Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003) as part of our Stooges “One More Cool Time” feature package
Yes three ttt’s, just like the big ROCK that JC died on. And Wylde like “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer” The saga began when I was “approached” to provide “Stooge-esque” tracks for a big Hollywood flick. Fresh off the Dark Carnival I sez, “Howse about Ron fuckin’ Asheton with an assorted bunch of alt-geezer heavy hitters to round it out?” Ratttz Patrol: Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Steve Shelley, Mark Arm, Sabir Mateen and Sean Ono Lennon. We did our Stooges tracks for the flick (many thanks to Randell Poster) “and it was good.” Then of course some genius at the “label” decides they want put out the entire session. It was thusly christened “Ratttz Ass.” And then it sat. And there it sits. Lonely and tired.
So in response to being suppressed by “the man,” I gather the Instant Mayhem production team-vibeologist Jim Dunbar and engine man Bil Emmons, aka the “American Rock Dudes,” and decide to bring the Ratttz back in for a second round. And this time we slammed originals, took a few space jams and scrambled a couple of choice Pretty Things. Now we have a real record. This one is called “Wylde Ratttz” and it’s a gas. Rip-roarin’ rock anthems penned mostly by Ron with some Niagara and Arm words. Thurst sings a couple and Watt contributes his own smokin’ pipe tune. Ron even sings one!!! Ecstatic Peace has it on the slow train to China schedule, but we’re a bunch of lazy bastards anyway so it’ll come out when it comes out. Floggin’ a few WR mp3s at the site for now. And meantime Watt and J Mascis (who was hangin’ at the Ratttz sessions) go out and play a buncho Stooges sets and then break out the Asheton bros for a few choice international “dates”, so ARD—that’s American Rock Dudes—start swingin’ that like we planned it all along and call it “Wylde Ratttz Jr”, and the next thing ya know Iggy, Ron, Rock Action, and Watt are swappin’ sweat. Ratttz Power!!
RON & SCOTT ASHETON on their past, present and future.
by Jay Babcock
Photo by Peter G. Whitfield, art direction by W. T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
Following the second (and final) split of the Stooges in 1974, Ron and Scott “Rock Action” Asheton’s next joint effort was to form New Order, who released a single eponymous LP that gained little critical or commercial notice. Scott did some work with ex-MC5 Fred “Sonic” Smith’s band, Sonic Rendezvous, while Ron went on to work briefly with the second, post-Mike Kelley/Jim Shaw version of Destroy All Monsters, a sort-of Detroit supergroup, before forming The New Race with Stooges acolytes Deniz Tek and Rob Younger of the Australian power rock group Radio Birdman. The New Race released a single quasi-live album, in 1981, and then was no more. In the ‘90s, between taking roles in his beloved low-budge horror films (his filmography includes Hellmaster [‘92], Legion of the Night [‘95], Mosquito [‘95] and, of course, Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo [‘96]), Ron recorded with a group called the Empty Set, and performed and recorded with singer/Destroy All Monsters alum Niagara in a new group called Dark Carnival.
Ron’s participation in the Wylde Ratttz sessions in ‘98 [see sidebar] eventually led to an invitation by J Mascis & the Fog to play songs live dates with his band, then featuring ex-minuteman Mike Watt on bass. Watt, who had been playing the Stooges songs for years (see “From a minuteman to a Stooge”) was the singer on the Stooges songs the band performed each night for the numbers when the group wasn’t being joined by guest vocalists, which was often. These shows attracted enough heat for Sonic Youth, curators of the 2002 All Tomorrow’s Parties, to ask Asheton, Mascis and Watt to do an all-Stooges set at the UCLA festival, with secret guest vocalists.
At this point, Scott “Rock Action” Asheton was coaxed back into the spotlight. Working on a piece for the LAWeekly to coincide with that ATP show, I caught up with Scotty down in Florida to ask him what he‘d been up to. “I’ve been playing with various musicians and bands, did some touring, did some recording with Capt. Sensible from the Damned and Sonny Vincent,” he said. “But I’ve got a daughter now, and mostly I’m just busy being a dad.”
Although Scotty had kept in contact with Iggy, his dreams of some sort of reunion of the Stooges hadn’t come to pass. “I used to call up his management and kinda bug ‘em about if there’s a chance we could get together, him and myself and my brother and do an album. He used to tell me ‘Well he’s not opposed to the idea but he’s just really busy.’ I think the people would like it, I think it would be cool if me, my brother and Iggy do some things… You know, there’s a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories. It’s too bad that the band had to fall apart when we did, but it was due to things that were out of our control. Me and James [Williamson, the band’s second guitarist] and Iggy were having some problems, and as a result the band fell apart. I always felt bad for my brother because he kinda got the raw end of the deal. It really wasn’t his fault that things went the way they did.”
Although he was aware that the Stooges’ records had continued to win the band fans three decades after their initial release, Scotty had obviously long lost interest in contemporary rock. As I read off the names of the people he’d soon be performing with, he said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about ‘em. I was asking other people, and they were saying Well [J Mascis] is from Dinosaur Jr. And I’m going Well, sorry again, then. Never heard of them. But if Ron likes them, they gotta be good.”
They were good—it was a lineup of singers that included Watt, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Eddie Vedder and Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme—but, in the end, none of them, of course, was Iggy. (By the same token, as good as his solo work has been, Iggy has never had a band that approached the utterly primordial, shamanic genius that was the Stooges, either.)
After several months of tantalizing rumors, in February 2003 the Ashetons reunited with Iggy Pop to record some new Stooges songs for Iggy’s new solo album. The sessions, produced by Iggy at a studio near his Miami home, yielded four songs and a tentative interest in performing live as the Stooges again. I caught up with Ron—Scotty remained elusive—to find out how this all went down. The following Q & A is culled from two phone conversations with Ron—one took place just prior to the 2002 ATP show, and the other, less than a week before this issue of Arthur went to press in late July. — Jay Babcock
Arthur: So, how did this happen?
RON ASHETON: Well, Iggy called up and he goes, ‘Well hey, what’s happening?’ We did small talk for about 20 minutes and then he goes, ‘Well the reason I called was I was wondering if you’d be innerested in a project. You can say yes, or you can say no, and I don’t care, I understand. And if you say yes, you can call me back in two weeks and tell me to go fuck myself.’ [laughs] But I said right away, Yes, sounds cool to me.
I went down to Florida. My brother, who lives there part of the year, was already there. Jim—most people know him by Iggy but we call him Jim, usually—came to the hotel and he goes, Well I know a fun place to eat. So we went. I was a little nervous, I hadn’t seen him up close, shake-hand close, since 1980. He’s a guy that was one of my best friends, that I haven’t really talked to, or seen, in many years—and I’m there to work, to do music! Whoa. So I go, [mock melodramatic voice] ‘God, please make it good.’ So we talked and had dinner. The next day we went to his house and we visited for about an hour and a half and then we went to the studio. And it was easy. From then on, it’s like there was no time in between… It was great. I think I appreciate it and enjoy it more now. I like the things we talk about. And I’m proud of what he’s done.
You guys weren’t just in a band—you all lived together in the old days. That stuff doesn’t really go away, does it?
