MIKE WATT: THE GLORY HOLE OF MAN
The Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime is one of the several weathered foundations of L.A. RECORD and one of the few albums still alive with the weird outside-inside energy of punk as it was once in California and the world. Exactly twenty-five years later, it still starts bands and makes friends. Minutemen bassist Mike Watt meets for pizza at San Pedro’s excellent Pavich’s Pizza for remembering D. Boon and George Hurley and that guy Mike Watt in the summer of 1984. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You turned fifty in December and now Double Nickels is having its 25th anniversary.
I was 25 or 26 when I recorded this? Half of my life. The biggest thing about that guy Mike Watt in those days of 25-year-olds was really getting my mind blown by Ulysses. That was the big thing in my mind right then. It had a big impact on me. It made me wonder so much about the world. It’s funny how things come around. That record was a trippy time in the Minutemen’s life. In the punk era. Going back 25 years—it’s part of the past now! It’s a signifier in some ways—my life and other peoples’ lives. Like people knowing us and the punk movement—people who got the record, never saw us live. Keith and Tim did the We Jam Econo documentary. A lot of bands from the older times don’t have things done on them like that. They didn’t know a lot about the band—they knew from the record, but they wanted to find out about us. It became a thing unto itself—a touchstone. Not unto itself because it was obviously a scene—without a scene, there woulda been no Nickels, no Minutemen, no Econo. I don’t wanna get carried away—conceited! It’s just how it works out. We never thought we were a better band than anybody. We were happy as hell to be along with the team. We didn’t wanna be on top of the pile. I think every band had its own trip. There’s enough people to tell what’s right and wrong with music in books and shit. I don’t get into that. One good thing I like about it—is for D. Boon. A lot of times you get killed in your younger days, you get forgotten. I know the reason in my case—I liked him a lot and the fella could pay really good. For other cats to be aware of him—keeping the Minutemen in mind like that—in a weird way, his art is living. Some of his spirit is out there. For me, I owe him everything.
Where can you hear Boon the most on Nickels?
Maybe ‘Anxious Mofo’—that solo he does! Hardly any notes! It’s just great. And he does a great one in the instrumental—‘June 16.’ A lot of the words were influenced by Jim Joyce. The glory of man and all this. On ‘June ’16,’ Boon does a really good guitar solo, too. Hurley plays smoking drums on almost all of it. There’s a lot of dynamics with those two guys. Little tiny song settings. I’m trying to glue things together. I don’t do much bass solo on that record. I don’t think any.
Who drew the anchor on the label?
D. Boon. Punk records only had the writing on one side. With the way the lyrics are on the sleeve, we got the idea from Wire. Just put it out like prose instead of poetry.
Who wrote ‘Arena rock is new wave’ in the dead wax?
Joe Carducci came up with all those. I don’t know his commentary. [Looking at the photos in the gatefold] These pictures—this is Richard Meltzer, this is Joe Baiza. I just cut these pictures out. I had a posterboard. This is our first paid gig at Starwood. These two school buses—we rented these and played in them in Mojave on a dry lakebed. We had to wear sunglasses because the dust was blowing so hard. This is the Federal Building in west L.A.—I think it’s Rock Against Racism or Reagan. Maybe both. The camera people were taking pictures of a girl with a mohawk—they were way more into that than filming bands, so I’m turning it up. You can see how the scissors I used—pinking shears! I like these pictures. I don’t know—so casual. Boon’s got his fist up! And Georgie…
I know you did the record like Ummagumma—everyone got a solo song. ‘Cohesion,’ ‘Take 5, D’…
Georgie’s is ‘You Need The Glory.’ D. Boon never wrote a song with my words. I would write with his words all the time, but they weren’t words he wrote for me. They were little thoughts he put on paper and left around. That shit didn’t have rhymes—it was just thoughts, observations. He would use his words if he had rhymes—‘This Ain’t No Picnic.’ There were some misfires on this, I think. We did another version of ‘Little Man With A Gun In His Hand’—this came out such a lame version!
