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Mike Watt Inspired By Dantesque Illness

Last year, Mike Watt was seriously ill — bedridden — for nearly six months. "You ever heard this thing by Dante Alighieri called the 'Divine Comedy'?" he asked me in a recent phone interview from his home in the harbor of San Pedro, Calif. "You've got hell and purgatory and heaven. That's like what I went through — the sickness was total hell. I thought I was going for sure."

Rushed to a Los Angeles hospital in February 2000 after a large abscess burst in his groin, Watt healed slowly and painfully from an unusual infection of the perineum. But the illness and his eventual recovery provided some fresh insights, which he now says inspired his third solo album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, scheduled for an April 2002 release. "This stuff made big impressions on me," Watt, 43, said. "And its good to write from stuff that strikes you strongly and maybe not just a general breeze blowing.

"In fact, this next record is gonna be a different kinda trio," Watt added. "I'm gonna do it with bass, drums and organ. I'm pretty much experienced in the guitar, bass, drums line-up. What the human mind does is when it gets familiar with shit, it starts blocking it out: 'Oh, I've already been here.' So, I wanna shake things up. I have to be alive. Again, I don't wanna be dismissed. I wanna make them curious about what I'm doing."

Following his recovery, Watt, the former bassist of legendary early-'80s punk band The Minutemen, went on the road playing bass with J. Mascis and the Fog. "I know a lot of people call the tour hell but, to me, it was paradise," Watt said. "I could play again. I could ride my bike again. I could play my bass again. It was like a heaven for me. So, that's how the story fits."

Known for his commitment to a do-it-yourself, and often strenuous, touring ethic, Watt, who co-led fIREHOSE during the late '80s and early '90s, kicks off his "time to cat and not mouse" tour 2001 (his 48th) on Tuesday (Sept. 11) at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill, with Tom Watson on guitar and Jerry Trebotic on drums. He plans to play 52 shows in 54 days. "It seemed to work in the beginning," Watt said of the D.I.Y. philosophy The Minutemen followed religiously. "Don't fix it if it works. Rock 'n' roll stars are blaming people for what's bad in their life and their creative process. If you do stuff yourself, you've got nowhere to look except in the mirror, and take responsibility."

"Mainly what I'm gonna do is get out there and play a lot of songs from my career," Watt said. "About three-quarters of the stuff I'm playing on this tour, I haven't really played for people ... some of it, but a long time ago, not since Minutemen days. A lot of it is to get me warmed up. I'm not gonna do songs from the new album 'cause, like I said, it's a different line-up with the organ.... I'm gonna play stuff through all the years. It's like a retrospective, I guess you can call it."

Like Dante at the time he wrote the "Divine Comedy," Watt is approaching middle age — and he's aware of the seeming contradiction of being a "punk" in his 40s. "It's a weird time, especially being a punk rocker with that Peter Pan syndrome," he said. "In some ways I've had to become very responsible. I've never had a manager. I've never had people tell me what to do. But in another way, I ride around in a van, playing for kids. So, I'm sorta in arrested development.

"You can play as you get older. You have to change the way you play, but the music don't have to leave you. You just have to adapt and change," added Watt, who recently switched to a smaller bass to accommodate the joint discomfort in his hands. "It's one of the few things I feel I have a knack for."

Thoughtful and sincere, Watt has meaningful goals for his audiences. In an age when youth culture is spoon-fed its music, overwhelmed by MTV's Total Request Live and whatever else the corporate music industry is pushing at the moment, kids today are often blinded to their own freedom of choice. Watt hopes to encourage independent thought and spirit at his live shows.

"Seems like these kids are always being told: 'You should like this, you should like this.' You know what? They have so much control over their fuckin' lives from other elements, I think they should pick what they like," Watt said. "And I would like to be held at that same criterion. So, they don't automatically have to like me or have respect. They can check me out now and if they think what I'm doing now is OK, then much respect to them.... If I had one goal about doing gigs and making records, I'd like to instill in people confidence like, 'Hey! It's free up here! You can go crazy!' Don't follow rules, don't follow market trends. This is too precious of an incubator here." — Jenny Tatone [Monday, September 10, 2001]

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