The Middle Man Makes His
After suffering a debilitating
illness that almost killed him, punk's favorite bass player Mike Watt is back
with a whole new take on things.
by tim mcmahan
Self-portrait of Watt,
taken this year,
More Watt? Check
1998 Lazyeye interview.
Watt has a reputation for being the hardest working bass player in the
underground rock scene. It's a rep he built as part of the legendary
American punk rock band Minutemen (If you don't know who they are, put
down this paper, run down to Homers or Drastic Plastic or the Antiquarium
and pick up a copy of 1984's Double Nickels on the Dime. After you
listen, you'll understand just how influential that band has been). After
the tragic death of Minutemen guitarist/vocalist D. Boon in 1985, Watt
carried on with fIREHOSE and then later as a solo artist recording with a
myriad of punk and pop legends. His upcoming show at the Ranch Bowl Sept.
24 is part of the 42-year-old's 40th tour.
So why hasn't workhorse Watt put anything out since 1997's Contemplating
the Engine Room, the CD opera he was supporting the last time he came
through Omaha in '98?
Let's just say his excuse is excruciatingly gruesome, graphic and
harrowing, not to mention life threatening.
January, Watt came down with a particularly nasty infection of his
perineum -- an abscess in the nether-region between his legs that was
misdiagnosed by doctors as a fungus. A month later, the abscess burst and
Watt was rushed to an emergency room at Los Angeles County/USC Medical
Center, where surgeons worked frantically to save his life. I will spare
you Watt's rather graphic description of the infection, every gory detail
of which is covered on his website at http://www.hootpage.com.
Needless to say, it was messy, but he pulled through.
"These guys took action and cleaned me out," he said via
phone interview before playing a gig last Sunday night in Eugene, Ore.
"Then it took me five months to heal the three deep holes the
surgeons cut in my body."
Through the weeks leading up to his emergency operation, Watt's weight
had dropped to 120 pounds as his doctors "let his body go to
hell." He spent his bed-ridden, fevered days staring at three
pictures: One of his friend D. Boon at age 5; one of his recently departed
father, and one of his cat of 17 years, called "the man," who
also had recently died.
"When you have a fever that long it makes you kind of
insane," Watt said. "I couldn't figure out why the doctors
hadn't figured it out. I thought that maybe I wasn't man enough to fight
it. I couldn't tell people what had happened; I didn't want people to feel
sorry for me. It was incredibly hard. When I got stronger, I started
talking to friends on the computer and writing and getting feelings out.
You never know when your number's up. This idea of being independent and
playing gigs for people for a living makes you feel immortal and
self-made, that nothing can stop you. We're fragile motherfuckers."
never know when your number's up. This idea of being independent and playing
gigs for people for a living makes you feel immortal and self-made, that
nothing can stop you. "
was the first time I ever stopped playing, and I lost everything. I couldn't
play scales or press down on the fretboard."
the operation, Watt was laid up in bed until the end of May, unable to
play bass because of the tubes hooked to his body and his overall
weakness. It was an unwelcome vacation from his instrument. "I
started playing bass with D. Boon as a teenager and had never
stopped," he said. "This was the first time I ever stopped
playing, and I lost everything. I couldn't play scales or press down on
He turned to some old friends to get back into shape. "The Stooges
helped me," Watt said. "Their songs don't have many changes, so
it was the best thing in the world to practice. I played all of Fun
House and Raw Power (the Stooges' first two albums) and they
got me learned back."
He was inspired by live performances from Sleater-Kinny, and by the
reunited Wire, who hadn't played a show in 20 years. "I saw Richard
Hell do a poetry reading in Venice," he added. "It was intense
and personal and out there. It was then that I made up my mind to do
Before long he was playing gigs with The Long Shoremen and J. Mascis of
Dinosaur Jr. fame in New York City. The upcoming Ranch Bowl performance
will only be his 12th since the "Enough with the Piss Bag Tour
2000" began Sept. 11. It's scheduled to run at least through Oct. 21
to Orlando, Fla., and most of the money will likely go to cover his
medical bills. "I've got to pay back the hospital," Watt said.
"I wasn't insured. I feel good about paying them back, though,
because I'm glad they saved me."
Next, Watt will go on tour with J. Mascis "playing with a guitar
pick for the first time in 17 years," he said. And then he'll enter
the studio to record the CD he intended to record last spring when his
body went haywire. Called The Second Man's Middle Stand, it was to
include songs about his father. "I wrote a lot of songs about the
sickness through this," he said. "I still got some songs for my
dad, some about 'the man,' but a lot will deal with the illness. This
record will be in the moment. It'll be trippy -- just bass, drum and
organ. Ever since fIREHOSE every record takes its own chances."
Watt is like letting loose a dam and trying to keep up with the current --
he talks in one unending flow of words like a stream-of-conscious poet on
a rant. I asked him how the illness has changed him, what he'll do
"I'm wearing underwear and socks now, which is the ultimate
fascism," he said. "It feels like a suit of armor, but I'm
trying to take care of myself better. I had stopped drinking a few months
before I got sick because I needed all my strength for this. I do want to
be more out with my feelings."
The illness also has changed Watt's appearance. Fans who are used to
seeing his solid lumberjack frame on stage are in for a bit of a shock
when enters the stage Sunday. Though his weight is back up to 170, he says
he doesn't look like he used to. Thanks to a regimen that includes riding
a bike every day, he's regained most of his strength.
"It's weird how you can lose stuff," he said. "We aren't
machines. I found out a lot about 'the overconfidence thing,' and the idea
that doctors can miraculously make you better and can't be incompetent.
I'm not against all doctors, but we grow up thinking they can do anything.
Maybe it comes from television. But doctors are like mechanics -- some are
good and some are shitty."
If anything, he said, the illness has made him aware how quickly things
can be taken from you. "Like playing bass," he said. "I
figured I can do it in my sleep, then all the sudden -- nothing. I learned
a lot of things from this. Some things I haven't said yet; there's a lot I
want to say, and a lot I don't know."
Published in The Omaha Weekly September 21, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Tim
McMahan. All rights reserved.
learned a lot of things from this. Some things I haven't said yet; there's a
lot I want to say, and a lot I don't know."