You said before you gotta spread a lot of manure to be a farmer.
Well, we wanted to match up to the Huskers because they had a double album. Kind of a challenge. I thought the band always did better when we were challenged. And it caught the band at a great time when Georgie was still writing us words.
At work, right?
He’d have to go in and work a lathe, so they’re kind of abstract. And the band had played enough that we could bring songs together really quick. Me and D. Boon were always quick because we grew up together but it always took time to show Georgie. We never wanted him in back—we wanted him just as involved. We’d spend a lot of time working out. This time, he could learn to feel it. He knew when he’d have a break or pause. The songs were coming real quick. The big problem was how were we gonna put 45 songs in order? We knew it was gonna be four sides. The way a record works, the needle works its way to the label. I kinda figured we’d have the shitty ones on the label and the good ones outside. How is this gonna happen? If we draw straws to find an order—first second third, pick one at a time. And good songs go first and lame ones get left, and the fourth side is nobody. I think Georgie got first pick and what’s he pick? His solo song! If you look at his side—all Hurley! I got second pick—I picked ‘Mike Jackson’ first, and Boon got third and picked ‘Anxious Mofo.’ Here’s a weird one—Hurley/Boon. Not a lot of Hurley/Boon. ‘Two Beads At The End,’ which we used to always crack up. It was always hard to know what Georgie was singing about. Private meanings. So we thought two butt beads hanging out—start you up like a lawnmower! I haven’t looked at this in a long time. D. Boon’s side is a lot of his stuff. And mine—a lot of Watt ones! Maybe we were picking songs from our own stuff—I thought I was picking for good! And it turns out the good ones are kinda on the outside. We didn’t want no favoritism. All divided even. A democratic thing. D. Boon would like that political idea.
How did ‘History Lesson’ end up on the label? That’s one of the very best songs.
Nobody wanted it! Second to last pick. D. Boon’s last pick was ‘One Reporter’s Opinion.’ Liked the guitar, a lotta guitar solo—hated the idea of my name in the song. I did that a lot. And ‘History Lesson’ had my name in it, too. The last two songs picked. The fourth side all unpicked. The Henry song, D. Boon’s ‘Song for Latin America,’ Martin the Reactionaries singer—no one wanted them!
Where did ‘History Lesson’ come from?
I wrote it and I kinda got the lick from Velvet Underground ‘Here She Comes Now.’ Mugger kept playing it over and over. I wrote it kind of for hardcore kids. Velvet music is kind of slow, but I thought everybody should be able to relate to playing with your buddy in a band. I guess some dudes real young think of being a rock star, but a lot of dudes start just to be with their friend. A lot of the idea—we didn’t seem like guys in a band. Kind of strange in a way. But personable! People could know us. They like a song where we talk about each other. A lot of times, D. Boon would be pulled off stage by bouncers thinking he was just some dude in the crowd! Me sometimes but D. Boon a lot—they just couldn’t believe he was in a band!
‘And Mr. Narrator, this is like Bob Dylan to me?’
