Ball-Hog or Tugboat

Mike Watt, 1995

There seems to be an ongoing reassessment of outsider rock legends—people who have held their corner down so long and so consistently they've earned a place at table (halls of fame be damned). The Clash and Ramones have been seated. Fugazi are well on their way. Bob Mould seems perpetually on the cusp. The one I root for the most is Mike Watt: bassist of the beloved Minutemen, leader of the underrated fIREHOSE, and still steering a highly idiosyncratic but artistically adventurous career as a solo artist.

Ball-Hog or Tugboat is one of the better arguments in his favor. No other record so succinctly and democratically summarizes the entirety of the grunge era of rock. It's a star-studded affair, with guest spots by members of nearly every major (and minor) band of the era: Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Pixies, Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr, Lemonheads, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers… It calls in favors from his punk rock past with a gathering of the SST gang, including Joe Baiza and Henry Rollins. It features more outré, underground figures like firebrand jazzbo and future Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and the commanding voice of alt-country-before-alt-country-was-a-thing singer Carla Bozulich. Ball-Hog is a wide-ranging double album that somehow marshals all these egos and styles into a coherent statement.

Listening to it again, some 20+ years later, it doesn't just reflect it's time, it is a fitting finale to the era it represents. Sure, the death of Kurt Cobain was certainly an ending, but there was plenty still happening about that needed to be would wind down and wrapped up. If Cobain's ending was too sudden and meaningless—Ball-Hog or Tugboat was the well-planned going away party.  

The Minutemen are stone-cold classics. Someday, Firehose might yet get their due. Watt's rock operas—especially Contemplating the Engine Room and  Hyphenated-Man—are ambitious and enjoyable. Ball-Hog or Tugboat though, is the capstone, a monument to an era—one that Mike Watt, himself, played a central role in building.