Welcome to Petrology 202. We’re going to pick up where the 101 course level ended and take things in a more personal (for me) direction. Today we’ll be dealing with a musical hero I’ve actually met, Mike Watt.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several of my so-called rock n’ roll heroes. You may have read this account of meeting Robert Plant in San Francisco in 2005. While I revere the work he’s done, Plant was never one of my heroes per se. In essence, I never wanted to be him. Noooo. He’s cool as shit and everything but I haven’t an iota of his brand of rock star bravado. I may have had long-ass hair and played a few bare-chested shows, but I drew the line at excess jewelry, turquoise belt buckles, and cowboy boots. The story also mentions brief encounters with Neil Young and Beck, but again, respected but not heroes. Who are my (musical) heroes? Here’s a brief and not-at-all complete list, almost in chronological order of acquisition.
John Bonham, Freddie Mercury, Eddie Van Halen, Robin Zander (and all of Cheap Trick, but Robin especially), John Lennon, Robert Smith, Peter Gabriel, the Sex Pistols, Hüsker Dü, Mike Watt (Minutemen and fIREHOSE), Brian Eno, Stevie Wonder, Chet Atkins…
Those are the main guys; the musicians who have influenced me the most, whose records are like appendages and made me want to make music. John Bonham was the reason I wanted to play drums, which is and always will be my first musical love. Now, I am well aware of the fact that there was a period of time in my life when Billy Idol and Adam Ant were heroes. Let’s not forget the Jane’s Addictions and Black Sabbaths of my record collection, either. At any rate, of those main heroes, I have met in person exactly three of them including Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü, which was an experience so disappointing I don’t even want to think about it.
On my 30th birthday in 1998, Bob and Ron of Bob and Ron’s Record Club somehow managed to score tickets to see Cheap Trick perform at nightclub called Drink, capacity approximately 350 persons. The main floor was general admission, which meant that I stood five feet from Robin Zander for the duration of the performance. Up until that moment in time, it was the happiest 90 minutes of my entire life. But it got better. Bob and Ron were notorious (or infamous, you could say) for finding ways into venues, particularly backstage. About a year earlier, the Stones played a last-minute show at the Double Door (as a warm-up for their shows at Soldier Field, which opened the Voodoo Lounge tour), where Bob and Ron managed to helped load in the band’s gear and hear the soundcheck. The next night, they snuck into the Soldier Field show through the catering entrance and wound up backstage, though they didn’t meet anyone. They met Keith Richards, Ron says, “because we were stalking them outside their hotel.”
During the Cheap Trick show, Bob and Ron found a way to get us backstage and we met Billy Corgan and MLB pitcher David Wells—neither heroes by any stretch of the imagination—but we’d had earlier run-ins with Corgan, who to his credit was generally an approachable guy on the Chicago music scene. If you saw him at the Rainbow Club you could walk by and say, “Hey Billy, what’s up?” and he wouldn’t sneer at or ignore you. I got several “How you doin’s” from him over the years. Ron and I met him in New York in 1992 and begged him to produce our band—this was a year before Siamese Dream came out but the industry buzz was loud. The Pumpkins were about to blow up, and we wanted a spot on Corgan’s coattails. Haha. Anyway… After Cheap Trick’s set, we waited outside the back door and met the entire band as they got in their limo. They signed my ticket stub, we offered them weed. Bun E. said, “No thanks, we’ve got our own.” We also got to watch Bun E. roll a joint. My life could have ended right there.
Prior to that, the highlight of my rock n’ roll fandom was meeting Mike Watt and having a regular conversation with him—not the typical I’m your biggest fan type-shit. The meeting took place at the Double Door while Watt was touring for Contemplating the Engine Room, so this was 1996-97. Also present were Ron of Bob and Ron’s Record Club and Bill Dolan. A lot of the conversation revolved around Watt’s health situation (which was deteriorating; he wound up hospitalized with an infection of his perineum) but at some point, Watt and Ron talked about Finnegan’s Wake, which is notable for one reason; the other day, Ron told me that he ran into Watt 13 years later and he [Watt] remembered the conversation! My takeaway from the whole thing was that Watt was the coolest human being on the planet and I felt lucky to be in his presence for 30 minutes.
