Copyright (c) 2000,
Landmark Communications, Inc.
BY CHRIS GRIER, STAFF WRITER
MIKE WATT is on his umpteenth tour, pulling shore duty.
That's what this Portsmouth-born son of a Navy chief calls working: shore duty.
He's behind the wheel of his battered white Ford Econoline ("The Boat") on a sunny October morning, rolling north at a steady 55 mph, heading from Maryland toward his next job in Hoboken, N.J. He's wearing what he always does, a flannel shirt, jeans, low-top Chuck Taylors. He looks like a painter, or maybe an electrician headed to a construction site.
Except he happens to be one of the most influential musicians of the past 20 years.
Folks around Hampton Roads may never have heard of him. But the musicians responsible for a lot of the CDs in the record stores have. Or else they've worked with him, or paid tribute to him, or flat out ripped him off.
Watt's influence is everywhere, though it's one of the lesser-known threads snaking through the history of popular music. The Minutemen, the punk-rock trio Watt formed with his childhood buddies 20 years ago, recorded "Double Nickels on the Dime" in 1984, a double album that critics routinely place in their must-have lists.
Along with the stable of bands on the California-based SST label in the 1980s - Black Flag, Husker Du, Sonic Youth - Watt helped forge the mythos of the independent music scene that has since seeped into almost every aspect of popular culture, from the music people listen to, to the clothes they wear, to the slang they speak.
The "grunge look" that became haute couture in the early '90s was stripped off the backs of punk rockers, stolen from Kurt Cobain, who got it from Watt.
Or take the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the few guitar-based bands, it seems, still left on the radio these days. They dedicated their breakthrough album, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," to Watt.
And so on.
"Among musicians of a certain age, virtually all of them will tell you that they started playing because of the Minutemen," says Jim "Jimbo" Dunbar, a New York-based record producer and former Columbia A&R rep.
"It's just a given."
Then there's Ron Asheton, guitarist and songwriter for The Stooges, with whom Watt recently worked on the soundtrack to the film "Velvet Goldmine": "The guy is absolutely brilliant."
Says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, after an hourlong appraisal of Watt's body of work: "Is he a genius? Absolutely."
So who is this Watt character?
Widely influential, lauded by critics and his peers, but barely famous.
And yet Watt couldn't care less about the fame. Disdains it, in fact.
Sure, the more people who hear his work, the better, he says. But he won't pander to get there. He just wants to do the work, travel the country in The Boat, spread his message.
"Spielin'," he calls it, talking from the stage, bringing the rest of the world up to speed, trying to educate them about the myriad forces that are sucking the life right out of them.
"That's why I tour so much," he growls in his booming baritone. "I'm just trying to reach out to people, get them to see what's going on."
Watt says the words rock star with the same mocking inflection other people reserve for terms like prima donna or total jerk.
The Navy chief's son would rather be compared to a sailor.
Over the course of a week in The Boat, between gigs in Washington, D.C.; New Jersey; New York; Providence, R.I.; Cambridge, Mass.; Philadelphia; and Richmond, Watt tells his stories.
He was born Dec. 20, 1957, at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. His father, Dick Watt, was tapped for the Navy's fledgling nuclear ship program. Which meant the Watts would move from Portsmouth to Idaho to New York and back to Norfolk by the time Mike was in the second grade.
Then Uncle Sam called Dick Watt away again, to San Pedro, Calif.
"And that's when my ma said, `That's enough. No more.' "
When the service called again, Dick Watt moved, but Mike Watt and the rest of his family didn't. It was in Pedro, as the locals call it, that Watt met D. Boon, known to his mom and dad as Dennes Dale Boon. Boon jumped out of a tree on top of Watt. Boon blew Watt's mind by reciting an entire George Carlin routine.
And Watt, the Navy kid who'd been bounced from state to state his whole life, had found his best friend.
"I fell in love with him right away," Watt says.
They hooked up with George Hurley, another Pedro buddy, one of the cool kids in high school. Watt and Boon were misfits, Watt says.
D. Boon knew nothing about rock. His dad was into Buck Owens records. But they found common ground in Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And so they began, knowing nothing, but flailing away. For a long time, Watt didn't even know the bass was a different instrument from the guitar.
"I just thought it was a guitar with four strings!" Watt says.
D.'s mom encouraged them, the better to keep them off the streets. Some of the band's early heroes: Steely Dan, Blue Oyster Cult, Richard Hell, Wire, Creedence.
And in their isolation, they came up with something unique.
It had the ferocity of punk rock and the improvisational, swinging looseness of jazz. It was precise, but full of fun. The lyrics were political: D. would roar against Reagan, or for the common man. Or they were goofy: Watt made a song out of a note his landlord left him, telling him not to use the shower because the floor was leaky.
The Navy chief never really understood how his son could spend his life in a punk-rock band.
"He used to tell me, `You gotta have a bravo, son, you gotta have a Plan B.' . . . He asked me one time, `Is it socialist?' I just laughed. He didn't know."
