The Big Reservoir: Mike Watt's "On and Off Bass"

August 5, 2012   •   By Craig Hubert

Mike Watt: On and Off Bass

Mike Watt

SAN PEDRO, A WORKING class enclave of Los Angeles, is a port district, one of the busiest in the United States. The waterfront, the commanding feature of the area, is the fulcrum of commerce and life. San Pedro is dominated by labor; it is not a place for leisure. For that, you have to leave the docks and go to Catalina Island. But beneath its rank and file seaside charm, San Pedro has a combustible underbelly that can be traced back almost to its annexation to the City of Los Angeles in 1909. In 1923, Upton Sinclair famously stood at San Pedro’s Liberty Hill and, in a bit of street theater, read the Constitution out loud in front of the striking dockworkers. Sinclair appeared in San Pedro in support of the Industrial Workers of the World, who were protesting low wages, terrible working conditions, and the imprisonment of union leaders. He was quickly arrested, but the moment lives on in local memory, commemorated with a plaque embracing the site as a historical landmark.

The town also has a little-suspected, homegrown artistic history. In 1941, the “Gateway of the World,” as San Pedro was commonly known, gave Bertolt Brecht, in flight from Nazi Germany, his first view of America. A forced exile who disliked his new home even before he arrived, Brecht’s early impressions colored the works he wrote during his short stay in the U.S. As the playwright arrived on the S.S. Annie Johnson, black crime novelist Chester Himes was working below in the shipyards. Himes had arrived in San Pedro after serving a seven-year prison sentence, hoping to take advantage of the labor shortage on the waterfront. What Himes found was an environment where, as he describes in his autobiography, “Black people were treated much the same as they were in an industrial city of the South.” He soon turned the bitter experience into one his best novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). Around the same time, a young Art Pepper was making trips at night from the San Pedro streets to blow his horn at the jazz clubs along downtown Los Angeles’s Central Avenue.

Mike Watt, adopted son of San Pedro and future bass player for the Minutemen, was a product of these energies and tensions. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Watt relocated all around the country for his first decade, following the assignments of his father, a Navy lifer. When they landed in San Pedro in 1967 his mother decided to stay, moving the family out of naval housing and into low-income apartments nearby. Soon after, Watt’s life would suddenly change. It’s a story Watt tells frequently, mysterious and innocent, like something out of a fairy tale: walking alone in the local park, a large kid jumped out of tree and landed right in front of him, asking, “Are you Eskimo?” Watt, confused but intrigued, said no. This was Dennes Boon, who would soon drop everything but the first letter of his given name. The two walked home together, D. Boon — or “d. boon,” as it eventually appeared on Minutemen releases — reciting routines from a George Carlin record, Watt thinking he was the most insane, brilliant, kid on the planet.

Boon’s mother, trying to keep her son and his friend out of trouble, suggested they start a band. Why not? Watt claims he didn’t even know what a bass guitar was when they first started, or that tuning wasn’t arbitrary. They just banged away, performing choppy covers of their heroes: Blue Öyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival — typical teenage rock. Soon, through the pages of rock magazines, the two discovered something called punk rock and, amazingly, realized for the first time that they could write their own songs. Rock and roll wasn’t something in the distance anymore, under the spotlights, to be viewed from the bleacher seats — it could be made by two dudes in their bedrooms, figuring it out as they went along. It could be anything and everything all at once. Like Pepper before them, they followed the path out of San Pedro, deeper into Los Angeles, pursuing the new sound and vision.