We didn’t know what words were for in songs when we were boys. We thought it was like lead guitar. We didn’t know meanings and shit. But Dylan seemed like a weird uncle at Thanksgiving, muttering and no one paying attention but here’s these weird kind of words. When we were making music as boys, we never thought of music as being expression. Used to get feelings. We thought it was to copy records. Never had the idea you try to get your own thoughts out! As we got older, it seemed maybe Dylan wasn’t so afraid. And if he wasn’t, maybe we shouldn’t be scared. It was kind of confidence for us. The narrator—like a voice in a movie explaining things. That’s who he was in our life. We were learning by doing. Now cats write tunes all the time! I gave a talk to my sister’s 6th grade—these kids, they’re in bands! Last year I did one here for 3rd graders—nine-year-olds!—and some girls had bands! But it was different in those days—you didn’t do it. Not like lemmings or sheep—though people are like lemmings a little bit. The best guy in town was the guy who could play ‘Black Dog’ the best. It was building models—‘Hey, kind of like the real thing.’ We don’t think soapbox derby—where you can roll around in the thing. Roll, not just look! So Dylan kind of helped us. We didn’t know what his words meant but we knew they meant something. Now we’re gonna write songs—what are words for? By Double Nickels, I’d been doing—I’d written my first ones—terrible ones—in the Reactionaries. That’s thirty years—1979! I made two cassettes. Ten songs. None made it to Minutemen. One I gave to Brendan Mullen—the only time I tried to get a gig. But by Double Nickels, I’d already written like 50 or 60 Minutemen songs. I was kinda havin’ fun. I’d write words sometimes just to hear D. Boon say them. In ‘It’s Expected I’m Gone’—let’s have D. Boon say ‘big fucking shit!’ right now! I just wanted to hear him say ‘big fucking shit!’ really loud like he did! Nothing to do with the song. Something to do with the James Joyce book.
‘I must look like a dork?’
No—I wanted Michael Jackson. If Michael Jackson sang our song, a lot of people would get the message of Minutemen. He had a big audience. A good singer. I sent him a cassette of it—to the management on the record cover. I wrote him a note. ‘This is a political song I think Michael Jackson should sing.’ I never got written back. ‘I must look like a dork’ I got from an interview with Iggy in Creem. They’d have spiel with questions and answers and they’d bold out a quote—‘I MUST LOOK LIKE A DORK.’ That magazine was very cool. Not like Rolling Stone and shit—good sense of humor. So I just lifted from Iggy. I thought Iggy was a balls-out dude—the Stooges a balls-out band. To be in that legacy—be part of a movement inspired by that band—so what if you look like a fucking dork! You tell people you are and you still go for it.
Is Double Nickels your Ulysses?
I try to be black-and-white about what Minutemen were trying to do with political songs. ‘Organizing the Boy Scouts for murder is wrong!’ It wasn’t supposed to be satire. We’re an anti-war band! A working people band! Kind of a weird-kind-of-people band! Dudes who didn’t fit in so much. To us, the message of our band and a little bit of punk, too—start your own band! Say what’s on your mind! Sometimes it was scary—there were skinhead bands and shit who were terribly enthusiastic in their message. But that’s the way the scene was. No rules. People went for it. I talk about Minutemen in two songs on that album—the one I actually mailed to Michael Jackson and ‘Politics of Time.’ I didn’t really sing about the band in ‘History Lesson’—because it was Hurley, too. On Punchline, the song ‘History Lesson’ is very hard-hitting. The story of most human civilization is killing each other. And I thought maybe there might be a part two—we don’t have to kill each other? So I’m gonna take it relaxed—talk about heroes like Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, John Doe. Those are my three songs that ain’t about Ulysses. About the band and my friend. Georgie’s? I don’t know what his are about—a working guy writing them at work. Boon—his tunes are usually about his beliefs. The outside writers—we never asked ‘em. It wasn’t important to us. It might have been like censorship. Just 100% used their words. And some of them were pretty cryptic. Like Dirk’s ‘The Roar Of The Masses Could Be Farts.’ And Jack Brewer’s cousin Joe—we didn’t even know the guy!—writes a weird one—‘Please Don’t Be Gentle With Me.’ I don’t know what the fuck—that’s a love song?
How many love songs are on Double Nickels?
‘Just wake me up and tug my hair!’ We took these at face value—we didn’t care! We made songs! A love song I got from Ulysses—‘My Heart In The Real World.’ Ulysses was bent a lot on language, so it was actually about language, but it has love song imagery. And war imagery. ‘Do You Want New Wave’ is about language too. ‘The World According To Nouns.’ All inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Have you re-read Ulysses?
