[26 June 2006]
When it came time for Michael Azerrad to title his near-definitive book on 1980s American indie rock, a thousand lyrical references must have floated through his head. He chose Our Band Could Be Your Life, and a wise selection it was. Coming from the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part II”, the title perfectly captured the populist grandeur of indie rock: these bands’ lives could well be your own—just learn three chords, rent a van, and voila! You could do it, too.
Of course, not everyone could write songs like the Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Black Flag, or Sonic Youth, so the title carried a second meaning: you could make such an emotional investment in these bands that they literally became your life. The Minutemen seem to have drawn that sort of commitment almost effortlessly. Get Your War On cartoonist David Rees, for instance, first heard them in 1986, and his mind was “happily, irrevocably blown”; when he began drawing in 2001 after September 11, his first question was, “What would [Minutemen guitarist/singer] D. Boon do?” My own Minutemen moment came in ninth grade, in the mid-‘90s; by the next year I was writing terrible one-act plays about U.S. imperialism in Central America with titles like “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand” (a song off 1983’s Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat) and, of course, forming a band. They’ve never left my consciousness, either; during a month in Guatemala last summer, I must have hummed “I Felt Like a Gringo” (from the same EP) almost hourly.
The Minutemen also impacted the lives of Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron while the two were in high school in the late ‘80s, and a decade later the band did become their lives. The result is We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, an endearing, heartfelt documentary that’s made by the devout, for the devout, but which is sure to win over anyone except the occasional racist who mistakenly intended to watch a movie about border vigilantes. Schieron produced, Irwin directed, and the two jam as econo as did their heroes. The film more or less consists of three series of scenes: talking heads testifying as to the magnitude of the band’s importance, bassist Mike Watt reminiscing as he leads a tour through the Minutemen’s home base of San Pedro in Southern California, and concert footage. In technical terms, this is no great feat. Among recent music documentaries, Some Kind of Monster achieved greater intimacy with Metallica, Dig created a more stylized narrative of the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Be Here to Love Me delved deeper into the self-destructive heart of Townes Van Zandt. But this is a case of a subject transcending the format, as the filmmakers would surely happily agree, and the simple fact that we are watching the Minutemen in action elevates We Jam Econo into the realm of the necessary.
The band’s story has achieved such a mythical status among its fans, we forget that not everyone knows it. Irwin covers it ably, tracing the childhood friendship of D. Boon and Mike Watt (and later, drummer George Hurley) from the working-class harbor of San Pedro—where they played along to classic rock albums, unaware that their strings needed a specific tuning—to the clubs of Hollywood, then the world, after “punk rock changed our life”, as Boon declares on “History Lesson Part II”. Playing an idiosyncratic, unique, and utterly brilliant mélange of rock, punk, funk, jazz, and spoken-word poetry, the Minutemen impacted thousands of lives without leaving a sonic legacy of imitators, probably because it would be damn near impossible to replicate their bizarre chemistry. Watt and Boon shared an intense intimacy that informed their music, generated legendary marathon debate sessions, and ultimately left the bassist permanently shattered after Boon’s tragic 1985 death in an automobile accident.
Boon’s importance to Watt is visible throughout We Jam Econo (one catchphrase of many from the band’s own personal lexicon; also a lyric in their 1985 song “Tour Spiel”). In his tour of San Pedro, Watt even revisits the very tree from which Boon fell on him when they were thirteen, sparking their friendship. Watt’s segments are the most touching and enlightening; he offers insight into the band’s name and the intended meaning of the classic “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs”, and his resolute unpretentiousness is on display when he eagerly recalls meeting Richard Meltzer in the ‘80s, who was a hero to Watt not for his groundbreaking rockcrit writing, but because, as Watt exclaims, he wrote some lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult. Hurley is on hand as well, along with numerous luminaries of punk and indie rock: Thurston Moore, Ian MacKaye, John Doe, Grant Hart, Byron Coley, Milo Aukerman, Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, etc. While they seem on hand mostly to legitimize the film’s status as a real documentary and repeatedly testify to the band’s greatness, it’s touching to see such a diverse community so willingly rally to the cause. Their presence, more than anything they have to say, reflects the Minutemen’s worth (the best comment comes not from an underground icon, but from a childhood buddy, who succinctly explains, “They weren’t Berklee-School-of-Music-trained, they were just dudes from Pedro”).
Of course, the talking heads are beside the point, because the abundant concert footage speaks for itself. The band inhabited a stage with a presence unmatched by any first-wave punk group, with the possible exception of the Screamers. The hefty Boon jumped and thrashed about as if gravity were an unproven proposition; Watt stutter-stepped while running through basslines that would leave many of his peers lost and finger-tied; Hurley pounded out innovative beats that formed integral components of songs rather than serving as mere timekeeper. We Jam Econo shows them evolving from their frantic 1980 origins to their more relaxed late-period of the mid-decade, but at each stage the band remains entirely captivating.
We Jam Econo sometimes rushes through points, assuming viewer knowledge; Boon’s death, for instance, is treated as so unspeakably tragic that it basically goes unspoken. This isn’t exactly a bad decision on Irwin’s part, since most viewers will, in fact, already know much of the information. Some gaps can be filled, though, with the rich and generous DVD bonus material (including liner notes by David Rees), a whopping 222-minute smorgasbord of delights. Three live shows captured in their entirety provide a few hours of delight. The band’s 1980 Hollywood debut at the Starwood shows the trio responding to an antagonistic crowd (hecklers spit, unplug Watt’s mic, and flip the bird continuously) with a nervous physicality that makes for a stunningly electric performance. Boon breaks strings but plays through, as an irritated Watt shouts, “We’re doing it without two strings, is that punk enough for you?” By the next show, from 1984, the Minutemen had eased into their skin; less frenetic, more jam-friendly, they remain transfixing as they tear through a set heavy on their amazing 1984 opus Double Nickels on the Dime. Finally, an acoustic 1985 set reveals another facet to the group, which opens with “Corona”, probably their most-heard song after it served as the theme for MTV’s Jackass.
We also get a bevy of outtakes (Thurston Moore’s story of meeting Watt for the first time is particularly amusing) and an hour-long 1985 interview at Bard College. The band begins it looking bored, but they warm up over time; the best moment may be the effortless display of intimacy when Boon teasingly hands Watt some keys, but there’s also a nice bit in which the interviewer asks the best possible situation for the band. Instead of career aspirations, Boon answers, “Getting rid of Reagan.”
For that matter, Reagan wanted to get rid of them too, at least in the great video for “This Ain’t No Picnic”. Of the three videos included here, this is the masterpiece, splicing footage of the flying young Reagan (taken from wartime government films) to show the President firing at the Minutemen as they play, before exasperatedly dropping a bomb and blasting them. It’s a breathtaking, hilarious bit of agitprop, and the perfect expression of the Minutemen ethos: politically charged, inspired, sharp-witted, and funny (“King of the Hill”, with its own amusing vision of class struggle and revolution, also must be seen).
If viewers of We Jam Econo rush out in pursuit of Minutemen albums (begin anywhere except the 1984 collection The Politics of Time, which isn’t bad but is the only less-than-great offering; don’t stop until you have them all), the film will have accomplished its humble goal of paying tribute to one of the all-time great bands of the modern recording era. My guess is that many will be so stirred, and they won’t regret it. This band could be your life, too, after all.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/we-jam-econo-dvd/