After a few false starts, the Minutemen were born. In six short years, the duo, along with proclaimed surf jock George Hurley on drums, produced an expansive run of fiercely political and startlingly personal riot calls. “Paranoid Chant,” a 90-second surge that Watt wrote for their first seven-inch EP, makes the connection explict:

I try to work and I keep thinking of World War III
I try to talk to girls and I keep thinking of World War III
The goddamned six o'clock news makes sure I keep thinking of World War III
I got a mile of numbers and a ton of stats
Of warheads
A billion Chinese with warheads
I don't even worry about crime any more
So many goddamned scared faces

The songs they wrote were vital blasts from the psyche, tightly wound cerebral poems, often formless but never inept. The tension of the lyrics is mirrored in the music: Watt's bass and Boon's guitar often seemed in conflict, the bass providing the melodic undercurrent for the guitar to nervously slice and dice through, with Hurley's stuttering, funk- and jazz-inflected beats holding the whole thing together .

The trio remained teenagers, in a way, completely innocent and open to new ideas, willing to always try new things. Even when their songs were outspokenly political, they were never manifestos. On “I Felt Like a Gringo,” Watt uses a vacation in Mexico to comment on American isolationism, implicating himself in the process:

I asked a Mexican who ran a bar for Americans
"Who won," I said "the election?"
He laughed, I felt like a gringo,
They played a song and they had some fun with us.

Why can't you buy a good time?

Why are there soldiers in the street?
Why'd I spend the fourth in someone elses country?

The Minutemen always asked questions, and searched for answers with an earnestness that gave their music, and their image, a degree of authenticity that few bands, before or after, have matched. The main tenet of their philosophy was the idea of “econo,” a bit of band slang that came to define an entire way of life. The band drove their own van, loaded their own gear, and slept on couches – everything on the cheap, stripped to the essentials. Even their songs were econo, usually clocking in under two minutes, consisting of just a few words and a barrage of notes, recorded quickly and, often, on used tape. They broke their activities down into two categories: “gigs” — live performances, which were what mattered most — and “flyers,” which covered everything that got their name and music out into the world. Their lyrics were “spiels,” akin to rants or scribbled diary entries, rejecting the standard verse-chorus-verse structure of pop. “Mersh” was slang for “commercial,” the antithesis of what the band represented. For Watt, his bass — a machine, like any workman’s tool — was a “thud staff.” The new kids coming up were the “next shift.” This semi-private vocabulary, like their “econo” methods, reflected the members’ own working class backgrounds, and the atmosphere of the town they waved the flag for and represented with pride.


Although only mentioned a few times by name, San Pedro permeates On and Off Bass, Watt’s new collection of photographs, diary entries, and poems. The photographs were all taken in and around the San Pedro harbor, many of them during kayak rides, and feature the natural and unnatural life of the waterfront, from the seagulls to the cargo ships. The diary entries and poems, which work as captions to the photographs but stand on their own, are small meditations on a life spent wandering. There is a tension between the jotted-down snapshots from around the world and the constant pull back home. Home, here, is not just the concrete reality of San Pedro. For Watt, San Pedro is the “big reservoir” that John Coltrane, another of his musical heroes, often discussed: a never-ending source of inspiration, filled with memories, always waiting to be dipped into again.

Spanning a period from 2000 to 2011, the journal entries that make up most of the book were written on the road during tours with his current bands and stints playing bass with the reformed Stooges. The very few entries concerned with the minutiae of the present use it is as a doorway to the past, as in one from October 19, 2003:

We stop for gas at red bluff (the town where my pop was a boy) and I tell the lady at the counter that my pop grew up here and she says, “that’s too bad.” whoa, didn’t expect that, maybe it’s a joke. I know he joined the navy early, so maybe he had some similar thoughts.

This is only one of several passages Watt dedicates to memories of his father and mother, in which he contemplates his relationship with them and ruminates on what they would think of their son now. Such entries highlight one of On and Off Bass’s major themes: aging. Now 54, well into what he at one point calls his “middle period,” Watt often digs into his own store of memories, musical and personal, for inspiration on how to proceed. In an entry, from October 16, 2003, he discusses a meeting with a writer who interviews him for a book about The Dickies, another first-generation Southern California punk band.:

we dug all those early punk bands including the dickies and it’s great that their core (leonard and stan) has been able to keep it going all these years. the way the l.a. scene was, it was groups of people from all over, getting together in hollywood mainly to see these shows — you have to understand so cal is a huge place, maybe 150 towns and we were spread out all over. the dickies were from “the val” (san Fernando valley) and I was just a corndog from pedro.

