|We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen - DVD|
In a poignant moment during We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, D. Boon spins the spiel of "History Lesson- Part 2." It's a rare acoustic set performed on what appears to be a low-rent cable access TV show. Boon speaks the lyrics nostalgically, recalling his early punk rock salad days with bassist Mike Watt. He sums up: "We were fuckin' corndogs."
Not many bands would willingly describe themselves as one of America's more repugnant delicacies. But not many bands could be as self-effacing, honest and humble as American punk rock pioneers The Minutemen. With the terse six-plus minute blast of 1980's Paranoid Time (SST 002), San Pedro's most famous rock n roll phenomenon changed the face of independent music as it existed through the 80s and beyond. Refusing to conform in anyway to punk convention, the band blended funk, jazz, blues and the disjointed song structures of avant-garde artists like Captain Beefheart into their punk stew. They issued records at an alarmingly prolific pace. They challenged the concept of the rock band as larger than life or on a higher, more royal plain than normal people. They came to an abrupt end with the car-crash death of guitarist/vocalist D. Boon in late 1985, the same week their final proper full-length 3-Way Tie (for Last) was released.
21 years later, a proper documentary on the band finally appears. Through the testimonies of various notable music celebrities (Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo. Flea, Henry Rollins, to name a few), we learn about the massive impact of the little band that could. They imbued every note and every action with integrity and honesty. Even their blatant attempt at commercial viability (1985's Project: Mersh) still overflowed with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility (note the cover drawing of big label executives using charts to determine how to sell The Minutemen, or the video for "King of the Hill" found in the DVD extras). As everyone close to the band attests, The Minutemen were the real deal. They created music because they had to. They pushed themselves to write songs like no one else. Live clips feature an early show with the band acting as human spittoons for the saliva-volleying crowd. The surly crowd derides the band for their failure to deliver the routine punk sounds akin to headliner Black Flag. Much to the consternation of punk purists, they'd cover Creedance Clearwater Revival or Van Halen. The Minutemen turned punk on its head, challenging what could be defined as such.
As exposed in Michael Azerrad's account of the band in 80s indie rock tome, Our Band Could Be Your Life (the title taken from "History Lesson- Part 2"), the story of the band is also the story of D. Boon's and Mike Watt's friendship. This features heavily in the documentary. It begins with Watt showing us the tree where he first met Boon. The friendship would form the glue that held the band together. Their chemistry was as much the secret ingredient to their music as was their respective talents, passions and abilities. With drummer extraordinaire George Hurley (who receives unending praise by commentators in the film), the band outshined most of their peers in terms of vision, instrumental prowess and sheer prodigious output. Yet at its heart, The Minutemen were about the friendships of its three members.
The band's history is explained in part by Watt taking us on a tour of San Pedro, to the band's historical landmarks, such as the site of their first show or their practice space. Interviews with the band, then and now, make up a significant portion of the storytelling. Interviews with friends and peers flesh out just what made the band so special. Particularly illuminating is a friend of the band recalling one of Boon and Watt's legendary blow-ups. Both declared that the band was over with both claiming Hurley for their respective new bands. Hurley rejects both and states he will start his own band. And within minutes they were best friends again. Such was the nature of the inner-workings of the Minutemen.
Yet perhaps what reveals most about what made the band tick is the vast amount of live footage. We see the band in many differing locations (basements to arena-sized venues) and at various stages of their career. If anything explains the power and allure of the band it's their supremacy as a crack live band. Their performances are taut, explosive bursts of musical majesty. Even with Boon's guitar going out of tune (or losing strings) and his and Watt's constant bouncing about the stage like fleas, the band never ceases to smoke in the live setting. To watch Hurley is to witness a jazz-like percussionist at work in a scene who nary has seen such a talent before or since. Yet their magic transcended musicianship. The band was fearless in their musical explorations, and the live footage demonstrates this.
What The Minutemen may most be remembered for is the ethos behind the DVD's title. They jammed econo. They began what Fugazi would contain to glorious effect in the late 80s and on into the alternative-as-commodity post-Nirvana 90s. They prided themselves on their blue-collar upbringing and saw themselves as a band for and of the people. They were proletariat rock, though this may have been due more to Boon's intense leftist leanings and avid love of history.
Eschewing the superfluous trappings of the rock business, the band lived up to their avowed intention. They cut out the fat and did it themselves. No booking agents, no managers, no publicists. They built upon the path blazed by peers Black Flag and proved that bands could exist outside the distinct boundary of the mainstream music industry. Though they did tour with R.E.M. on the eve of that band's commercial explosion, The Minutemen always retained an integrity that is all but extinct in today's musical landscape of multi-million dollar offers for band's with little more than a CD-R demo and a myspace account.
Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron offer the ultimate homage as long-time followers of the band. We Jam Econo is a fan's dream come true, or an instructive introduction to a crucial band. It's an expertly executed documentary that offers everything anyone could ask for in a film on a band. Unlike many contemporary documentary DVDs (e.g. Refused Are Fucking Dead), We Jam Econo feels satisfyingly complete and well worth the price. The extras are as vital as the main course, featuring three live sets, videos (that term should be used loosely), as well as a litany of worthwhile outtakes.
The Minutemen could be your life. They are as relevant, intriguing and great to listen to 20 years past their demise as during their short-lived existence. With this DVD we get to watch them, and experience their music in the way it was most intended.
- Casey Boland | 2006-08-18