Capt'n Mike's punk-rock opera
by Ted Drozdowski
What becomes a punk-rock legend most?
In the case of Mike Watt, it's love. His new Contemplating the Engine
Room (Columbia) brims with the stuff. Love for his family and his roots.
For his hometown: San Pedro, California. For music and the process of making
it, and all the friends and allies he's shared that with. And, most poignantly
for longtime fans of Watt's work, love for his lost friend the late D. Boon.
Boon was someone who fell out of the sky -- or at least a tree -- to knock Watt
unconscious and set him upon the road of his somewhat charmed life. What
greater gift could a friend bestow?
That Watt treasures the gifts that have fallen to him is evident on nearly
every one of Engine Room's 15 songs. His everyman's voice sounds relaxed
and content -- at peace with his history and accomplishments and place in the
universe. When he sings "I'm a lucky man" in "The Boilerman," which celebrates
his meeting Boon, it's a touching expression of honesty -- the equivalent of a
gospel singer testifying for Jesus.
It's tempting to call this the bassist/songwriter's least-calculated work
since his days with guitarist Boon and drummer George Hurley as early-'80s punk
torchbearers the Minutemen. Especially since Engine Room follows
Ball-hog or Tugboat?, Watt's 1995 solo debut, which was bolstered by an
unignorable cast of alterna-rock heroes including Eddie Vedder and J Mascis.
But that would be an exaggeration, because Watt's latest is a concept album --
a punk-rock opera.
At least, that's what he calls it.
This CD is a loose autobiography that ranges from his lineage, with tales of
his father's growth to manhood, to his days with Boon discovering punk rock and
then wallowing in it as they created some of the best modern music made in the
USA. Engine Room -- which uses its all-at-sea setting as a metaphor for
navigating the oceans of life -- ends with Watt's realization that he's found
his place creatively and maybe even found himself. That voyage over, he's now
happy pulling "Shore Duty" (the CD's last song), simply being Mike Watt and
The Wattmusic on this album is part Gilbert & Sullivan, part cosmic
awakening. Hearing the rough-edged live debut of Engine Room in New York
last month, as part of a Columbia Records showcase during the annual convention
of the magazine College Music Journal, I was struck mostly by the
former. Initially I thought the very concept of a rock opera seemed too
precious for Watt's down-to-earth "econo" philosophy of life and musicmaking.
So when I spotted him slouching on some empty beer cases next to the bar -- as
the college DJs and other attendees grooved on their first time hearing opener
Ric Ocasek spiel out Cars songs -- I asked him watt's watt with the "rock
"Punk-rock. PUNK-rock opera!" he said, pointing between my eyes. "Punk. That's
very important. You watch."
I did. And it was touching to see this pioneering flannel wearer singing about
his world and -- at the same time -- winging it musically. He spent as much
effort thumping bass and projecting his guts into the microphone as he did
cueing drummer Stephen Hodges and guitarist Joe Baiza (former Saccharine Trust
and Universal Congress of . . . genius, who was new to the
music). There were passages of gentle improvisation, then enough punk thunder
to bring a less-mannered crowd to the throes of moshing. There were also sound
effects -- waves splashing, valves being turned -- that reminded me of an old
There's no rust -- and no obvious learning curve -- on the album, however,
where Watt's joined by Hodges and guitarist Nels Cline (who was on the
Ball-hog or Tugboat? tour and plays with the Geraldine Fibbers). In his
liner notes, Watt says the CD is "one whole piece that celebrates three people
playing together." Indeed, few rock trios since the Minutemen (and before that
the Jimi Hendrix Experience) have vibed so eloquently. The music here seems a
combination of Watt's every influence, from three-chord punk to free jazz to
light opera to avant-skronk. Watt's the glue, playing rolling phrases on his
tuned-down bass that establish the mood for each song. Hodges commands a
masterful palette of insinuating thumps, coloring Watt's lyrics with percussive
notions or snapping the trio in fresh directions. Cline, however, provides the
big thrills, whether using subtle swells of volume to illuminate the arrival of
a new idea in Watt's narrative or exploding like the raga-influenced love child
of Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock.
Contemplating the Engine Room is the kind of work rarely found in rock
anymore. How often, when listening to the radio, do we understand what the
artists behind the songs really think and feel? Here, Watt's opened up his
heart. Have a look.
(Mike Watt plays the Met Café in Providence this Wednesday, October
29, and the Middle East in Cambridge next Thursday, October 30.)