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July 26, 2005

History Lesson, Part 3

Posted by Phil on July 26, 2005 1:42 PM

Happy 1,000th Post, PuddingTime! -mph

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen is screening in San Francisco this week--and coming to a theater (or, more likely, a DVD retailer) near you soon.

I saw the Minutemen open for R.E.M. on their Fables tour in October or November of '85. We had 3-Way Tie (for Last) and were aware of their reputation as a "legendary hardcore band," but we weren't big fans yet. We were way late for the show (partly because we stopped to watch a barn burn down), and I remember being bemused by their covering "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" but mighty impressed by the energy and passion of D. Boon and Mike Watt. Boon changed the way I thought about rock singers. No polite way to say it: I'd never seen a fat man move like that. Fantastic. R.E.M. were great that night, too--and never that great again.

A month or so later, driving alone in the band's van, D. Boon fell asleep, crashed, and died. No drugs or alcohol were found in his system. The Minutemen were finished and Mike Watt was shattered, but a year or so later, a musician from Ohio named Ed Crawford sought him out on the mistaken premise that Watt was auditioning players for a new band. They formed fIREHOSE with drummer George Hurley, Ed became Ed fROMOHIO, and they released a string of strong albums well into the '90s. Ed had a sweeter voice and fIREHOSE a more melodic sensibility, but they weren't the Minutemen.

The Minutemen weren't ever really a "hardcore" band, and if they hadn't ended when they did, 3-Way Tie probably would have been what you call a "transitional" album. With covers of Blue Oyster Cult and Creedence Clearwater Revival, it was certainly a departure in sound and scope from their previous output. It wasn't until after the band's demise that I heard Double Nickels on the Dime or anything earlier--the records where their raw, brittle, and totally unique jazz-funk sound coalesced, the ones that are their monument.

In a way, the Minutemen were the last of the first punk bands--genuine freaks in the Pere Ubu vein who never subscribed to the three-chord-buzzsaw orthodoxy. It took awhile for my "attitude" to soften towards the jazz and classic rock they emulated and covered, and 20 years later, my appreciation for their musical sophistication and complexity is still growing. Their lyrics could be direct, poetic, conceptual, absurd, or a note from the landlady about not keeping the tub caulked. As musicians, each one of them should be revered by the kind of connoisseurs who think Rush are the shit. (For the record, as a drummer, I am required to think Rush are the shit.)

I think what made the Minutemen so beloved and lovable was their goofy, hippie, folkie, family vibe. They were not at all what "punk" was thought to be by the mid-'80s (i.e., Henry Rollins chewing through the stage or [your favorite jokey punk band] being snotty and sarcastic). Once you fall for the Minutemen, you almost feel protective of them, because they were so human and organic, and cared so little about being tough or cool--although, of course, they were as profane and bad-assed as they come, and saw every angle of society's con. All they were about was empowering the kids. I saw fIREHOSE two or three times in small clubs, and Watt is like your wise, dorky uncle who always wants to give you a sweaty bear hug, and you let him, because you love your Uncle Mike, the big spazz. (Follow the link and sniff out his tour journals for some funny, thoughtful reading.)

In some ways, they were a throwback all the way to the Weavers, and the Minutemen's era feels almost as lost and gone in today's musical and political America. (Hard to believe that Double Nickels, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, and the Replacements' Let It Be all came out in the same month.) The flowering of the small-"i" indie-rock circuit in the early '80s was grand on a human scale, a community that even kids at a small college in rural Indiana could feel like an active part of. The warmth and generosity of the Minutemen was a big part of that. That's why somebody made a movie about them. They belong in a hall of fame somewhere.