Sure I'm a lucky man
But how I miss you, man
All alone and pulling shore duty
Seems there's always more duty
Maybe that's the beauty.
--"Shore Duty," Mike Watt, 1997
I've written about my love of The Minutemen before on this blog. It's a love that I imagine is inexplicable to those who listen to a song or two and can't believe the racket they're hearing. (Not that I think it's a racket. To me, their short, angular blasts of funk/punk are sharp, sonic shards of beauty.) I suppose it was a matter of time and place, too. I was a young man in my late teens/early 20s in Los Angeles when the punk scene burst, and I was totally ripe for the taking. I loved all those early punk bands, and was as in love with Exene Cervenka as every other kid at the time.
What was weird, though, and I've written about it before, is that I couldn't actually identify with the punk bands, or lots of the punk rockers, themselves. Even amongst the new group of outsiders, I felt like an outsider, because I either couldn't or wouldn't fully commit to the lifestyle--I was always far too self conscious, and far too skeptical about everything, to want to put on a costume to express my identity. So I'd show up at punk shows like I dressed all the time, in flannel shirts (this was pre-grunge, when that suddenly became a thing) and jeans, loving the music and the attitude but still not feeling entirely part of the crowd.
The Minutemen hit such a strong chord with me because that's all these guys were, too. They could hardly have looked more schlumpy or uncool (save for drummer George Hurley, who rocked the blonde surfer dude thing pretty well). And their music was so bewilderingly complex and unique for the scene--more Captain Beefheart than Ramones--that, though they had a strong, loyal cadre of fans, like me, they were always a bit on the outside of things themselves, as far as "cool" punk bands went. Seeing the heavyset d boon and dorky Mike Watt up there, playing the hell out of their instruments, looking like they were having the time of their lives, was so inspirational to a somewhat lost, insecure dork like me that to this day I credit it with helping me survive that dark period in my life. "Our band could be your life," they sang on their most memorable song, "History Lesson, Part II." It's something I've kept to heart every day when I look at the obstacles ahead of me.
When d boon died in a car crash in 1985 at age 27, I was driving alone along Highway 5 from Berkeley to Los Angeles, and had to pull over when I heard it on the radio. So young, so full of promise, the band just on the cusp of breaking through to greater success.
But as devastating as it was to a random fan like me, the toll it took on his best friend and bandmate Mike Watt was inconceivable to imagine. You can see and hear for yourself the heartbreak the man still feels 26 years later on the incomparably heartfelt and moving documentary We Jam Econo. And it's been in the sound of all his solo work since then (every recording he's made all these years has been dedicated to d boon), and on his face in all the live performances I've seen. Mike Watt has done and continues to do brilliant work, but that heartache has always been right there on the surface--often explicitly, as in the song quoted at the top of this blog.
Mike Watt (center) and his current bandmates Tom Watson and Raul Morales.
All of which is a preface to say that his new record, Hyphenated Man, as well as his current tour, which I caught last weekend, shows him, at age 54, finally, at long last, at a place of seeming peace with his past, with The Minutemen legacy, and with what he had to leave behind. Watt had supposedly never listened to The Minutemen at all, all these decades, until he was asked to participate in the We Jam Econo documentary--the memory of d boon too painful to him--but that upon doing so he was able to heal that wound, even if just somewhat. Hyphenated-Man is the closest he's ever come to recreating The Minutemen sound--and it is awesome. He sounds refreshed and alive on this record. Never much of a singer, Watt over time has grown into his growl, bringing depth and gravity to his baritone, again bringing to mind Captain Beefheart, or Tom Waits minus the 8,000 packs of cigarettes.
But as great as the new record is, it was the live show that was the real revelation. Mike Watt, in 2011, looks happier on stage than I've seen him since 1984, back when his best friend was alive on stage with him. He looks confident and serene, playing his heart out with his new bandmates, casting sly grins at the audience, filling up the stage with his presence in a way he never used to do, even in The Minutemen--where d boon, in his gigantic, goofy way, always dominated.
I was at this show with three of my friends, themselves all in their 40s, as was most of the crowd. Really, I don't know what the hook would be for the younger crowd at a show like this. I mean, other than the amazing music. But this felt like some kind of victory tour for all of us. A signifying of the power of music to keep him, and us, hopeful and alive as we hit this second half of our life.
And with The Minutemen, back in the day.
In my early 20s, I looked at The Minutemen to help give me the confidence to pursue my own goals, my own artistic pursuits. "Our band could be your life." Now, with 50 less than 6 months away, I find myself still looking up at the stage, at Mike Watt, as a source of inspiration. Look at him up there, I say to myself. Wailing away on that bass--even with a leg brace on--eating it all up, playing his heart out, laughing, making the most out of the life he now has.
What more could anyone ask for?