My Knees! My Knees!by Mike Watt
My knees, my knees! Folks want to hear about my knees? Thoughts of my knees careen through my head, bumping and pushing the other realms of my brain into paranoid contortions, twisted and misshapen, reliving the pain and agony, over and over. A nightmare overbearing me, taking up my full consciousness at times, bending my perceptions, flooding my reason: the greatest super-reality my senses have ever endured, the ballroom floor on which my mind dances. I find myself balanced atop my two shins with teetering fulcrums joining them to my thighbones, tiny rubber band-like ligaments barely keeping rein on the dreaded kneecaps which hanker to bolt and dislocate. The dread, oh the dread. The worry. The fear. My knees.
I was a younger man when I started to know something was wrong. Growing up in the Navy housing in Pedro (my pop was a chief in the U.S. Navy - sort of like a sergeant if it was the army) I of course had Navy doctors. Anyway, it seemed when I was around ten years old I started to notice the hugeness of my knees compared the other guys around. Asking the doctor one time when he was setting my broken arm what might be wrong he told me: "don't worry boy, you'll grow out of it." So I went on, business as usual. Now being a younger guy in Navy housing, business as usual meant lots of physical stuff, lots of sports, lots of insane war-like games. We're talking everything from traditional stuff like baseball, basketball, football to insane shit like beating each other with hot wheel tracks, garbage can lids, asphalt from the road, etc. We had this one game where one guy would carry another guy on his back and move around on your knees like some kind of horse. The horse guy would hold the "rider" guy's legs straight out and use them for lances or battering rams. The rider would hold on around the "horses" neck and keep his legs straight out. Charging the other "horse and rider" teams, we would joust. You can imagine the hell this must've been on the knees! And the face, seeing that you couldn't use your arms to block shoe blows (your arms were busy holding the "rider" on your back). For me, the face damage was minimal compared to what fared for my knees. And this was just one of our spastic games!
Had I know what the future was holding for me, I would of surely committed myself to the bass much earlier and given up that meathead shit. Remember, the doc said: "You'll grow out of it." Bullshit, motherfucker, it just got worse and worse. We'd have this bike game where two guys would share a bike. In those days most bikes were stingray type with those long banana seats so one guy would drive while the other sat the other way (facing the rear) with a spray bottle (like the ones that hold shit like windex) filled with vinegar. The object was to get close enough so that the rider could spray the vinegar in the driver's eyes, causing him to crash. How many times I flipped over curbs, spun and smashed to the ground (of course with the rider on top of you), ran into telephone poles, bashed cars, caught finger and toes in the spokes I can't remember. It was slaughter.
We saw roller derby on the television so we played roller derby - our way. Our way meant inside the garage on cement with those metal wheel skates, remember them? The wheels would change from round to eight-sided as you would run on them after hitting the deck time after time and then getting up and try to get going again. And how would you hit the deck? Some guy would grab you by the hair and slam you down of course. You'd do the same to him - over and over and over. We beat each other silly. Oh my knees, oh the youth, oh the stupidity.
Then we got into parachutes. There was this field by the Navy housing in Pedro that had some tall-ass trees. We figured we could make parachutes from sheets and jump from them. What a bunch of fucking idiots. We took these small boxes from the commissary (where all us Navy people shopped for chow on the base) that would hold six half-gallons of milk and strapped them to our backs with clothesline. We each got a sheet and tied the four corners each to about four feet of clothesline and tied this through the hole in the box to our back. We had a kite string tied to the center of the sheet to pull it out when the time came. We stuffed the sheet in the box and then climbed the tree. When we jumped and pulled our strings, they broke and the chutes (sheets) never deployed. We took the fast way done. Laying there in a clump on the ground for over an hour we suffered. Thank god the branches broke our fall as we snapped them, grabbing and trying to hold on to them as we plummeted down. We figured we had done something stupid but didn't realize it was the whole idea but rather that the milk boxes were the cause of our failure. So we got rid of the boxes and just went up the tree with our chutes bunched tied to our backs, dragging behind. When we got to the top, we gathered the chutes in our arms and jumped again! The chutes never opened and filled with air, they were more like streamers marking our plunges and now with many branches missing from the last attempt we really took the fast way down this time. Sprained ankles big time, a broken wrist for one of us and yet more blows to those casaba melons I call my knees. We laid there crying and moaning for a long, long time.
