Marty Watt: The return of Philadelphia’s musical performance-poetry legend

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Philly poet Marty Watt, decades after his experimental heyday.

Fairmont native Marty Watt never released his noisy punk-dub debut album recorded in the late '70s with local improvisational musicians.

His buggy Keats-ish poetry penned in literary journals like Contact and books such as Marty Watt Is Not Matt Marello and Vice Verse (with fellow Philly drummer/artist Marello) are impossible to find.

The film he acted in and soundtracked – 1985’s Almost You – is out of print, save for several DVD copies at Amazon.

Still, Watt is a genuine legend, a fire-starter of hyperkinetic, proto-punk, musical performance poetry whose dramatic, staged readings throughout the 1970s and '80s in Philly, Manhattan, and Washington were more of an intersection of theater of the absurd, basement concert, and ritualized séance than tweedy book-in-hand showcase.

Costumes, sound effects, sets, props, and orchestration -- to say nothing of the poet’s rapid-fire psychobabbling, sing-song-y delivery -- Watt was a wunderkind of a brand of reading that would be made famous by punk-poet goddesses Lydia Lunch and Kathy Acker, hypnotic neo-Beat John Giorno, electro-performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Kenn Kweder, a Philadelphia singer-writer who befriended Watt while becoming his apologist, myth-buster, fan, and -- with Villanova University philosophy professor Ian Maley -- the person to reintroduce Watt to Philly audiences with a show Sunday at Watt-enthusiast Eric Bressler’s PhilaMOCA.

“The cult of Watt is complete,” Kweder says of holding the event for his friend. “I've long considered him one of the greatest artistic forces of Philadelphia.”

For his part, Watt – who stopped performing in 1987 while gigging in Torino, Italy (“Alcohol got to me”) – devised his own rapid-rapier-wit-lit musical styling because mere poetry “was too caught up with wisdom. Young poets were expected to be accomplished old Buddhas of insight, so I started writing about what wee-rock-star types were wearing, and, of course, 'performing' the poems from memory in venues not associated with poetry. … I took the teen poet thing as far as I could, when I was still skinny and fashionable.”

Watt had already given up on Beat poetry and “that Patti Smith-type Rimbaud stuff” (with whom he read, at 19, at Pine Street’s long-closed Middle Earth Books) in 1971. He thought of his work as competitive with rock bands and word-jazz comedians like Lenny Bruce and more commensurate with dub reggae toasters, semiotics theorists, and, eventually, Bronx rappers. Before that, however, Watt at 17 was a “normal Black Mountain School-type, a la Robert Creeley, read at Philly bookstores, and -- for some reason -- created buzz. Allen Ginsberg came to Philly for the first Earth Day, and the scene conspired to get us to meet.”

It was a glorious, academically driven time.

By age 19, however, the bespectacled Watt met a wealthy family on 22nd & Delancey Streets who took him in, styled him into a lace-sleeve, shag-haired Jagger; a high-octane oral poet with a fast-talking fixation for Keats, the rough-edged music of Mott the Hoople, and atmospheric reggae. Watt has no true insight as to deciding to perform his poems from memory, in a flamboyant manner, and “use rhetorical razzamatazz, sleight of hand …. even beautiful assistants onstage with me like a magician, so funny.” Surely, Watt learned stagy legerdemain from his mom who was a nightclub singer in pre-casino Atlantic City.

All this made Watt the toast of the East Coast’s burgeoning performance art, pre-punk and, of course, the poetry scenes, even NYC’s reggae scene, as several players and producers connected to Bob Marley helped the poet concoct his unheard (but not for long) debut album. Watt wound up in a film while bouncing between Philly and New York, even got booked -- and bounced -- from Saturday Night Live when he hosted a bacchanallike party in their green room (“they went with Sam Kinison to replace me”). “He was magic,” says Kweder, "like nothing and no one ever before."

Like many things in his life, and that of countless others, Watt “wiped out in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and madness.” The week after his “retirement” in Torino, he found himself in his first rehab. He wandered for 20 years, wound up in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and eventually landed in Rye, N.Y., with dog people.

“That’s where I found my calling,” not just dog-walking, but deeply communicating with pooches like his own Maddie, and a set of tender behaviors that “guided me in all the right directions,” including reigniting his interest in poetry and music.

“Watt is somebody being born in the lines, and dies with them,” says Ian Maley, this show’s coproducer and a philosophy teacher at Villanova who uses Watt’s poetry in a classroom setting. “My 'Knowledge, Reality, Self' [course] talks about forming ourselves as rational, self-determining, self-authoring individuals. Historically, philosophers looked down on poets for being irrational and speculative. I read Watt to my students to let them hear poetry where someone describes his own birth as an event in the universe, a way that the philosophers we read would have hated. Many of them would never be exposed to ideas or poems like Watt’s -- this broadens horizons.”

At 3 p.m. Sunday at PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St. at Spring Garden. $10, philaMOCA.org.

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