Jamming econo with the legendary Mike Watt

Serving the truth since 1980

May 3, 2017 at 1:00 am

If you want to re-live (or, in this writer's case, get a better sense of what it was like) some of the smartest, most influential punk to emerge from the '80s, your chance will come when Minutemen co-founder Mike Watt arrives at El Club with fellow alt-legends Meat Puppets.

Language. Truth. History. These are the things that Watt and his sonic brothers in the Minutemen — the beloved late guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley — stood, spoke, and shouted for, in earnest and with power. They carved an idea of what it means to be honest with yourself and take risks in your music, while at the same time writing about things that we should actually give a shit about. (Love songs are nice, but then there's the Vietnam War and racism.)

Growing up in San Pedro, California — where he continues to live and work, because our lives are our work, which the Minutemen encapsulated so well — Watt initially picked up the bass mostly as a reason to hang around his friend Boon, who Watt met at age 13 after Boon literally fell out of a tree right next to him. The next several years were spent learning how to play their favorite songs (and picking up an aesthetic, too — Watt's famous love of flannels comes from noticing that's what John Fogerty was wearing on Boon's Creedence Clearwater Revival records). What Watt often refers to as "arena rock" was the big thing at the time. But in 1976, the boys discovered punk, and that changed everything.

With Hurley on drums, the trio went on to record four albums and eight EPs before Boon's extremely untimely death in a car accident in December 1985; including the high water mark that is the dizzyingly great double album Double Nickels on the Dime. Much more than simply punk rock, the album is brilliant in its melding of punk with jazz, funk, spoken word, and even country, elevated by the working class poetry of the lyrics. Boon and Watt fairly evenly contributed lyrics; Boon's tend to be more political and express blue collar life, while Watt's veer toward the abstract and philosophical — each song its own perfect little slice of effervescent, poetic, avant-punk genius.

When Boon died, so did the Minutemen. Watt's depression was deep and profound; he and Hurley quit music altogether for a time. They were eventually persuaded to return, and their next project together became the alternative band Firehose. Ever since then, Watt simply hasn't stopped making music and doing what he loves — not even when a nasty infection in 2000 almost killed him.

Watt's solo career has resulted in four well-received albums — some of which he calls punk operas, including this writer's favorite, Hyphenated-man, a loose concept album deriving inspiration from both the insane creatures of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and the story of the The Wizard of Oz, with super short song structures harking back to the Minutemen. (Somewhat literally, as the music to all of the songs was written by Watt on one of Boon's Fender Telecasters.)

In addition to his own stuff, Watt has also played, recorded, and toured with a lengthy list of alternative musicians in various incarnations — everyone from people who are now big time celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl (Watt's latest release, Ring Spiel Tour '95, is actually a live recording of a show in Chicago in which both these dudes were a part of his backing band) to once-wife Kira Roessler of Black Flag to Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, just to name an incredibly small sampling.

And then, of course, there's the fact that Watt is also a former Stooge. Playing with J Mascis led to performing with our own Asheton brothers (may they rest in power), which later led to the reunification of the Stooges outright, Iggy and all, in 2003. In 2006, Watt joined the band to record The Weirdness, the first Stooges studio album since 1973's Raw Power — a fitting way to come full circle, as he describes his and Boon's youthful discovery of Fun House as a "freak out moment," a realization of where music could really go.

To return to the spirit of the Minutemen, while it took Watt a couple decades to be able to come back to the San Pedro sonic mindset, he finally did in 2002 when he formed Mike Watt and the Secondmen with organist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic. Another connected group is called the Missingmen, which features guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales — so named after the original Secondmen couldn't join Watt on tour. The configuration that we'll see at El Club is one Watt calls the Jom and Terry Show, which is a mix of both sets of Men — Tom Watson on guitar and Jerry Trebotic on drums.

And we haven't even gotten into Watt's deep love of John Coltrane, or the radio show he runs out of his home in San Pedro (The Watt from Pedro Show), or the depths of what he means to bass players the world over with his aggressively thoughtful, explosive, unique style (which Reverend Guitars had the good sense to capture in the Mike Watt Signature Wattplower, a bass Watt spent four years working with the company to perfect).

Suffice it to say, the man has a special place in oh so many hearts. He is the ultimate representation of a certain sorely needed ethic of independence, with no time for glamourous nonsense and a deeply rooted appreciation for the everyman and everyday life: He is real, he is genuine, and he will be here on Sunday. You should be there too.

Mike Watt with the Jom and Terry show plays El Club with fellow alternative legends the Meat Puppets on Sunday, May 7; doors at 8 p.m.; 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $16-$18.