The first knee-pop (a phrase I coined to describe my kneecap dislocating) happened while I was in grade school at Taper Avenue. As a kid I had developed this weird way of daydreaming. I would go into my bedroom, close the door and run from one corner to the other one opposite - diagonally. This running back and forth, back and forth, back and forth would allow me to take myself into a deep trance and I would daydream for hours this way. I would put huge black marks on the walls where I would slam into one corner and then head back to the other one, bash into that one and repeat the whole thing over and over, ad infinitum. All this with my eyes closed too. I would dream lots about space and being and astronaut (I was born in '57 and we were just about to land on the moon at the time) and of course lots of war situations ("Combat" was a big show on the t.v. then) where I was the "Monkey Division Man". I'd be so involved I'd be sweating big time. My ma would later tell me of the stomping and banging sounds that would come from room and think I was insane. Anyway, one time during this daily ritual I caught the corner of my bed with my right leg and this popped the kneecap out and I crumpled. I couldn't believe what was happening. I went into to a deep shock because of the fucking pain, pain so incredible I saw bright white and flashes. I grabbed my calf and looked at my leg. My foot was turned at a hideous angle (actually, it was the whole lower part of my leg) and the kneecap was way over to the side. It looked monstrous. I was stunned beyond belief. Damn! I grabbed my calf and tried to twist it back. Finally, it went back and the kneecap popped back in. Damn! "What the hell was this," I thought. I laid on the floor and just suffered. Waves and waves of big pain took the big ride through my brain. Immediately my knee swelled to the size of a cantaloupe and started turning heavy purple. I was crippled. It took a couple weeks for the swelling to go down and I could walk normal again. In the meantime, I had to cut down on the daydream ritual and when I did go back to that madness, I kept my eyes open when I'd round the corner of the bed. At least I tried to. Sometimes it would happen after I'd ram into the wall and make my turn around to start to run the other way. In any case, no one knew - I kept it secret from everyone, even my ma and pop.
Shit started happening at school too. When I would bend my knees, the gap between the bottom of my thighbone and the top of my shinbone became bigger and bigger. The gym teachers called this "osgood schlater syndrome" or something like that. Funny, the Navy docs didn't know anything about this. In high school I had my first dislocation in public. My legs get fidgety even now as I write this, just thinking about it. It was on the gym field running in a game of football and I turned at a weird angle. Pop went the knee and I was down. I put it back in and just laid there. Some guy, an immigrant guy from Mexico named Carlos picked me up in his arms and ran me to the locker room. I'll never forget that ride: me bouncing in his arms, all broken, nothing but a pile.
Then I got a job washing pots and pans at the San Pedro and Peninsula Hospital. I didn't always wash pots and pans though. Sometimes I would help with the food line while we were getting the meals ready for the patients. This one time I was on the chow line and my mission was to put the butters on the trays as they went by. Well, I was preparing for the next meal by filling up my tray with all the types, you know, the regular, the low sodium and plain butters. Anyway, I'm in one of the coolers replenishing my stock when BLAM! I slip on the wet floor and BOTH FUCKING KNEES POP! This had never happened before, I couldn't believe it. First the deep shock, then putting one kneecap in and then the other. WHAT A FUCKING NIGHTMARE, A fucking two-fer! This was the beginning of my big paranoia thing that would grow and grow. Even to write about this now, some twenty-two years later still makes me squirm in my seat. Something was terribly wrong. I was convinced I would be FOREVER VULNERABLE. My knees were now shaping my very mind and the way I would think.
More stuff happened at the hospital. Wet floor were the real killer. Carts that were knee high and pushed my way became pain deliverers. I was scared shitless of anything knee high and any slippery type of surface. It seemed as if my knees were getting looser and looser with every pop. I would have nightmare re-runs of the incidents over and over in my mind. The hell did not end with the knee-pop itself; it was the hell of knowing it was going to happen again.
