By Karl Hodge
“We’re going to do a fucked up thing,” Mike Watt said right before his recent set at The Brudenell in Leeds, “We’re going to play you a 45 minute song that has 30 parts…”
He wasn’t kidding.
Mike Watt, bass legend of fIREHOSE, The Minutemen and, latterly, the reformed Stooges is in the UK to “play us some of his own music”. Days later it’s still messing with my head.
Watt’s 2010 solo album, Hyphenated-Man, is a jazz-punk opera that reflects on mortality, his days in The Minutemen and, crucially, the paintings of scary proto-surrealist Hieronymus Bosch. Every part’s a little vignette focusing on a character from the Dutch artist’s work.
I struggle to get my infantile brains around the idea of a 56 year old man wilfully spending so much time staring into the hellish abyss of Bosch – but Watt tempers the 15th Century torture-porn with his own whimsy. The songs are titled after the cutesy names he came up with for each damned character; arrow-pierced-egg-man, head-and-feet-only-man, blowing-it-out-both-ends-man and so on.
And so, after a stumbling entrance and a lesson in pronouncing the name of the venue (“Brewden Hall… Brew Den Ale… Brudenell!”) Watt and his side-guys The Missing Men begin.
With little respite between songs, each under two minutes long, we are pitched (black) into Watt filtered Bosch. It rocks and rumbles, clatters, then descends into whispers. Occasional Stooges riffs peek through, with sometimes a nod towards the lounge end of the jazz continuum. There’s blues in it too.
But for the most part, this is an angular ride. The touchstones are jazz (the last thing Watt shouts from the stage are the words “John Coltrane!”) but the execution is power trio punk. The bass resolves on the note you don’t expect; the guitar switches from syncopation to dischords to squeal. There are few effects save some valve distortion when chords crash together.
And throughout, Watt’s vocals foster the illusion that these are songs. Gruff, now and shell-shocked. Bewildered and angry. It’s pretentious to call this poetry, I guess, but fuck it – this is poetry. In the way Tom Waits sometimes is or Patti Smith could be, but much, much less art-school than that:
loss and liberation
forever the connection
forever the question
be brave, watt
stop never reflectin’
the lesson ain’t ever less than
the lesson never lessens
(Mike Watt – pinned-to-the-table-man)
It’s over more quickly than we expect, perhaps because there has been no room for applause. When the band come back to play an encore of Minutemen songs (with guitarist Tom Watson taking the vocal mic) it feels like an anti-climax. Like, these are just songs and what the fuck was that we all just heard?
But I am not a fan from way back and, for some, the encore is the mosh opportunity that cost a tenner on the door and Mike Watt is some old punk dude with a bitchin’ drummer. At one point 63% of the crowd visibly shrink when Watt screams “no beards!” at them.
As The Missing Men pack their own instruments away (there’s no room for a roadie on the Brudenell’s tiny stage), my friend Tom watches anxiously. There’s a CD cover in his pocket and he’s brought a pen. He hesitates.
“Are you waiting for your moment?” I ask.
He looks at me and when he looks back, the moment has passed. The band are disappearing through the door.
We turn to the merch table to see what other spoils there might be. First there, we’re blocking the way as an older lady breaks through the gathering fen and adjusts a bar room chair at the table’s edge.
“He’s coming!” she says.
Moments later, Mike Watt is sitting right in front of us, blue flannel shirt sopping wet from his hour on stage. My mate gets his CD cover signed and a handshake. They seem to confer for a couple of minutes. Nods appear to be exchanged.
Later, I ask him what was said.
“I just said ‘thank you’. ‘Thank you.’’”
“For everything you are and what you’ve become?”
And we both laugh, because many a true word is spoken in jest.
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