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Book Review: On and Off Bass: A Photographic Memory by Mike Watt

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Bassist Mike Watt formed the seminal punk band the Minutemen with D. Boone and George Hurley back in 1980. The trio became one of the most influential Southern California punk groups of all time. Along with Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime completely redefined the genre, and remains as powerful a set as ever. They seemed poised to break out of the punk “ghetto” at this time, but events conspired to make that impossible. In December 1985, D. Boon was tragically killed in an accident, and the Minutemen were over. Mike Watt has continued to record, and has made some outstanding music over the years since, but that horrible occurrence still haunts him.

In On and Off Bass, Watt has branched out from music to display some of his great photography. In April 2010, the Santa Monica gallery Track 16 hosted Watt’s first public exhibit. They displayed 35 of his works, which are included (handily enough) as the first 35 images in the book. Interspersed with these images are entries from Watt’s extensive tour diaries. The short, imagistic notes that accompany the photos provide something of a haiku-like explanation of what the pictures mean to Watt.

Hailing from the working-class town of San Pedro, California, Mike Watt has a natural affinity for the waterfront. The vast majority of the pictures in On and Off Bass are of various water-related scenes taken in his home town. He also has quite an affinity for pelicans. One of the best combinations of text and imagery comes early on, and is titled “Follow the Curve.” In this free-verse poem Mike Watt identifies with these birds, and the companion picture of them flying over a freighter is a timeless shot.

On and Off Bass will undoubtedly appeal to fans as something of a companion piece to Watt’s music. As the folks at Track 16 must have felt though, there is a universality here which could find a broad audience. This is a photographic collection that rewards repeated viewings, and is very well crafted.

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