There's probably no artist who better embodies the spirit of American punk than Mike Watt. The very virtues of the style are bound up in Watt himself — this human whirlwind who lost his best friend and nearly lost his life 15 years later — but like The Dude, he still abides. He's never enjoyed immense commercial success, but he fashioned a legendary career outside the spotlight with indomitable spirit and great humility. After all, he's a bassist.
"That's the great politics of bass," says Watt. "You look good making other cats look good. Most people go into the head and they look at the tile. I'm the grout."
Watt's history goes back to the early days of American punk, when he founded The Minutemen with his childhood buddy, guitarist D. Boon. Boon's mother made Watt take up bass to keep the pair off the streets of San Pedro, Calif., after school. They played along to Creedence Clearwater Revival albums, prompting Watt to take up flannel long before Cobain.
"I couldn't hear the bass on the Creedence records for shit," Watt recalls. "That's why I got into flannel: 'I can't hear these bass parts, but maybe you'll like me if I wear the guy's shirt.' "
In punk, Watt and Boon found a voice — something that never seemed possible in a world of '70s arena-rock dinosaurs. The Minutemen were unique among the punks for their jazz-punk rhythms and elliptical haiku-like lyrics. Watt's percussive, thumping style balanced Boon's trebly, spastic riffs, but a van accident took the guitarist's life in '85. Watt's been serially dating other musicians since.
"I got into music because of D. Boon," Watt says, his tone still heavy a quarter-century later. "He got killed, I kept going."
But Watt has more than just "kept going." In the past two years he's released no less than six LPs, including collaborations with Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala (Anywhere), Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay, Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler (Dos), Deerhoof's John Dieterich (The Hand to the Man Band), writer Richard Melzer (Spielgusher) and his own band The Missingmen, with guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales — not to mention work presently being done on a Stooges album due early next year.
"Part of it is being middle-age and wanting to try different things as much as possible before I get the plug pulled," Watt says.
Last year Watt released his third "punk opera," as he dubs the solo albums he's been releasing at seven-year intervals. Each traces a particular moment in his life. The first, 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room, drew parallels between his father's Navy life and his own punk-rock discoveries. The Secondman's Middle Stand arrived in 2004, conflating Dante's Inferno with Watt's passage into middle age and the life-threatening infection of his perineum that befell him in 2000.
The latest, Hyphenated-Man, is arguably his best. Watt was inspired by his participation in 2005's Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo to return to the quick-hitting ethos of his old band. Nevertheless, the subject matter is expansive, culled from years of watching time take wing.
"The whole thing is figuring out life," Watt says. "You're always figuring on it. You never answer it. The knowing is in the doing."
The album draws on the surreal human caricatures featured in Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights for further inspiration. Their misshapen appearances — assembled from pieces of men, animals and inanimate objects — are metaphor for how our own natures warp us. Watt's descriptions are as evocative as Bosch's images — from the track "Blowing-It-out-Both-Ends-Man" to "Own-Horn-Blowing-Man" and "Finger-Pointing-Man," where Watt notes, "Conviction's like some affliction / Without the clout of some doubt / It's fuckin' nonsense."
Watt's learned over time that "the more things change ... " is more than a trite expression.
"I'm about to go on my 66th tour," he says. "Playing shows and conking at people's pads. Doing stuff that I did 30 years ago. Basically the same mechanics. They didn't evolve at all. And I don't think it's a bad thing."
That's perhaps the biggest truth: Watt's steadfast adherence to that hearty, close-to-the-ground DIY attitude. It's one reason why punk will never die.
"We never thought of punk as a style of music," Watt says. "It was more a spirit, or a state of mind."
And Mike Watt isn't about to change his mind.