Welcome to Mike Watt's epic tale of San Pedro.
By Roni Sarig
NOVEMBER 24, 1997: JUST LIKE JAMES Joyce had his Dublin, Mike Watt has San Pedro. The port town on the Los Angeles harbor has been the bass player's stomping ground since he was a kid, and he knows every inch of the place. His dad, a career Navy man, was stationed there. It's also where he met his best friend D. Boon and longtime musical partner, drummer George Hurley--and where the three of them formed one of America's greatest rock bands, the Minutemen. It's the place he's celebrated in song (and with a "Pedro" sticker on his bass) for more than 20 years. It's where Watt, who'll turn 40 in December, still lives.
Lately, Watt has come to know San Pedro (or as he calls it, "Pee-dro") more intimately than ever. With knee problems often keeping him off his feet (which he hilariously chronicles in the most recent Grand Royal zine), Watt's taken up biking for low-impact exercise. Each day he pedals around Pedro--south to Point Fermin, west to Royal Palms beach, past the trailer park and along the cliffs overlooking Catalina; past marinas, shipyards, boathouses, and the longshoreman's hall, then back home. Biking has given him lots of time to think and develop musical ideas. The result is Contemplating the Engine Room, a song cycle he likes to call his "punk opera." What's his opera about? What else: life in Pedro.
"The bike was so much a part of my last year, I wrote my whole opera on it," Watt says with an irrepressible enthusiasm. His unassuming sincerity makes him likable and familiar right away. "It's two hours by myself, without talking. The motions of the pedals, hearing the waves, all the tunes came from that. I recorded the spokes...you can hear the wheels and the bells and the parrots, the palms and the water. There's one song called 'Pedro Bound,' where if you follow the words it's my exact route, the whole 20 miles."
With his bike path as a framework, Watt set out to appraise all the things he's experienced, in Pedro and beyond. After D. Boon's death in a 1986 van accident, Watt and Hurley accepted the invitation of Minutemen-fan Ed Crawford (a.k.a. ed fROMOHIO) to form a new trio, fIREHOSE (sic). After seven years, fIREHOSE ran its course and Watt put together a star-studded solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? In recent years, he's toured as the bassist in Porno for Pyros, where fans too young to remember the Minutemen just figured Watt was "some old guy." Now with a punk opera for his second solo record, Watt is taking stock of what's turned out to be an enduring career.
"I'm almost 40, and all this stuff has added up to now," he says. "I'm trying to integrate everything. The bike, my history, being a Minuteman, D. Boon, Pedro, all of this."
By calling Contemplating the Engine Room a punk opera, Watt knows he's setting himself up for charges of pretentiousness. At least, he says, "I didn't want it to be known as a concept record. That sounds so '70s--like 'bass player solo record'--it's so disgusting I'd never want to hear something like that. I call it a punk opera so people will wonder what the fuck I mean by it."
Engine Room is nothing if not conceptual, on a variety of levels. At its most basic, it's a raging response to what Watt views as the misdirected attention given Ball-Hog. The record (on which Watt played with members of the Pixies, Screaming Trees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, Lemonheads, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, among others) was widely branded as little more than a gathering of alternative all-stars.
"I made some mistakes there," Watt admits. "That record got hyped to fucking hell, and I don't think anybody ever thought about the music. I was trying to redefine Watt. I didn't want to use one band because of what I did to fIREHOSE, which was make it just like the band I was in before. So I made all these little bands. In a way, the opera was a reaction to the way (Ball-Hog) was accepted: I wanted to have something that was so much me--all Watt, Watt's story, Watt's everything--(it wouldn't) be a side mouse."
On a metaphorical level, the "engine room" is Watt's mind, and the record follows a day in his inner life. "The whole piece covers 24 hours, and each song is a piece of the day," he explains. "It starts right before dawn and ends around that time, like in Joyce's Ulysses--that's where I got the idea. As it gets more into the night and you go to sleep, it gets more unconscious, less linear. There's less form, less chorus/verse kind of stuff, because that's the way your brain is when you're sleeping."
