It wasn't the spitting, or the mohawks, or the unofficial punk anthem loud/fast rules, that got Minutemen/fIREHOSE alum Mike Watt into punk. Arena rock, with its big hair, big egos and power ballads, was Watt's motivation. "Arena rock kept us little and far away in the dark," the bassist said in a recent phone conversation. "It just pushed you away. 'Oh, you're just an audience member. We're up here.' With punk, (you could) actually see a guy play and five minutes later he'd be standing next to you, you could talk to him."
After seeing his first punk show, Watt remembers telling childhood friend and future bandmate D. Boon, "We can do this!" What impressed the bassist even more about the punk scene was that the bands were just learning how to play, yet they were writing their own songs. "I took it whole heart," Watt says. "And I thought, there ain't no rules."
The Ramones were early role models. Used to seeing three- or four-hour rock shows, Watt and his friends thought the 20-minute set the Ramones turned in at the Whiskey was bizarre. "What it told us was, man, you can make up your own rules. That sounds naive now, but for us that was like, iconoclastic."
Watt didn't follow any rules about subject matter either, writing some songs based on James Joyce's Ulysses because the main character, Bloom, reminded Watt of Boon--"kind of an outsider cat, always wondering things and thinking them out loud to himself."
Watt and Boon had been playing in the four-piece rock band The Reactionaries in their hometown of San Pedro, Calif., but changed the name to the Minutemen in 1979. Not wanting people to know that they were ex-rockers, they reconfigured their sound by stripping it down, removing the choruses and playing it all together. "We thought we were kinda soiled because we learned in the bedroom from Blue Oyster Cult and Creedence records, and these guys, they were just learning in public."
From 1980 until Boon's tragic death in 1986, Watt, Boon and drummer George Hurley were at the forefront of the punk scene. After Boon's death, Watt and Hurley and guitarist Ed Crawford, a die-hard Minutemen fan, formed fIREHOSE, which broke up in '93.
Watt continues to tour and record. "I've been on Columbia for 13 years," he says. "That'll give you an idea of the open-mindedness of some of the people working there."
He describes his most recent work, The Secondman's Middle Stand, as "an opera about sickness" detailing his near fatal illness. Watt begins his 53rd tour this week--65 gigs in 66 days. That's tough, he says, but working in a coal mine would be tougher. x
Mike Watt and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan play Local 506 on Sunday, Oct. 31.