Watt, who codes his own Web site (www.hootpage.com) and religiously updates his tour diaries online, chronicled in cyberspace his ordeal -- and let's be honest, compared with the cakewalks on the nightly news or the last time you had the flu, what Watt endured was an ordeal -- with graphic honesty throughout his long convalescence. Asked six months later whether the experience caused him to reassess the way he lives his life, he answers quickly, "I wear underwear now.
"That's the ultimate fascist tyranny," Watt adds with a laugh. He's calling from Portland, an early stop on a more rigorous schedule than his doctor probably would prefer. "I haven't worn that shit since I was 13. It feels like I'm King Arthur in a suit of armor."
And his armor becomes him, as Watt is braced for battle. "I'm at war with what they call rock these days," he explains. "The whole thing is fascist. The ideas behind it, the way it's represented to people, the way the kids are told to do it. I'm trying to demystify it with my tour diaries." (Sample warning to young bands from last year's entries: Skip the deli tray. Any money that gets spent on that stuff, he says, comes out of your bottom line.)
"I always thought rock was a way in for people on the outside, especially in the '50s," Watt says. "It's a bottom-up movement, but it's been turned into a Nuremberg rally. That's why I got into punk."
Watt helped found the seminal Minutemen, a funny, spirited, full-throttle band cut short by singer D. Boon's death in December 1985. Watt kept battling with fIREHOSE and playing bass, started writing more, and remembered his late friend, whose mother had put the instrument in his hands.
"I think it started to go bad with Woodstock," Watt says. He talks animatedly, his low voice more bemused than stern about the trends and betrayals obvious to him. "I felt the music, the punk thing, deep in my gut. That's how all those punk bands got up. It was luck, being born at the right time. But you start out as an outsider, and then you feel outside even of the other outsiders. Rebellion becomes safe. You need a parallel world."
Watt will visit noted rock writer Richard Meltzer before performing in Portland. He paraphrases his friend: "He said that when he started writing, he felt in the trenches with the groups. But he ended up feeling like a shill for the machine, for the rock press. He stopped even looking at the album covers of what he was reviewing."
Of course, Meltzer is part of the establishment now, if not a shill. His writing is respected, his name dropped by a younger generation of trench-dwellers scrambling up the ladder. Watt, 20 years after plugging in, remains a cult figure (a cult figure who's miraculously still signed to a major label, even if Columbia shows no sign of paying off his medical bills). He and Pair of Pliers, a power trio with Vince Maghrouni and Tom Watson, tour in the de rigueur rock chariot, an Econoline (1990) with busted air conditioning. At 42, Watt still sleeps on floors offered him after shows. He gets restless when not playing or recording. And he still believes in performance as therapy, especially for people who didn't realize they had an outlet at all.
"Maybe the stage is a safe place to go crazy with art," he says. "If I could foster that belief in other people by continuing to play, then I would be a success."
But Watt has always wrestled with insecurity, doubting his skills as a player. "I never feel safe," he says. "I know you're not supposed to feel safe on stage, but there are times I have played and got so scared I didn't know what to do next. I don't think of myself as a musician. I learned it as a tool."
Unable to play for two months after his surgery, though, Watt could think of little else but the bass. "I wanted to get the bass back. There's something about it for me. But I couldn't fucking play, couldn't press on the strings or play the scales. I lost confidence. It broke me down."
Part of what compelled Watt to resume playing, what drove most of his music, was the memory of Boon, who was thrown from the Minutemen's van when his sister fell asleep at the wheel on a long drive. Boon's name is invoked often in conversation with Watt. Talking about playing, he says, "It means everything to me to do it for him."
Asked whether he feels burdened by the feeling that he must finish alone something started with Boon, he says, "Fully. Yeah. It's a debt. He was never afraid, and he was this guy who didn't look at all like he had any business up on stage. I'm totally terrified to get up and play. I have insane dreams before every tour. I feel like an asshole the first night when we go out and I'm up in front of a packed house."
Watt saw Boon and his own dead father as his fever increased unabated in February. He talked to them, telling them it wouldn't be long before he joined them. He was just sane enough to realize he was losing his mind. The hallucinations and the pain fueled Watt's writing for the album he'll record next spring, and his dreams on tour remain eerily vivid and compelling.
"I had this dream after I started riding my bike again," Watt says. (As with his various bass guitars, pictured on his Web site in various states of near-hockness, Watt's bicycle was selected for its cheapness and because it was second-hand. "It was made in Taiwan," he reports when asked what kind he rides.) "And this big truck, this semi, hit me from behind. I was flying through the air for hours. And D. Boon was in this wheat field, where I was flying. He was cutting the wheat with a scythe. And as I get closer, flying faster, he throws down his scythe and catches me. He puts me down, hands me a scythe, and says, 'We've got a lot of wheat to cut.'" For Watt, four-string scythe in hand, it's harvest again.