To help realize his concepts, Watt recruited two of L.A.'s finest session players: Steve Hodges, a blues drummer who's played with Tom Waits; and Nels Cline, the Geraldine Fibbers' guitarist who also records with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The musicians came to the studio each day without knowing what they'd be working on, and each day they'd end up with a completed track.
"I really wanted to let Nels and Hodges paint, so I tried to inspire them: I would give a little spiel for the song--tell the story, give the color, the time of day--and then we'd go for it. I really wanted to grow each tune out of the story, instead of laying down the basic tracks and overdubbing like some rock-and-roll assembly line. But I kept the story a mystery, unfolding it as it went on, so they'd have to feel around a bit and use my interpretations. And those guys are so intuitive, it was like writing with D. Boon."
Musically, Engine Room is challenging but impressive. Along with Watt's always springy bass playing, Cline is thoroughly engaging, whether he's coaxing folk melodies from an acoustic guitar or skronking out on an electric. Hodges holds up as well through full-on, hardcore thumping as well as random percussion strokes. Like the Minutemen at their best, this minimalist trio can sound as loose as a garage band or as tightly coiled as your worst avant-punk nightmare. While often facile and even catchy, Watt's post-punk sea chanteys are easily the least commercial thing Columbia Records (home to Mariah Carey and Barbara Streisand, don't forget) has put out in years.
On a narrative level, The Engine Room is the story of three sailors--the singer, the boilerman and Fireman Hurley--who work together in the engine room of a ship. The 15 songs trace their adventures traveling from port to port, the friendship they develop, and the great loss felt when one drowns at sea. Hardly disguised, it's an allegory for the Minutemen, their seminal hardcore label SST, and especially for Watt's close relationship with Boon.
At the Minutemen's essence--and undoubtedly what made them so likable--was the members' camaraderie. The reason Watt got a bass in the first place was because Boon's mom bought D. a guitar to keep him off the streets.
"She actually made me play bass. I didn't know what a bass was," Watts remembers of his early teens. "Really, I'm not a musician. I just did this to be with D. Boon. It was just an extension of our friendship."
Boon's memory and spirit is all over Engine Room, from Cline's angular, trebly guitar work to Watt's many lyrical and musical references.
"I dropped in little Minutemen parts to celebrate the band," Watt says. "I don't want to get caught up in sentimentalism and nostalgia shit, to be the Sha Na Na of Minutemen stuff. I want it to make sense today. But punk is like a utopia in my brain, something in my head from a long time ago. Sometimes when I play I really don't want people to forget D. Boon."
But there's still another level underlying Engine Room--another ghost in the galleys, so to speak. Ultimately, this record is Watt's attempt to reconcile his own journeyman's life with that of his Navy-man father; hence the album's nautical setting.
"My father never understood my music. He didn't have music in his family," Watt says. "I remember when punk first started, he came down to Pedro to have a talk with me. He bought some beers--which he never did--and we drank a few. Finally the question comes around, 'What is this punk-rock stuff?' I remember him saying, 'Boy, is this stuff socialist?' My father was like, 'Get on with real life. You gotta pull some regular duty.' "
"There was a trippy parallel, thinking about my father leaving his town and joining the Navy to see the world, and us getting in the van and touring. Even though it was different in so many ways, our little journey through punk was kind of his journey through the Navy. And so in a way, I'm trying to say, 'Here's where I got to, Pop. My life is kind of like yours.' And I think he kind of saw that at the end of his life (he died of cancer about six years ago). I'm doing a little analysis here. I'm trying to explain to him--and to D. Boon, too--where I am. 'Here I am, and it's because of you guys.' "
Back in San Pedro, Watt bikes down streets lined with his past. But it's a past he's finally exorcised. You can tell because there's a chuckle in his voice when he sighs and quotes another famous sailorman: "I am what I am."
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