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shot of watt in 2000

The Middle Man Makes His Second Stand

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, from www.hootpage.com

More Watt? Check out the 
1998 Lazyeye interview
.

 

Mike 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.

 

 

 

In 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."


"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. "


 

 


"This was the first time I ever stopped playing, and I lost everything. I couldn't play scales or press down on the fretboard."


 

After 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 the fretboard."

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 another tour."

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."

 

Interviewing 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 differently.

"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."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly September 21, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


"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."