It might as well be just another Monday night in April at the Bottleneck, a ramshackle punk club right off the main drag in Lawrence, Kan. At a little after 8, a few hundred locals are drifting into a performance space the size of a large walk-in closet. But as Hovercraft, the evening's opening act, step up on the venue's tiny stage, an alien nervous energy crackles through the room. Shrouded in darkness, the trio hang their heads as they ease into a spacey half-hour instrumental jam. A sensory-enhancing video collage – flowing red lava, lizards eating insects, rockets bursting into flames – runs on a screen behind the drummer as the band wends its way through a series of inventive and occasionally meandering sonic moods most easily described as Sonic Youth meets Pink Floyd.
Tittering in the audience intensifies as devotees of Mike Watt, the evening's headliner, and ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, whose new band, Foo Fighters, is road-testing songs from an upcoming album, wonder aloud whether this unknown group makes the grade. Hovercraft's railthin guitarist keeps his back turned to the crowd as he coaxes otherworldly scratch patterns from his echo-drenched strings; the bass player maintains impressive reserve as her instrument throbs with each filling-rattling swoop. Then there's the band's expressionless drummer, a slightly built fellow with a Beatles haircut and wraparound shades in a mustard-colored cardigan, who pummels his small kit with timpani mallets. Few of the rapt observers suspect the truth – that beneath the phony mop top hides Pearl Jam's publicity-shy frontman, Eddie Vedder (that's Vedder's wife, Beth Liebling, on bass).
"Could people tell who I was?" a wigless Vedder asks me, cracking a cautious smile after the next night's show in St. Louis. Various rumors were circulating the room, I explain, but the applause at the end of the set was definitely for Hovercraft's performance alone. "Good. I'm glad there's still a bit of mystery," he says.
Thanks to Internet chat and an MTV news item, the night's most obvious secret has been spoiled in part: An '80s punk forefather, Watt has taken two of the biggest names in '90s rock, Grohl and Vedder, in vans on a six-week spring-break tour of small clubs. This tour is about doing things the old way, the "real" way, before punk hit the shopping malls. "That's what's cool about punk," explains Watt. He knows: Watt played with the groundbreaking trio the Minutemen as well as with fIREHOSE. "There's always going to be a niche, man," he says. "It broke open a door, but there's still people who do it in the cellars, do it in the garage, rent out the hall. And fuck you, we're going to have some vans going." Vedder agrees: "Touring with vans is much simpler and more intimate than with buses."
Not so fast!" Mike Watt admonishes from the back seat in a rare display of unease that quickly deteriorates into a hearty belly laugh. "When you turn, it's a slower thing, more like a boat." I've taken up Watt's generous offer of a ride with him and Eric, his lone helper, in their tour van for the 300 miles between Lawrence and St. Louis. In characteristically utilitarian (he calls it "econo") fashion, Watt insists that I take my share of time behind the wheel – while interviewing him. "You get to know people really well on this level, in the van and stuff," he says as he lies down for a nap.
Fortunately, Watt's rig has all the modern conveniences: a hand-built cassette rack, a wrinkled United States mileage map taped to the ceiling, a faded Peachy Peach car freshener dangling from the windshield. . . . All right, it's got none of the modern conveniences. But it is the very same white Ford Econoline that got fIREHOSE, the 36-year-old bassist's previous band, through seven cross-country tours. And in the wonderfully earthy, by-the-seat-of-your-pants world of Mike Watt, that counts for a whole lot.
Dressed in his trademark nubby flannel shirt with a Motel 6 directory sticking out of his back jean pocket, Watt looks like some half-cracked scoutmaster. And Vedder, Grohl and Co. are the loyal charges for whom Watt personifies indie rock's guiding light. Back in the mid-'80s underground pioneers like the Minutemen, Black Flag and the Meat Puppets had no choice but to do things themselves, so they found dive bars to play, booked their own gigs and relied on the kindness of strangers.
This spring jaunt, organized in support of Watt's solo debut/underground summit, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, is a genuine attempt to recapture the magic of those early days. But Watt denies any such mission, explaining that he simply invited whoever was available out of the some 50 musicians who guested on the album. "I'm pretty much doing what I've always been doing," says the gruff but gregarious Watt. Everyone is loading their own gear and staying in cheap motels; there are no road man-agers or talent handlers. Before show time, Watt collects the bands' fees in cash and doles out "chow money."
Clad in white long johns, baggy cutoffs and a faded T-shirt, a tall, familiar figure with scraggly shoulder-length hair ambles on to the stage at Mississippi Nights, in St. Louis. "Hi, I'm Dave Grohl, and we're the Foo Fighters," the band's singer, songwriter and guitarist shouts over the roar of a delighted crowd as bassist Nate Mendel, drummer William Goldsmith (both from the Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate) and second guitarist Pat Smear gear up. Then Grohl smirks and tells the audience, "We could suck for all you know."
Grohl's wry observation swiftly becomes moot as Foo Fighters slash through a bracing set of infectious power punk with reckless gusto. Songs like "Winnebago," "I Fell Into You" and "Exhausted" – all slated to appear on Foo Fighters' June debut – showcase Grohl's heretofore untold knack for writing near-perfect pop songs. Foo Fighters display a Nirvana-like ability to raise guitar rock's volume and energy quotients without sacrificing melodies – although Grohl's lyrics are in general more upbeat than Kurt Cobain's. As an additional gesture of anti-celebrity punk solidarity, Grohl and Vedder are both refusing to sign autographs (or grant interviews) during the entire tour. "This thing's really about Watt," Vedder tells me later that night. "Mostly I'm worrying that I'm not a good enough guitar player to do justice to the fIREHOSE songs."
The capacity crowd presses dangerously against the stage as Mike Watt (bass), Dave Grohl (drums) and Eddie Vedder (guitar) launch into a revelatory hour-long set that includes Minutemen and fIREHOSE favorites, as well as songs from Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and a cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "The Red and the Black." Vedder and Watt trade verses during the ebullient "Against the "70s," a rousing condemnation of the era that brought us arena rock and forever distanced rock performers from their audiences.
To watch a broad grin sweep across Mike Watt's face or to witness Eddie Vedder execute an enthusiastic jump as he windmills his guitar is to understand why this tour is nothing short of revolutionary, a collective reaffirmation of punk's idealistic notion that the music matters above all else. "You're setting up a situation where people really have to fucking jump and be alive, because they're out of shtick," says Watt. "It's not this big thing. Just think it out, and you can't inflate it to anything – but on the other hand, it's hot, and I'm into it. It's not every day you fulfill those kind of wishes."
This story is from the June 1st, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.