Mike Watt Spiels About James Joyce’s Ulysses in a No Recess! Bloomsday Special
June 15, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau [Joyce's notebook scribblings for Ulysses]
Even after 90 odd years of publication, there’s nothing quite like James Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses. The infamous novel, which introduced the stream-of-conscious writing technique, pushes and pulls the reader through a fantastic labyrinth of words, sights, smells, emotions and thoughts. By writing out the character’s internal dialogue, Joyce made people’s private thoughts public — this trick would eventually land the book in court as some tried to ban it on the grounds of obscenity after publication. Normal rules regarding point-of-view, tense, grammar, and even punctuation are blurred if not tossed aside altogether. With its dense and original language, Ulysses is as intimidating as it is rewarding and continues to be one of the most confounding, challenging books of our time. There’s a reason for all the fuss.
"Down stage he rode some paces, grave, tall in affliction, his long arms outheld. Hoarsely the apple of his throat hoarsed softly. Softly he sang to a dusty seascape there: A Last Farewell. A headland, a ship, a sail upon the billows, Farewell, A lovely girl there, her veil a wave upon the wind upon the headland, wind around her." (Chapter 11, 588-592)
Even after 60 odd years of life, there’s nothing quite like Mike Watt. A renowned and prolific musician, former member of the highly coveted punk bands Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and one of the hardest working people in the business, Watt is armed with a sharp intelligence and a boundless enthusiasm for fine art, music, and literature. He’s also a natural talker and comes with his own glossary of terms, “Pedro Speak,” which heightens the conversation (for example, we didn’t talk, he and I “spieled”). Interestingly, when on a tangent, Watt speaks much in the same way Joyce writes: wonderfully long sentences taking on multiple topics and points of view and yet always landing on his feet by the end of the monologue.
So, to honor Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the book (the story itself takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904), we sat down with Watt to discuss this great, vast book and the effect it’s had on his great, vast life.
We met at his practice space, a small nondescript building in San Pedro, California, which sits overlooking Point Fermin on a sunny, wind-driven morning. After offering me the only chair in the room (a comfortable drum throne) he opted for a white bucket he turned over and placed in front of his bass amp. In the ensuing three-hour conversation, he veers from and back to Joyce’s work, all the while weaving in names of people relevant to his world: Walt Whitman, Kira Roessler, Dante, Nervous Gender, Raymond Pettibon, Edgar Allan Poe, Ed From Ohio, Chuck Dukowski, Nikola Tesla, The Wobblies, Shakespeare, Henry Rollins, Dadaism, T. Rex, Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Poets, Joey Ramone, even Greg Ginn’s mother. But it’s his former Minutemen bandmates, D. Boon and George Hurley, who seem to get the most love and respect and who figure largest in his life.
One of the first things Watt does is pull out his wallet to produce a railway ticket stub and tells me about attending the 2004 Bloomsday Celebration in Dublin. While there, he was taken around by two local acquaintances where they walked in the character’s footsteps as well as visiting the national library where he saw Joyce’s notes and suitcase. “First time I went to a town without doing a gig,” he says with some awe.
Watt was 25 years old when he read Ulysses for the first time and was under its spell, just as he and his bandmates began the writing process for what many people believe is the Minutemen’s greatest recorded achievement, the 1984 double album Double Nickels on the Dime.
“My take on it, remember I was 25 at the time, he’s using the book as a premise to talk about everything: history, philosophy, science, religion, politics, art, ethics; it’s embedded stuff, so I like this idea because the Minutemen were always trying to gang-up a whole bunch of interpretations without fluff on both the spiel and the way we were playing together. So I felt very fortunate to’ve stumbled onto this guy. Also, the Minutemen started touring a lot in ’83, many tours every year; I looked [at the book] as a journey, this guy is walking through the town and he’s thinking about shit and meeting people. I can put myself back in those days trying to come up with songs and having this effect Ulysses had on me and really diggin’ it.”
The intertwining of Joycean concepts and the methodology in which the Minutemen were wrapping themselves is interesting since they approached writing from two different ends of a spectrum, both challenging their audiences to follow them down unique artistic paths. Joyce took more creative risks the further he went into his career; the difference between Ulysses and the book which precedes it, Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, is staggering, almost as if they were written by two different people from two different eras. He opened himself wide, letting his creative whims run wild on the page, and the result divided the intelligentsia who either loved it or hated it.
