Dec. 07, 2005 - Issue #529: Charles Burns
We Jam Econo salutes the short career and even shorter songs of the Minutemen
If a documentary really wanted to be true to the spirit of the California punk band the Minutemen, it would be maybe 90 seconds long, and influence nearly every low-budget rockumentary made afterwards despite being seen by almost nobody. But that wouldn’t be very practical, would it? Instead, we’ve got We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, a leisurely 90-minute tribute to the band and their legacy. Fans will no doubt be delighted by the abundance of rare performance footage; newcomers, however, may start to get bored around the 60-minute mark and find the songs all starting to sound the same—a blur of virtuoso drumming, angular basslines and lyrics rendered indecipherable by muddy sound recording.
It’s too bad about the lyrics, because as director Tim Irwin points out, the Minutemen (and in particular their hefty frontman, D. Boon) brought an unpredictable political point of view to their music; where other “political” punk bands would issue simplistic anti-war, anti-Reagan rants, the Minutemen would fill their concerts with compositions bearing elliptical titles like “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.” And then, 60 seconds later, they’d already be onto the next number. Boon prided himself on being part of a “working man’s band;” they’d schedule their concerts at 7:30 so that people with jobs to go to the next morning would still be able to go see them. To this day, drummer George Hurley operates his own construction company in the band’s hometown of San Pedro.
Unlike Boon, the Minutemen’s music has no fat on it at all—it’s tight and stripped-down in a way that seems fresh even 20 years later. And the performances we see haven’t lost any energy, either. Boon is one of those overweight rock stars who nevertheless seem able to summon the energy of two skinny guys whenever they start performing—he’s constantly hopping around the stage but he never seems out of breath. (Boon’s dancing is completely graceless, and yet it’s so joyful that every step he does seems kind of inspired.) Hurley’s drumming is amazing, too—much more inventive and rhythmically complex than anything typically associated with punk rock—and with his powerful arms and trademark “unit” haircut flopping like a blond curtain over his face, you can hardly take your eyes off him.
However, the central figure in We Jam Econo, and probably the band, is their least flamboyant member, bassist Mike Watt. Watt basically narrates the film while driving around San Pedro in his van, pointing out key locations in the Minutemen’s history, from the apartment where they did their first rehearsals to the spot where Watt and Boon first became friends after Boon fell out of a tree on Watt’s head. (Watt can barely hold back the tears as he describes the incident as the memory of Boon’s death in a car accident in 1985 unexpectedly sneaks up on him.) For a famous rock star, Watt is almost pathologically modest—he says the band’s name wasn’t a reference to the length of their songs but to the fact that they weren’t big-time arena rockers but small-time guys, “minute men.” Watt counts members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction among his friends, but he never name-drops.
That’s appealing, but you do wish that We Jam Econo gave you a clearer sense of why those musicians hold the Minutemen in such high regard and count them as such a seminal influence on ’90s alternative rock. Thurston Moore, J. Mascis, Henry Rollins and others appear on camera, but mainly just to supply generalized praise. And only the band’s most devoted fans will remain interested through all those tedious scenes of Watt sitting on his couch discussing the circumstances surrounding each and every Minutemen LP. The rest of us will wish Irwin could have made his film a little more econo. V
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen
Directed by Tim Irwin • Metro Cinema • Sat, Dec 10 and Mon, Dec 12 (9 pm) • 425-9212
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