Once in high school (Pedro High), I was standing against the wall we always stood by with D. Boon and some friends when my knee just fell out by relaxing it! Since I had the Levi's on, no one could see what was wrong - they thought I was just insane, laying there in a big pile. Sports were definitely over for me then and just walking and standing became incredible endeavors. I even had to make sure I was sitting right because they'd go out from a funky position or something. I couldn't even dream of sitting cross-legged. There was this time I was outside the front door calling my cat. Next to the door was this water spigot with no handle on it. My knee goes out and plop, I drop to the ground. You have to realize the shock is so intense, I'd lose control of everything, legs, arms, everything goes limp. So I drop down on this spigot and it rips into one of my butt cheeks, right below the Levi back pocket, about five inches deep into me. I couldn't fucking believe it. I pulled myself off of the spigot and drove myself to Harbor General (the county hospital because I was going to college now and living econo) to get it fixed. The nurse brought me into the room with these two guys who'd just be all burned in a fire. Flesh was floating everywhere. Damn. She kind of pulled a curtain half way and told me to pull down my pants and bend over. She stuffed the spigot poke with about twenty feet of a thin gauze strip, used a pop sickle stick-like tongue depressor to get in all in. She asked me if I was ready. "Ready for what?," I thought. Then, before giving me a chance to answer, she yanks on the goddamn gauze like she's starting a lawnmower. WHOAAAAAA MANNNNNNNNN! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?! I could not fucking believe it. Anyway, I did eventually heal up.
I got this job reading meters in Long Beach for So Cal Edison, the electric company. Even wrote a poem about it:
I never gave a damn
Anyway, the job entailed you walking around through people's yards, reading meters so Edison would know how much to bill them. One day about three in the afternoon, getting ready to finish up in a couple hours and kind of a little bit sleepy-eye, I'm going through this yard and there must've been a hole about one foot in diameter and about five feet deep. Lots of tall grass around and I didn't see it. Whoops! I slip and go down, my right leg going into the hole and popping the knee. Only my leg is in the hole and I'm up to my hip. I can't pull it out to put my leg back and get the kneecap back in place. My mind was being wrenched and wrenched with hurt like a motherfuck. Finally I decided the only thing I could do was to rotate my body around to I clicked my leg back in like a ratchet. Hell-ride and a half, let me tell you. I came back crippled to the office and told them I was hurt. They sent me to the doctor - the first time I let a doctor see them since the Navy housing days. The first pecker who saw them said he couldn't see anything wrong! ASSHOLE. The next guy was a guy named Dr. Mizaguchi and he said I had trouble. Like no shit. He said it was congenital, I was born with it. He said my kneecaps were too outside and not sitting where they should be, balancing the forces around the joint. I asked him what I could do. He said he could re-attach the ligaments further over on the kneecap and yank it on over closer to the inside of my leg and try to keep it from the dreaded pop. He said there was a 50 - 50 chance my leg would go stiff. I said I didn't care any more because I was going insane with both pain and paranoia. We went for it. He cut my into my knee with surgery (my first) and I woke with this giant cast of my leg. The pain was incredible, a dull, deep, chronic drilling into my head that my knee was hurting and hurting bad because it was healing. Six months I was in that cast and my leg wasted away. When they cut that cast off, my thigh was like three inches around And totally yellow! The knee was like mega-grapefruit size and had this six inch caterpillar-like scar running top to bottom. I couldn't even lift my leg of the bed, not even one inch, my muscles had atrophied so. I would have to learn to walk again, like a little baby. Two good things though: (1) maybe the knee was fixed and (2) Edison paid for it. Remember, I was very econo at the time. The next big crisis-time occurred when it was time to see if the knee would bend. This was a couple of months after the cast came off. I remember going into Mizaguchi's office and him laying my leg out there on the table. Please realize I had kept that leg stiff for a while, day and night, to guard against ripping out the sutures that were installed during the surgery. I kept that leg more straight and stiff than a horny George Hurley, let me tell you. So anyway, Mizaguchi is just looking at my knee, feeling around when WOW! he just bends my fucking leg ninety degrees - just like that. I screamed like someone had just sliced my balls off, I couldn't believe he just up and went and did that. I looked up at the ceiling to see if the sutures had popped out through the skin, shot up and splattered up there. I just could not believe what had happened but it did and slowly, day by day, I went from a crawling child-man to a almost walker. The crutches dug holes a mile deep into my armpits so that was further incentive to get bipedal again. I was a minutemen then and we did gigs with me in a chair. Had to work the bass.