We started out with our first band house, our little summer sublet, and then we moved on to a farmhouse and then another farmhouse and then out in L.A. Not to mention all the thousands of shows on the road through the years. So we’ve got a lot of time between us.
How were the new songs written?
I had some things and I got pieces and I started workin’ on stuff. So we talked as the time was approaching to go to Miami, I had a talk with him and he goes, You know, you can bring stuff down, or you can bring pieces, or you can bring down nothing at all. So I decided to bring nothing. [laughs] But the night before I left, I’m going, Well I gotta have an icebreaker. So I came up with that thing for “Skull Ring.” And we jammed on that. That got turned into a tune. And then I said, “Well Jim, why don’t you stay at home and give me about four or five hours before you come to the studio tomorrow, and let me see what I can come up with.” Before I went to bed that night at the hotel, I’m lyin’ in bed and I got a riff stuck in my head. I started out on that the next day and it just came quickly—I wrote “Little Electric Chair” in 15 minutes. I did three things. One of ‘em didn’t make it to the record cuz we didn’t have time. So I wrote ‘em, brought my brother in, taught him the song, recorded it and then I laid a bass track on it. One hour later, I brought him back in. He goes, “Ready already? You just taught me the other one!” And I go, “Yeah well I got this other one.” And we just did that. It just was flowing out of me, cuz I was excited about doing it and I liked that studio. I felt real comfortable there. I knew that it was important, and I knew that we didn’t have a lot of time. But luckily it just worked out. The stuff just flowed right out. Then Iggy came and he goes, Yeah this is cool.
You use the same little riff on the bridge for ‘Loser’ as there is at the beginning of ‘Dead Rock Star’…
Iggy had that basic piece, and I kinda toughened it up, played into that more. I used that descending riff on ‘Dead Rock Star’ just to show him it was good. I gave him a lot of options to choose from. And he wound up going, Well I like both of ‘em. I go, Just do it man. It’s great how they cut it up. He was a little hesitant to play ’Dead Rock Star’ for us. He goes, Well I got this idea for this song but I don’t know… I go, [mock impatience] Just play it for me! And I go, No man it’s cool. I really like that. He didn’t know what he thought about it. Then he started liking it. I go, No it fits it, I really like that, cuz you got different things on our stuff. You got Stooge voice, and…you’ve got your crooning and even on the other Stooges songs, the voices are a little different. And I get a kick out of the album—[mock DJ voice] ‘It’s Iggy playing with Green Day. It’s Iggy with Sum 41.’ On the record [as a whole] he does all kinds of stuff. It’s cool.
On a couple of the songs you do a sort of prelude riff before the ‘proper‘ riff comes in, like you did on ‘1968’ and ‘Loose’ —
Yeah, we talked about this also. He goes, People are gonna expect it to be kinda like the Stooges. Cuz I’d sent him a bunch of stuff I did with the Wylde Ratttz and that was not very Stooge-y. He liked the stuff, but he was also a little worried that I might be too good. [laughs] Which, you know, in all my other songwriting with other bands they’re always going, ‘It’s a great song but you wouldn’t think that was a Stooges song.’ Well you know, I got a little better! And I’m having fun experimenting and it’s boring [to play simple stuff] as I learn more. So [getting more technically proficient] has kinda been a blessing and a curse for me. And Iggy was concerned and I also was concerned, that I needed to think primitive for this. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was, just to go back into that feeling.
What was really amazing for me was playing at Coachella, because I was figuring, I’m a little a bit better player so maybe I’ll rip off a couple slicky riffs or something for leads, but when I started doin’ it [at rehearsal], uh oh I’m kinda stuck all of a sudden. But once I was up there onstage and doing it, it was like I switched back to primitive mode. I just started playing simpler and a lot of those old riffs came back to me. I’m going ,Well goddamn I rehearsed this, but just being up there, it made some kind of magic that brought it all back to that kind of primitive stuff.
Has it been strange, the three of you doing Stooges again and Dave Alexander not being there with you?
No… because I’d been doin’ it a bunch with others. But Dave was there with me in spirit, because…I thought about that a lot, and I talked to my brother about it. He goes, Well Dave’s right here with me now, man. That’s how we all felt, and that’s why my brother gave Mike Watt the Dave Alexander t-shirt to wear, and Watt was so into it he wore it every day at practice too. We thought about Dave. When I took breaks I would say, You know thanks to you, Dave. You were part of this, and…you should be proud. Cuz I’m so proud that you were a part of it. He was a very inneresting bass player. Watt goes ‘Man just listen to him, he was a tripped out bass player, that thing he does on TV Eye that just kinda rubber bands around your thing, that’s brilliant.’ We always miss him—I think about him every day, I always have. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t think about him a bunch. I’ve had many other bands, so I didn’t miss him in that sense. But I wish he coulda been here.
I think listeners and the audience have always thought of Iggy as being fearless and spontaneous, but you’re talking about him being uncertain about songs…
Well, for me, I like that edge for playing. I like to know that everyone knows the song, and there is a format: you got your basic song. But I enjoy what might happen within the tune. With Jim what’s amazing is he is—and we talked about this—he’s really worked hard on his stage show. He’s perfected it. He’s a better showman. He doesn’t beat the hell out of himself like he used to. If something came into his head, bam, he’d do it. But now he paces himself better. I mean, if you coulda seen some of the shows way back when, it was like, man, the guy just went out and played a whole game of football in an hour. He’d always be battered up. He always hurt himself, almost all the time. Mostly at the beginning by accident: hitting the mike stand, take a tumble, do a swan dive off the stage and people got hip to it, here he comes, they thought it was funny, the parting of the crowd sea, and I’d go, Uh oh shit, they all moved! To see him just swan dive into a bunch of folding chairs and a fuckin’ floor.
At the time, did that recklessness seem stupid to you? As in, if he hurts himself, how are we gonna do the show tomorrow?
I knew he would never really hurt himself. I’m surprised he didn’t break any bones. But he got cuts and bruises and stitches. I would have so much fun watching him—even at Coachella I was going, Oh shit, I gotta get my head back in the ball game, I’m watching Iggy. I got this smile on my face and I’m just watching him. [laughs] I never smiled in the Stooges! That’s part of my THING. I’m just supposed to stand there, no smile on my face. Which I always did, it was kind of a natural thing for me back then. That was my schtick, kind of: I was holding down the fort. But it was fun just to have enough muscle memory with the tunes at Coachella where I could kinda step out of myself for a couple seconds and see what’s goin’ on. I had a good time. [laughs] I was going, Man he’s sure knocking himself around. I’m going, Uh oh he’s not gonna really go into the crowd. And there he goes. I go, Goddamn dude. For all the things, the battering he’s taken onstage, and all the abuse he’s done to himself, he’s fared very well.
It was an extraordinary performance. A lot of us were losing it—I don’t think anyone really ever expected to get to see the Stooges again. Could you tell from onstage how astounded the audience was?
You know what, I never thought it would happen either. I’d thought Jim was pretty happy with his solo career. He’s very proud of it, and he should be. He likes being…Iggy Pop. But, this will help him also. And yeah, I could tell, I could see the faces. You know [people are in shock] when mouths are open and eyes are wide and they’re really just trying to drink it all in. It was very cool. At first I was nervous, until we started the first song and then I was fine.