On the other end of this spectrum, Minutemen took songwriting hints from post-punk bands such as Wire and The Pop Group and pared down their songs to the barest essentials: no solos or choruses. In Pedro Speak this process of simplification is called “Econo,” one of Watt’s favorite terms and one he’s lived by ever since. However, in the narrowing worldview of punk rock, the band’s fresh take on an old approach had more than a few people grumbling, questioning the band’s punk legitimacy. “What we didn’t want was filler,” says Watt. “If it wasn’t interesting, if it didn’t have anything [further] to say, you had to end it and start a new one.” The result were quick bursts of music and words. Watt’s song, “Retreat,” off Double Nickels, contains 35 words and the song itself barely makes it to the two-minute mark:
Real things conditioning will lose their meaning
The toilet starts flushing, sets me off again
But I am a thorn, I read it in your face
The cough’s a thunderclap, my head’s a tape recorder
So, it may seem as though the little band from San Pedro and the internationally acclaimed author from Ireland had a few things in common: forging new paths. And that, right there, is what makes The Arts so damn interesting: People from different worlds can hit upon the same idea from different angles at different times. It’s all intertwined.
“I gotta say, too, though, just finishing the book at that time and getting ready to record, I was inspired. With songwriting, you could talk about anything! What is all this shit [before punk]? ‘Smoke on the Water.’ The bong? No. Then you find out later on the venue burned down and, oh man, that makes it worse! It was better when it was more mysterious! With rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just about things that sound good. Whatever about ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ lyrics, it’s ridiculous.”
I agreed with his assessment with a laugh, but he mistook that for disbelief and wanted to ensure I understood he wasn’t dumping on rock lyrics as an art form.
“No, really! It’s very provocative, I’m way into it. I remember seeing Nervous Gender and I’d never seen shit like that in an arena rock situation. I really felt a resonance in what [Joyce] was trying to do with his story and what we were trying to do with our part of the movement.”
The boundary smashing effect of Ulysses was right in line with the punk rock scene Watt was involved with, and he is indebted to the people he met who influenced and encouraged him along the way.
“It’s sorta like what Joyce was talking about: the public and the private,” he explains. “We took something very private, me and D. Boon, and they let us do that in front of them in the context of a rock ‘n’ roll band. My friend [Boon] teachin’ me about certain art and histories.” Here Watt points to the ever-present John Coltrane pin on his flannel shirt. “I thought John Coltrane was a punk rocker! I knew he was older, I didn’t know he was dead; these people I met in the movement, incredibly intelligent people, freaky people, small scene but deep into shit, and a lotta these cats had to live by their wits.”
One main ingredient of punk rock was alienation. Due to Joyce’s love/hate relationship with his hometown, one of Ulysses’ several themes in the book is that of being an outcast. “Why does he make the whole book about a place he bails from?” Watts asks with a real sense of amazement. “He’s always going to be a Dubliner. He gives the greatest tribute to a town he left, he hated! Isn’t that a trip? In a way, [Minutemen] too: arena rock, the [Reagan] administration, all the stuff we were against; Jim Joyce is like this with Ulysses a little bit, he hated the town so much, why’d he make it the star of the show? And the hero [Leopold Bloom] is kind of an oddball ‘cuz, obviously he felt like an oddball and he couldn’t live there.
"There’s a song on Double Nickels called “History Lesson Pt. II” ‘cuz D. Boon wrote the real “History Lesson” on Punch Line, so I thought I’d write on the other side of it [and] it’s kinda like bringing Ulysses into our movement. I wrote it about Jack [Grisham] singing with TSOL and some letters were being writtin’ in [Punk fanzine] Flipside about [whether] TSOL was real punk or Minutemen was real punk… We’re all part of this movement, don’t get ridiculous about this kinda thing, it’s really about us playing together. And it’s also the ‘Everyman’ thing and every town, it’s everywhere. We’re all…the universality of humanity or this woman or this sister, this daughter, son, brother, grandfather, we can all be these; tear down the hierarchy and the ridiculous stereotypes and corroded ways of pushin’ each other around and stuff. That’s the kind of message which resonated with me.”
– I see San Pedro as your Dublin.
“All this stuff comes down to that, though, everybody’s got a Dublin,” he agrees. “I think that’s what Jim Joyce was trying to say: Everybody’s tryin’ to get home. Remember, he’s parallelin’ The Odyssey. It takes, I dunno, 15 years for Odysseus to get back to his wife, all kinds of shit happens: his crew eats the wrong cows, he gets hypnotized by a witch, his crew gets turned into pigs, all these adventures, but he’s trying to get home and, in a way, Leopold Bloom is just trying to get home. And on the way home, he helps this young man who gets into a fight with an English soldier in a whore house. The plot is very simple in a way, not unlike Minutemen songs. D. Boon was like this, too. For example, [Hurley and Boon] didn’t write much music, but they wrote the better music [chuckles] and one of the songs off that record is ‘This Ain’t No Picnic’ and I remember when D. Boon wrote that; he was working at this auto-parts counter at a car dealership and listening to soul music, KDAY 1580 on the AM radio, and some boss [said]: ‘Turn that nigger music off.’”
