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Mike Watt is a soothing sight for weary souls and sore eyes. Five years and ten records later, he is still more exuburant than many a seventeen-year-old thrasher beleaguered by his band's first cross-country tour. This is the third time we've spoken, the first with my tape recorder running. It makes no difference to Mike Watt, who flutters his hands about to emphasize a point, and jumps to whatever point might happen to flicker across his mind. Unlike many of his colleagues, who seem to have a press release committed to memory, Watt raises opinions on a variety of subjects. Like the best storytellers, he allows a conversation its natural drift, while saying everything he wanted to say. No secrets here, just love for music and, consequently, love for life itself.
The Minutemen have just finished playing one of their varied, marathon sets including a few covers revved-up San Pedro style and their own spurts of haiku jazz-poetry. Between a few songs D. Boon hands "US Out of Central America" flyers out to the audience. The Minutemen are probably one of America's most accomplished political bands. Still, passing out flyers and giving a little speech feels like an interruption from the stream of musical continuity.
"We're not against America," D. Boon explained. "We're for you guys".
They then plunge back into their art, celebrating the nation they know well after several bouts of touring. Politics may be distracting but sometimes songs with provocative lyrics are not enough. The Minutemen have seen the reactionary shadow grow longer and darker. During one of our informal chats, Watt spoke of the broken people, the uncaring people he had seen in contemporary America. Often a Harris or a Roper poll does not detect a national mood, in all its complexity, as well as a finely-tuned artist might. Experience has not made them bitter. Instead of rabidly pacing across the stage with their fists perpetually clenched, they allow humanism and humor to seep into their songs and stage presence. They sing about freedom with the soothing understanding of a lover, not the stern moral ism of a preacher.
Their wiry, driving songs move so quickly, spark so convincingly, they rejuvenate hope in even the most determined cynic. If these people can play without flagging and continue to write punchy songs, the world is not as stillborn as it seems.
Much of this freshness depends upon continuous experimentation. Their EP, Project Mersh, is the lastest example of their "try anything" attitude.
"It's got choruses and fade-outs," Watt explained. "Six songs. We played all the tunes tonight. They were the lame ones 'cause we don't know 'em yet. They ain't our style. We're not into choruses. We wanna screw up peoples' thinking."
Watt then lambasted the Rolling Stone review of Double Nickels On A Dime.
"They're into yuppie", he cheerfully derided. "They relegated us to hardcore ghetto, right? And we wanna compete with Bruce, he wears punk rock clothes...I'm not into this and here's a quote, 'delivers the promise of hardcore' and then, 'George Hurley, bass, Mike Watt, drums.'"
"The guy never even gave a fuck. Fuck Fricke, that was his name. That's my Dad's cuss word, 'frickin''. Fuck you, you patronizing bastard. We don't care if you acknowledge us. We'll stick around anyway. They tried to kill our music for years. And now that we stuck it out they say, "You're allowed to stay, but in this ghetto".
"So the 'Mersh' Project is trying to point out that contradiction", he explained.
Do you want to appeal to more people?
"No, we just wanna fuck their thinking. You listen to this record and you tell me it's not commercial, if it's like the Replacements or early glam rock. (It's like early Steely Dan, ed.).
Watt has even more ammunition for the critics.
"We reach some critics. Critics get records for free...It's important to have critics because they've go the job to write about us. Somebody's gotta do it...We got these really funny ones in our town: 'Cos-tello, Clash, Springsteen, Prince, Elvis, maybe the Minutemen if you're careful, boys. Make yourselves more clear. Are you sure you're not Nazis?'"
"I can't take stock in that. If they're gonna be that superficial about it, then they deserve to wallow in it."
The fact that knee-jerk critics and observers confuse them with the ultra-right-wing para-military organization of the same name irked Watt during several points in the conversation.
"Critics got what they want. New wave is one: Prince, Bruce. And now they have no alternative, right? They're always going for the underdogs and now they can't...look what their underdog brought, nuthin'. Even "Born In The USA", which is a good song, the only song I ever liked by Springsteen. It's a great song but it's still not good enough. I like it because it gets all these pseudo-patriotic people to sing it and it's really about, 'Hey, you pissed on us.'"