That was an ordeal (six more months) but it was successful so I got working again, this time with cable t.v. as an installer. We're learning to gaff poles (gaffs are a little spike that straps to the inside of your ankle so you can climb up telephone poles) and at the top of the pole my left knee goes out (the one the DID NOT just get fixed) and I ride that pole down. The splinters were the size of baseball bats. I must've be doing at least thirty miles an hour when I hit the ground a thud. I had a creosote racing stripe (creosote is what they coat telephone poles with so they won't rot as fast or catch fire easy) running down my face and the front of my shirt and pants. I laid at the bottom the pole in a pile. It was time for operation number two. The scar from the second operation actually wasn't as fat and obvious (maybe Mizaguchi was better with practice) and yes, the 50 - 50 odds for a freeze-up were still there but what's a scar when were talking about ever walking again, right? The surgery went well except for one thing. Because I smoke mota, the anesthesiologist misjudged the sodium pentathol dose and killed me. They revived me with a shot of some sort of adrenaline injected right into my heart. Me being knocked of course, prevented me from remembering any of this. Anyway, the doctors prevailed and Watt lived with the knee job a success. Of course the leg was one tenth it's original size (like the other one because of the atrophy) but another six months of therapy and I had learned to walk again for the third time in my life. Well worth the hell though, maybe now my knees would stay tight.
Both these surgeries happened in the early eighties when I was in my early twenties. The knees stayed together but I was very over-protective of them and walked very slowly and very carefully, trying at all times to keep myself out of scary situations (knee-wise). Things went well until '86, a little after D. Boon died. By that time I was a fIREHOSE and ready for our first time out. Sonic Youth had decided to take us as an opening act for a tour of the States. It was the last gig of the tour when things went bad for Watt. It was a regular thing for us in fIREHOSE to join the Sonics for their encore with one of their songs and a Blue Oyster Cult song. On the last gig at Hampshire College in Amherst, this version of the encore went awry. I think Mascis and Dinosaur was the opening act for this gig. Anyway, comes the end of "Starpower" and the whole of the Sonics starts tackling us and guess what Kim knocks out? Yep, my fucking knee. Damn, I couldn't believe it. I went down to the deck and twisted it back in. Of course no one knew what was going on because of the Levi's hiding my legs so Thurston just picks me up and puts me in this chair - with my face screwed up and hollering and we go on to do "the Red and the Black". I couldn't play, fuck, I could barely hold the bass, I was in such deep shock and since I sang this song, the microphone was shoved right in my face. I couldn't think of any of the words due to my brain glowing white inside with pure agony so I just yelled and screamed. Folks thought I was disturbed. After what seemed an eternity the fucking song finally finished and I nearly passed out. I had be free of this shit for like five years and now it was back in my life like a motherfuck.
More paranoia set in. I'd always played with my knees all locked up (by extended them backwards as far as they could) but now I gave it twice the effort. Doubt really struck me deep regarding the surgeries. Was all that shit for nothing? Damn. The insecurities returned. The fears returned. The nightmare paranoia's were back with a fistful. I thought I was free by letting Mizaguchi make the hell-cuts and now look. I thought back and remembered everything Mizaguchi said. I remember him saying something like: "those ligaments might stretch out in the future" or something like that. I started thinking about the effect these knees had on Watt being Watt. Had they shaped my entire being? Wasn't the first Minutemen record called "Paranoid Time" and wasn't the crux tune on it called "Paranoid Chant" or what? Why did I even need kneecaps, why couldn't Mizaguchi had just put big brass door hinges instead? In my mind my thoughts raced: "so the operation isn't 100% - when will it happen again - how much will it hurt"? Afraid, I cowered then gathered resolve and stood up to myself and just sucked in some air and stood up straight. "Keep toiling" I told myself and did.