And what a trip to have Steve Mackey there for “Funhouse” and “L.A. Blues”!
Yeah! He goes, ‘It’s my same horn.’ I go, ‘No way, you didn’t throw it in the San Francsico Bay or something by now‘?!? Talk about somebody who hasn’t changed! He’s the same gregarious talkative guy. It was so much fun to see him. I had played with him with J Mascis in San Francisco. That was fun.
How did you got together with all those guys?
The Wylde Ratttz thing. Don Fleming invited Mascis along for the second set of Velvet Goldmine sessions. We were sitting around, Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt and Mark Arm and Don Fleming the producer goes, Well let’s just jam every Stooges song that we know. And I’m going, Oh god, I don’t want to teach those songs to those guys. But they’re going, Oh no man, we know em all! So we just jammed. I didn’t have to teach them anything. Watt and J Mascis, they know the songs inside and out. Thurston and Watt said that’s how they learned to play guitar: playing along to Stooges songs. They’re really good songs to learn guitar on, because you can tell that you’re making progress. Watt’s such an eccentric perfectionist. [In mock outrage] What! You don’t even know your own song?! And I’d go, Mike I haven’t played in 10 years. It was ‘1970.’ I knew all the other ones. And then one time we were doing ‘Loose’ and then J just didn’t play, and he stood there with this look on his face, and he goes, You forgot the whole beginning. You haven’t been playing that beginning part! And I went, Oh that’s right, I completely forgot about that E chord intro. And so I go, Well you do it! So he played it, and I knew what time to do the riff, I just came in. So those guys remember stuff… It was fun playing with J because I was always telling everyone, [mock pretentious voice] Well yes, you know the Stooges songs, they lend themselves to sorta like free-form jazz. And J goes okay and he would just take it wherever he thought was fun to take it. That was very cool. But Watt was always saying, Gee you know I love J but it’d sure be neat just to play the songs with you sometime too. So it wound up that Mike got his wish.
If anyone in the Stooges story has anything to be bitter about, it would have to be you. I mean, those guys sold your guitar for drugs!
Yeah, that was in New York. I told this roadie, I’ll take the guitars. And this roadie was like, No I’ll grab that guitar, I’ll take it back to the hotel. I knew something was up. I found out later that what happened is it went right to Harlem, right into the hands of a black guy that was gonna get em heroin. And the black guy said I’ll be right back, lemme take the guitar and he went right up the stairs and right out the back door. No heroin—and no guitar. They didn’t even score! [laughs] They got ripped! And I didn’t find out til later. They did the same old bullshit, my brother wouldn’t even fess up. The roadie goes, Oh yeah, I put it down at the gig, man, and turned my back, and it’s gone, I looked everywhere. Even though I didn’t know that’s what had happened, I was going, This is bullshit, this has never happened before. But I did right, I fired him right then and there.
I didn’t go along with the heroin bullshit. It was really hard to see the guys you hung out with, and try to build a dream with, just going down the tubes, man. To wake up everyday and see possessions missing. Wait a minute, where’s the electric piano? 6-7-800-dollar electric piano went to get 40 dollars’ worth of heroin. Bullshit like that.
How did you stay straight amidst all that stuff?
It wasn’t easy. Probably what really helped me, when they really got badly into heroin, for a good period I had my first live-in girlfriend. And pretty much, they didn’t like that. ‘Hey you’re not one of the dudes anymore, man!’ We had an apartment in the Stooge house. It was a big house that the original owners had turned into separate apartments, and we had our own apartment. And those guys, we didn’t even see them. I just hung out with her. Then Bill Cheatham [who played piano and bass with the Stooges at different point], he got into doing some heroin for a while, but he realized it was bullshit. So he really did just cold turkey. He locked himself in his room for a week, and I would take him orange juice or whatever he wanted—chocolate milk!—and he did, he just kicked. So I had him to hang with now too. Even he stayed away because it was so bad.
After Dave Alexander was fired—Iggy had fired him, I knew there was no point in arguing—James came in and played [second] guitar. James and Iggy somehow hit it off, they formed that junkie relationship. Even though things were already really in bad shape, once James came aboard, it was the total swan song. I mean, it was some of the worst times of my life, just to see everything you had done fall apart, only because of drugs. It was fun when we were smoking marijuana and hash, and we had our little acid phase, for me that was about as far as it went, then…BA-BA-BA-BOOM… Our road manager, who had been clean for those couple of years, he got back into it, and he drug those guys in, and that was like… Oh man, it was a terrible ending. ‘Cause it didn’t have to end, but the drugs killed it.
Later, for Raw Power, Iggy asked you and Scott back. Only now you were the bassist and James Williamson was the guitarist. And Iggy and James were writing the songs on their own…
Iggy said he couldn’t find a bass player or a drummer—‘we’ve auditioned a hundred people, we can’t find anybody’—and how would we like to play. I said, Well you know, cool. I had a good time playing bass then because I started out playing bass in my high school rock band, so it was fun at least to go in and do it. I enjoyed it playing it myself, just [in pretentious voice] to show the world that I can play some bass guitar.
But you won’t play these songs now.
I enjoy some of those songs, but I never played ‘em on guitar. I don’t want to learn to play ‘em. What little input I did have, you know, writing little pieces or helping a song develop, they didn’t even give me credit. I came up with just little things here and there—nothing major—but still, my feeling is, I’m not gonna play something that I didn’t write or wasn’t given any credit for. But my problem with those times was that it wasn’t a band. Iggy was signed with MainMan, it was his record deal, his management deal, and basically, in reality, we were just signed as backup people. We didn’t even see him that much a lot of times when we weren’t working. He’d already had established his whole little group of friends and cronies that were into his kind of shit. The three of us—Williamson, my brother, myself—did tend to stay together a bit more.
MainMan finally wound up dumping Iggy, and we got new management and a booking agent, but they had it so we were constantly playing! Every day, just about, on the road. And when we did come back, it was just for a week or two before we’d go back out on the road for months again. It was like some bizarre Twilight Zone: you can never get out of being in the band, your stage clothes are so dirty you don’t really have time to wash them that often, and just living out of a suitcase, it was maddening. It was like Goddamn, this isn’t fun at all, this is like some sort of weird hell—a bad dream I can’t wake up from.
Do you ever talk with James Williamson? What’s he up to now?
He works with Sony, something to do with computers. He travels a lot, he goes to Europe and Japan all the time. He’s visited a couple times, to see me and my brother and our sister. It was cool. We had such great times when the Stooges were doing well and the only drugs anyone took was smoking marijuana, basically. There was LOTS of good times.
What happens with the Stooges after you do those September shows in Europe?
We probably won’t play again cuz Jim is interested in not going out too much now… Going with the material we have now would be fun but Jim’s gotta promote his record, he’s got a whole agenda of stuff he’s gotta do, and he’s excited about doing a Stooges record. I’ve gotta come up with a lot of stuff. One of my quirks, which I’ve done well with, is when I get a deadline is when I really start cranking. But that’s just too nerve-wracking to have to come up with a whole lot… I can come up with like 10 or 12 things, but not 30. You need that much cuz you’re gonna throw half of it away. So, basically for me, after September I’ll just be writing tunes. I’ll have enough time to do it so I don’t get all jammed up. I’m hoping next year we’ll go and do some stuff.