One thing remains very clear above this confluence of ideas: The Minutemen love music and firmly acknowledge their roots. During their set, they have covered a half-dozen songs written, in part, by Creedence Clear-water Revival, the Urinals ("a very inspiring band"), Sabia, the Meat Puppets, the Who and Blue Oyster Cult. Watt's admiration for the thinking man's metal band remains as fresh as it was when he and D. Boon tried to duplicate chords from Secret Treaties.
"Me and D. Boon, that was our favorite band when we were fourteen and fifteen, 'cause they were science fiction and no one knew. That hooked cross, man. I made my own shirt in junior high with the big, hooked cross. That's why I was into Be-Beop Deluxe too 'cause no one knew about them. You know what music is, it's kind of like a thing to give you an individual stamp. And there's things that bring 'em together, like Creedence. Just a little reverb on the voice, electric guitar".
Watt returned to the subject of E. Bloom and company.
"Blue Oyster Cult, I really loved that band. I never thought about the lyrics. I didn't know what 'Dominance/Submission' meant. That's probably the first political song I ever heard. E. Bloom said, 'Alright, I wanna talk about drugs. You know if you wanna change the law, we can'".
He also gained an early appreciation of Bob Dylan.
"My dad was a sailor and he was never home. I listened to things. I got my liberalism from that...I know he's coming 'round. He's out of the Christian thing and," he laughed, "into the Jew thing again".
Then Watt and Boon discovered punk rock.
"I was inspired by Television and Richard Hell. They were the first punk rock bands. I didn't understand the Ramones. I thought there was big money behind them. I later found out there wasn't. But when I heard Richard Hell and this guy singing like a cartoon, I knew there was nothing behind that. I put a picture of him on my bass and no one in Pedro would play with me after..."
Why cover the songs of contemporaries, I asked.
"We wanna let people know where we're coming from. We don't want it to be a guessing game that way...We don't wanna confuse 'em musically. It's all notes. It's all music. It's all for coming together in the first piece...The hodcawrs we gave up on because we know they'll grow out of it."
They plan to do a version of Husker Du's "I Apologize" and a Black Flag song.
"We can't decide which one. We want one with a lot of woman in it, since they're such a man band, very macho. They need a couple more women."
Are you disillusioned with the way punk rock is going?
"No, I like punk rock. I like punk rock freedom. Hardcore is very linear. We're trying to say to people, 'Hey, it's all notes, you idiots; You can play any way you fuckin' want.' The main idea is: Communicate."
Most punk bands are boring now, Watt maintained.
"They wanna get into music. C'mon, hardcore's a social thing. Boy meets girl. You go to the shows and no one's even watching the bands. I played little league for five years. And if I was a younger man, I'd probably be doing it. I fell off a stage and couldn't get up. I'm kinda into music a little more."
He recounted a favorite anecdote.
"This young guy came up to me with a skateboard and went, 'You're the weirdest hodcawr band.' It was 'cause his thinking was still channelled. He couldn't think of us as music. It had to be hodcawr or we weren't right. A lot of guys are cashing in on the form. I see this. Maybe they see it too, that's why they get so fucked up."
He still empathizes with younger members of his audience.
"I can't blame the hardcore kids 'cause, at that age, you don't have a handle. I'm twenty-seven. I didn't have a handle on things till I was twenty-six and three quarters. I just didn't really understand a lot of things until a long time down the road. I didn't know why I liked things."
Watt also fondly remembers hardcore's early days in Los Angeles.
"In LA I saw hardcore as the beach people saying, 'Hey Hollywood, you can't run punk rock. We're gonna do it, 'cause you're burned out and you don't have suntans...I don't know how hardcore got across America. I've got a theory that it was the 'Decline' movie. The Hollywood thing (was) heroin, more heroin, whiter faces and the young kids from the beach and middle-class suburbia said, 'Hey, Hollywood, we want to be punk rock.'"
