Revising History: Mike Watt On John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, More
Now this is quite the honor: Mike Watt, one of the most respected musicians ever to lurk in the underground, has anted up – all jazz-style – for the second installment in the Bad Penny’s brand-new series, Revising History.
Simply put, if you don’t know Watt, you don’t know squat about independent music. The 52-year-old bass god/ singer/ songwriter/ author/ opera playwright has about as many band credits to his name as Robert Pollard has song credits: Minutemen, Firehose, the Stooges (from ’03 to present), Dos, Hellride, Hellride East, Ciccone Youth, J Mascis and the Fog, Missingmen, Porno for Pyros, Banyan, the Unknown Instructors …
One of his latest projects, Floored by Four, just tossed out their opening salvo, a self-titled album, via Chimera. The Manhattan band also features drummer Dougie Bowne (pictured above with Watt), who has collaborated with Iggy Pop, John Cale and loads more; Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline; and his wife-to-be, keyboardist Yuka Honda (yes, she of Cibo Matto legend). The avant-jazz-punk troupe cites Sun Ra as one of its influences; incidentally, his “Space Is the Place” made Watt’s Revising History list.
But before letting Mr. Watt do his spiel, a quick tip of the hat: He was the centrifugal force at one of the best (and first) shows I’ve ever been to: an April 1995 gig at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. Foo Fighters – who hadn’t even released an album yet – opened, as did the Eddie Vedder-affiliated Hovercraft; Vedder, Grohl and others joined Watt onstage and tore through selections from the bassist’s first one-on-one tug-o-war, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
Musos might recall that the album – which also featured Sonic Youth, J Mascis, Frank Black … basically every indie-rocker worth their salt – actually had some mersh appeal, what with radio-friendly singles like “Big Train” (Grohl, Vedder, Mascis, Cris and Curt Kirkwood, Nels Cline); “Against the 70’s” (Grohl, Vedder, Gary Lee Connor, Krist Novoselic, Carla Bozulich); and “Piss-Bottle Man” (Evan Dando, Bob Lee, Zander Schloss, John Strohm, Anna Waronker, Petra and Rachel Haden).
That’s enough name-dropping from me – time to let the San Pedro, California, immortal do some of his own. Below is his submission to “Revising History,” a feature in which artists reveal which albums and/or songs they most wish they had made. Watt went with songs.
John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme” (from A Love Supreme)
This whole piece is just very emotional for me, very moving. It’s the first thing I heard when Ray Pettibon played it for me. He turned me on to it … I’d never heard this kind of stuff, and at first I thought it was punk music. I knew these guys were older, but I didn’t know he was dead. I grew up in low-income housing, I didn’t know about this jazz stuff.
Thelonious Monk – “In Walked Bud” (from multiple albums)
I got this record really early on … It’s got singing and it’s rapping about the cats in the scene at this time. I love Monk’s piano playing, the voice on the records, and there’s something about this tune and the singing that just kind of spoke for that bebop scene, which I figured was kind of a parallel to our thing. It was so underground and people just did it for love.
Charles Mingus – “Fables of Faubus”
Faubus was the governor of Arkansas back in the good old days. Mr. Mingus is a bass player, a kindred spirit there. You can tell he’s kind of got an Ellington thing going, all tripped out. … His book, Beneath the Underdog, is pretty profound … It’s kind of an autobiography, but it’s kind of inflated … The passion that these cats had … They were much more schooled than our punk scene with their learning and technique, but I felt a lot of kindred spirits with the enthusiasm and motivation there. That’s where I found that empathetic resonance hearing all this … It was all new to me as I was new to the punk scene.
Albert Ayler – “When the Saints Go Marching In” (from Goin’ Home)
When I first heard Albert Ayler – and it was this song, which is a traditional kind of thing – it kind of hipped me to what these guys were about, which was reinventing things for themselves. Sometimes just take standards and turn the chords … Coltrane did it with “Favorite Things.” … It would be like a springboard … these guys didn’t have a lot of time to practice with each other, they’d come to jam sessions after gigs. If you had common ground, then you can deconstruct or flip a song inside out on itself, which is what he [Ayler] does. He makes it so personable, so much him … It’s beautiful.
John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy – “Mr. P.C.” (from Giant Steps)
I think it was Paul Chambers he wrote it for. He was an incredible bassist … John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, for me, is amazing stuff. Dolphy did some time with Mingus, an incredible cat, man … I mean, wow! Trippy voice, and the bass clarinet wasn’t used that much. A lot of these guys died young … Coltrane was only 40. … Mr. Dolphy had diabetes and he didn’t even know.
Miles Davis & John Coltrane – “Straight, No Chaser” (from 1958 Miles)
This is a Monk song done by Miles Davis and John Coltrane while Billy Higgins was on the drums, I think. This is the first jazz album I ever bought … One side was Monk, one side was Miles. I love that Monk song, and the way they do it … Wow.
Les McCann – “Compared to What” (from Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ Swiss Movement)
No commentary necessary.
John Coltrane – “Chasin’ the Trane” (from multiple albums)
I was listening to an interview with John Gilmore, he said music is like a big reservoir. Coltrane was a very original thing, music’s a big reservoir … He got that.
Roland Kirk – “Rip, Rig and Panic” (from the Roland Kirk Quartet’s Rip, Rig and Panic)
Wild, wild stuff, maybe what Coltrane was looking for with adding Pharoah Sanders into the band. These are very emotional players, emotional soloists. I think they excited Coltrane.
Sun Ra – “Space Is the Place” (from the “Space Is the Place” soundtrack)
I actually got to see Sun Ra a few times with Raymond Pettibon. In fact, one time – this is before he had a stroke and he wasn’t in a wheelchair – he was doing this trippy-ass version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and he got a conga line going … Me and Raymond were in a conga line with Sun Ra while “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing! It was so trippy, so surreal for me … This whole scene of these kinds of musicians playing with the heart that they do, and it’s also very transcendent. I feel a big debt to them, even when I’m doing kooky stuff like this opera I’ve got going [“Hyphenated-Man,” his third]. I look to those guys as a confidence builder … I’m not trying to copy them or anything – I might have too much respect for them to do that – but the spirit they bring to the music. They just go for, they let the freak flag fly.
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