Since 1997, the year he turned 40, Mike Watt has been reflecting on some very poignant experiences. In a trio of "punk rock operas": "Contemplating the Engine Room," "The Secondman's Middle Stand" and most recently, "Hyphenated-Man," he has thoughtfully and candidly explored the perplexities of growing older. Through lyrics steeped in metaphor, he has disclosed distressing revelations, confessed sorrows, greeted wonders and cherished tiny beauties, those things blatantly and often sadly revealed to older eyes.
Like the protagonist of Dante's mid-life allegory "The Divine Comedy," Watt's own mid-life journey has been similarly peripatetic. In 2000, he survived a near fatal month long fever brought on by a perineal infection; in 2003 he began a 10 year stint as bass player in his teenage dream band: the Stooges and in 2004, he was a subject of a critically acclaimed documentary about his beloved and influential band, The Minutemen. At 56, Watt remains a very open and excited musical adventurer, taking on any and all that comes his way, yet in these three operas, midlife and its puzzling surprises and discontents are recurring themes.
Watt has always been a sharply observant artist. Historical and literary references abound in many of his earliest songs, especially those for The Minutemen (1980-1985). Many offered extremely brief, bold commentaries on Reagan era politics and the vacuous go-go 1980's. Even then, as a very young man, Watt displayed a lyrical gift for illuminating personal, absurdly small and troubling details of everyday life.
In 1985, two days after his 28th birthday, Watt's Minutemen band mate, best friend, and muse, D Boon was killed in a van accident. On the cusp of mainstream success, the Minutemen abruptly ended and Watt was tragically set adrift. After several listless months and a persistent fan named Ed Crawford (Ed fROMOHIO), Watt went on to form fIREHOSE (1985-1994). In the decades since, Watt has written, performed and recorded with many other musicians and pursues a remarkably steady solo career. But it wasn't until he neared 40, that he was emotionally and musically ready to share his feelings about his life-shattering loss 12 years earlier.
In 1997, he released his first "punk rock opera." "Contemplating the Engine Room" is an album that musically (albeit discreetly) alludes to the Minutemen. Lyrically it's loosely based on his late-father's 20-year career in the Navy, which served as a metaphor for Watt's own life on the road. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful song cycle set in a single 24-hour period (a subtle reference to James Joyce's "Ulysses") that also evokes, Richard McKenna's "The Sand Pebbles." The 1966 movie starring Steve McQueen was a childhood favorite for both Watt and D Boon.
In 2004, Watt released "The Secondman's Middle Stand," in which he recounted his experience surviving the deadly infection in 2000. This "opera" is arranged in three sections like Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. In brutally descriptive lyrics, Watt sings about his descent into illness, his difficult and excruciatingly painful journey back to health and his gratitude for the blissful pleasures of pluckin' peddlin' and paddlin' (playing his bass, riding his bicycle around San Pedro and paddling his kayak in the harbor of Los Angeles).
"Thinking about middle age, especially the mortality thing is a lot different when you are young," Watt says. "In middle age you suddenly think you don't have enough time to get this work done. At 42, when this sickness got me, I started thinking about it!"
In 2004, young filmmakers Keith Schieron and Tim Irwin contacted Watt to ask for his blessing and participation in "We Jam Econo" a documentary film they were developing about the Minutemen. To prepare for their on-camera questions, Watt felt compelled to delve into his own past work, and so he listened to Minutemen records for the first time in nearly two decades.
"I liked what I heard but I also started thinking about what D Boon never got, never had to get to, getting to middle age and what that would be like," Watt recalls. "When I was young, I didn't see people as middle aged. All I heard about was mid-life crisis. Life is all a crisis, but in midlife you are just starting to think about it."
Also in 2004, while in Madrid with the Stooges, Watt spent hours at the Prado Museum: examining, pondering, and virtually inhaling the images that inhabit 16th C Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's paintings. "I liked Bosch as a boy, the images from books, they affected me on an unconscious level but it's a lot different when you are up close!" he says.
Watt began to draw parallels between the Minutemen's tiny, genre bending songs that often seemed as one ("A Minutemen gig is a lot of little things but one trip," he says) and the complicated tiny mysterious man beasts that together inhabited Bosch's paintings. Thus, "Hyphenated-Man" was begun.