Watt pauses, looks at me, and let’s those words sink in.
“It’s about racism, but he never says it. ‘I got my bills and rent / I should pitch a tent / This ain’t no picnic….’ Look, he’s even bringing in the food thing, D. Boon liked food. But it’s: I have to be at this job, I have to be in this fucking situation with people who are really not making it happenin’. It was just two chords. I came up with that bass line just like that and he had that little intro thing and I said: ‘D. Boon, you just play that and get us into it.’ Then we showed it to Georgie. It was kinda strange for a Minutemen song ‘cuz it had a big chorus, we usually didn’t have choruses.”
– It’s almost a hit single.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, it had verses and choruses, a lot of ours didn’t have that structure, even his songs.”
But Watt is certain to point out the fascination with Ulysses was his alone. “You gotta understand, Georgie and D. Boon’s songs had nothing to do with it, I don’t think they ever read it or attempted to… but then I never surfed like Georgie, you know? I remember he read Notes of a Dirty Old Man on tour once, by Charles Bukowski, and Wired by Bob Woodward. D. Boon: history and non-fiction, just loved it. On tour, too, he loved it ‘cuz we could go to The Revolutionary War and Civil War [sites], go to these places, he liked doing that, physically going there and that’s what the Minutemen was about, bringing these things [together]. I gotta give a lotta credit to D. Boon and Georgie for being tolerant and lettin’ that stuff in, you know?”
Nor did the influence of Joyce stop with his time in the Minutemen — many of his solo albums have a Joycean influence. In fact, Ulysses helped Watt process the tragedy that broke up his band when D. Boon was killed in a car accident in December of 1985. Though it took some time, Watt was able to channel his grief through a Joycean filter for his second solo LP, 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room. This, the first of his punk rock operas, combines the story of his father’s navy experience with Watt’s Minutemen experience; each of the 15 songs make up one day, much like the book. “When it comes time for me to get brave enough to deal with losing D. Boon and my Pop, I use Jim Joyce’s methods I found in his story but talk about myself. A big theme in Ulysses is Paddy Dignam’s funeral, there’s not a lot of action taking place [but] he deals with the death and the birth too. You know, [Joyce] wrote some letters to friends how [the book] is a trip through the body, a trip through human civilizations, cultures, colors, smells, all this kinda shit, I used all that for the first opera. That subject matter [on Engine Room] was not uplifting, very fuckin heavy, you know? I didn’t know how to deal with that shit. I used his stuff as kind of a therapy, it really helped me; at first [Joyce’s writing devices] was a way to help me from writing the same fuckin’ song over and over again, [but] I learned from him about letting go of my expressions.”
Also helping Watt through this time was the clarity that comes with age and experience. “What really sealed it for me was, around this time, I started re-reading stuff I read in my 20s: Ulysses, Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, and they all have different meanings for me, even though there isn’t one letter changed, obviously Watt changed. As I was reading them as a young man [it was] really explosive: look, here’s everything to learn! Then, when I re-read them in my 40s, I hear another voice, the author’s voice, much sadder, kinda heavy, down; that’s just the way I interpreted it later. It was a different feeling, that’s the subject at hand, they were dealing with their feelings.”
Without pausing, Watt switches gear and starts to wonder about the almost absurd amount of stylistic differences within the book.
“But the device he used in his writing, stylistically, there’s all these episodes, there’s only three chapters, but there’s all these episodes that parallel Homer [The Odyssey] and he changes the style. It’ll be like a term paper, or an article or an opera; he changes his style of writing. It was kinda hard getting through it, keepin’ track of shit, but I think in one way he wanted you to look up shit when you were reading it: ‘Hey, try and be as smart as me.’ You know he’s using other books! I don’t think he did all that shit from memory, he was schooled and trained big time. He made his family live out of suitcases; there was a movie called Nora… kind of a negative view of him. The way they lived was pretty hard, and then he had problems with his eyes, maybe drinkin’ a little bit; but then that’s the whole ‘nother thing.”
– He’s just as human as the rest of us.