Now, what does all this mean for your horror film career?
My buddy Gary Jones who did The Mosquito picture, eh’s partnered up with Gunnar Hanson, who was Leatherface. They’ve written a screenplay, he’s got his little company together, Gary, and we’re gonna do an independent film called The Last Horror Picture Show. It’ll be starring Gunnar Hansen, Robert Englund, who was Freddy Krueger, and Kane Hodder who was Jason. They’re gonna play evil guys, but not those particular characters. So it’s kind of an inneresting premise, it’s a horror picture WITHIN a horror picture. I’m excited about it, it’s a good story. So we’re trying to raise dough now. The producers of the film asked if the Stooges might do the theme song, and also I will do other bits of music in the film, so besides my small acting part I’ll be doing some music.
What would your character be?
I would once again be what I always play: a goofy, wacky something-or-other. It’s a small principal part, because pretty much the focus of the movie is on the three main bad guys, and then the younger people that all get offed. [laughs] In this one, I’m the loser musician…who [in mock sentimental voice] turns out to be a hero in the end.
C: I feel dutybound to advise you that we shall be reviewing many records today that have shall we say significantly progressive overtones. D: It should be no problem. I came prepared. [smiles mischievously] With beer.
Jana Hunter Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom (Gnomonsong) D: This is Cat Power covering Patsy Cline. After a plate of lasagna. C: Are you sure? D: I cannot be sure, but I feel it to be true. I am trusting my intuition. My blink-of-an-eye insight. C: Looks like you got something in your eye. This is Jana Hunter, from Houston, Texas. D: The home of Mike Jones? C: The same. D: I see. What would you call this? C: I dunno. Downbeat lo-fi folk music with a touch of glum? But it’s more lonesome than depressing, and she tries a lot of different approaches in arrangement, texture and just general aesthetic. D: There is definitely a deep longing at work here. C: The album title hints at a sense of bleak but playful humor—you know the way it mimics doom metal phrasing, half believing it, getting off on how suited to these times this exaggerated language is becoming, what with all the war, pestilence and natural disaster. But sonically this is obviously not High on Fire, so you get a little wink there. Her guitar lines can descend towards doomland like Sabbath. D: Sometimes I see where she gets the title from…
Vashti Bunyan Lookaftering (DiCristina) D: Spectacularly beautiful. C: Quiet English folk artist who made a single, slightly psychedelic album in 1970 with various Incredible String Band personnel and so on, and was then lost to the world. Championed by Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Four Tet, who’ve all collaborated with her during the internet era. I think some of them are on this but you just spilled your beer on the notes from the record publicist. D: Sorry! C: Anyways, her first album was re-released last year and here’s the follow-up. Next album is scheduled for 2037. D: She sounds the same as last time. There’s an almost Burt Bacharach-like feel to this. C: Yeah the orchestral hook is sweet. D: They’re very shy, mellowcholic songs. C: There’s more piano than one might expect. Very pretty, very modest. Quite a comeback, eh? D: She saved a little…
M.O.T.O. Raw Power (Criminal IQ) D: [instantly] I like this band. Make it louder! C: [turning it up] Andrew W.K. meets Guided by Voices: power-pop played with Marshalls. D: A melodic Fear. Big influence. [increasingly ecstatic] Perfect music for smart hooligans! You can quote me. C: I am. D: “Let’s Nail it to the Moon” is like Blondie’s first record. And “Spend the Night On Me” is full-on Lazy Cowgirls. C: [quizzical look] D: Aha, you don’t like them, but they have mighty hooks! “Teenage Frankenstein” is righteous rock, I’m telling you. C: Who on earth would call their record Raw Power? At first you think they don’t know what they’re doing, then you think they’re just stupidly audacious, then you find out they’ve been around since like 1988 and so it’s just a great reverse inverse record-geek joke. D: I never heard of M.O.T.O. But they have heard of themselves. They are their biggest fans. They’re like, ‘This is our Raw Power.’ And they’re right: it’s two giant balls on fire! C: [looking at sleeve photo of mixing board] Notice that everything’s recorded at level Infinity. [calculating] The singer must be like 40 years old. Perhaps he is a schoolteacher too… D: “Flipping You Off With Every Finger That I Have” is song title of the decade. C: A good ol’ American fistfight. Those don’t happen too much anymore. What if fighting was in? I don’t mean Fight Club. But you know, hipsters going to other areas of town to get drunk and fight in public. D: [repeating lyrics] “The moon in the sky/Kicks the ass/of the stars/they all fade.” This is true. Every song has a certain drunk-at-midnight, howling-at-the-moon-in-the-bar-parking-lot anthemic quality. C: Their label has the best name in recent memory: Criminal IQ. D: [confiding] It is said that there is a certain IQ where anyone who has it will eventually commit a crime. It’s like 116 or 115 or something. C: Interesting. [listening to “Girl Inhale”] Anyway, this is an homage to the Beatles tune “Girl” that is so obvious it’s great. And is so great because it’s so obvious. It’s the folk tradition: this is how songs used to change over generations. The keyboard solo is a rip of “In My Life.” I wonder if every song is like that and we only are catching the most obvious ones. D: I am saluting the mighty M.O.T.O. with every finger of my hand.
Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up (Numero Group) C: Another start-to-finish classic from one of America’s very finest record labels, the Numero Group out of Chicago. D: They are number one! C: This one is a collection of singles recorded between 1960 and 1980 in Belize. Amazing stuff, lots of covers of American soul hits, some reggae stuff too, all infused with this special feel. There’s a warmth—an ease—that’s absolutely seductive. You can just get glimpses of their accent. D: [repeating lyric] “You can’t go half way, you got to go all the way/to have all my love.” Song of the third date. C: Numero Group specialize in upending every notion you have that there is, or has ever been, a meritocracy in pop. They prove that human achievement on this planet is continuous and happens wherever people have time on their hands. It does not take place in the easily circumscribed times and places and sequences that VH1 or self-appointed music experts like ourselves— D: [Snorts, beer comes out of nose] C: —like to place it in. The energy is always-there-everywhere, it’s just a matter of whether you’ve found out about it yet. Remember M.O.T.O.? They’ve been going since 1988, they’re in our own country, and we only just found out about them. Think what’s been going on in other countries for decades! We don’t know anything! Admitting ignorance is the first step towards enlightenment. D: [definitively] Numero Group are international cargo crate diggers of the first order. They should be awarded United Nations medals of honors for service to mankind. C: Okay, time for a snack. [Offering a jar of tiny pickles from Gelson’s] Tiny pickle? D: That’s what she said. Wait a second! That’s not what I meant.
