“What is peace/To the people/Who work the land/And die in wars?/It was learned in a game/That was played by us all/Who held the top of the hill/From the rest was called the king /And I can’t believe it all/Was good for humankind” – The Minutemen, “King of the Hill”
Back before Ronald Reagan was being regularly deified by Fox, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC and the political establishment, he was piloting a fighter plane and trying to bomb the living daylights out of the punk rock trio The Minutemen – through some clever image manipulation – in the band’s video for “This Ain’t No Picnic.” Because, back in the very early ’80s, perhaps no other punk outfit besides The Dead Kennedys crafted so articulate a resistance to the political encroachment of Reagan’s supply-side cronyism. The Minutemen were that rare musical phenomenon, a three-piece revolution on amps whose songs, though they rarely topped the two-minute mark, were scathing in their condemnation of everything from the Contras, voodoo economics, Ollie North, Michael Jackson, to the Teflon President himself.
But the dream ended early when Minutemen vocalist and guitarist D. Boon, bassist Mike Watt’s childhood friend and artistic counterpart, was killed in a car accident. But the legacy of the band has only increased over the years, and that’s mostly due to the tireless effort of Mike Watt, a man the All Music Guide correctly dubbed “the living embodiment of the punk rock spirit.”
Watt and Minutemen drummer George Hurley regrouped as fIREHOSE in 1986, adding Ed Crawford in Boon’s place. They released Ragin’ Full-On, an album they dedicated to Boon. By the time fIREHOSE disbanded in 1994, Watt was already a legend in the punk community and was summarily invited by everyone in the biz to join their bands. But instead, he brought them all on board for his solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? – a release that featured heavyweights from Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Pixies, Soul Asylum, Screaming Trees, Sonic Youth and more.
Yet, as Watt might say, you gotta have the sweet with the sour. Watt was stricken in 2000 with a month-long fever that resulted in a near-fatal abcess. Watt, always the insatiable reader, grabbed a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy and found a literary companion of sorts for his trauma. When he emerged from his sickness, he quickly set about crafting his latest, strangest effort, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, a jazz-punk concept album expressing his kinship with Dante and that author’s equally scary mid-life trip through Hell.
Mike Watt is still very much alive – and still a champion of the working class. Since back in the day, when “fair and balanced” had an entirely different meaning, Watt has been clamoring for progress. He’s still hard at work.
Let’s talk about your new album. I heard that you were reading Dante while you were sick, and those dual moments became the concept behind The Secondman’s Middle Stand.
You hit it on the head; it’s about the sickness. Which is a trip because I caught pneumonia at 22 and almost died, and a week after coming out of that I wasn’t in any mood to write an album or even a song about it. But when another sickness comes along 20 years later, I write a whole opera about it! Life changes you, you know? It was an intense hell ride, very heavy on me. It seems I have to be inspired to write about things that strike me, and that sickness definitely struck the hell out of me. As for The Divine Comedy, I had read it as a teenager, and then again after I got sick, because it seemed like I was going through something similar. The sickness itself was definitely Hell; Purgatory was the healing stage, and just getting to play my bass and ride my bicycle again was definitely Heaven. I know it sounds silly, but things get really simple when you’re down, weak and dying. Everything else seems overly complicated.
I think it also shows the wonder of creativity, how it blossoms even in the face of death.
Well, a farmer will tell you that if you want a good crop, use a lot of manure. And I definitely had a good crop going. But it goes to show you that, considering how long ago Dante wrote that text and no matter how much the machines may have changed, there are still certain human constants that transcend our technologies. We all go through our hells, and our literature lives on through the years. As far back as The Minutemen, I was using books like Ulysses to help me write songs. It was a huge influence on me; there’s even a Minutemen song called “June 16th,” which is Bloomsday. I wrote a lot of songs about Ulysses.
But that is what’s cool about you. I don’t know many grad students, much less punkers, who have read Ulysses.
Well, I’m the son of a sailor. I didn’t come from art, but during the early days of punk, I met quite a few artists, including my best friend Raymond Pettibon, who first introduced me to John Coltrane. I went to college, but got a degree in electronics. I didn’t learn the culture part there; I learned that – and I’m still continually learning – by meeting people like Raymond. He’s a brilliant person, but not a man of words. He’s not the guy in the sweater at the coffeehouse. And D. Boon was a painter, although his daddy was a mechanic. But I found The Divine Comedy on my own in high school, and was told by my literature teacher that it wasn’t a book for someone my age. So I read Huck Finn for her, which I liked as well, but Dante for myself.
What do you think Boon would say about what’s going on in the world today?
I think about that every day. Boon and I were very conversational; we would literally talk about everything all day long. So whenever I’m confronted with a situation I always wonder what he would say about it. And I know he’d be very upset by the way people are being manipulated through fear today. He was a big kid so he was always picked on and bullied, and he hated that crap. And now I get asked whether or not, after 9/11, anyone can truly write a political song anymore. I don’t even have to pause before saying, “Sure.” This country was founded on protest, and just because some f***ing idiot pulled that shit in New York doesn’t mean we have to give up on all of our ideals.
That’s playing into the enemy’s hands.
People want shortcuts and there aren’t any. You give up all your ideals, it might be hard or impossible to get them back. You’ve got to talk about it. After all, politics is about power, and as long as there are humans involved, there’s going to be discussion about how to use that power, how it’s distributed.
Plus, if the arts have taught us anything, it’s that power doesn’t stick around for long.
And there are different kinds of power. There is also the power to create, whether in the arts or elsewhere. Power isn’t just about killing and bombing. And an election is not a beauty contest that we have every four years. It’s not something you keep in a neat little box. I think the world is oversimplified by those who are convinced that a television can tell them everything they need to know. I have people tell me, “You have to trust your government, because they know more than we do.” And I’m like, whoa, maybe it’s time to go to Monticello and watch Thomas Jefferson do the rotisserie tumble in his grave.
Speaking of oversimplification, how about the media coverage of Reagan’s demise?
Yeah, the Big Revision. Both Boon and I were very conscious of Reagan’s handiwork; in fact, he’s opened the doors for some of the clowns we’ve got in there now. It’s just cronyism, which is what I remember most about the Reagan era. No one is talking about how Rumsfeld was chilling on Saddam’s couch back in 1983, selling him the WMDs we’re so worried about. Or the Contras and drugs-for-money, Ollie North and his secret government. Everyone wanted smaller government, but ended up with bigger deficits and breaches of the Constitution. If you want a fairy tale without too many complications, turn on the TV. But I know I won’t be fooled; I was there when it all happened.
Hopefully, some of those kids moshing at the Stooges concert will be more interested in your take on these issues than the television’s.
That would be cool. I actually do think that these kids are smarter than we were in the ’70s. It’s funny how people call them lame or slackers or whatever, but I don’t think so.
They’re looking for answers.
They know they’re getting hustled, they feel it in their gut. But they don’t know how to articulate it. And that problem is the reason why punk came into being the first place.