But there was another, less obvious key source of inspiration: the 1939 MGM film version of "The Wizard of Oz." The three farm hands (played in the film by well-known middle-aged vaudevillian entertainers) are also The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Each represents an archetypal male fear: not being smart enough, not having enough heart or enough courage. Watt: "Men are always measuring themselves, throughout life, but in middle age guys have to adjust."
For the uninitiated few, MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" is the story of an orphaned, somewhat disaffected adolescent Dorothy Gale who lives with her aunt and uncle in dust bowl Kansas. She runs away from home and is swept up in a cyclone, finding herself on a magical journey of personal discovery. She fights a bad witch and is befriended by a good one on her way to meet "The Wizard" who lives in the Emerald City. She is told The Wizard is the only one who can return her safely home. On her way along the Yellow Brick Road, she is joined by three man/beasts. Each hope The Wizard will give him what he believes he lacks: a brain, a heart or courage. Dorothy is perplexed by their bumbling lack of self-confidence, yet encourages their dreams of becoming better men. Ultimately, The Wizard turns out to be a fraud - a carnival magician whose hot air balloon had landed earlier in Oz, while the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion discover they already possess what they had desired all along. When Dorothy awakes in her own bed from this dream (she had been knocked out during the cyclone by a crashing window), she is surrounded by the farm hands, which she recognizes as the man/beasts who protected, defended and helped her in Oz.
This film was not a hit when it was released in theaters in 1939, but it became a US TV classic, broadcast annually as a special event from 1959-1991. Watt and his two sisters would have seen the movie together every year throughout his childhood. He had a lot of exposure to this film.
"As a kid I had to watch it a lot. In the movie the farm hands don't look like boys. There are no boys in the film," Watt says. "I really noticed the whole idea of men playing roles. I think it's about growing up. Dorothy is a woman now. The farm hands in the movie are the men and her companions, but she doesn't know what to make of them. So I thought it would be interesting to imagine what it must be like for a lady, for Dorothy to see these men. I would never have done that with the Minutemen."
At 23, when Watt wrote the Minutemen classic "What Makes a Man Start Fires?" he was literally recalling a fire he started when he was 7. In the 30 tracks that make up the whole of "Hyphenated-Man," Watt explores what makes a man start fires in an adult, metaphorical sense. "What makes a man a man? It's an issue every man has with his pop. Guys have fairy tale roles. I wanted to revisit my old music and I wanted to talk about middle age. "
In essence, with "Hyphenated-Man," Watt answers Dorothy's emphatic question: "WHO is that man behind the curtain?" In the movie, the Wizard responds by saying (as most men typically would): "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
But Watt does and that's where the Bosch paintings come in. Thinking about the fantastic, surreal and dream-like images in paintings such as "The Garden of Earthly Delights" allowed Watt a language and an artistic framework for the 30 tiny parts that inhabit the wheel-like structure of "Hyphenated-Man."
While we may never know what Bosch was trying to depict - some historians say the images were aphorisms, morality tales or anti-Catholic satire - for Watt the little beast men became a way to describe a middle-aged crisis of identity and how it might appear to a female observer: "Frying Pan Man," "Hollowed Out Man," "Confused Parts Man," "Blowing it Out Both Ends Man," "Pinned to the Table Man" and so on. These little beast men are a virtual kaleidoscope of male behaviors: they fight or surrender to impulses, they are tender and regretful, they are angry and mean, they are flimsy and weak, they try to flee pain, or simply attempt to disguise their fear. Each is gripped by a (self-induced?) crisis.
At a mere 75 seconds each, the 30 tiny parts are delivered with barely a pause in between. They quickly capture a very wide range of musical styles from punk and funk to jazz and acid rock, serving as a swift tour of Watt's musical heroes. Among the influences hinted at: Motown's James Jamerson, Captain Beefheart and John Coltrane. But the tunes all bear Watt's own unique, finely honed signature: a beautiful, extraordinarily melodic bass line and a deep male voice puzzling, curiously poetic, spoken/sung words.
Composed in San Pedro, CA on D Boon's Fender Telecaster guitar, recorded at Tony Maimone's Studio G in Brooklyn, NY, with Tom Watson on guitars and Raul Morales on drums, the album was widely released in 2011 on Watt's own clenchedwrench label. Musically, "Hyphenated-Man" evokes the Minutemen more than anything Watt has recorded in almost three decades.
"I hear all 30 parts as one song, perspective reflecting on itself, tackling an idea, the idea of being middle-aged," Watt says. "It's sort of like a man's gig, all different ways to play the same song."