I mentioned to the fact that some bad habits of the art-rockers sometimes spread to the upstarts.
"Burroughs has been on heroin for 60 years. It ain't no new hobby. I knew Darby Crash. I'd go to Germs shows and he told me, 'Everything is circles.' He would say he was a fascist, just to fuck peoples' thinking".
What about the real punk rock fascists?
"Oh, those guys. Nazis? My great grandfather grew up in Tennessee. He was the only lawyer in his town and he was the head of the Klu Klux Klan. And he told me, 'Hey, it was right because we hung more white men than black men.' So I know where you're coming from, Nazis. He came from Dixon, a shit town in Tennessee. My dad took me there and everyone looked like me. I said, 'Dad, let's get out of here, the place is in-bred.'"
The other side of Watt's family illustrates a brighter side of the American dream.
"My ma's from the old country. From Venice. He (my grandfather) came from an upper-class family, was going to seminary school and he wanted to marry a lower-class woman. They wouldn't let him in Italy. So they came to America to be married. And that's the American dream, being free. Not the money thing. If China lived like Americans, all their resources would be used up in a week. The dream is: Be tolerant, don't go for purity."
Ultimately, the conversation drifted toward a perennial topic for the Minutemen: Politics.
Before the show, Watt and I discussed our fears about a growing United States involvement in Nicaragua. This was several days before the House voted against aid to the Contras, President Ortega's mini-tour of Moscow and the US trade embargo invoked against Nicaragua.
I asked if things had come to a point where it's time to really speak up?
"No, five years ago," he said adamantly. "When we started it was time. We had a song called 'Swing To The Right' five years ago. We knew the college campuses. We talked to people our own age. That's what was real nice about this gig, (there were) a lot of dudes our own age. A lot of places, in the South say, 'Hey, you're the hodcawr band for the month.' And people our own age, you go to the campuses, they're real right wing and preppie...We knew it would be a fight."
D. Boon spoke of a gig at Tulane University.
"Handing out those stickers was pretty hard."
"Lotta Republicans," Watt added bluntly. "They were all little kids. We think it's like Eisenhower years, where they said, 'Hey, man, no shit, this is happening?' Why don't you guys speak out against it? It's happening. Yuppie's happening. And you wanna fuckin' rock that boat? We get this from people our own age. I've met older people who are way more enlightened than people my own age. Anybody from the 30s except some guy who did gardening for a millionaire know what it's all about."
Unsurprisingly, they are also liberal about lending services for fundraisers and rallies. Watt checked them off:
"Alliance for Survival, supplies for hurtin' people in Nicaragua, trying to keep a club open, there's a lot of those benefits. One guy, he had to get a driver's license so he could keep his job. We played a benefit for him."
Did he get his license?
"Who knows? Maybe it went up his nose. When you do rock, rock is a free thing. Once we did one against police brutality and I saw the man putting it up his nose with the money. We always hope the intentions are good but you know how the Soviet Union worked out".
"I went to the Democratic rally in LA and Stephen Stills sang. I cried but I knew Mondale had it lost. 'Cause there's a trend."
He continued to pour out what he considered the nation's ills to be.
"And our media, 'Watergate's hip, we'll play advocate and if right-wing's hip, we'll play grandpa'. Our country's so fad-oriented. I know what happened in the 60s. People went to rallies to pick up women. And vice versa".
Mike then turned to the present and said, "This thing (Central America) is closer so people might be more right-wing. What about Mexico? That thing's gonna fall, with the institutional revolutionaries".
He laughed sardonically at the idea.
"I wrote 'Gringo' about that. Our Fourth of July one time, was, coincidentally, on their election day. And I asked this guy, "Hey, what about the election?"
"And this guy literally laughed at me. And he goes, 'Hey, man, you're fuckin' nuts. They set up opposition parties to make it look like democracy. It's fake."
