Where have all the Mohawks gone? If you're looking for the perfect symbol of the aesthetic denouement of the underground punk scene, you don't have to search too hard. The icons of that movement's mid-'80s subterranean flowering are in plain sight, circa 1999. Sonic Youth's scowling siren Kim Gordon now sits demurely in a full-color, double-page Calvin Klein ad within the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Black Flag's singer Henry Rollins -- who in his bare-chested, stage-stalking prime seemed ready at any moment to fall victim to spontaneous combustion -- has slid into a comfortable Hollywood niche, pulling down a string of bit parts in generic big-budget action flicks, as well as providing the raspy voice-overs for several luxury automobile commercials.
Even more telling is the evolution of artist Raymond Pettibon. Of course back in the '80s no one used the word artist to describe Pettibon. Cartoonist maybe. "That's one sick fuck" was the phrase uttered by a relative who spotted one of Pettibon's gig flyers on Kulchur's teenage bedroom wall. For Pettibon, whose crudely sublime drawings graced the flyers of punk's cream, that would have been high praise indeed. The themes and iconography of these hand-drawn works were as much a statement on the shows they plugged as they were on the "meaning" of punk rock itself: the backwash of Nixon's America, fried hippies, shaky junkies, a forlorn Charles Manson, and a leering Lee Harvey Oswald. These Xeroxed cultural signposts are now bona fide artifacts, a traveling art exhibition that has been featured at New York City's Drawing Center, the University of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and currently sits at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, in a pristine gallery not far from the telephone poles to which Pettibon's flyers were first stapled.
A New Yorker art critic described Pettibon's work as "funny, erudite, and macabre, like the thoughts of a deranged academic watching late-night TV." One could say the same about the music of the best bands featured on those flyers, particularly San Pedro, California's Minutemen, an iconoclastic trio composed of guitarist/ singer d. boon, drummer George Hurley, and bassist Mike Watt, who fused lean, choppy funk moves and off-kilter jazzbo rhythms into their punk roar. (Check the group's 1984 Double Nickels on the Dime, which renders as redundant the bulk of today's underground squall.)
At the very least the Minutemen had some great song titles. Tunes like "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?", "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts," and "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" said it all. This was punk rock that refused to be anything less than intelligent. When the band name-checked Bob Dylan, it wasn't as an affectation, but rather out of a belief that their own music should be no less relevant and engaging to its own audience than Dylan's was to his twenty years earlier. All of which made d. boon's 1985 death in an auto accident all the more tragic. Refusing to hang it up, however, Watt and Hurley reconstituted themselves as firehose, with Ohio native Ed Crawford taking over d. boon's slot. Several albums of catchy rock followed, introducing Watt to an even wider audience, culminating in 1995's solo release ball-hog or tugboat with figures such as Pearl Jam's singer Eddie Vedder and Lemonhead Evan Dando taking on the singing chores in a tribute to a musician they themselves grew up on.
One might think all this heavy history would leave Watt a solemn, joyless figure. Just the opposite. Speaking by phone from his San Pedro home, Watt practically bubbles over with enthusiasm.
"I like making fun of my image," he says. "Some people think I'm so stuffy and boring, like I'm already defined. I'm this guy with the flannel on and I do 'punk-funk.'" As for the mainstreaming of alternative rock and the deification of oddball fellow travelers such as Pettibon, Watt waxes philosophical: "High school kids are always looking for peer acceptance. If communism was hip, they'd buy that, too. Our scene was about weirdos who couldn't fit in, so it is a strange contradiction to have that become the popular thing."
You can catch a glimpse of that storied era in Fucked Up + Photocopied: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement, a lavish new tome assembled by Bryan Ray Turcotte and Christopher T. Miller that features thousands of vintage flyers (including some of Pettibon's best). While the book's enshrinement of those images also serves as an entombment of punk's once-vital spirit, it thankfully refrains from sugarcoating affairs. As Watt recalls in a paragraph that accompanies a set of Pettibon-created Minutemen flyers, those days were often anything but glamorous.
