Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mike Watt's "Hyphenated-Man"

On his third "punk opera," bassist-songwriter-singer-prodigous memoirist-road rat supreme Mike Watt sounds like a man who's spent 25 years chasing his own past and has finally caught up with it.

For five years in the Minutemen with d. boon and George Hurley, Watt constantly pushed back the boundaries of what "punk rock" could be. Their recorded masterpiece, 1984's Double Nickels On the Dime, was like a Trout Mask Replica for the Reagan years, substituting obsessions with history, politics, and funk rhythms for Captain Beefheart's ecology, Delta blues, and free jazz. Their swan song, the following year's 3-Way Tie (For Last), remains relevant today with its ruminations on war and imperialism. Watt's childhood friend d. boon was killed in a road accident at the end of 1985, but he remains a palpable presence in Watt's music to this day. (The songs on Hyphenated-Man were written on one of d.'s guitars.)

To these feedback-scorched ears, fIREHOSE -- the band Watt and Hurley formed after d.'s death with Minutemen fan Ed Crawford -- always sounded like a worthy but lesser echo of the former band's glories. As a solo artist, Watt's resolutely followed his own muse. He's the most literate of punk-rockers; his inspirations have included Joyce (whose Ulysses is echoed in the stream-of-consciousness flow of Watt's logorrheic tour diaries, published in real time on his website), Dante (whose Divine Comedy served as a structural model for Watt's second "opera," The Secondman's Middle Stand, which thematically dealt with a near-fatal illness he suffered in Y2K), and Richard McKenna (whose novel The Sand Pebbles provided context that helped Watt relate his father's naval career to his own experiences touring with the Minutemen in his first "opera," 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room).

Musically, Watt's solo albums have been equally all-over-the-map. His 1995 debut Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? boasted appearances by a veritable "who's who" of alt-rock figures, but was most notable for an epic blowout on Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" with J. Mascis and Bernie Worrell, and for the mass-ass audience's first encounter with innovative guitarist Nels Cline. Cline was heavily featured in the trio that performed on Engine Room, probably Watt's best and certainly his most cohesive post-Minutemen record until the current one. The organ-based trio on The Secondman's Middle Stand was less effective, lacking a distinctive solo voice (as much as the Minutemen made of "[cutting] down the guitar solos," d. boon sure played a lot of 'em) and suffering from a surfeit of midrange sounds.

Current guitarist Tom Watson's less solo-oriented than Cline; the written parts he's asked to play here recall d.'s style, but also give him room to show that he's his own guy, particularly in his full, warm tone. Drummer Raul Morales plays the whole kit like George Hurley, always ready to go wherever the music needs him to, an imaginative and sympathetic accompanist. Of course, how much you go for this music will depend a lot on how you respond to Watt. A virtuosic bassist, he's a gruff, limited singer -- but no more limited than, say, Dylan, Reed, or Young -- who sounds for all the world like a benevolent Bluto, whether he's raging full-on or contemplating the world around him with bemused wonder.

Watt writes that this latest piece -- 30 vignettes inspired by his state of mind at middle age, with no narrative intent -- was inspired by the Minutemen's work, which he revisited after many years during the 2005 filming of the rockumentary We Jam Econo; bizarre creatures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings; and a characteristically idiosyncratic Watt interpretation of The Wizard of Oz.

The songs, only a couple of which last a hair over two minutes, are stripped right down to the bone, yet sound surprisingly developed for having little time to get their point across. Musically, they're as dynamically varied as the songs on Double Nickels were. Lyrically, a few are self-explanatory ("Belly-Stabbed-Man," "Hollowed-Out-Man," "Man-Shitting-Man"), a few cryptic ("Cherry-Headed-Lover-Man," "Boot-Wearing-Fish-Man"), a few informed by a Joycean love of the pure sound of language ("Finger-Pointing-Man," "Own-Horn-Blowing-Man," "Shield-Shouldered-Man").

In addition to all the other things I've said, Watt's also the most introspective of rockers, and what's on his mind here is nothing less than all the mental and psychological gyrations men go through to "be" men. In investigating and dissecting them, he displays both a rare degree of self-awareness and humility, and a lot less preciousness than, say, Pete Townshend might have displayed in tackling similar subject matter. In fact, never has navel-gazing sounded this bold and bracing. Here's hoping Watt, his bass, his van, and his men stay at it another 30 years.


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