Mike Watt's got a story to tell. It starts with three kids who meet in a small sailor's town. (Actually, it starts with Watt's dad, but we'll get to that later.) Anyway, these buddies form a band called the Minutemen. In 1984 the Minutemen make a fantastic double record called Double Nickels on the Dime.
Then something bad happens. This guy named D. Boon, the guitarist and the singer, dies in a van accident. The other two grieve. A longtime fan, who also happens to play guitar and sing, shows up at the door and talks them into starting a band called Firehose. They make a lot of records. They break up. Watt gets a lot of Really Important Friends, who happen to think that the Nickels record he made way back when is still pretty ducky (and that that van accident was a tragedy indeed), to help him make a record. Watt decides he has had a pretty interesting life. He finds another trio to help him put all of these experiences on another record.
And that brings us to Contemplating the Engine Room. The 15-cut song cycle is at essence a rock opera: It takes place in the guts of a boat, supposedly starting at dawn with the first song and finishing 24 hours later. "It's also a metaphor for what's flying through my head. It's about the Minutemen, my pop in the Navy, Pedro (my town) [the grungy L.A. suburb of San Pedro] and how I got to where I am now," Watt explains on the record's sleeve. Full of herky-jerk riffs and sudden rhythm changes, it's an ambitious and occasionally rewarding record. Last week in S.F., Watt and a pair of cronies played the platter live from start to finish. On New Year's Eve. After a wrestling match.
The circumstances wouldn't make sense for any other player attempting to perform a concept record in full. (The last two song cycles I saw live -- by the singing and songwriting Texan belle Jo Carol Pierce, and Lou Reed on the Magic and Loss tour -- were both sit-down affairs. The audience sat down and listened to stories. And laughed, or cried.) For Watt though, a song cycle performed for a sodden New Year's Eve crowd at a wrestling match is a ready-made analogy for his new record. In other words, Watt surrounds himself with noise and the accouterments of blue-collar living to mask his ridiculous pretension.
The evening's main draw was Incredibly Strange Wrestling, a dozen or so wrestlers of various shapes and abilities who wear Mexican-style face masks and clothesline one another off the ropes. They wrestle, fake punches and all, but it's pretty tongue-in-cheek; the audience is encouraged to throw tortillas. Just past midnight, bass strapped to flannel-shirted back, Watt muscled through the crowd of about 200 wading in corn tortillas and confetti. "Wrestler wakes up in the morning and his day job is being a wrestler," Watt announced. Then: "In the words of Popeye, I am what I am." He sounded sincere, not ironic; the cover art for Watt's 1995 record, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, depicts a couple of naked men grappling with one another.
The wrestling obsession makes sense. Watt's always gone to extreme lengths to convince everyone that he's a blue-collar bear: He writes about his San Pedro relentlessly (a holdover theme from the Minutemen); he fetishizes flannel for the fabric's everyguy appeal; he romanticizes his dad's career as an enlisted man in the Navy. (If Watt does a beer endorsement, it will surely be Pabst Blue Ribbon.) I'm sure this is heartfelt and all, but you have to figure that anyone who's that in your face about how caked in grease he is (see Neil Young in the 1990s) is protesting a bit too much.
With no further introduction, the band -- Watt, Joe Baiza on guitar, Steve Hodges on drums -- began "In the Engine Room." The song starts with a bass riff similar to the one at the end of the Minutemen song "No Exchange." Then Watt introduces the three main characters sweating it out in the Engine Room: the Boilerman, Fireman Hurley, and the machinist mate. "Seems like we're man-machine men/ But what seems like just ain't right/ In fact we're conducting our own symphony/ Improvising in the engine room, hey-oh," he sings. Spelling it out is pretty easy: Fireman Hurley is Firehose (and Minutemen) drummer George Hurley; Boon is the Boilerman (on another tune the character "worked that six-string strong/ filled our engine room with song"); and Watt is the mate (Watt's fond of saying that bassists are sidemen). The song is supposed to be clever: The Minutemen were all in the same boat -- get it?
It's a mallet of a metaphor. The pounding only got worse as the show (and the album) went on. Both "Red Bluff" and "Pedro Bound!" are stylistically lighthearted and fun; they are about Watt's father and Watt's formative years, respectively. They tell stories without laying on the boat stuff too heavily. But "Topsiders" is offensive in both its blatancy and the pretentious name-checking. Here's the information you'll need to decipher the next passage: A "black gang man" is purportedly sailor slang for those who spend their time under the deck. "Topsiders" is slang for deck hands and, coincidentally I'm sure, a style of shoes favored by yuppies in the mid-1980s. "When a black gang man climbs up the stairs/ Sticks his head out the hatch and what does he see?" Watt stops the band on a dime. "Topsiders!" he grunts. The shout-outs include "Cadena, Mugger, Robo, Ginn/ Baiza, Brewer, Stevenson/ Holtzman, Bostrom, Hart, Dukowski/ Rollins, the Kirkwoods, Spot, Carducci." Why, it's the whole SST crew. (You could say Boon was the Notorious B.I.G. of his day, which makes Watt Puffy. Just keep in mind there are no hit singles at stake in this one.)
I was over it by the time Watt got to the last three songs of the record. Musically, they all flirt with ambient sounds and more experimental figures. Lyrically all of them are about Boon, or Watt's reaction to Boon's death. I had had enough. Listen, I'm glad that Watt's (still) working through the loss, 12 years on -- I'm sure the songs are therapeutic. But all of them are so literal: "Breaking the Choke Hold" includes the line, "A drowning man/ Can pull you under." They lose the resonance they might have for another listener; pop songs become important when we, the listener, make them meaningful to us. This isn't expression; it's thumb-sucking.
At the very end of the album, that opening bass riff comes back. Watt rounded out his little tale with a self-satisfied smile. For Watt, ambition and pretense are flip sides of the same coin. He gets away with pretense because he spends so much time telling everyone how unpretentious he is. All great rock 'n' roll performers need both a story and songs; it's part of the rockist myth of the performer as celebrity. Most people who pick up a guitar never come up with either; so maybe we should be impressed that Watt, at least, has a story.