Gimme more watts
Partying with O.G. punker Mike Watt.

By Vice Cooler

MIKE WATT HAS been a punk since many of us were in elementary school.

Although his band the Minutemen's first 7-inch, Paranoid Time (SST), was released in 1980, two years before I was born, I didn't see him in person until 1997. He was playing at the only punk club in the Southern town where I lived: Sluggo's. While I was brainstorming a way to sneak myself into the 21-and-over show, a van pulled up and parked in front of me. Out stepped Nels Cline and Watt. Not wanting to be a scrub, but at the same time wanting to see the show, I gathered enough guts to approach them.

Watt looked at me and asked if I wanted to "spiel."

I explained the situation, and we developed a plan to sneak me in. During the next few hours, we hung out, trading stories.

This was a defining moment in my life, when I realized hierarchy was an idea for chumps. Perhaps Watt's fresh approach is due to his years in the early California punk scene. In the late '70s, he cofounded infamous Los Angeles punk band the Minutemen. They spent most of the early '80s touring and putting out records on SST, and their music, built on the "DIY ethic," played an instrumental role in the development of fellow SST bands like Sonic Youth and Black Flag.

After a car wreck took the life of frontperson D. Boon, the Minutemen broke up. Watt went on to become a staple in such influential bands as Firehose, DOS, and Banyan. He's now even an official Stooge (replacing original bassist Dave Alexander, who died of pneumonia in 1975). At the ripe age of 46, Watt is still touring more than most bands half his age, setting a strong example of staying punk even when you're well past your teenage years.

Wisdom of the ages

Twenty-plus years of influence is quite a feat. Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill and the Frumpies recalled when she met Watt on her 25th birthday. "I was feeling kind of shitty about getting older," she wrote in an e-mail. "But meeting him made me think about how easy it is to be punk as a kid and how much more subversive it is to take that impetus and maintain an alternative lifestyle as an adult.... It's acceptable to rebel if you are young. It is much more threatening to the status quo for adults to reject careerism, predictability, and capitalist individualism values and embrace community, adventure, and creativity. Mike Watt gives us that example with the way he approaches his art and lives his life."

Working alone

In the early '90s, Watt started his solo career. He began piecing together a collaborative record with his friends. The album, 1995's critically acclaimed Ball-Hog or Tugboat? (Columbia), features such notable guests as Eddie Vedder, Carla Bozulich, and Kathleen Hanna. Members of Nirvana and the Beastie Boys even lent their talents. MTV decided to pick up the single "Piss-Bottle Man" as the hype built.

One more album – 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) – and hundreds of shows later, Watt became sick in January 2000. His first set of doctors believed it to be the flu. One month later, suffering from an internal abscess in his perineum, he was in the back of an ambulance, minutes from his death, en route to Los Angeles County Hospital. The abscess had exploded, causing a massive internal infection.

After emergency surgery and several weeks in the hospital, he was released. Determined to conquer his illness, he started a strict schedule of kayaking, bike riding, and bass playing. He began to work on his next record, The Secondman's Middle Stand (Columbia). The epic, which was recently released, goes deep into his experience.

To back him up, the proud resident of Pedro picked locals Pete Mazich (organ) and Jerry Trebotic (drums), which he described as a crucial decision. In an e-mail, he explained, "Both these cats are from and live in Pedro so I had an all-Pedro band to help me tell my tale of hurting, healing, plucking, and pedaling."

They recorded nine songs. As with everything Watt does, the album goes deep into his psyche.

The opening song, "Boilin' Blazes," deals exactly with the "intense, profound impression" his near-death experience left on his body and mind. At his last Bay Area show, at the Oakland Coliseum, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the crowd was speechless. The sincere chants in the chorus – "I'm going to make it through this hellride / I'm gonna hold on to my life" – were so intense that jaws dropped.

The influences that shaped the album, though, go beyond the illness. "I paralleled my flow in ways to a favorite book of mine as teenager, Dante's Commedia," Watt wrote. The first three songs refer to the "Inferno" of his sickness, while the rest of the album is divided into "Purgatory" and "Paradiso." "This piece is also an allegory for a man in his 40's so things shouldn't be taken too literal," he explained. "That's what music's for, right? I mean, John Fogerty wasn't born on the bayou."

The record ends with "Pelicanman." The soothing vibe eventually dissolves into Watt repeating the title phrase over Petra Hayden's background harmonies. "This song is kind of trippy because it all seems like such a mystery to me how everything, well, 'works,'" Watts wrote. "I don't know. I'm in awe of the whole deal, really. No answers from Watt – only forever wondering. I know love is somehow a big part; but that's such a big idea.... All I know for sure is that I went through one crazy-ass journey."

As the saying goes, the end of every journey holds the beginning of another. And in support of the record, Watt will embark on his 53rd tour. Being a workingman, he has allowed himself only one vacation day out of the 65 dates.

When asked what he hopes the outcome of his life's work will be, he only replied that he hoped people get "the confidence to get trippy with their own artistic endeavors, whatever that may be. 'Hooray for life!' as a dear friend recently just told me." Hooray, indeed!

Mike Watt plays with the Heavenly States and Nuke Infusion Fri/17, 10 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $12. (415) 474-0365.