Choubi Choubi! Folk & Pop Sounds From Iraq (Sublime Frequencies) C: Songs from our musically oriented friends in Iraq, much of it recorded in the Sadaam Hussein era. D: I like this! You know, maybe we wouldn’t bomb them if we listened to their music. C: Sublime Frequencies, who were spotlighted last issue in Arthur, also deserve special recognition and financial reward for service to humanity. D: [looking at sleeve] It says here that this song, “They Taught Me,” is in the style of “1970’s Socialist Folk-Rock.” C: Very helpful, D. Now, please pass the shisha. D: [listening] This one sounds groovy… I am at a loss for words— C: But not at a loss for beer— D: [glares] Silence in the lower ranks! C: It turns out that my favorite is the “Choubi” style, which sounds very Indian movie soundtrack to my untrained ears: odd rhythm, acoustic string instruments, orchestral strings, a woman ululating with a choir. [listening to track 5] Is this one called “bee attack”? C: No. Although there is an instrument being used called, which is Arabic for “wasp.” By the way, it says here on the sleeve that music was regarded as very important by Sadaam Hussein: he apparently called musicians the “seventh division” of his forces. But musicians themselves are not really highly regarded in Iraq. They aren’t really stars. Professional musicians are usually outsiders and outcasts, who play weddings and parties and illicit nightclubs, a recording is made to keep the artist going between gigs… gigs as income, recordings as low priority… songs are immediately public domained and any popular, locally pressed recordings are pirated… Is the music better or worse for existing in this way? I dunno. If you were to judge American music solely on the basis of each year’s 20 best selling albums, you wouldn’t say our system is outputting much to speak of. Could it be that music is worse in a corporation-ruled market system than in a dictatorship with zero intellectual property laws? If you were a musician and you’re being pirated and you’re not getting songwriting royalties and nobody is getting rich off your labor—stall merchants were just getting by, selling tapes, and in the process getting your name out there—would you care about piracy? You might be pissed off a little, but then again, chances are you built on what was there before you too. And anyways, you’re doing fine. D: I would like to drink to this and swivel my hips. Generally just do that thing. C: I don’t think you could get in a bar fight to this. D: Or a war.
Radio Pyonggyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom (Sublime Frequencies) C: Paging Mike Patton, please come to the Lost & Found. We have your Mr. Bungle demo. But seriously: this is a whole record of North Korean stuff: “field recordings, television/radio intercepts and live performances” from 1995-1998. Album two in Sublime Frequencies’ Axis of Evil collection. I guess Iran will be next. D: There is something special here but I think it takes a certain mind to appreciate it. [smiling] Which I have. C: I dunno, this is a bit too schmaltzy for me. Where’s the funk? Sounds like that shitty Thai pop you hear sometimes. In the interest of peace between nations, I want to get to this but I can’t. D: [musing] How can we hate them when they’re so awesome?
Residual Echoes Phoenician Flu and Ancient Ocean (Holy Mountain) D: [explodes] Whoa! WHOA!!!! What have you let into this place? C: This band almost caused a riot at Arthurfest when they played the first day downstairs in the theater. Socks were blown off. Heads were on their cel phones telling people to get over here NOW. D: I can hear why. WHOA. Fuck me, this is some full-on majestic streetwalking cheetah thruster guitar rock in Satty-like collage. Man! C: Year they’re like cousins to the Comets on Fire bros, spiritually speaking. D: Another strike force from Santa Cruz!?! C: It’s a question that needs an answer: What exactly is going on up there in the banana slug republic to generate this kind of Hawkwind power gazer goner stuff? I can hear some Dead Meadow blisswork bursts in there too—and Crazy Horse search-soling as well. And Acid Mothers Temple yawning-sound journeying, heavy Bonzo drumming. Amazing.
Lightning Bolt Hyper Magic Mountain (Load) C: New riff-blat super-attack from the Providence, Rhode Island artcore guitar-drums power duo. D: The cover art matches at least the first eight seconds. C: [reading sleeve] “Humans chill out! There is no back-up planet!” D: Cathartic art attack. They must be a ball to see live. C: They have some definite hits here., like track 2, “Captain Caveman.” Reminds me of Unsane, Big Black, Helmet, Killdozer, Slayer: everything on that label Amphetamine Reptile used to sound like this. I guess that sound went pretty mainstream with more ink and noserings but there was always some infant-mind tantrum rapping on top of it. But this is more like the original stuff to me, more imaginative and nature-loving, and, as they say, “mastered for metal loudness.” You gotta dig the lyrics: “Health is all the wealth I need/birds and squirrels and bees and trees/all the things that ride the breeze/money makes the world go round/drags it down and burns it out/I am the caveman/I am the timebomb…” D: Time for another beer. I’ll be in the fistfight in the other room.
We Are Wolves Non-Stop Je Te Plie En Deux (Fat Possum) C: Another band with a wolf-related name. From Canada. They are Canadian wolves: hear them howl. D: [Returning with two newly opened beers in hand, enthusiastic] I like this! It sounds like what doing really good coke feels like. C: Um. I was gonna say these guys sound like it what I had hoped ARE Weapons or that second Faint album would sound like but that’s damning with pretty faint praise. D: It’s almost like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Or Devo, even. C: An agitated, slightly angry Devo. Or Fat Possum’s own gonzoid Bob Log III: churning stuff, guitar and vocals set to high-distort. D: Canadians freaking out with a drum machine.
THE GRIS GRIS The Gris Gris (Birdman) C: Okay D, we’re gonna start this one off with something I know you will dig—the debut album from San Francisco psych-rock three-piece Gris Gris, who are led by that kid Greg Ashley, whose solo record we dug last year. D: Yes I remember Mr. Ashley well! He is the new Syd Barrett and [listening to keyboard run] he is advising us to join him on an interstellar overdrive magic carpet ride. C: The carpet’s in the garage, and it’s kind of greasy. It’s not used, it’s vintage. D: Rock bands were doing this in garage basements in the Bay Area of ‘60s, after they got their first Yardbirds records. And all across Milwaukee in 1987. Mister Ashley is singing his ASH off! I also like the simplicity of the drumming. C: …Milwaukee?
THE BLACK KEYS Rubber Factory (Fat Possum) C: Third album from Akron’s finest, once again produced by themselves. D: [listening] I am not sure if they needed to make another album on their own. There’s not enough progression here. C: It’s more mellow than the last one. But I like it. Listen to the solo here on “Desperate Man.” And this one on “Stack Shot Bully.” D: Hmm, definite burning there. This is a 7.5 moving up to 9.3… C: And this Kinks cover, “Act Nice and Gentle” is great, really blissed out, reminds me of going down to the river in the summertime. I didn’t think I ever wanted to hear another take on “Summertime Blues,” but… D: That’s a rocker with extra thrusters, baby! It still is summertime and yes I still have those blues! Even though it says “do not duplicate,” can I duplicate it?
THE FAINT Wet From Birth (Saddle Creek) C and D: [blank stares] C: Um… Pretty belabored electro dance new wave blah blah. D: I am in Berlin getting down with the transvestites. C: I see 16-year-old girls dancing poorly. D: Who are they? I wish he woulda left the transformer effect at home. C: They come from Omaha. This is their second album. D: Really??? [listening more closely] They’ve finally written a song good enough for Victoria’s Secret commercial. Congratulations! C: Maybe we just don’t have an ear for this stuff, but, sheesh, this is painfully shitty. Crap new wave is a joke that didn’t need to be told, ever again.
