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Punk Never Dies

Mike Watt, a pioneer of the Do-It-Yourself music scene in Los Angeles, maintains an anti-establishment ethos.

October 17, 2004|Howard Libes | Howard Libes last wrote for the magazine about skateboarding icon Stacy Peralta.

In the winter of 1977, 20-year-old Mike Watt drove from San Pedro with his friend Dennes Boon and discovered punk rock at the Hollywood clubs. While watching bands such as the Germs and X, they realized that maybe a place existed for them in the music world. They had grown up seeing big acts at arena rock shows, so experiencing these bands up close brought the musicians down to earth. The players were around their age, and most of the songs were original and true to the artists' experience.

"All of a sudden I felt empowered," Watt says today. "The first thing I said to D. Boon is, 'We can do this.' "

As Watt would later declare in the song "History Lesson--Part II": "Punk rock changed our life."

Watt, a bassist, and guitarist/singer Boon, along with drummer George Hurley, formed the Minutemen, a band that would become a cornerstone of punk music in the U.S. They invented their own sound, writing succinct, furious, personal songs that were an amalgam of jazz, funk and rock--decidedly uncommercial and sounding unlike any other punk band.

But in late 1985, Boon died in a car accident. The tragedy marked the end of the Minutemen. Still, they left behind a Do-It-Yourself legacy that inspires bands today--a lesson in how to forge a new path in a rigid and often frustrating business.

"People didn't even know music existed where there's no middleman," Watt says. "They thought you had to have a manager, an agent. We thought it was important to stay autonomous. We didn't have to play commercial music. We wanted to take more chances with the music than with lifestyle."

Watt persevered after the death of his close friend, making his musical mark in a wide variety of projects. Now, more than 25 years later, Watt is a punk-rock patriarch, prospering with his DIY approach to the music business. It has served him well in a time when the tradition-bound record industry is reeling from the effects of the Internet revolution.

Today, at 46, Watt still calls San Pedro his home. He has adhered to the DIY ethos, never deviating from "working the towns" while he "jams econo." His solo albums are released by Columbia Records because he wanted to see if better distribution would increase his sales, and he has a booking agent--otherwise, his career has flourished without middlemen.

Watt recognizes the Internet as the next step in the DIY movement. He runs his own website, www.hootpage.com, with links to tour journals, music downloads and Minutemen-related sites. "The ethic is pretty much the same," he says. "The delivery [system] is more widespread, especially when a computer in Sarajevo can read the site and download music. I still think the burden is on being creative."

Watt is constantly playing music, recording and touring--as a sideman for Iggy Pop and other artists; in side projects such as the Madonnabes (a Madonna cover band); and in his own groups.

"He's just one of the preeminent bassists, no matter what he's doing," says Curt Kirkwood, formerly of the Meat Puppets. During his career, Watt has played on 52 tours throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. He is currently on the road to support his third solo album, "The Secondman's Middle Stand," a "punk opera" that chronicles a midlife illness caused by an undetected infection that nearly killed him, while loosely paralleling Dante's "Divine Comedy."

And some things never change. Watt tours in a van, just like in the Minutemen days when they carried their own gear and slept wherever homes were offered. They were proud that their tours always at least broke even.

This was the essence of the Do-It-Yourself movement--encompassing bands, promoters, 'zines--with L.A.'s SST label and its groups as the vanguard. They toured the country, creating a circuit for punk bands, playing wherever they could find a willing promoter.

"You had all these cranky individualists, and they were going to make people take them straight," says Joe Carducci, a former co-owner of SST Records. The Minutemen "made a kind of moral statement: We're working stiffs and you guys are chasing a rock 'n' roll dream."

As with their musical style, the Minutemen's approach to recording also was different. They considered their albums as promotional fliers--a way of getting people to their shows. Every eight months, they released a new low-budget album. Their legendary 1984 two-album set, "Double Nickels on the Dime," was produced for $1,100.

"Everything was up for grabs, nothing a priori," Watt says. "College radio was playing our records, so to keep us in mind we'd keep getting them a new record."

In nearly six years, the band released 11 records, and they remain a touchstone for anyone involved in today's independent music scene. But Watt also has attracted a wide and varied group of admirers, such as singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who struck up a friendship after hearing his album "Contemplating the Engine Room." "It was so musical, so beautiful. It touched my heart," Jones says. "He's always trying to reach out to all kinds of people, musically and socially."

As a punk veteran, Watt deems his career an example for younger musicians.

"I like to do my part to demystify this business, so kids can see that anybody can start a band and it's just another way of expressing yourself," he says. "You just conk at people's pads, and you don't let the dream get too big for the tent."

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