I’ve usually had fairly conventional picks for the best album of the year, to my dismay (I have a niggling desire to be more iconoclastic than I really am). There have been exceptions, though. One of those occurred in 1995, probably because I was enduring the overly conventional to a tedious degree thanks the playlists I was handed at the commercial radio station where I worked. While most of the cool kids’ lists were topped by the likes of Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins and Björk, I was ready to tell everyone who’d listen that the actual greatest achievement in recorded music belonged to one Michael David Watt.
Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, the solo debut of the former Minutemen bassist and Firehose frontman, was the sort of sprawling, deliberately unkempt affair that I’ve often found hard to resist. There’s admittedly a fine line between inspiration and indulgence in such albums, but if the spirit is consistently inventive and enthusiastic throughout, I default to admiring the ambition. (It’s for this reason that I maintain the White Album is the best of the Beatles many masterworks.) For his first album under his own name, Watt recruited an impressive legion of fellow toilers from bands more accustomed to attention from the left end of the radio dial, some who’d been kicking around as long as he’d been and more than a few upstarts. In the wilds of Watt’s mind, the whole endeavor was a crazed, free-for-all wrestling match, and every bit of the album’s packaging and promotion materials reflected that. Wonderfully, it sounded like it was constructed with the joyful abandon of an old time wrestling match too, with different guest stars careening in at the oddest of times.
I had a clear favorite guest appearance on the album, which I mentioned in a recent film review. Kathleen Hanna may have still been at the peak of her influence at the time of the album’s release, with Bikini Kill still going strong and the riot grrrrl movement standing as the most fruitful extension of feminism’s early promise. So when Hanna showed up on Watt’s album, not offering a musical contribution but what was credited as a “spiel,” it was attention-getting. Better still, it offered up the best of Hanna. It was pointed, fiercely intelligent, uncompromising, funny and charming in an unorthodox way. Ostensibly a voicemail message Hanna left to Watt refusing an overture to appear on the album–but actually something Hanna recorded in a more conventional fashion specifically for inclusion–its a flinty rejection of the male-dominated culture of “alternative rock” at the time, specifically calling out the heavy imbalance in favor of men on Watt’s guest list. Without question, I’ve never liked Hanna more than when she speculates that the men on the album would be better off working out the power issues by serving as bullying lifeguards, enforcing pool rules (“Don’t run by the poo-ull! No cut-offs!”).
The spiel covers the last passage of the track “Heartbeat,” presented late on the album, almost as a refutation of what’s come before. It’s representative of Watt’s ballsy, fearless approach to music-making that he would include this monologue which, among other things, accuses one of the other performers on the album of statutory rape. Listening back to it now, it also calls attention to my slight misattribution of the authorship of the best album of 1995. It’s Watt’s name on the front of the record, but it is truly a group effort, every thumbprint adding to the splendid mosaic of the music. At the very least, given my strong connection to “Heartbeat,” Hanna deserves the assist.
Listen or download –> Mike Watt, “Heartbeat”
(Disclaimer: I’m breaking one of my rules here, so I’m going to acknowledge it up front. As far as I can tell, you absolutely can go to your favorite local, independently-owned record store and ask them to secure you a copy of Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and I even suggest you do that, perhaps while loading up on other holiday gifts for friends and loved ones. However, after writing about the song in The Punk Singer review, I got a special request from someone who doesn’t have ready access to American record stores. So here the song is. I still mean no harm, and will not only remove it if asked to do so by anyone with due authority to do so–especially if the request comes from either Watt or Hanna, both of whom I’m a little afraid of–but I’m probably going to take it down of my own accord in a few weeks or, perhaps more accurately, whenever I remember to do so. So get it while it’s hot, kids!)