Watt’s up doc: The Missingmen come to B’Ham’s Wild Buffalo

By Phil Saunders - Editor

Let me clear: I dislike journalism that is written from a first-person perspective. I guess it’s because of the false dichotomy that says if you are a reporter, then you are supposed to be providing objective facts. The reporter shouldn’t include anything that reveals inherent bias or subjectivity.

But I’m tainted on that one. You see, not only have I worked a decade as a Journalist, but I also worked as a Public Relations pro for another decade. And besides, anyone who has done journalism understands, it’s one reporter’s opinion, as the Minutemen song goes.

The Minutemen – CBGB, New York City, 1985, photo by Rick McGinnis.

I first encountered Mike Watt at the side of the stage at one of the first shows his band fIREHOSE did outside of California. That was when Toronto promoter Elliot Lefko brought Watt and his new group for two nights to his Silver Dollar Club. A friend had asked me to give Watt a photograph he had taken of The Minutemen in a restroom stall at CBGB’s in New York. Mike saw the photo, immediately signed it, did the Blue Oyster Cult symbol for his late friend D. Boon who had passed away tragically in 1986 and motioned towards his bandmate drummer George Hurley to also sign it. Hurley was the only member other than Watt to play in both The Minutemen and fIREHOSE.

Meeting Watt on any occasion is an experience. His mind and mouth go a mile a minute. It’s a struggle to stay with him. He moves quickly and rambles frequently, but always stays on point, which for many can be daunting. Like the way he plays bass, you follow along for a while, but quickly get distracted, only to suddenly be reminded what you were talking about to begin with.

This recent interview was the second time I interviewed him, but a 27-year gap made this one more focused. The idea was to get him to talk about The Missing Men, a trio that includes guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales.

First hearing the Missingmen (with Watt) play an entire set of Watt-penned Minutemen songs online was a thrill for me. Since I was 20 when Minutemen co-Founder D. Boon was killed in a freak highway accident in 1986 and had not heard the Minutemen at all until 1987, the chance to hear Watt perform those songs was such a treat. I had hoped that’s what we’d get in Bellingham. Alas, it will be a mixture of songs, but yes, Minutemen songs will be on the menu.

But let’s back up. I’m talking to Watt who is on Skype from his home in San Pedro, California where he has lived his entire life. He has just gotten back from breakfast with his mom and sister. It’s what he does on Sundays when he’s home.

fIREHOSE performing in Buffalo New York, 1990. Photo by Derek von Essen.

2017 is going to be a busy one for Watt, who has performed with a reunited Stooges, 128 weeks of touring, and continues to perform with a variety of projects he has been involved with over his more than three decades as a working musician. After 10 dates with The Missingmen, he’ll do nine shows in China with them before returning to do a tour opening for his old pals the Meat Puppets. Then he’s off to Germany to play with Il Sogno del Marinaio, but not before recording an album in Memphis with Tav Falco and his Panther Burns. That’s 2017.

Watt’s work is often informed by his voracious reading. I ask him what he’s been thumbing these days. He rifles through the several books he has on the go and stops on The Sand Pebbles, a book that was made into a 1966 movie starring Steve McQueen. Written by Richard McKenna, the book tells the tale of a gunboat making its way up the Yangtze River in 1926.

“Just reading the first page,” says Watt, “I knew the guy was a sailor. You could tell immediately. And in fact, a machinist mate, the way that he talked about engines, ‘cause that’s what my pop did, it spoke to me and not just because of the navy shit, it’s about humanity. So I’m rereading that.”

Then Watt asks me a question. He says, hey Phil, now that you are 50, do you go back and reread stuff? I play along. He doesn’t know that I’m not as great a reader as I’d like to be. Then he says to me, “You know when you go back and read shit after a bunch of years?” he says, “It changes. So obviously, I changed. That’s what I love about books, you can always go back to them.”

So that’s when we move into the big question I have for him. The very first time I ever came to Bellingham, I saw that fIREHOSE was playing at the Wild Buffalo. At the show a friend of my wife had these screen prints of Watt and his famous EB-3 Gibson bass guitar. I walked up to the stage to get him to sign it, lacking any other important artifact…he agrees. I remind him of the other times we’ve met. He says something like, “Happy Days…”and as I walk away, “…and I’m Potsie.” So I ask him what he meant by that?

“The thing about looking back,” he explains. “It’s the difference between looking back and sentimentalism. You know, I did this album. It’s one I recorded 20 years ago. Ed Vedder, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl on Ball Hog or Tugboat, live in Chicago? I was afraid of this nostalgia. But you know how X are doing all their old songs now? I opened for them, so I thought about doing all those old songs that I wrote for D Boon and Georgie (Minutemen drummer George Hurley)…I guess it made sense to me. So now I’m thinking, looking back on my musical journey, putting that record out makes sense. I mean that period was a real change for me…I started doing more collaborations, playing with lots of people. So, looking back that way is okay. It isn’t like Happy Days. Like my dad said to me when that show first came out. He said, you know what boy? Those were not happy days. That gave me the context. Whenever you go back, you air brush shit, right?  So when I was talking to Ed about that, and they were suggesting a remix, he was like, no, don’t do that. I gotta say, I agree with him. Kids today, they want the real shit. They want authenticity.”

The Playlist

Now Watt was kind enough to share his set list for the show at the Buf. I won’t share that, but I will share my playlist of Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Watt songs. For the record? I’m sticking to the playlist I drafted before the interview. Untarnished.

  1. Song for El Salvador – It was the eighties and bodies were piled high
  2. I Felt Like a Gringo – Being an American in Latin America can be tough
  3. Paranoid Chant – When you feel insane
  4. Politics of Time – Feminism
  5. Working Men Are Pissed – Working people get screwed
  6. Times – We all live in this
  7. Fascist – Beware
  8. Theatre of Life is You – Self-Awareness is important
  9. Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing – Pick a big star, replace the lyric
  10. Brave Captain – Che Guevara *
  11. Bob Dylan wrote Propaganda Songs – It’s all propaganda, now decide
  12. Definitions – Promises, Promises, Promises, Words
  13. Corona – Mexico will become our savoir
  14. West Germany – Doesn’t exist
  15. Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts – Look at your president.
  16. Swing to the Right – Look at your president
  17. Case Closed – Nuf said
  18. One Reporter’s Opinion – See above (his body is a series of points)
  19. Badges – Police state
  20. Red and the Black – Canada as seen and performed by Blue Oyster Cult
    * denotes fIREHOSE song

    More on the Minutemen and Mike Watt


Ticket contest:

Answer the following: What label did the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets release their recordings on? Correct Answers will be drawn from a random list (I will personally make little pieces of paper and ask one of my sons to draw the winning name from a hat) from the responses. Send your answer to editor@thecrossingguide.com and include your email and phone number so we can call you to tell you that you won. You will get a pair of tickets to the show at the Wild Buffalo on Sunday, Feb 26.

About Phil Saunders (17 Articles)
I have been a professional writer since 1988 when I began my career as a music journalist. In 1998 I began working at CBC, after returning to work with a Master's in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. In 2000 I co-produced a feature film that was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival among other North American film festivals. In 2016 I published a book on the Toronto underground music scene called No Flash Please: Underground Music in Toronto 1987-1992. I am also a photographer and documentary filmmaker.