Mike Watt is best known for co-founding the rock bands Minutemen, dos, and fIREHOSE. As of 2003, he is also the bassist for the reunited Stooges and a member of the art rock/jazz/punk/improv group Banyan as well as many other post-Minutemen projects. He also maintains a healthy web presence, with Mike Watt’s Hoot Page and Watt Radio. His tour journals are also worth reading.
CMJ New Music calls Watt a “seminal post-punk bass player.” In November 2008, Watt received the Bass Player Magazine lifetime achievement award, presented by Flea. In addition to being one of the best bass players I’ve ever heard, Mike Watt represents the quintessence of punk rock. He is an original and there has never been and there will never be another like him. When I’m browsing my record collection, even if I have no intention of listening to Minutemen’s Double Nickles on the Dime at the moment, I never fail to pick up the record and hold it in my hands, giving it at least due respect. Every Watt-related record in my collection gets the same treatment, hell, it’s almost sacrilegious to say but I like fIREHOSE as much if not a little more than Minutemen.
As for Minutemen, other than owning their records, there is no better source of information than this 2005 documentary, We Jam Econo. Watch it.
fIREHOSE, on the other hand, is one of my favorite bands that almost nobody other than my high school buddies ever heard or still listens to. They didn’t have any hits. They made a few videos but hardly if ever(?) appeared on MTV. When they disbanded in 1994, nobody except the skateboarders noticed. This is a travesty that continues to bother me but you know, there’s no accounting for taste.
This is what you need to know about fIREHOSE. From the Allmusic Guide:
In 1985, after D Boon’s tragic death at age 27 signaled the end of the Minutemen, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley threw in their lot with then-22-year-old former Ohio State University student, guitar player, and Minutemen fanatic Ed Crawford to form fIREHOSE. Taking their group name from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” fIREHOSE continued in the Minutemen tradition of breathtaking musicianship combined with caustic lyrical fusillades inspired by the writing of the Beat Generation and the erect-middle-finger indignation of the Blank Generation. However, with Crawford’s decidedly folkie bent insinuating itself into the mix, fIREHOSE’s songs began to expand into more traditional verse-chorus-verse songwriting symmetry. And although fIREHOSE never equaled the Minutemen’s output in terms of sheer audacity and emotional depth, Crawford, Watt, and Hurley recorded rock that was muscular, dense, and daring, along with being tremendously heartfelt. They never patronized audiences or comported themselves as “rock stars”; they were instead the quintessential post-punk “peoples’ band.” Although they achieved wider notoriety than did the Minutemen (eventually recording for a major label), fIREHOSE called it quits in early 1994 after a desultory, dispirited final LP (Mr. Machinery Operator). Still, nearly all of their recorded work stands as some of the best late-’80s/early-’90s indie rock.
This is the list of descriptors for fIREHOSE courtesy of Allmusic:
Bright, Driving, Lively, Athletic, Brash, Earthy, Gritty, Gutsy, Ramshackle, Rousing, Rowdy, Turbulent, Urgent, Nervous/Jittery, Rambunctious, Bittersweet, Fiery, Tense/Anxious
Here are some of my favorite fIREHOSE songs.
This is an ‘official’ video of “Sometimes.” Actually, I don’t know where it came from but it’s AWESOME.
“Losers, Boozers, and Heroes” might be my all-time favorite fIREHOSE song.
Three cuts and a documentary isn’t even scratching the surface. At the end of the day, when I think about the musicians who have contributed so much to my education and experience, no one has given as much and asked for so little in return as Mike Watt. Forever in his debt, I gotta say, “Much respect.”