This seemingly casual reminiscence hints at the driving force behind Watt, and the source of the memories to which he returns most: D. Boon. When Watt refers to “we,” it’s himself and Boon — even more than the Minutemen as a trio – that he’s talking about. Boon is mentioned many times throughout the book, and the presence of his guitarist and best friend, which is felt on every page, is also the source of the sadness the runs through the book. Boon tragically passed away in 1985 at the age of 27, two days after Watt’s birthday, ejected from the back of a van on the highway in Arizona when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. When Watt discusses how great it is that “the core” of The Dickies has managed to stick together all these years, it’s easy to see the loneliness behind the affirmation. Watt and Boon were meant to hang in there, to be “the core” that stuck together, but that chance was unfairly taken away from them. After Boon's death, Watt was hesitant to start playing again, until a young man named Charles Edward Crawford (later renamed “ed fROMOHIO”) traveled to San Pedro and looked him up in the phone book. Crawford had heard a false rumor that Watt was auditioning new guitarists. Watt eventually agreed to play with the persistent fan; the two of them, with Hurley once again on drums, would become the band fIREHOSE. Although Watt has continued to make music, with fIREHOSE as well as an assortment of variously named solo and side projects, Boon’s absence, and the sadness of his passing, are living presences to Watt, and everything since has been done in his name.

At their least concrete, Watt’s contemplations of the universe can sound like cosmic drivel: positive life lectures from a beach-bum guru. It’s hard not to giggle at the moment, recounted in a diary entry from October 27, 2000, where Watt, staring out at the Hudson River, gets “buzzed on his own thoughts.” Putting his hand to his face, his skull vibrates like a bass string and he wonders if he should pluck it. Other entries sound more like fan club updates than diary entries; unsurprising, since Watt has been publishing many of them on his website (or “hoot page”), which, for Watt, is simply a digital-age extension of the Minutemen’s old “flyer” concept.

The strongest entries, though, entwine Watt’s sadness and his optimism, and complement the book’s photography. Watt’s range of subject matter is limited, but he has a keen eye for capturing unexpected disruptions within seemingly normal, even mundane situations. Many of the photographs combine the serenity of water, typically framed with the expansive sky hanging overhead, with some sort of intrusion of commerce. I don’t read any kind of explicit political commentary within these images, but Watt seems to be drawn to the commingling of the ships, colorful but faded, with the deep blues of the water and sky — a harmony between work and the natural elements that seems intrinsic to the fabric of his hometown. The critique, if there is one, emerges naturally, as part of the landscape.. Animals, especially birds, are present in many images, hovering freely on the edges of the frame. Others capture organic disruptions — heavy waves crashing down on the pier, or the heavy sky, the color of burnt embers, dramatically dominating the frame.

Many of the photographs are also concerned with the light of Los Angeles. It’s a special kind of light, to be sure — the kind, Lawrence Weschler writes, that “you lose yourself in — somehow not outwardly but, rather, inwardly.” The most alluring series of images in On and Off Bass highlights the deep, hazy oranges of the sunset hanging over San Pedro. Without the context of Watt's introspective notes, the same images could be read as dangerous, even post-apocalyptic; here, the soft, strange light gives them a dream-like quality. It takes a few minutes to realize that people are entirely absent, in a way that aligns obliquely with the writing that accompanies the photographs. Neither the words nor the pictures are concerned with people in the here and now, but with memories of people. Loss is prevalent throughout of On and Off Bass, but it is undercut with hope; there is always the sustaining reservoir of inspiration — from Boon, from music, from San Pedro itself — to dip back into. It’s the same reservoir that John Coltrane described in a 1966 interview with Nat Hentoff: “There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at.” By looking back, Watt, is carving new paths forward: “my philosophy is to continue to plow.”