Jamming Econo

by Mike Corrigan

Mike Watt's off-tour daily schedule is typically atypical. He konks out early and gets up early -- like at around 4 or 5 in the morning. He spends a few hours in the a.m. biking it through the scenic ocean-side community of San Pedro, California (his home since he was 10) past the docks, the warehouses and cliffs, just taking advantage of the geography. He spends the remainder of his day answering e-mails, doing interviews and practicing with one of his many post-Minutemen, post-fIREHOSE groups. One such group, the Secondmen -- with Watt (on bass, of course), organist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic, is on its way to Spokane for a gig at the B-Side this Sunday night.

He also recently finished a book called Spiels of a Minuteman that contains all the lyrics he wrote for the Minutemen from 1980-85 along with a tour diary from the band's infamous 1983 trek across Europe with Black Flag.

"Some of the younger people that weren't around to see us in those days are kind of curious about the older punk," says Watt. "There's no sense of history when MTV deals with it. So they're kind of rootless. They've heard of certain names and certain bands they know are important but they really don't know the history. In a way, I can help out there."

Watt's contributions to the tradition of vital, challenging rock are well documented. They began in the frenzied early days of the LA punk scene with the incomparable and widely influential Minutemen, the fiercely original and uncompromising band he co-formed in 1980 with his childhood friend, guitarist D. Boon, and drummer George Hurley. Together, this trio from San Pedro completely dismantled the lyrical and musical precepts of song structure only to reassemble them into something singular and ferocious: 60 second bursts of funk and free jazz-informed punk embracing socio-political commentary that appealed to both the intellect and the soul.

The Minutemen saga ended abruptly in 1985 when an automobile accident claimed the life of D. Boon. A deeply shattered Watt was coaxed back into performing a year later by friends and fans -- he formed fIREHOSE with Hurley and guitarist Ed Crawford and Dos with ex-Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler. Since the demise of fIREHOSE in 1994, Watt has continued to tour with various combos, lend his bass skills to numerous side projects and release intriguing solo albums (such as 1997's "punk opera," Contemplating the Engine Room).

He's due to hit the studio after the current tour ends to record a new work entitled The Secondman's Middle Stand, a concept album loosely based on Dante's Divine Comedy and Watt's recent brush with death (a harrowing episode involving an abscess of his perineum).

"That sickness almost killed me three years ago so I wrote a piece around it," reveals Watt. "Luckily, I got to stay in the game. It was a hellride, though. It took a lot from me. So I felt justified taking something from it -- like a record."

Though he laments the negative trends in the music industry today (the co-opting of punk by corporate America, the consolidation of record labels and the airwaves) Watt is quick to spin positive.

"Those moments get lost," he says of the relative pure aesthetics of early punk and post-punk movements. "But some of the ethics of those moments can keep going on and on. I think things are still loose enough that you can make wild labels and try wild music approaches. It might even be easier to do it, though it might be hard for other folks to figure it out. But it kind of was in those days, too. If somebody didn't turn you on to it, it was hard to know about it. We have the Internet, so maybe now it's easier. In a lot of ways, I see the Internet as a parallel to the old idea of the fanzine. Everyone used to have their own fanzine. Now everyone can have their own Web site and not have a middleman, a gatekeeper."

When the Minutemen first started kicking against the pricks, free-thinking Americans were chafing under the social conservatism and hawkish cold war dogma of the Reagan administration. Watt notes the many parallels that exist between that era and today's political climate while encouraging independent, individual voices to sound off.

"As young Minutemen we were dealing with issues of our time. And I have a strong sense of those days, especially among young people who might not have even heard of those days. It doesn't matter because the times call for certain folks. On a social level, I think we're really being challenged right now. People are being manipulated into what to think and probably don't have a lot of confidence. They're backed into a corner. One of my main missions is to hike up the confidence level in people, especially young people, who probably feel marginalized and hustled, and let them know it's okay to be part of a creative thing and to take the reins of your own journey. I want to see people go crazy and take chances with art forms because everything seems so stagnant. I really think in a lot of ways, art is about people trying to convince each other that they're alive."