MOUSE ON MARS Radical Connector (Thrill Jockey) D: This is so bad in such an obvious way. They don’t even number their tracks! So inconsiderate. C: What, you’ve never heard of glitch in Milwaukee or Berlin? D: Yes yes, but this… Mouse on Mars have lost it. This trying-to-be-funky-and-clever thing is not working in their favor. C: You are not happy with the Mouse’s progress. D: They are progressing to a place where nobody wants to dance. And I am a dancing kind of fellow!
TWILIGHT SINGERS She Loves You (One Little Indian) C: An album of covers by Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers project. He used to lead the Afghan Whigs, about four decades or so ago. D: Never heard of ‘em. I am not a fan of the ‘90s. D: Really? [listening to cover of “Hyperballad”] This sounds like U2. Agh, can’t stand it. Even the guitar is ringing! Can we please listen to something I might like? C: Dulli does sound like Bono when he tries to hit those trailing Bjorknotes. D: Is that her voice in the background? [sarcastic] Are they holding hands? This is ghastly! [listening to cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”] Now he sounds like Marianne Faithful. I’m getting a drink. Okay, maybe three drinks. [heads for kitchen] C: I only like the songs where Mark Lanegan sings, really. This version of the blues “Hard Killing Floor” where Lanegan sings lead is all nice and charcoal and moonshine… But basically, I like this album more in concept than in execution. The world doesn’t need an easy listening MOR version of “A Love Supreme,” in my humble opinion.
THALIA ZEDEK Trust Not Those In Whom Without Some Touch of Madness (Thrill Jockey) C: [to tape recorder] D’s in a bad mood, again! Sheesh. Okay, guess I’ll keep going here. This is the new album by the sublegendary Thalia Zedek, who lead the great lost rock ‘n roll band Come for many years. Unforgettable voice, jointly sponsored by Jameson’s and some devilry, I think. Like later Marianne Faithful, actually. Anyway, this is pretty straightahead sad-eyed twilight rock ‘n roll, with some violin on it, which of course sends me back to another lost-‘90s-rock-n-roll-band-with-a-great-female-singer: the Geraldine Fibbers. They also had a violin. Yep.
MIKE WATT The Second Man’s Middle Stand (Columbia) C: Mike Watt from the minutemen and fIREHOSE and current Stooges bassist doing his first album in six years, a total concept piece about his near-terminal illness, plus Dante and one thousand and one other layers of meaning, played by a storming organ-drums-bass three-piece. 9 songs, with eight of them over 5:30, which means this earns Prog certification. Like a particularly smart Deep Purple, subbing out the ponderousness for some art-punk new-beat spastics, splatter and stutter. Do you need a lyric sheet to make sense of it? Yes you do.
PAUL WESTERBERG Folker (Vagrant) C: One of the worst album titles in recent times, but let’s not hold that too much against it. Continuing in the ‘90s-semistar series here, the new solo album from the former singer of the Replacements, who were also doing traditional American rock ‘n roll when that wasn’t exactly called for by the times. Never really dug his solo work, but this is ridiculously good at what it’s doing: really melodic mid-tempo rock ‘n roll that you listen to at the gaspump and then hum the rest of the way home: kinda Oasis, actually, and kinda Tom Petty. And “Looking Up In Heaven” is gorgeous perfection. Yep.
RICH ROBINSON Paper (Keyhole Records) D: [walks back into the room holding big coffee mug, mumbling to himself] People can’t tell you’re an alcoholic if you drink it out of a coffee cup… C: [oblivious] Solo album from the guitarist for the Black Crowes, who are on some kind of trial separation. Very in-the-pocket, and lovely harmonies, just solid rock ‘n roll songs for longhairs washing their VW bus on a Sunday afternoon.
THE WHIRLWIND HEAT Flamingo Honey EP (Dim Mak) C: This is the new EP from the Detroit band Jack White called the closest we’re gonna get to a Devo in this generation. D: Hmph. I will be the judge of that! C: 10 songs, 10 minutes, each song almost exactly one minute. D: [listening to “The Meat Packers”] Sounds like when the White Stripes covered all those Beefheart songs on that Sub Pop 7-inch. C: You’re totally right! Good call D: These guys sound a little too smug to me. They’re just good enough that they’re getting laid. C: I like conceptual limits, generally. Sometimes it gets you out of a creative jam, makes you go into a new space you wouldn’t’ve otherwise thought of. It necessitates invention and problem solving, keep you from getting too set in your ways. Standard John Cage theory, right? Brian Eno… D: These guys should work with Eno! C: He did produce Devo’s first album, didn’t he? Hmm. Perhaps it can be arranged.
COLONEL CLAYPOOL’S BUCKET OF BERNIE BRAINS The Big Eyeball in the Sky (Prawn Song Records) C: Okay, I think I’ve had enough Primus for one lifetime but this looked interesting. It’s Claypool on bass, Bernie Worrell from P-Funk on keyboards, Buckethead on guitar and Brain on drums. Like one of those old Axiom jams that Bill Laswell used to put together back in the early ‘90s with Bootsy and all them. D: I used to listen to Primus. They had one good album, I don’t remember what it was called but it certainly wasn’t Pork Soda. That was the worst. C: [cracking himself up] The wurst, you mean, ha ah ha! D: … E: [entering room] Hey guys, what’s going on? This sounds great! C: Whoa. The notorious E dares to enter Arthur’s inner sanctum. D: We have not seen a woman here in sometime. C: But your presence here has been foretold. E: You guys might have more company if you guys didn’t lock the door all the time! C: Sorry… So, you really like this, E? E: I love Les Claypool’s voice. I admire his integrity. And can you say “Pork Soda” without laughing? I think not. C: Er… I believe no one should imitate Zappa. Well not like this, at least. D: I do like things that are circus-y. It’s like a Fellini movie, you’re waiting for the transvestite to pop out of the tent… C: I think I’d like it more if I was 16 and playing Nintendo. E: This is great. What’s your problem, C? If it said “Ween” on the box, you would totally dig it. They’re clearly incredibly smart and having fun. C: Hmm. Okay, maybe if I was 14. D: This is totally late Residents and is making me want to get very high right now. I could get a lot of cleaning done to this.
ANTIBALAS Who Is This America? (Ropeadope) E: Fela? Tony Allen? This is cool, of course. D: Is this from Nigeria? If I had to DJ a wedding, I would definitely play this. You can do any kind of dance to it, there’s so much going on. You can meringue to it. C: But it’s not Fela Kuti, it’s Antibalas, that group from New York trying to bring back that original Afrobeat. They’re so good now, I can’t tell the difference, really. D: Don’t they have like 86 people in their band or something? E: [dancing] More like 20! It’s between them and the Polyphonic Spree for largest band in the Arthur world… C: I have to say that as good as they are, their lyrics still aren’t there. Fela’s was always really biting and clever. Most of this is too straightforward, there’s none of that really cutting, mordant wit. D: [dancing with eyes closed] Who cares, this is phenomenal! It makes me want to put my ass into it! C: [to tape recorder] He said he was a dancing fellow, and now he is proving it. E: Hey, did you guys hear that Rick James died today? C: A lot of people owe him big time. D: Especially those guys who had girlfriends who became superfreaks!!!
