Mike Watt makes rock operas. Plural. In fact, the former bassist of the Minutemen is swinging through Spokane this week with his third rock opera, Hyphenated-man. But when this tour ends don’t expect Watt’s show to hit Broadway anytime soon. There’s no glitz or glamour to this one.
Hyphenated-man isn’t a rock opera in a traditional sense, like The Who’s Tommy or Green Day’s American Idiot. There are no sweeping, grandiose epics, no catchy refrains. Heck, there’s not even really a narrative to the thing. The album consists of 30 scattershot tracks of middle-aged self reflection, each one a little slice of a man (titles include “belly-stabbed-man,” “head-and-feet-only-man” and “hell-building-man”). The key to understanding the album is accepting that Hyphenated-man is, in fact, only one song.
“In the perfect sense in my mind, all 30 parts would go at the same time,” Watt says. “It’s about me kind of taking an inventory. In the first part I talk about the mirror broken up in the head, and that’s what I was trying to do.”
Watt has written two previous rock operas. The Ulysses-inspired Contemplating the Engine Room addressed Watt’s father’s Navy career and the death of The Minutemen guitarist D. Boone in a 1985 van accident. On The Secondman’s Middle, Watt used Dante’s Divine Comedy to examine an illness from a perineal infection that almost took his life. Both had traditional rock opera story structures. But Hyphenated-man bucks that trend, drawing inspiration from the bizarre creatures in the surrealist works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and The Wizard of Oz.
It’s all part of the 54-year-old Watt’s mid-life self examination.
“Part of the point is that I think it’s really reductionist to say anybody is one thing. That’s one of the things when you get middle-aged; you get more of a nuanced understanding of things,” Watt says. “I know in your 20s you know everything, but by the time you get here, you don’t know hardly anything. So you just make little guesses out there.”
Despite usually being bass-centric, Watt initially wrote all the songs for Hyphenated-man on guitar. But he didn’t use just any guitar: he wrote the album using telecaster of D. Boon, his bandmate who died in a van accident in 1985.
“I thought that, in a weird way, maybe D. Boon could help me be brave to talk about some of the personal things I was talking about,” he says.
Talking to Watt, it’s clear how much D. Boon’s death still dictates his musical outlook. Guys in bands untouched by tragedy don’t say things like, “Of course I want my guys and me to play as good as we can for people, but actually the number one thing is to get them home safe.” Watt’s heart is always with The Minutemen, always with his deceased pal.
“I got into this [music] thing to be with my friend, and he got killed in the wreck, you know? And I kinda lost the main reason to do it. So then I thought ‘f---, do it just to do it, ’cause music is a means of expression,’” he says. “I had really never thought if it much that way, but I had to deal with it. So the whole thing has been learning how to do that and be honest about it inside me. I don’t think it can get all done. I think it’s a life-long process.”
Call Watt “mourning-but-soldiering-on-man.”
Mike Watt & The Missingmen with Bullets or Balloons • Sun, Sept. 30, at 8 pm • A Club • 416 W. Sprague Ave. • $12 • 21+ • 624-3629