“[Quietly] Yeah and maybe he didn’t treat his family so nice. There could be an argument made for that. I tried to find out as much as I could about the man, but what’s important is the work he left behind. Not to makes things more…”
“No… just messed up. ‘Cuz yer talking about what Ulysses means to Mike Watt and his way of making songs, so that’s really stretching it; all of a sudden I’m a commentator on how he lived his life. Some things have to be heavy, okay? Art is very important, but to try and say what it is? That’s very hard. For [the Minutemen song] “Expected I’m Gone,” I’m talking about an existential thing: dealing with Ulysses. So I have D. Boon say: ‘Big fuckin’ shit.’ It had nothing to do with the rest of the song in a way; it’s the last line in the song and I knew it would be confusing. It’s like what Edgar Allen Poe did with Narrative of a Gordon Pym, some serialized thing where at the end it’s: Dear reader, I can’t tell you anymore cuz this guy is full of shit, you know? He made it up to begin with! It’s all squiggly lines on paper and you have to interpret this stuff; it’s gotta be one of the most private art forms ever. It’s you the writer and in between you [and the reader] are these sets of symbols.”
Since its publication there have been heroic attempts to decode the book; Kevin Dettmar’s The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism, Erwin Steinberg’s The Stream of Consciousness and Beyond in Ulysses, and Anthony Burgess’ Rejoyce are three stand-outs in the field. When it comes down to it, however, only Joyce himself knows the true meaning behind Ulysses; it’s all conjecture for the rest of us, which is part of the fun. Watt knows this too and, near the end of our conversation goes into a fantastic soliloquy trying to untangle the wonderful mess Joyce left us with as he sits on that white bucket in front of his amp, sometimes looking down at the floor, sometimes looking at me above the rim of his glasses, all the while verbally wondering not just about Joyce’s point, but about Life. And Art. And Music. About taking care of one another. Ulysses is a strange, powerful book — powerful enough to keep someone like Mike Watt guessing.
“Maybe it’s about taking turns, [so] you don’t get too much one way or the other; that’s one of the reasons, I started doing a lot more [projects]. If you sincerely believe everyone has something to teach you, put yourself in different places. That’s very Joycean, that’s what I get from Ulysses.
“I think there’s always a phase when yer getting involved with a piece of artwork where it’s the celestial clockwork, it’s the great thing that works, it all fits together and as you get more of an understanding, you get more of a perspective. Hopefully, you don’t get too narrow and more hopefully you don’t lose enthusiasm and get jaded and think you’ve figured it all out. That’s why these things are so special to me because they are so rich and keep givin’. You can go back to them and not have them totally figured out. Your mind settles on things and you gotta be really careful on that. Yeah, you change as you go down the road, too. S’like what I was telling you about reading those books 20 years apart. They’re different books but not one word changed.
“I think you can only write Ulysses once. He was gettin’ ready for it with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, obviously ‘cuz Stephen Dedalus is in there; maybe that’s what happens, you get one shot, the one book. I think it’s pretty singular. It is like making an album, [or] playing in a band with other guys: you gotta make places for people’s characters.
“Finnegans Wake [Joyce’s last novel] is more about a family,” he continues, well into his stride by now, “maybe his own family, his kids and his situations. It starts with the Liffey, with the river that goes through Dublin and ends with it, everything is very circular, rhythmic in cycles. Ulysses is much more teleological; the sun rises and the sun sets. The real splitter is day and night, that goes way back for humans and that’s why [Joyce] did it in one day, I think. One of his core beliefs about humanity is important: Things have consequences. The way you treat people, the way you’re treated has an effect… which is an interesting thing if you wanna talk about the way things should be in a rock ‘n’ roll song. [Quietly, almost whispering] I thought that was interesting.
“If a punk rock guy or John and Rob Wright [from the Canadian punk band, Nomeansno] can hip some people to Jim Joyce, it ain’t a bad thing because some of these standard ways of deliverin’ the knowledge, the facts, they’re not that excitin’ and they might be excitin’ if presented it in other kinda ways. Sometimes it’s like, who gives a fuck? I remember reading Lord of the Rings in school and I was: ‘What the fuck is this shit?’ It was ridiculous, but maybe that’s one of the things about Art: You can tie humans together in artistic ways without, you know, boot-on-throat mode. If Watt’s stupid tunes on Double Nickels somehow can build an appreciation for Ulysses… that’s not such a bad deal. It’s kinda like handing off a baton; you carved on your own things and handed it off, now it’s their turn. Use that as a spoke on a big wheel that moves the hay wagon.”