18. Mike Watt, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
If on the last day of 1995 you had asked me to name the best album of the year, without hesitation I would have answered Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, the debut solo release of Mike Watt. I’m not entirely convinced I’d stand by the pinnacle placement now (besides being inclined toward the member of the legendary Minutemen and the shoulda-been-legendary Firehose, I was certainly committing to some bratty contrarianism as the record wasn’t championed in the music press nearly as much as I felt was merited), but I completely understand while it appealed to me. In the midst of an onslaught of sonically redundant music pitched desperately at the suddenly lucrative alternative rock market, Watt’s album stood out for its indifference to unity even within its own metaphoric grooves. It reached that achievement of the very best rock albums: while unmistakably the work of a single artist, it sounded gratifyingly different from track to track, always upending expectations.
Ball-Hog or Tugboat? often tracks as if it’s a cockamamie concept album, or at least an invitation to ride the unpredictable whitewater rapids of Watt’s thought process. The anti-nostalgia rant “Against the 70’s” (with Eddie Vedder on lead vocals) gives way to “Drove Up from Pedro,” which opens with the lyrics “Now this Pedro dude had the attitude/ But the 70’s had him spaced.” Then that song’s music career origin story, which hinges its chorus on car trips from Watt’s hometown, naturally leads to a triumphant ode to the utility of a spare container in a truck cab to help avoid rest stops on a long drive (“Piss-Bottle Man”). The album doesn’t always proceed as if Watt is providing an answer to his every musical thought, but it does maintain a exuberantly questing flow, as if every moment is a manifestation of a well-why-not-this? spirit that was too often lacking on other albums at the time.
Certainly some of the inspiration came from the rough contemporaries and awestruck followers Watt surrounded himself with on the record. Rather than cobble together a backing back or simply employ tried-and-true studio musician to help him fill out the album, Watt recruited a gaggle of heavy hitters from some of the major bands of the time, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Meat Puppets, the Beasties Boys, the surviving members of Nirvana, and seemingly just about anyone else who’d been the beneficiary of laudatory words in college radio trade journals within the prior year or two. The album art and promotional materials presented this lineup of collaborators in the style of old wrestling posters, and I remember participants attesting that he would greet them at the studio with variations on “So, are you ready to step into the ring with Watt?” Like pro wrestling, the whole endeavor is infused with a spirit of unabashed entertainment, giving the audience a wild, unpredictable ride for their money.
Over and over, Watt’s album unfurls a new grand, goofy wonder. “Tuff Gnarl,” a cover of a Sonic Youth song guest starring Sonic Youth (naturally), gets so wildly agitated by the end that it sounds like the indie-punk answer to “Flight of the Bumblebee” (the original track is too densely aggressive to have this quality). “Max and Wells,” with lead vocals by Mark Lanegan, sounds like like Bizarro World Lou Reed gem (“Confused, they used the fuse that blew the right to choose/ And then fell broken, smokin’, chokin’ in token acts of contrition”). I’m fond of the way the slippery, free jazz-inflected “Forever…One Reporter’s Opinion” (a riff on a classic Minutemen song) leads into “Song for Igor” which sounds like he’s being backed up by a half-drunk version of Fishbone. But there’s absolutely nothing on the packed album that makes me as overjoyed as “Heartbeat,” thanks to inclusion of a pointed diatribe by Kathleen Hanna, disguised as an answering machine message declining an invitation to participate in the record. Hanna is cutting in her sardonic commentary and entirely on point, especially in her assessment of the state of alternative rock at the time as an endless succession of “I’m a straight white middle class male rock star guy but i’m so fuckin’ oppressed i’m a loser baby why don’t you kill me” songs. Indeed, as I consider a dismaying number of the titles on this wholly representative countdown of the alternative hits of 1995, I’m often tempted to defer to the review Hanna settles on: “Yawn. Like super fucking yawn.”
As I’ve surely already made clear, that assessment doesn’t apply to Watt’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, no matter how many of those moany dudes he’s assembled to back him up (and Hanna’s right: the lineup is overstocked with men). Is it the best of 1995? These days I need to go with a wavering “maybe.” If not, though, it’s damn close.
Stone Bogart hailed from Wisconsin, which was probably already enough to get 90FM deejays to play their EP Rainbow Radio (the title track was a song that appeared on a previous full-length release). There was another, slightly tenuous local connection that might have helped it further. Though the band members were strewn about the state (one in Madison, one in Neenah, and two in Oshkosh), the sister of lead singer Sean Anders was attending college right there at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, which could be chalked up to mere coincidence except for the fact that there was a decent amount of cross-pollination between the station and the theatre department, where Andrea Anders had a fairly prominent place (a few years later, she had second-billing in the ill-fated Friends spinoff Joey). Even without the boost, Stone Bogart was exactly the sort of straight-ahead rock band with an undercurrent of playful joy that always did well at 90FM. I would have gone to see them at Witz End. Like his sister, Sean Anders wound up in Hollywood, writing and directing movies that I want no part of.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread