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Music: Stuck In the Middle

After a life-threatening illness, Post Punk music legend Mike Watt returns reinvigorated

By Sean Rhiney · October 13th, 2004 · Music
Mike Watt's new album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, mixes themes from Dante's Divine Comedy with his own personal saga.
Mike Watt

Mike Watt's new album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, mixes themes from Dante's Divine Comedy with his own personal saga.

Contrary to reports, Mike Watt is alive and well and living in San Pedro, Calif. On the eve of his 53rd tour -- a 65-gigs-in-66-days jaunt (which surprisingly isn't a personal record, he says) -- Watt is in great spirits and happy to be amongst the living after a near death experience in 2000. More so, he is happy to be back on the road supporting his third solo release.

"I take a lot of lessons from Vaudeville," he says. "When you're not playing, you're paying."

Released in August of this year, The Secondman's Middle Stand, is a full-blown Punk Rock opera that explores loss, redemption and salvation from Watt's own graphic, bird's-eye view. While the "Middle Stand" in the title might make passing reference to Watt's mid-life journey (he'll be 47 in December), the "Secondman" playfully pays tribute to Watt's groundbreaking Post Punk trio, the pioneering Minutemen, with whom Watt toured the country before the tragic death of best friend and band mate, D. Boon.

Traveling under the banner "El Mar Cura Todo" (The Sea Cures Everything), Watt's tour comes to the 20th Century Theatre on Tuesday. An avid kayaker, Watt lives by the sea in San Pedro where he grew up and its proximity seems to have influenced his body of work.

"Something about the water soothes me," he explains. Watt's father was also a sailor, inspiring him to utilize nautical themes on his solo efforts (like his solo debut, Ball Hog or Tugboat?) and make seafaring references to his tours.

"You're kind of like a sailor on tour -- the van is the boat, you're playing towns, visiting ports," he laughs.

Middle Stand could have been about Watt's beloved cat of 16 years who died of brain cancer this past year, but he felt he had already tackled loss well enough, saluting both his father and D. Boon on 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room. Instead, Watt wanted something a bit more positive, where the protagonist in his story actually survives. He didn't have to look too far for inspiration.

Four years ago Watt was stricken with an internal abscess that nearly cost him his life. He now speaks about his illness, which he quietly calls "The Sickness," with deference and an eerie mano-y-mano respect. Referring to it like a formidable enemy that's been vanquished, it was unequivocally the prime motivation for the nine emotional tracks that form The Secondman's Middle Stand.

"The Sickness did a beat-down on me," he recalls. "It almost killed me, and it took so much from me I thought I ought to be able to take something from it, so that's when I decided to write this album.

"And I wanted to make a record about the moment, in the present, because that's all I had at the time," he adds.

Incorporating themes from Dante's journey in the Divine Comedy, Middle Stand is Watt's own hell and redemption, a raw, personal saga of his illness, treatment and recovery. But Watt thinks it might have another meaning, one more characteristic of someone inching closer to the half-century mark this year.

"I'm in the middle of my life. I'm definitely not a beginner and, hopefully, I'm not at the end of the road," he says. "The cliché is 'last stand,' but I just couldn't see it being my 'last stand.' "

Indeed, once medically cleared, Watt's recuperation regime included playing old Stooges' songs to get his bass chops back, even enlisting J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. fame to form a short-lived Stooges' cover band to acclimate himself back to the rigors of live playing. Ironically enough, when the Stooges re-formed in 2003 after a 29-year absence, Watt got the call from head Stooge Iggy Pop to come aboard and play bass. Touring Japan and Europe on the Stooges' round of reunion shows (including an opening spot for Madonna, who Watt once "tributed" in one of his many side projects, the Madonnabes) did more than just fulfill Watt's teenage Rock fantasies. Sharing an affinity for the music of John Coltrane, Watt got on famously with his new bandmates. And watching frontman Pop night after night was a great lesson for a man who's used to always being the captain of the ship.

"You can't learn everything being the boss -- life is about different roles," Watt notes. "(And) the Stooges were another class in the school of life for me."

He adds, "And for once I'm the youngest guy in the band!"

Watt recorded the new disc with organist Pete Mazich and Jerry Trebotic on drums and former That Dog violinist Petra Hayden contributing backing vocals (Trebotic is replaced on tour by Raul Morales, a young drummer from Watt's hometown). Watt is enthused by the addition of Mazich's Hammond B3 organ, an instrument he says complements the songs as well as his bass playing, and he says he's excited by the live possibilities his new trio presents.

"Ensemble playing, when it's working, is like an interesting conversation because you're interdependent on each other and you're continually making the interactions interesting," he says.

One more reason Watt likes his newest touring band -- it's his first trio since the early traveling days with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE:

"There's more room in the boat," he laughs.

MIKE WATT AND THE SECOND MEN play the 20th Century Theatre on Tuesday with guests Ampline and Dan Dyer.


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