"When I first hit the road, food poisoning was a constant hazard," he writes. "In the winter of 1985 we were touring with R.E.M. and I got the bug in Land O' Lakes, Florida. It soon became useless to keep changing my pants, so I tied a shirt around my waist and rags around the bottoms of my pant legs. Three days later, my pants were full to the knees."
As for who's responsible for capping the punk movement, Watt isn't afraid to start pointing fingers. "Why do people let Spin magazine run our scene? Bob Guccione, Jr.? I never saw that guy in the pit! Rolling Stone used to hate us -- not anymore. If you read their pages now, they invented punk. That culture is what Contemplating the Engine Room came out of," he concludes excitedly, referring to his most recent album, released last year.
For Contemplating Watt dispensed with the guest stars of ball-hog and returned to a tight trio with experimental jazz guitarist Nels Cline and Tom Waits's drummer Steve Hodges. The sound is anything but sparse, however, moving from Spanish flamenco to the kind of twists and turns not seen since Frank Zappa's sprawling ensembles. The subject matter is equally large, being nothing less than Watt's own autobiography told in the form of a rock opera à la Quadrophenia. Although Watt jokingly begs for it not to be labeled a concept record -- "it sounds too '70s, like Dark Side of the Moon" -- he sets up a day in the life of three sailors in the engine room of a boat as a metaphor for his own travels with the Minutemen, driving cross-country in a van to new ports of call. The songs are heavy with symbolism, taking in everything from his old days within the punk milieu to his childhood years.
The inspiration for Watt to bare himself came after spending the better part of 1997 touring major venues as the bassist for Perry Farrell's post-Jane's Addiction project, Porno for Pyros. "When I was onstage some nights with Perry, I would look around and just try to figure out how I got here," he says. "What happened to me, my whole life?" At tour's end he returned to San Pedro and began musing. "I wrote the whole record while riding a bicycle and playing the bass in my mind. This guy was moving last year and he sold me a ten-speed for five bucks. I live in the harbor by the cliffs and docks, so it was perfect for just riding around. In fact on the song 'Pedro Bound,' if you follow the lyrics, that's my daily route: turn left here, now turn right."
Perhaps most movingly, this song cycle lets Watt finally say goodbye to both d. boon and his own father, who passed away from cancer in 1992 after spending two decades working in the engine room of a nuclear submarine. "My father never really understood my music," explains Watt. "I think he finally figured out I was a sailor too, traveling around. When he ran from his farm town to join the navy, that was the Minutemen saying 'fuck you' to arena-rock. I just saw so many parallels I could make a little world out of."
As Contemplating closes to the sound of waves lapping and seagulls cawing, Watt quietly sings to the "man overboard": "The unforgiving sea tore you from me ... /All alone and pulling shore duty/Seems there's always more duty/Maybe that's the beauty. So is this "duty," the endless touring (for his current road trip, 52 small club dates in 55 van-driven days), a way for Watt to stay sane?
He answers carefully. "This is what I've learned about the world: You're gonna lose people. People are going to die. Your pop. Your guy. If you've got work, well, the sun's going to come up and you've got something to do. Something to say. Something to prove. Something to put your whole shoulder into. For all the sadness, I'm very lucky.... I can never be the Minutemen, but I'll always be a Minuteman."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Mike Watt's new trio (featuring drummer Vince Meghrouni and ex-Slovenly guitarist Tom Watson) performs at 9:00 p.m Wednesday, November 3, at Fort Lauderdale's FuBar. Tickets cost nine dollars. For more information call 954-776-0660.
Halloween at the Beach's Alliance Cinema: Friday, October 29, the theater hosts two free screenings of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (featuring a killer Bernard Herrmann soundtrack) at 8:00 p.m. and midnight. Seating is limited: Free tickets can be obtained at the Alliance's Lincoln Road box office now. On Sunday, October 31, at 1:00 p.m. and midnight, the Alliance's Cinema Vortex repertory series goes old school -- really old school, as in 1919, for that year's pioneering silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The special attraction is a live experimental electronic score performed by Needle (a.k.a. Ed Bobb -- does this guy ever sleep?) and Io (a.k.a. David Font, see "Music"). Tickets cost six dollars.
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail email@example.com