Still Ragin After All These Yearsby Billups Allen
MIKE WATT AND THE MISSINGMEN AT THE BELL HOUSE | OCTOBER 12
Cheers rise out of the crowd when Mike Watt appears from behind the curtain at the Bell House. It’s not the entrance of a performer. A bag of T-shirts, which those who have seen him know he intends to sell from the stage after the show, swings from his arm. He balances his guitar tuner on a box of CDs. He is wearing his Gibson Bass. He puts his stuff down, tunes his instrument, and addresses the crowd warmly. He is a soft-spoken man whose youthful charm beams through his gray hair, raspy voice, and aging face. There is little mystery as to why his voice is full of gravel. He’s known as a talker. I inquired with his publicist about getting a few words with him while he was in town. I was told he doesn’t do interviews on the road because he wears out his voice talking. His inclination to gab is legendary. Henry Rollins jokes in his book Get in the Van that Watt’s constant talking put his life in danger from his bandmates. His singing style must also have hurt his ability to speak clearly: Watt shouts and hollers throughout he performance as if he’s being dared to slow down.
Watt is one-third of the Minutemen, a seminal 1980s punk band that helped spread the word of punk rock and the do-it-yourself ethos to America’s youth. The Minutemen’s standing legacy is one of excellent musicianship and cerebral lyrics, for which Watt and the band’s late guitarist D. Boon were largely responsible. Watt’s contributions to the lyrics of the Minutemen are stream-of-consciousness rants and a scat language of euphemisms developed over years of touring. It’s literary in its use of metaphor and must be nearly incomprehensible to those don’t know much about him
When Watt tells his audience that he is about to play a 40-plus-minute song with a lot of parts, he is referring to his most recent album, Hyphenated-Man. The short songs strung together are themed like a concept album and tell the story of a middle-aged punk rocker. Musically, the record is a return to the Minutemen’s style of playing, unlike many of Watt’s recent solo records, which have been labeled “operas.” Watt’s new songs don’t resemble opera in any conventional form except that they are long pieces of music designed to tell a story. They are about his life and history.
Watt’s fans have an understanding of who he is. People nod, sing along, and cheer to his metaphors. “The lesson never lessens” is one of the more comprehensible phrases to rouse the crowd. More common in Watt’s rapport, and more vexing if you are trying to follow along, are phrases like, “But no word hole in the dirt, knocked on the ass all sprawled, just boots and a cap, thunderfucked and bellystabbed.” Hyphenated-Man has highs and lows, but the music as performed by Watt and the Missingmen is excellent live. Watt smiles and makes grotesque faces with his tongue sticking out as he plays the bass. His basset hound eyes roll from one side of the crowd to the other. His looks and happy demeanor sell the music as much as his amped performance. The Missingmen are guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales, both excellent players who exude the energy and ability of the Minutemen. Watt often ends his performances with a few Minutemen songs. At the Bell House, this set of short songs consisted of covers of the Band of Gypsys’ jam masterpiece “Machine Gun,” the Minutemen’s “The Glory of Man,” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black.”
Johnny Ramone once said, “If I’m driving a Cadillac, it’s punk.” On those terms, I accept that Hyphenated-Man is an opera. Whether or not you are able to comprehend the opera angle of the performance, it’s hard to criticize an artist of his magnitude and daring. Mike Watt is the Popeye of punk: sometimes hard to comprehend entirely, but he’s all heart and no filler. He has appropriated a sailor’s persona. It’s appropriate in context of his years of touring “econo.” He goes from port to port making sure that punk rock is where he and his intrepid friends have left it. He can often be found at the side of the stage supporting the other bands. At the Bell House, he was rocking out to Lite, a band from Tokyo on tour with the Missingmen. It can’t be an act. He digs it. Why go see Mike Watt play? Not because he was in the Minutemen, but because the Minutemen had three parts and he was the engine. As the coils and springs show wear and tear, he continues to run in the wheezing machine called punk rock. Go to see the engine work.
BILLUPS ALLEN is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. He publishes a comic zine called Cramhole and regularly contributes to Razorcake magazine.