I did in my forties. It seems a lot sadder book. Those days, when I wrote songs from that book, it was a big celebration! The glory of man! Now it’s more like—the glory hole of man! It seems like I could hear Joyce’s voice stronger. It seems like a lot of sadness with his mother and just the general condition of humans sometimes. So much failure. The only victories are tiny things between people in everyday stuff. The big joy is in the small middle things, because the big things are all fucking nightmare. ‘One Reporter’s Opinion’ seems like love, but it’s not. What struck me as trippy about Joyce was the technique in Ulysses changing the style with each episode—very scientific, dry, baby talk, opera, all these different trips. A lot of our shit was so… inside. It never got out to people. But it was very clear to us. Like the title. And the meaning of our lyrics. During this time, Boon worked in the van pool—one time the police were called on him—they said there was an insane man attacking the weeds! He was just a utility guy using the weed-whacker! But he had a mohawk! ‘The guy’s attacking the building!’ He’d write stuff while working and driving on little papers—this is what he would write and why there are no rhymes in them. And I’d find ‘em and make songs.
Did you ever talk to him about that?
No—I’d wonder if he would leave ‘em for me! I’d just find these things. Find ‘em in the van, in the car, all over the place. Just thinking about stuff.
How do you feel when you listen to Double Nickels now?
I didn’t listen for a long time. I listened around We Jam Econo. It was amazing! George said the same thing—‘How could I play that shit?’ It holds up, I think, for the most part. It doesn’t sound like, ‘Here’s my lame young days.’ It sounds like maybe the best thing about it!
I don’t know! Just listen! Goddamn! The way we played together—the way we were in our history. A lot of things happening at the right time. The way we were with other peoples’ lyrics and our own. We didn’t try to refine it or water it down. We just grabbed it by the bull horns and went for it, and the spirit shows through! It doesn’t sound forced—doesn’t sound fake. It’s very un-self-conscious. We did it without thinking—we wanted one because the Huskers had one! ‘We should, too!’ We just let it be it—we never thought in bigger terms. Now look—if you wanna know what was good about Minutemen, a lot of it’s in that record. We didn’t know at the time. But you ask perspective—like when I re-read Ulysses—that’s what I see. When I read it, I heard a different voice. The words were the same but I had changed. And maybe I identify more with the man. It seemed sadder. A lot of books from my 20s I’m re-reading seem a lot sadder. Kerouac—On The Road—very sad! These days it’s not a total ‘Yeah! Yeah, go for it!’ celebration firecracker. Dean Moriarty leaves him in the hospital with dysentery—that’s lame! It’s beat like ‘beat down.’ Minutemen—that is a young man’s record. And the spirit of young men is in that. It’s like—‘Wow, we got a chance to make a record! A chance to play together! To play a gig with Flag and Huskers! A chance to write music to Jack Brewer’s cousin Joe’s song about whatever the fuck tug my hair in the morning!’ We were just fucking lit about everything—all lit! Sometimes a young person is like that because they don’t have the worries of an older thing or a bad experience to keep them all wallowing or too safe. It has that spirit in it. And I can identify it because I was there. And I think about George and Boon and myself—man! That more than probably any other—we were all there with everything we had! More than any other of the Minutemen records. Buzz or Howl was actually two different things. I don’t think any Georgie songs are on it. One side Spot, one Ethan. No Georgie songs on 3 Way Tie or Project Mersh. What Makes A Man Start Fires, I had to write all the music—the only time D. Boon didn’t live in Pedro. Paranoid Time, Georgie wasn’t there with the songs. He came in later. Punchline was kind of Double Nickels. A little bit. An early version. Built on almost the same template except one or two outside writers. When we had the one album, most of the outside writers came on the second album of Double Nickels. The first was almost Punchline part 2—it actually was! And Punchline—goddamn! We make that—in the first year—December of ’80! Before we’d even been a year old. It’s not like Nickels—that’s why it holds up. It’s our signature. If you wanna know about the band and you only hear one record—that’s the one.
THE MINUTEMEN’S DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME IS AVAILABLE FROM SST. VISIT MIKE WATT AT HOOTPAGE.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/WATTFROMPEDRO.