For Watt, staying alive means maintaining an artistic presence in the world -- not as an oldies act, but as a songwriter and performer who remains a seeker, as one who is continually challenged, and unafraid to challenge others.

"My role as a Minuteman is kind of making a rerun in a way," he says. "It's not just to be a souvenir or a relic from those days. I can be in the moment and still be of those traditions without trying to trump everything with sentimentalism or nostalgia or bullshit like that. It's just I haven't given up. It's strange to see that history is repeated and things aren't learned and you don't get down the road. Then again, maybe it's fertilizer for people to grow a new crop of thinking."

"I got into this to be with my friend," adds the ever-unassuming Watt with clear admiration for his lost comrade. "All I wanted to be was D. Boon's bass player. But this is the way it worked out and this is what I'm a part of. So I'm just trying to do my best with it."

Gunmetal Girl -- Tori Amos plays the piano like a sharpshooter plays the trigger -- with resolute intensity and meticulous violence. One way or the other, you don't know whether to admire or retire her. As a vocalist, there's something slightly juvenile about her lyrics, frothed over from a broth of calculated bitterness that makes one wonder -- perhaps if she'd had more chicken soup and cookies as a kid.... But maybe that's the recipe for Brittney, and heaven save us from repeating that particular collection of plastic, hip-shaking molecules. So lest the avid Amos fans reach for their ammo, let there be no equivocation on my part: This woman demands a reckoning. Her talent demands listening.

This April 8 at the Arena, old aficionados and newcomers alike will have a chance to hear Tori on tour for her latest album, On Scarlet's Walk -- a sort of sonic metaphor on the move, 18 tracks composed along a musical pilgrimage that Tori took cross-country in the months following September 11. Each song, including the now radio-ubiquitous "A Sorta Fairytale," lives as a shrine to stories encountered in the context of a nation in flux.

Joined on tour by longtime collaborators Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on percussion, Amos will no doubt pull from her eclectic database of discography and sounds: baroque styles, gospel spirituals, techno beats. Who ever thought the harpsichord could be reassimilated into the mainstream? Astute with voice and hands, Tori past and present seems to avoid the messy chord structures and flat melodies of most pop music. At the same time she's managing clean yet polyrhythmic layers, an athletic attack on the ivories, and articulate crescendos that climb into a single visceral message: Don't meet this woman in a back alley on less-than-affable business.

Classically trained, at age five Amos was enrolled in Baltimore's Peabody Institute as a child prodigy. Legend has it that at age 11 she was ejected for "playing by ear" the songs of John Lennon and the Doors. Through her teens she played the bar scene in D.C., made various failed attempts at release -- and then her1992 Little Earthquakes hit UK's top 10 and sold 1.5 million copies worldwide. From there she turned out a succession of multi-platinum records: Boys for Pele, The Choirgirl Hotel, To Venus and Back, and last year's Strange Little Girls.

She's come a long way, baby, from her failed stint in the '80s as front singer for Y Kant Tori Read. Hailed now as part of the vanguard of intelligent, contemporary female musicians, Amos has established herself as an equally iconic and iconoclastic cultural figure and independent musician. So maybe her whiplash-wet-rag, issue-laden lyrics could use a long clothesline to air them out. One way or the other, angst sells well, and this woman owns a wail all her own. --Andrea Palpant

Jamaican Soul -- Once a singer, songwriter and bass player for the legendary Kingston reggae band, The Gladiators, Clinton Fearon brings three decades of musical history to Spokane this Tuesday night with his latest group, the Seattle-based Boogie Brown Band. Together with Barbara Kennedy (keyboards, backing vocals), David Carpenter (drums), Jeff DeMelle (bass), Izaak Mills (tenor sax), Jonathan Cuenca (trombone), lead vocalist and guitarist Fearon serves up energetic, hard-driving and rock steady "roots" reggae rhythms that provide the sonic foundation for his positive spiritual and political compositions. Always danceable, always thought-provoking, Fearon and his band be the real thing, folks.

Publication date: 04/03/03