Between 1980 and 1985, the three Minutemen cranked out enough music to fill 17 records. Nearly all of them were hailed as classics by a small but ever-growing circle of critics and fans who saw something unique in their wild, politically charged punk rock.
The more records they made, the more people heard them. Critics drooled. There was a video. By 1985, things were looking up and the three kids from Navy housing were going to get to quit their day jobs and make music full-time, get to spend their lives blowing minds, criss-crossing the country in their van, blasting their music all over people from California to New York to Europe.
But on Dec. 22, 1985, at the tail end of a tour, Boon died in a van crash in the middle of the Arizona desert. And the Minutemen died, too.
It was a loss that, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once said, "for wasted potential has Lennon and Hendrix for company."
And to this day, Watt can't talk about it without choking up. For a long time, he couldn't talk about it all.
"The Minutemen always had (other) jobs," Watt says while eating soup in a club in Cambridge. "We always worked. I got my electronics associates degree. full-time, you know?" Watt says.
"All that work, and D. never got to reap the rewards."
And Watt changes the subject and starts spooning up his soup.
A Watt tour - this fall was his 36th, he says - is far, far different from most.
With him this time are Tom Watson and Vince Meghrouni, "The Pair of Pliers," Watt's dubbed them, and they're both old Southern California buddies and fellow SST alumni.
Watt's tours - his entire life, in fact - follow what he calls his econo ethic. It's a kind of shorthand to describe his minimalist, Spartan ways.
Watt and his band, for example, load in their own equipment. No "roadies." Watt collects his own money at the end of the night, has no handlers, no tour managers, no nothing.
Hotel accommodations? Nope. People's floors. If that doesn't work out, it's the Motel 6 at $49.99 a night. That doesn't happen a lot, because he's built up a huge network of friends over the span of two decades' worth of touring. But even at the hotels, Watt takes the floor. Or the "deck," since he's a sailor's son.
Transportation? There's no tour bus. Instead, it's The Boat, Watt's 1990 Econoliner, which at this point on the tour shows well over 244,000 miles on the odometer. Watt drives, trading shifts with his bandmates.
Partying? Women? Nope. Sleeping. Or driving.
Needless to say, when he's back home in Pedro, he buys in bulk. Econo.
Watt's sole concession to relaxation on tour is a nightly puff of mota. Marijuana, that is. He never carries it on tour - no drugs or liquor allowed in The Boat - but enough fans and club owners know of his fondness for mota that someone always seems to come through.
There are no other drugs. He hates cigarettes. Hasn't drunk beer in years.
"I got tired of (going to the bathroom) all the time," he says, laughing.
But he needs the mota. He gets on a sort of adrenaline high while playing, and he needs to chill out when he's done. It's not hippie-stoner talk; he's genuinely wound up after the gigs, talking in rapid-fire mode, a little anxious.
The tour pace is, by any standard, brutal. In his seven-week tour, which ended in November, he and the band had three days off. And that's not even a record for him.
Why so hectic?
"If you ain't playin'," Watt says, "you're payin'."
By which he means that if you're not earning money at the gigs, you're blowing it on food, gas and hotel rooms. Touring is work.
Sure, you can have fun, he says, "but you gotta keep the sails taut."
He's signed to Columbia - the label of Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, all titans in the American musical pantheon. Owned by Sony. Big bucks.
But he gets virtually no tour support. Through his Web site (www.hootpage.com), he asks his fans to print up fliers and tack them up on telephone poles near the gigs.
The anti-rock-star rock star.
"This kind of tour isn't for everybody," Watson, the guitarist, says one night in Providence. "It's an honor playing with Watt. But not everyone can handle the whole econo trip."
Watt has considered quitting more than once.
"My battles are with my own industry," he says during the drive to Hoboken. "I could walk away from this anytime. I don't owe rock and roll (anything)."
That feeling crops up only rarely, though, during the stress of touring.
Sometimes, he yells at his men. On more than one occasion, he'll stop in the middle of a song and yell, "Focus!"
Outside a gig in Philly, still a little exasperated, he explains:
"Look, man, I'm under a lot of pressure, see? I'm driving to the gigs, I'm setting up, I'm like the tour manager and the music director at the same time. It's just the three of us. There's a lot to do. A lot to do. You've seen it.
"Gotta keep the sails taut."
Moore, the Sonic Youth guitarist, has seen Watt blow up.
"He's like Charles Mingus, in a way. He might not be the nicest guy on tour, but that's not the issue," Moore says. "He's a musician, first and foremost, and it's the music he's worrying about."
Watt beats himself up for losing his cool.
"I grew up in Navy housing," he says later. "I'm trying to unlearn some things. I want to learn how to be a good leader, to inspire."
So, no, he's not going to quit.
"I think of him as a boxer," says John Petkovic, the frontman for Cobra Verde, the Cleveland-based glam-rock band that toured with Watt in October. "Not one of those guys who always wins by knockout, but one of those guys who wins by decision. Like he's in it for the long haul.
"Watt's definitely going to die with his boots on."
It took a long time for Watt to recover from D. Boon's death. Some of his friends wonder if he ever really has.