MELVINS/LUSTMORD Pigs of the Roman Empire (Ipecac) E: Now for something completely different. D: Fudgetunnel? C: Is it Godflesh? E: It’s actually the Melvins with Lustmord. C: Awesome dark sludge from some creepy condemned industry at the edge of town. E: [listening to “The Bloated Pope”] I think this music is really erotic! Much more than easy listening or slow jam, because it’s dark and there’s an element of mystery. C: And the fifth song is called “Pink Bat,” which is almost as good a title as “Pork Soda,” eh, E? E: [smiling] Yes, exactly. D: It’s not my favorite kind of music, but I could scrub the walls to it. E: Hey D, what are you drinking in that coffee cup? It doesn’t smell like coffee…
LUCIFER RISING Original soundtrack by Bobby Beausoleil (Arcanum Entertainment) C: Speaking of dark and mysterious, here is the original soundtrack for Kenneth Anger’s legendary Lucifer Rising. The original composer was supposed to be Jimmy Page, but Anger ended up using this score by Bobby Beausoleil, an old Manson associate who recorded it in the ‘70s while in prison… D: UNBELIEVABLY black! Black turned to 100, with lizard eyes. But subtle and beautiful, somehow. This is a high point of human culture.
WOLF EYES Burned Mind (Sub Pop) D: Throbbing Gristle!!! C: Yeah kind of, right? It’s actually Wolf Eyes, who we reviewed last ish. E: [reading song titles] “Black Vomit.” “Urine Burn.” And of course, “Stabbed in the Face.” I think they need to get some grooves going. That’s their problem. D: I used to go see a lot of bands like this. Then I stopped. C: You have to see it in a small space where the sound of just overwhelming and crushing and inescapable and you are just being confronted with it. I can’t really picture listening to it at home— E: Me either. C: —but maybe that’s my problem?
HOPE OF THE STATES The Lost Riots (Sony) D: [disgusted] Is this the new Billy Corgan album? E: Ouch. C: It’s Hope of the States, young band, they’re being hyped as the greatest thing since buttered bread and bangers by the British press. One of the guitarists hanged himself in the studio before they finished the album. D: [listening to “Don’t Go to Pieces”] I have a theory about the suicide. Maybe he did it because he heard the singing on this song! E: [groans] Double-ouch. No need to be so callous, D. You might want to lay off the vodka a bit… But yes, this singing is really awful. C: I thought I’d like this because they’re supposed to be dark and political and grand but it just sounds like the dreary precious bits of Radiohead. No thank you. E: Hype of the States!
MIKE WATT the secondman’s middle stand (Columbia/RedEye)
It’s Autumn, by God, and I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a writer, it’s the only season: the peak, the prime. Summer flattens you, Winter cramps you, Spring is a mere sizzling of the sex-urge, but Autumn flings open the furnace door to real transformation. On a high November afternoon, with the leaves in a life-and-death whirl and that tossing, brassy light all around, the writer creeps from his/her carapace and partakes in the vortex of Possibility. Out come the old, allergen-loaded sweaters. Yes! On goes the woolly hat, that incubator of thought. Upward fly the—well, I could go on, but the point here is to address our latest bard of the Autumn, the great Richard Meltzer, whose Autumn Rhythm (now out in glorious paperback!), is not so much about crisp weather and fiery trees as it is about Mortality (or mortali-T, as the Meltz, in his demented flippancy, might put it)—age, defeat—the Autumn of our days—“the ‘topic’ at hand: your time… my time… all our times running low, running out, or in any case running.”
Meltzer, in case you’re not sure, is a father of what he calls ‘rockwriting’—Sixties, Seventies, he did it, he lived and typed it, was legendary, boozed with Bangs, tyro’d with Tosches etc etc. He figured in LA punk rock, a great stimulus to the minutemen, had his own terrible band. It’s all in his previous tome, A Whore Just Like the Rest. And now, finding himself “on the cusp of fucking dotage” (his late fifties), Meltzer is taking the long view and using the essay form. He considers his life, and the possible cessation thereof. Is there any more good art to be had from the fact that we’re all, sooner or later, going to be combusted or ploughed under? Certainly there is. Take this: “A couple years ago I started quantifying what a day actually felt like, what its duration as lived existentially was, and the unit day, I surmised, was only four hours long. It now feels about three and a half…. What can you get done in three and a half hours? (Better not piss—that’ll cut it to three.)” Or this, from a piece about Meltzer’s father, touchingly entitled “The Old Fuckeroo”: ‘Of course he LOVED me (and I loved him) and all such nonsense—but that part was maybe the worst of it. A sentimental slob, a ‘40s romantic in desperate need of a compliant LOVE OBJECT, he inflicted his ardor on me in direct proportion to what he wasn’t getting from his wife, assuring me (as often as not) that I was the the most important being in his life. A sensitive little prick, I grieved for the guy in his loneliness…” This is top-notch, ranking with the most exalted literature of fathers and sons. “(And I loved him)”—oh, the brackets say everything.
Like a number of greying punk rock dudes one knows, Meltzer is a cat person. It’s almost a type: the hoary radical, the ex-crazy, childless (Meltzer has declined to Impose “the full slimy wrath of [his] being” on any progeny), spurning most human allegiance but twistedly into his cat or cats, relishing and respecting the fuck-you-ness and complication of the feline. Meltzer writes, at any rate, with unguarded passion about his own aging—dying, in fact—pet-friend. The prose totters pretty close to the sentimental here—“It tears my guts out that I can’t tell him anything he’ll understand ‘bout how come he can’t go outside no more”—but it’s the real man speaking, no question, the same crank who elsewhere demands that we “unplug from the cyber lifeline… it’s a fucking deathline,” and that “Any bar, meantime, where the TV is never off should be NAPALMED.” (hear! hear!)
Meltzer can be an extraordinary comic writer, a real Joycean nutjob, but Autumn Rhythm is—as a rule— sombre, shaded, down. For a freelancer or “writeperson,” reading him in this mode is like having a skull on your desk—the hack’s death’s head, with failure caverned in its eyeholes. Unrich, unredeemed, still pissed at all the mags he ever wrote for, the Meltz will be your memento mori. “May this heap-o-pulp likewise serve as the ur-expression of YOUR vanity. A foretaste of your own aftertaste, of your own extinction.” No laughing matter. Only once does the author uncage the humorist, the Joycean nutter within, in a blinding series of anagrams (with explanations) for “Twentieth Century”: “W.C.T.E: ‘NUTHER ENTITY? (is the Women’s Christian Temperance Enfederation really diff’rent from their Union?)… WET TEN-INCH RYE TUT (medium-size Egyptian novelty bread, after the rain).” Personally, I can’t get enough of this stuff—“NEUTER THE WITTY N.C. (Noel Coward should be desexed, humorless critics contend)”—but I suppose I should stop quoting it. Besides, it’s not all gold dust between these covers. There are “poems”—or at least vertical strands of collapsed prose—in here, mere beermat jottings really. “His life was like a fart…” “if the flies want me/ let the flies have me,” “does my dick have scales?”—yeah, well, okay. Dead-end complacency. Keep typin’em up, Mr. M, if it helps you stay loose… Alright, just one more: “TUNNEY ET IT W/ ‘H’ CERT (Gene followed lobster with a heroin-flavor breath mint).” Ha!