The next time it happened would be the last time so far and boy, it was the worse by far. I would take three big blows in this one fall swoop, what a hand fate dealt me that night in Chicago. It was the fall of 1991 and I was playing with fIREHOSE. We had brought the Minneapolis band Run Westy Run with us on tour for the opening act. It was our last show with them and we were playing the Cabaret Metro near Wrigley Field. While we were finishing our set, the drummer Dan comes on stage and starts squirting us with shaken up beer from the bottle. I guess he was celebrating. Anyway, I slip in the beer and immediately roll and twist my right ankle. As this happens, my right knee pops out, fucking christ. Instantly I'm in shock and let go of everything and start to fall to the deck. The bass, however, is still strapped to me so when I finally hit the ground, the bass follows me down. Now the bass has attachments on it so it can a strap can be used to sling the bass over your shoulder. The rear attachment for this strap hit me square in the right top front tooth and jammed it almost to that punching bag thing in the back of my throat. Almost every fIREHOSE tour had a leg of it where Kira would fly out and do maybe four gigs with me as our two bass only band called dos (from the Spanish meaning 'two'). We've had this band eleven years now. Anyway, she was there with me that night in Chicago and ran up to help me. When she saw my tooth, she screamed bloody murder "your tooth"! By this time I was in deep shock and could finally put my knee back. Damn it had stayed in for five years, five fucking years. When it finally "thunked" back in, I grabbed my tooth and pulled forward. Damn, those front teeth are long - I could feel the root almost rubbing under my eyeball. I pulled all the way back to it's original place. Only the shock from the knee-pop allowed me this and later I was to find out from a dentist that this was a very lucky thing I did. A little longer and the tooth would've died for sure, he said. Meanwhile, it wasn't over yet! Kira and I still had another gig (we had previously played before Run Westy Run) starting midnight at some little place where the stage is right above and behind the bar. Kira got me over there somehow and had some folks lift me up to this little stage to prop me against some stool. I remember she was wearing all flannel, matching plaid flannel pants and shirt. She was the only thing that made me glad I had hope enough to carry on. Her spirit was like "damn the fates, let's do it for dos, let's do it for us" and I followed her lead and soldiered on. Bourbons were kept poured and handed up to me as I somehow got through the gig. It was mainly because of Kira, she's just the best at was she does in dos. I was useless and mostly a burden, howling and hurting. Puffed mouth. Puffed ankle. Puffed knee. Plain puffed period. When it was done Kira brought me to a Motel-6 and comforted me the best she could. The rest of the tour was done in a chair (so weird for punk rock) and the following tour was done limping standing up with only store-bought ibuprofen for pain because of the distaste I found for most of that prescription shit that left you in a daze and useless. Had to play good for the folks even if that meant suffering from the damn vibrations coming up from the floor and transferred to my knees through my feet! What a hell-ride. It took my months to recover. I kept wishing and wishing for the bone saw, asking my Dutch dude Carlos for it constantly. I even begged George to break my leg above the knee with a side-kick. He wouldn't do it. I love him anyway.
It's been almost five years since that last buckling and still I fear. I've never gone more than five years since I was a little kid. Had a tiny slip-out last year playing on the "Ring Spiel" tour in Providence but it was no knee-pop. Enough to scare the shit out of me though and make me wear nylon/rubber braces. Even now, playing for Perry in Porno For Pyros I had to let Shawn London know about Fragile Boy when he just barely bumped me from behind at a big gig in Australia. Anything gets physical and the first thing you hear from Watt is "My knees, my knees - look out". It's a mantra I carry everywhere for everyone every moment of every fucking day. The memories will flood me when I feel weak, when I feel relaxed about how I'm sitting, how I'm standing, how I'm turning, etc. Memories of twisting, popping, screaming, tearing, contorting and flailing. My face in a wrung-up, stretched and hyper-strained spasm. "Enough" I tell myself. "Enough of this, make your mind free"!
Eight months ago I bought a bike from some Pedro dude who was moving for five dollars. I started riding it. I got my first car (a vw) when I was sixteen. I hadn't been on a bike since then (twenty-two years!). It was a trip. The first few weeks my knees were like water balloons but then the swelling went down as I got stronger. Maybe this is helping, maybe it's keeping the joints moving and lubed. I don't know. What I do know is it beats waiting for the next time. Well, I'm still waiting but I'm peddling while I'm waiting. Sure, I'm not fast but I'm steady. Watch my knee pop while I'm on the bike and I fall over, only to have my head run over by a passing car. I will always be rolling the dice when it comes to me knees.
Sometimes I get to thinking about how my knees try to keep me humble. Them and of course, the multitude of defeats I've suffered on other fields, mainly of my own making. Hardly any of those measure up to the "god's gift" quality as does these beaten knees. Does that sound sick? I remember I would lay on the ground after a knee-pop when I was young, praying and praying to god to put my knee back in and if he did I would right all the wrongs I had ever caused, just like some drunk on the bathroom floor retching with dry heaves and praying to the porcelain god for mercy. That's more the stuff for the self-inflicted disasters I can blame no one but myself. The reckoning of the pain court! Thinking of my knees: the wishing, the waiting, the remembering - all of it has caused me to fix myself against the physical plane in a such a way as to define the terms in which I perceive this universe with a bend toward the pull of knee-pop. Popeye once said "I y'am what I y'ams" and I think this is important because "the knees help make me me, see"?. I might not be able to ski but at least I can still walk, thank god.