘em are born with this incredible talent – they don’t have to keep workin’ on it, like a thug like me. They’re born with it and stuff, but they just don’t have this fire, I don’t know. Maybe it comes too easily, maybe that’s the problem.”

Future projects by Watt will include a third opera, with compositions based on the weird little creatures one sees in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. “I found out that those things were all symbolic of proverbs and shit – but like, 500 year old Dutch, Flemish, and I don’t know any of that, so I made up my own. But basically – it’s like there was a mirror in my head and it broke up into a bunch of pieces. So there’s 39 of them. In some ways, it’s me goin’ back to the old days, ‘cos they’re little songs.” The recording will be the first Watt’s new unit, the Missingmen. “Watson, he’s from Slovenly, he’s from a late ‘80s SST band, and so he’s kind of the middle ground, a connection, and Raoul’s the younger man from hardcore, gettin’ taught this strange music from this strange man... I haven’t had time to work with them yet, but after Stooges stop in September, I’m gonna have time, and teach it to them, and tour it first and then record it.”

Also upcoming: Watt will be joined by Nels Cline, Petra Haden, and Chad Smith for a cover version of the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You,” on the Guilt by Association compilation of cover tunes. The song is NOT the BOC’s finest moment (“it’s, like, kind of their Journey period,” Watt quips.) Still, it has lyrics by Richard Meltzer, and Watt is a huge fan, as am I. Homework: go read Meltzer’s essay on the Minutemen in A Whore Just Like the Rest – the single best title ever given to a book of rock writing – and while you’re at it, if you want to piss yourself laughing, read his essay on Springsteen, too, “One Commie Wrong about Bruce.”

Speaking of Meltzer, who currently resides in Portland, another future project will be a recording with him entitled Spielgusher. “He gave me 53 spoken word pieces and I’m puttin’ music to’em. Ten of ‘em are actual songs he wrote when he was gonna collaborate with the Minutemen, but we didn’t get to record with him – D. Boon had the fuckin’ lyrics in the fuckin’ van ride he got killed on. Yeah. So Richard did those ten and 43 others, so there’s 53 little spiels and I’m puttin’ music behind it, and to me, y’know, it’s a tribute to Richard, because I love the man much, and to get to collaborate with him – to be a part of the same piece of art, man – to me, it’s one of the biggest things ever in your life.”

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