"Being a bass player, you can't put guys behind you. I look at the grout. Most people look at the tile. But I know, as a bass player, you look good making other people look good."
Watt was speaking on the phone from his pad in the L.A.-area seaport town of San Pedro two months ago. He'd just returned to the United States after touring Europe for the reunited Iggy and the Stooges, the legendary garage-punk band of the late 1960s and early '70s.
A legend himself after holding down the bottom in two remarkable punk-indie bands--the Minutemen and fIREHOSE--the 46-year-old Watt only had a few days between tours to talk. You see, as his publicist patiently explained, he doesn't do interviews on the road, and he doesn't own a cell phone.
Only days after the conversation, he struck out on a fresh concert tour with his latest solo project, Mike Watt and the Secondmen, which turns up in Tucson for a gig at Plush Friday, Nov. 19.
On the current tour, Watt and his band--a three-piece comprised of him on bass and the Beat-like vocalizing he long has called "spiels," Raul Morales on drums and Pete Mazich on Hammond B3 organ--are playing his long-delayed third solo album, which was released Aug. 24.
The Secondman's Middle Stand is an emotionally frank and physically graphic song cycle based on Watt's affliction with and recovery from an illness that almost ended his life four years ago.
For the full details of Watt's illness, check out his regular blogs at his Web site, www.hootpage.com. The short of it is that he was stricken with an internal abscess in his perineum. (If you don't immediately know which part of the body that is, check the dictionary.) The nasty infection spread throughout and ravaged Watt's body, whittling down his once-stout wrestler-like frame.
These days, Watt is healthy again but noticeably slimmer, in part because of the illness and in part due to his twin addictions to cycling and ocean kayaking. "I'm not a jock; I was never an athlete. I just do this because it makes me feel good, it makes me feel alive. I love to get out on the road or out on the water and meditate in the neverending moment."
The hellish weeks of Watt's near-fatal illness are recounted in the first third of The Secondman's Middle Stand: songs such as "Boilin' Blazes," "Puked to High Heaven" and "Burstedman." The words "visceral" and "wrenching" are often bandied about by critics and music journalists, but in the case of these songs, they are unfortunately apt.
Watt did a lot of reading while he was recuperating, as he always has, and he was inspired to create The Secondman's Middle Stand as a parallel homage to nothing less than Dante's The Divine Comedy.
The nine songs are separated into three themes: inferno (the three tunes above), the purgatory of medical treatment ("Tied a Reed 'Round My Waist," "Pissbags and Tubing" and "Beltsandedman") and the salvation of recovery ("The Angels Gate," "Pluckin', Pedalin' and Paddlin'" and "Pelicanman").
Watt used further literary allusions when describing his odyssey and explaining why it became the inspiration for an album:
"That sickness was definitely memorable," he said. "It took so much from me, I figured I could take a record from it. It's a journey, like being on the raft with Jim, going down the river, or being with Virgil and Beatrice and going though those crazy things, There's something to be said for being a pilgrim-- you keep moving."
The "middle stand" of the album's title indicates that his recent ordeal did not yet constitute his "last stand."
"It's about a guy in the middle of his life," Watt said. "When you're young, if you think about age at all, it's about getting old. I never thought about the middle. I'm not at the beginning, and I'm definitely not at the end of the road."
The "secondman" is a punning reference to Watt's first band, the Minutemen, the amazing post-punk/avant-rock trio he formed with high-school buddy D. Boon and drummer George Hurley. The Minutemen were one of the most creative forces in independent American music during the early 1980s. The group ended with Boon's death in a van accident on the road in December 1985.
The next year, a Minutemen fan named Ed Crawford moved from his home in Ohio to Los Angeles to form a band with Watt and Hurley. Eventually, Watt was won over by the young man's enthusiasm, and fIREHOSE was born. Eight years, six records and thousands of miles of road later, that group disbanded.
In 1995, Watt released his first solo album, Ballhog or Tugboat?, an all-star affair featuring 48 musician friends from such acts as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, the Pixies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Meat Puppets, Jane's Addiction, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, among others.
The album that followed two years later was a punk opera dedicated to Watt's father, a merchant marine. Contemplating the Engine Room revolved around the experiences of three seamen cooped up in a ship's engine room. It was an appropriate metaphor for the Minutemen and the lives they spent on the road touring "econo-style" in a van.
Watt has had many other projects over the years, including his continuing partnership Dos, a bass duo with former Black Flag four-string player Kira Roessler, who once was Watt's wife. He played bass for Porno for Pyros and has recorded three albums with Banyan, a groovy alternative-jazz combo.
Long a Madonna fan, Watt once played with buddies from Sonic Youth in the band Ciccone Youth. He also recently played in the Material Girl cover band, Madonnabes, from which came current sideman Mazich.
Speaking of Madonna, the Stooges just opened for her at a festival at Blaine Castle in England the weekend before this interview with Watt. "She was great! She had more energy than all the younger bands on the bill. She was singing and dancing constantly."
He wasn't as impressed with the drum 'n' bass DJ who played before his band. "I looked on stage and didn't see any drums or any bass."
Watt already is planning his next album, perhaps to begin recording early in the new year. For now, though, he's ecstatic to be alive, to enjoy the gift of playing music.
"I'm so fucking grateful for so many things, you know. Grateful that I can keep going back to the well."