Just after the accident, he holed up in Manhattan with Moore and Kim Gordon, Moore's wife and bandmate.
Around that time, Moore remembers seeing someone from another band working on a tour van, modifying the interior, making it more crash-worthy.
"And he said, well, since D. Boon died, we're just trying to make things a little safer," Moore recalls. ". . . A lot of people were in shock over D.'s death. It was a big deal."
Watt says Gordon and Moore got him playing music again. He played bass on a couple of songs on "EVOL," Sonic Youth's landmark 1986 album.
That year, out of nowhere, a guy named Ed Crawford called from Ohio. He was a diehard Minutemen fan who had heard that Watt and Hurley, the Minutemen drummer, were starting a band. They weren't. But that didn't stop Crawford from driving out to Watt's place.
And so fIREHOSE was born, and Watt was touring and recording again.
It didn't feel the same, though.
"If anybody asks me what kind of bass player I am, I tell 'em I'm D. Boon's bass player," Watt says. "For the longest time, I couldn't believe anybody would want to come see me play without D. Boon."
Watt disbanded fIREOSE in 1995. Various people guess at various reasons. Watt says he just wanted to try something new.
Every fIREHOSE record was dedicated to D. Boon. Every night on this tour, Watt dedicated a Minutemen song to him. Watt will play Stooges and John Coltrane and Blue Oyster Cult songs, but not old Minutemen numbers that D. wrote. Only his own.
"Can't do it. I have too much respect for him," Watt says.
"He's never gotten over it," says Don Fleming, a former Hampton Roads resident and New York-based producer (Sonic Youth, Hole) and musician (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball) who's played with Watt.
"But it's understandable, really. I mean, the guy lost his closest friend in the world."
A dozen years after D.'s death, though, Watt managed to pull something good out of it. Most artists only get one masterpiece done in a lifetime. Watt has two.
"Double Nickels' " release 15 years ago was enough to ensure him a place in the pantheon. But his most recent album, "Contemplating the Engine Room," was hailed as another classic upon its release two years ago.
It's about, among other things, his tours with the Minutemen, as filtered through the prism of his father's experiences in the bowels of the Navy ships he served on.
Watt calls it a "punk rock opera." He promised himself he'd tour behind it for at least a year, in honor of D. and his dad, and he did.
He'd start the shows by waking up in The Boat, rubbing the crust out of his eyes, walking into whatever club he was playing that night, and starting the songs right then and there. Like a sailor rousted from his rack. He'd play the shows all the way through, usually without comment or explanation.
And the songs, with titles like "The Bluejackets' Manual," "In the Engine Room," and "In the Bunk Room/Navy Wife," earned him a whole new crowd, one probably not predisposed toward Watt's leftist brand of politics.
"A lot of sailors related to the opera," Watt says, smiling proudly. "A lot of 'em."
The subject matter of Watt's songs, raw nerves and all, probably explains why Watt's not as famous as, say, R.E.M., his former touring compadres, or the Chili Peppers.
"This is very personal, intense music," says Dunbar, the producer. "It's just not going to appeal to everybody. And that's fine. He doesn't pander to popular tastes - not that all of his contemporaries do, I'm not saying that. But he's a musician's musician."
Watt doesn't get back to Hampton Roads much. He still remembers it as "Tidewater." He played a smattering of gigs at some of the college bars on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk with fIREHOSE. He wouldn't begin to know where to find his old homes in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
He claims Pedro as his home, but that's understandable. It's where he's lived since grade school, when his mom decided after years of bouncing from Portsmouth to Norfolk to a handful of other places that there was going to be no more moving, that this is where she was going to raise the kids.
And it's where Watt met his best friend, his foil, the man who got him into music. It's where he formed his first band, where he became famous, where he still lives, at age 42, with his cats and his bike, near his mom and his two sisters. It's where he first had a real home.
"I do miss Virginia, though," he says. "The cattails . . . it's nice down there. I love the South. People are friendlier. They're very open. Very warm."
Since the opera record came out, his friends have noticed a change.
Meghrouni, the drummer, toured with Watt in 1995. Watt has mellowed a bit, he says.
"That unsparing eye he casts on everything around him seems to be turning inward," Meghrouni says.
For the first time in his life, Watt's going to break down and take a vacation this winter. He plans to go to New York, where he'll pal around with his old buddies.
"It's scary, I've never done that before," Watt says. "Like, never. I've always been working."
Which, given the demanding pace of his work, and his tendency to stress out, begs the question: Is he happy?
This one takes him a minute.
"No," he finally says. "Because happy implies you're content. And when you're content, you're loafin'. Gettin' soft.
"I don't want to do that."
So he's not happy, no.
So what's left?
Watt's never said it, but the answer's in his music. He laid it out right there, on the the last lines of the last song on his last album.
"All alone and pulling shore duty," he sings. "Seems there's always more duty.
"Maybe that's the beauty."
Chief Watt never really understood. Not until just before he passed away. His son was regaling him with stories from the road when it dawned on him.
"You're like a sailor," Mike Watt remembers his father telling him.
And Watt grins. "He finally got it."