MTV, the “wundaful world-o-videos,” is another of Meltzer’s apocalypses, like the TV bars and the Internet. “When the frigging MINUTEMEN did a vid,” he declares, “you knew it was completely over.” So speaking of the minutemen, and speaking of being completely over, let’s move on to the new Mike Watt CD, which details—really details—a more urgent autumnal event, a most drastic run-in with mortality. the secondman’s middle stand is about serious physical illness (and recovery), and like Watt’s previous contemplatin’ the engine room it takes the form of a punk rock opera, thematically unified, moving in suites. No guitar this time, no Nels Cline or flaming Joe Baiza—on top of the bass and drums is the B3 organ of Pete Mazich, summoning celestial overtones or carousel queasiness as required.
The sickness unto death, for Watt, began in the perineum, that dark notch between balls and asshole. A place of terror: less a place than a space—an eerie, sensate, biologically brooding nothing. Anyway, in 2000 Watt got some sort of explosive abscess right there on his perineum, on the black fulcrum of his being as it were, a boil or saddlesore that blossomed vilely upward and inward and swelled its canker until he quite literally burst, gushing infection through emergency blowholes. Imagine it if you dare, it was an authentic crisis—flashing lights, gurneys, surgery, “38 days of fever,” the mercury climbing in horror and indignation, Watt hovering in half-states, deeply drugged. He almost died. His health and strength were demolished. His recovery was inch-by-inch. “Many geisha boy steps to make the couple of blocks from my pad.” Geisha boy steps—that’s very good.
Fortunately, blessedly, Watt’s philosophy seems to have been a match for this. A proper materialist from his minuteman days, always wrestling with the actual, he was not dismayed to find himself splayed, helpless, reduced, a creature of “pissbags and tubing.” His interest in the conditions, his taste for the basics, prevailed. Adrift for a time in the the unlit precincts of his own body, CURIOSITY got him home. “Dicktube yanked out too/How I laughed when that golf ball bead came thru…” If you’ve ever encountered Watt in person you know that there’s a poetic totality to the man, a density of imagination in which everything—the mumble, the rumble, the word-hoard, the face-bristle, the bong-gurgle, the rumour and squelch of his bass—corresponds. It’s the whole Watt thing, and it feeds the art tremendously: in some respects it is the art. All experience is grist to Watt the mythifier and this here, this bodily drama, is his own “dark wood of error,” his existential pratfall. Can you dig a punk rock opera about a man whose ass exploded? I know you can. Three movements—Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso—hell-hot fever, convalescent limbo, the heaven of the healed return. Dante Alighieri hovers palely by, upper lip lengthened in slight disapproval: Watt has customised the Divine Comedy.
“Boilin’ Blazes” gets us rolling, as Watt does some big vomiting—“threw up mah guts”—and succumbs to fever. It’s the beginning of the “hellride,” a derangement of vile organ-blare and bombastic drumming. “Puked to High Heaven”—more vomiting, and the freakout becomes ontological: “In my head, a tightly packed flame…The moment has me seized!” “Burstedman” is the killer track: “Virgil! Beatrice!” cries the patient, as ungodly fluids splatter his “bulkhead.” “A life in the moment, is that what you’ve always wanted, Watt?” he taunts himself, his bass snicker-snacking. “Well here it is!” (Watt’s playing in general on secondman… is, if possible, more bulbous and ruminative than ever.)
Into hospital we go, and Watt gives us—joyously—the wadded dressings, the catheters, the incidental bladder infections, the nitty gritty: “yankin’ it out… and shovin’ it in!” The mood of “Tied a Reed Round My Waist” is… wonder, oddly enough, Pete Mazich’s B3 doing soft throbs of awe as Watt goes swooning under the knife of top surgeon “Doc Hopkins.” “Beltsandedman”—again with the blue-collar metaphors!—is a beautiful evocation of post-traumatic smoothness, clarity of perception, with fuzzed bass-notes lingering and Petra Haden’s harmonies leavening the Watt-growl. See Watt on the back of the CD, pounds lighter, purged and streamlined: the eyes are heavy-lidded but clear, afire, and there’s a sort of rinsed brilliance to the complexion. It all appears to have been quite good for him.
“backstage w/us are the zz top guys – pretty happening for me cuz I saw them in the early-middle 70s and really dug their third and fourth albums big time, really fucking BIG time – I loved them and they were my kind of power trio in those days, my favorite. you know, when I do interviews about bass I’m thinking now I don’t give enough credit to dusty roads cuz I learned tons from him. I’m gonna make that right. I get to talk some w/frank beard, the drummerman – what a very nice guy. so is mr dusty, man, he is something. his fingers are kind of small, like thumbs but man, he can work a bass like no one’s business. he is very kind to me too. what nice cats….
“….I go watch most of their gig – their basshelperman, pulls up a case me to sit on and even gives me a dusty roads pick though I only see him use fingers the whole gig. he’s a great singer too though mr billy does must of it, they do a lot together also. mr billy’s an incredible guitarist and mr frank is really grooving – them all playing together is really something else. wow. I played a telecaster bass in the later minutemen days cuz I finally found one and I could play like mr dusty. now I got to see him work it up close – crimony! they get done and I tell him “much respect” even start foaming some but work hard to hold it back. he is very gracious. I talk to mr frank and he’s also very gracious – I saw him watch our whole gig – he says he dug the stooges show said “it was mach twenty the whole way!” mr billy goes talk to him and I thank him, also he’s big time gracious – they’re all so nice to me. I told mr frank about seeing them in my teen years – I tell him and mr billy I’m an old punk but they put HUGE influence in me and d. boon – why we wanted to be a powertrio, more than cream – be more like them w/their mic stands up there real close together.”
“Maybe I’m trapped by certain beliefs, but in the early ’60s, oncollege campuses, you went one of two ways. Either you were a verysensitive young person, who cared about air pollution and civilrights and anti-Vietnam or you were a very unsensitive young person,who didn’t care about civil rights because all the blacks he knewwere playing in his band or in his audience. I was a very unsensitiveyoung person and played very unsensitive, uncaring music. Which isWham, Bam, Pow! Let’s Rock Out! What I expected my audience to do wastear the house down, beat me up, whatever. Lou and I came from theidentical environment of Long Island rock ‘n’ roll bars, where youcan drink anything at 18, everybody had phony proof at 16; I was anight crawler in high school and played some of the sleaziest bars.You can’t quite imagine them in Texas – people didn’t carry guns,that’s the only difference. In the ’60s I had King Hatreds. I was abiker type and hung around with nasty black people and nasty whitepeople and black rock ‘n’ roll music. On the other hand, you had verysensitive and responsible young people suddenly attuned to certaincosmic questions that beckon us all, and expressing these concernsthrough acoustic guitars and lilting harmonies and pale melodies. Ihate these people.”