I get scared shitless to play in front of people; I got into music to be with my friends.” This is coming from Mike Watt, bassist extraordinaire, punk rock journeyman and all-around underground rock legend. At 46, Mike has played with just about every musician from the last two decades who you think is cool, as well as cutting his teeth in what may have been the best punk band ever. More than most artists, he’s probably earned the right to be aloof. And yet, as the above quote implies, he’s humble to a fault, his wit and wisdom obviously a result of his assertion that he’s still constantly learning. And he’s funny as hell.
Watt started out as the bassist for legendary ’80s underground band The Minutemen. With his lifelong friend D. Boon, the boys from San Pedro, Calif., combined punk rock energy with witty blue-collar politics and a wide range of musical influences from folk to jazz to become one of the most revered bands of the decade. Sadly, it was all cut short when D. Boon died in a car accident in 1985. Since then Watt has gone on to be a member of the wildly eclectic Firehose, conduct a solo career, and lead his current band The Secondmen, as well as be involved with more side projects than should be humanly possible. When asked if any projects stick out, Watt replies, “They all taught me something. I like my oldest band Dos, it’s just me and Kira Roessler (the bassist) from Black Flag. There’s nothing to hide behind there.”
“In middle age you start to see that the voyage is finite and you gotta get a lot of work done. It’s different in your 20s; for one thing, you know everything, but you’re also a lot more resilient,” relates Watt. The concept of middle age probably takes center stage among his thoughts at the moment, having had a rather terrifying brush with mortality recently. In 2000, Watt nearly died. He suffered from a fever for 38 days and the episode concluded with an abscess bursting in his perineum. “It’s like a doctor’s word for the taint,” says Watt.
The experience left him with not only an extensive period of recuperation, but proved to be the sort of life-affirming event that makes for great music. So, Mike Watt did what he does best, he grabbed his “thud staff” and made an album. The result, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, is an album that tells the story of Watt’s sickness in sometimes harrowing details and is steeped in the sort of self-reflection that comes from knocking on death’s door. “It’s about the sickness, but it’s more an allegory for being a 46-year-old punk rocker,” says Watt.
Not only a first-person account of Watt’s sickness, the album betrays the influence of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The first third of the album recounts the sickness itself, representing the Inferno, the middle third covers treatment and mirrors Purgatory, while the final third describes the simple pleasures of a return to health, standing in for the ascent to Paradise. “I like the idea of a good story; it’s got to have a beginning, a middle and an end,” relates Watt. The echoes of The Divine Comedy, devoured by Watt during his recuperation, reveal his deep love of literature, which seeps into every aspect of his musical oeuvre. “There’s something about the written word that’s very personal,” says Watt. “It’s funny how the books I read on tour follow my tour, even if they’re (700) or 800 years old.”
The album itself is classic Watt, an energetic and musically complex ride through pop, punk, classic rock and jazz. On it, he’s backed by only drums and Hammond organ. On the choice to go this one guitar-less, Watt muses, “Well, I’ve still gotta keep challenging myself … you get a lower sound out of an organ than a bass, so I get a chance to experiment.”
Nor has his scrape with the Reaper discouraged his inveterate road dog status. Famous for waxing poetically about “the boat,” his term for the tour van, Watt is right back there in the mix; having just come off a tour with the recently reformed Stooges, he’s currently on a two-month tour in support of the album. “Elvin Jones was 75 and played his last gig two weeks before he died,” says Watt. “You gotta go out there and play like it’s your last night, that’s what D. Boon did or Iggy Pop. I’ve had a lot of good teachers.”
After having a stellar, ludicrously consistent musical output; having friends in all walks of life, from Richard Meltzer to Iggy Pop; having toured seemingly every dingy rock club in every nook and cranny of the United States and large portions of Europe; and after nearly two decades of being considered one of the underground’s premier bassists; everything about Watt still suggests that ordinary guy from Pedro, Calif., a sly, wise, warmly self-deprecating man overjoyed that he gets to go out there every night and just play the bass. He seems an unlikely candidate for legendary status, but as he says, “If it means I’m a link in the chain so that people can express themselves further on in the years, then I’m comfortable with that. It’s like any farmer will tell you, if you want a good crop you gotta use a lot of manure.”