Ex-Minuteman ponders mortality while practicing an opera
By Dan Hinkel
Punk institution Mike Watt considered a lot of influences in designing his third rock opera: Walt Whitman, The Wizard of Oz, Watt’s own past recordings, “jackalopes and shit.”
But as much as these topics interest Watt—co-founder of the worshipped Minutemen and a journeyman bassist—he keeps pointing his tangents back toward the topic of “that mortality thing.” Watt, 51, is not a family man, and he will probably never retire. His entrance to music was accidental, but here he is, an artifact from The Museum of Original Alternative Musicians, on loan to the public. He notes the possibility of playing a gig right before he dies.
“Since I got going on it, fuck it,” he says.
Watt will pilot his scattershot rock opera thing into the Launchpad on Saturday, April 18, the second date of his first U.S. tour in five years. Potential showgoers should note that Watt and one of his many bands, The Missingmen, are touring to practice Watt’s Whitman-jackalope-mortality opera. Watt does not hide that the audience will be witnessing a work in progress. The tour is called “Prac’n the Third Opera.” How many musicians would admit you’re paying to watch them practice?
“The idea is playing them [the songs] in one big fucking piece, and we ain’t good enough yet,” Watt says. “But fuck it. I gotta get back into it. It’s five years.”
“We ain’t good enough yet, but fuck it. I gotta get back into it. It’s five years.”
Watt’s name is most lovingly associated with the Minutemen, the ’80s California hardcore punk band Watt founded with boyhood friend D. Boon. They sprang from the hardcore scene, but the Minutemen welded punk’s helicopter guitar slashing and throbbing rhythm to elements of jazz and blues, lacing their tunes with archly ironic social statements and political messages. The band peaked with Double Nickels on the Dime, a double album titled as an inscrutable insult to Sammy Hagar’s work of protest butt rock, “I Can’t Drive 55.”
The Minutemen ended abruptly when D. Boon died in an auto wreck in 1985. Watt was destroyed. He still considers himself D. Boon’s bass player. He still talks to D. Boon and he still considers him when he writes music.
“I’m always thinking about that,” Watt says.
Watt followed the Minutemen with an eclectic string of bands—fIREHOSE, Banyan, etc.—and a flavorful array of guest jobs. Watt has toured recently with the reunited Stooges, and he served up a curveball by playing bass on Kelly Clarkson’s third studio album.
Which brings us to those three alleged operas. The first one was about his father, sailing and the Minutemen, and the second one used Dante’s Divine Comedy to explore a perineum infection that almost killed Watt a couple of years ago. The third one, well, hmmm.
Watt has a black belt in conversational tangents—did you ever notice there’s no love story in The Wizard of Oz?—so he’s the only guy licensed to describe this opera’s themes. According to its author, the opera is a meditation on the surreal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and it’s influenced by The Wizard of Oz and the Minutemen—and you might want to watch out for Walt Whitman, who wrote poems trying to stop the Civil War.
“It was so balls-out,” Watt says of Whitman.
Middle-agedness also hangs over the new opera, he admits. His friends occasionally die, and Watt knows he is too far along on his “man alone kind of trip” to go back and sell insurance. He didn’t get here on purpose, but, as Watt says, “Fuck it.”
“It seems like honest work, as long as I try my hardest and I try not to jive people,” Watt says. “It’s a weird life. I never thought about this shit.”
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