It was 1993 when Mike Watt's post-Minutemen outfit Firehose (stylized as fIREHOSE) rolled into Portland, Ore.'s La Luna and put on a clinic in rock and roll basics. Expectations were high as Watt and co. hit the stage. The Supersuckers had thrown down a solid set and people were drunk and ready to mosh. The band's dress matched that of the crowd: flannel on flannel and jeans. Some mohawked punkers skulked around, but they seemed too cool for this crowd. From the darkened stage the ringy-dingy, fleshy tone of Watt's bass tattled that the boys were about ready.
There are probably three bassists in the entire world who can garner an audience's attention with a couple of arbitrary notes. Watt is one of them. As the band began, everyone pressed forward. Third song in, Watt broke a string. He casually pulled out another from his back pocket as he kept playing and set about replacing it, hitting all the right notes, re-tuning and, by the way, singing (spieling, as he calls it) on this particular jam. The whole deal took less than 30 seconds. We were blown away by the man's casual onstage demeanor; a lesser musician might have ruined the tune, not Watt. He could play better than all of us with one hand behind his backliterally!
With all the different projects he's been involved in, one would think Watt has no attention span. The fact is, people just want to work with one of the all-time great punk rock bassists and winner of Bass Player Magazine's lifetime achievement award. His work with the seminal trio the Minutemen proved that punk needn't be sloppy to capture the movement's spirit. He currently plays bass for The Stooges and a reformed fIREHOSE recently did a short tour. He has played with Sonic Youth, J Mascis, Porno for Pyros and so many one-off projects that it would take an accountant a year to tabulate. He also provided studio bass licks for pop princess Kelly Clarkson's album, My December. Because he is a music man, a guy who has consistently played live and recorded for nearly 35 yearsexcept during a bout of illness in 2000it's no surprise that Watt is touring on the back of an album that is two years old. He's just been too darned busy to bring it our way.
Hyphenated-man is Watt's third opera. Yes, opera. No worries, though, Watt fans. There are no horned ladies shrieking tunes in foreign languages. This is Watt doing his spiel on 30 short tracks, joined by The Missingmen, guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales. On his website, Watt describes the work as a peek inside his middle-aged mind. The track "Blowing It Out Both Ends Man," is a good example of the stream of consciousness lyrics on the album; it features the phrase, "Blow the flute become the flute there's no sound in flutes! Throat veins throbbin' eyeballs crossin' insane ragin' fuckin' ravin' god damn go off far too far off pert-near ready to pop! (and no beards)."
Although the imagery of his lyrics can be cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs killer, Watt and his bands are beloved for the super-tight grooves he and his drummer lock into, or the way he fills sonic space with hot licks that most bassists would need 12 fingers to perform. Hyphenated-man is full of so many stops, twists, turns and dirty burnouts into rock and roll oblivion that it's impossible to believe how adroitly the trio performs. It sounds like a roller coaster riding one rail on the downhill side of a track: just out of control, yet still pushing forward. For all bass or drum playing children, this should be required listening. Like Hemingway's bullfighters with their grace under pressure, Watt makes everything look easy. This week he stands on a stage in France with Iggy and the Stooges, next week he plays a club in Idaho for 50 people. Either way, as he always says, he "jams econo."
Mike Watt and The Missingmen play Zoo City Apparel, 139 E. Main St., Mon., Oct. 1, at 8 PM, with Bird's Mile Home. $13/$10 advance at Ear Candy.