On paper, little about bassist Mike Watt's long-awaited new album The Secondman's Middle Stand screams "Punk rock legend." The cover is a placid photo of a blood-red sunset over the ocean--a spitting image of the late John Coltrane free-jazz album Interstellar Space. The album's personnel maintains the jazz connection, as Watt has replaced the bass/guitar/drums setup of his renowned original band The Minutemen with a b3 organ, drums and bass. Watt insists though that not only is his Middle Stand just as much "punk rock" as anything he has ever done, it is "punk by any means necessary." As he told me recently while taking a mid-tour lunch break, "Every aspect of this album is a device to tell the strange story of my hellride."
"Hellride," as with many terms in Watt's lyrics, song titles and interviews, comes from his personal dialect of "Pedro speak," a mixture of skater, punk and seaman terminology. His 1995 album Ballhog or Tugboat? came with a dictionary to help listeners get their sea legs, but in 2004, his use of "hellride" can only refer to one event: February 28, 2000, when Watt nearly died after an undiagnosed abscess burst in his perineum (or "taint"). The resultant nine-month gauntlet of fear, pain and weakness is the subject of The Second Man's Middle Stand.
The album is organized into three operatic movements to frame Watt's descent into, treatment for and recovery from his illness. Characters include his family and a handful of dead people who "reach out past the grave" to influence Watt in his desperate hours--including his father, late Minutemen guitarist D. Boon, The Stooges' bassist Dave Alexander and even Virgil and Dante Alighieri reprising their 13th century roles from The Divine Comedy. It may sound a bit conceptual, maybe grotesque and medical (especially with song titles like "Puked to High Heaven" and "Pissbags and Tubing"). But clad in Watt's hoarse, growling voice, and with his pounding bass as the engine, the result is both energetic and accessible.
Watt calls the instrumentation of The Secondman "churchy," a label that might be alarming to fans of the big-assed funky punk of The Minutemen. I would narrow his classification, to add that if this is church music, it is that of Old Testament wrath, not New Testament redemption. Organist Pete Mazich crashes through chords as if a new commandment were being announced with each line. Drummer Jerry Trebotic's cascading, jerky rhythms rain on top of Watt's bass lines like a plague of frogs. Likewise, reading Watt's lyrics, especially when familiar with his usual humor, political idealism and relentless will (i.e., this is his 53rd tour in 25 years), is like watching Job get whupped by his sadistic maker live and in person. All the resilient hope of Watt's career is tested when the 46-year-old underground legend bellows in the song "Burstedman:" "A life in the moment, is that what you've always wanted, Watt? Well, here it is with you tied to it, chained to it, bound to it ... no past, no future, just one forever now ... down I go, into this eruption."
It's a bleak prognosis, made all the bleaker by the relatively staid ending in which Watt drawls, "Cornball ways to express stuff profound, 'pert-near the only thing out of my mouth. If I had to relate this experience, a wordless breath would be my closest guess." Accordingly, Watt focused more on the musical growth displayed in The Secondman than on any medical details in our interview--although he still became audibly agitated describing his "nine-month fucked-up moment."
"I used to write songs by just sitting and thinking with a bass in my hand," he recalls. "I'd start with a title, then music, then the words. It was so regimented; it's the I Love Lucy syndrome. You learn the licks, and then they just repeat with no meaning outside of themselves. This album, though, I wrote mostly on my bike, listening to the birds and to nature's rhythms. Fuck the 'young girlfriend and convertible' kind of mid-life crisis; I went right back to age nine ... There's just something about peddling or paddling (his flatwater kayak), that helped these songs to have more personal identity."
Though The Secondman was only released on August 24, anyone who attended Watt's annual Neurolux visit in 2003 will have heard the songs before. Before being put to record, this autobiographical "snapshot" endured Watt learning to play the bass again after his illness and for him to sing the organ and drum parts out to his bandmates. It sat through Watt touring on bass with the reunited survivors of Iggy and the Stooges, and his supportive stint with ex-Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis, whose inattentive driving almost killed Watt again in 2002. Now, with the opera finally out he is uncannily grateful for every shred of affection he receives from fans young and old. "That kids today are open-minded enough to say, 'I'm going to let this old guy into my life,' even though they're too young to ever see [The Minutemen] play, is very intense and profound for me," he explains. "People today are so much smarter and open-minded than they were when I was learning to play--they're the ones who allow this to happen." He adds with a laugh, "Then again, you may think I'm old, but I like to think I'm just in the middle."
Mike Watt with Timonium and I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House, Thursday, September 23, 9 p.m., $5 at door, Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 336-5034.