"There's going to be a fire there. We'd better learn to deal with what's going to happen...I'm against nationalism. I think that's the problem with the Russians right now. They're a little too patriotic. I'd like to wipe out the whole fuckin' thing. That's what I think is noble about anarchy, no nationality. I think that idea's gone. But the powers that be won't let it be outmoded."
Isn't creating an idea of a false enemy, exaggerating the importance of the enemy a way to make yourself look important?
"Yeah, it's like my pop saying, 'Hey, Mike, you know the Giants are gonna kick ass on the Reds.' Which is great for baseball but not for running the world."
Life for the Minutemen is not all politics. They are planning an upcoming album, recorded in July,' called Three-Way Tie For Last which Mike assured me will be "art-rock". Expect something earthier than Byrne's and Anderson's studious exercises.
The Minutemen share interests and comaraderie beyond the musical limits.
"You never finished your story about New Orleans", Boon said to Watt.
"New Or'lans is a fucking righteous town. It's all rotten. It's too humid. I read (John Kennedy O'Toole's) Confederacy Of Dunces and when we finished the tour, we landed in New Orleans. And I found where Ignatious lived and the movie theater he went to."
This led into a discussion of his reading habits.
"I like Poe and James Joyce. See, I'm into foreign theories, that Irishman James Joyce. D. Boon reads history more. I gotta argue with the man. I read my part, too. Today we argued about the Celts. Were they really Gaul? And were the Etruscans really Romans? Real essential shit. Who ate all the cheese? That's what the real fight was. Who ate all the cheese this morning?"
Touring is certainly not one big party. All three avoided beer and other wit-addling substances because they had to spend the night on the road, driving to their gig in upstate New York. Mike Watt had to help move equipment. Until the next time...
THE MINUTEMEN, "PROJECT MERSH"
The San Pedro bums have done it again, differently this time. Instead of spicey, snappy snippets of biting wisdom, they supply us with generously loping melodies and easily digestible hooks. Side one sports a nearly crooning D. Boon, with complex but very tasty musical flourishes that bend more closely to Steely Dan's more ambling pop-jazz than punk rock. "Cheerleader", with its ingratiating trumpet tracks, makes me think of reaching for a cool gin and tonic with a fine twist of lime rather than flailing my body into a mass of sweaty slam-dancers. Initial pleasantry is deceiving. It's true medicine, albeit in a sugar pill. Boon sneaks in a few pointed observations about our "feelgood" generation as the song soars ironically. "King Of The Hill" features an even more philosophically complex, soul-searching lyric encased in a lush, perky ska melody. The rave-up of Steppenwolf's "Hey Lawdy Mama" proves they're not all politics and seriousness and reveals great love of grunge rock from high school days. Mike Watt's breezier, more personal compositions populate side two. "Take Our Test"'s tune might be fit for Petula Clark (though too good for Madonna) but the message woven inside examines personal rather than public politics. Its choruses egg on even the most apathetic listener to hum along. "Tour Spiel" is an ingratiating song about that most potentially deadly dull of rock song subjects, life on the road. It's tune is simple with an enchanting, repetitive coda. They extend the song a bit too long (see "More Spiel") in the way of prog-rock but this is a tiny gripe. "Project Mersh" shows the Minutemen to be humanistic as well as daring, clever as well as topical. Their multi-faceted approach to rock deserves to be encouraged and nurtured strongly.
THE MINUTEMEN, "TOUR SPIEL" (Reflex)
Ain't no way the M-men could be mistaken for a bar band, but anyone whose seen 'em living knows they're no strangers to qrunge and sweat. These excursion into "real rock" keep them honest and playful, so the high-minded won't mistake them for being "serious arteests". 'Course Minutemen covers are like no others. The Cult's (Blue Oyster, not Southern Death), "Red And The Black" was originally much longer and Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" receives the jazz treatment. Their abrasive handling of "Green River" is just about right. And the Pups' "Lost" gains a rough reggae undertow. (Reflex Records, P.O. Box 8645, Minneapolis, MN 05408)
[OBIK: God only knows when this interview was actually conducted--Truly Needy 10 came out in early 1986, but some of the interviews in it dated back to 1984.]
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