Deserted: Mike Watt – Ball-Hog or Tugboat

Perched on shelves, buried in bins, and collecting dust on racks, some of the world’s best music is left to the fate of time. Forgotten and neglected, these artists and albums are now primed for re-evaluation thanks to a world gone digital. Any would-be musical explorer can now plug in, tune out, and turn up. Deserted is aimed at aiding those who would embrace the past rather than reject it. So open up your arms and welcome Mike Watt.

Mike Watt is no stranger to music history. As one-third of legendary punk outfit, The Minutemen, Watt was a father of the grassroots touring tradition that continues to birth countless podunk clubs and DIY labels. But his 1995 solo debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat, stands at the crux of those road weary credos with which Watt “paid his dues.”

Featuring a who’s who of 80s and 90s alterna-stars, Ball-Hog or Tugboat could be seen as Watt’s attempt to make a lifestyle grab after more than a decade of keeping it real—a shortsighted opinion of what stands as one of those so-called “underrated” albums. How an album this rich with talent remains a head-scratcher but here we stand, 15 years after its release and we can marvel in Ball-Hog or Tugboat’s brilliance once more.

The album epitomizes payback. While many could have easily pointed at the all-star contributions and called it Watt’s cash grab, it’s readily clear that Ball-Hog or Tugboat is a living tribute to all Watt and The Minutemen did to blaze the trail for the alternative movement. Each and every person featured on Watt’s album (including the emergence of Nels Cline) is paying tribute to their godfather, helping to flesh out Watt’s musical vision (which we’ve come to realize is preoccupied with composing rock and roll operas) and doing so with an energy their own first albums.

But it’s the seminal moments of Ball-Hog or Tugboat that crank up the album’s greatness all these years later. Kathleen Hanna’s answering machine rant at the end of “Heartbeat” that trashes the heart of Ball-Hog or Tugboat (rockin’ white guys with out of control emotions) as she turns down Watt’s offer to be on the album (oh, the irony that she sings on “Heartbeat” anyway). When it devolves into a plea for Watt to return her Annie soundtrack, the joke’s back on us. It bleeds into the album’s pinnacle: a cover of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” featuring J. Mascis on guitar and Bernie Worrell on organ. In the midst of songs about avoiding 70s culture, pissing into bottles out of fatherly tribute, and a Kim Gordon-less rendition of “Tuff Gnarl,” it’s a powerful middle finger to everything Hanna seemed to rail against but ultimately embrace. Ball-Hog or Tugboat may be the macho, grease-ball alterna-album of its time but there’s a real heart and honesty behind the superstar preening—none of which belongs to Watt; forever the cornerstone of the album and the scene.

Justin Spicer is a freelance journalist whose work can be viewed at his website. He also pens Agitated Atmosphere for the KEXP Blog. You may follow him on Twitter.

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