Without question, the Minutemen are the definitive punk band of all-time — this despite the fact that they sounded nothing like anyone who has worn the label before or since. Here were three normal dudes from the blue-collar town of San Pedro, California, who, in the pre-punk mode of thinking, had no business making music. One was an overweight history buff, one was a lanky goofball, and one was a jockish surfer who ate at the popular kids’ lunch table in high school. Coming from where they did, the most any of them could have aspired to was a career as a longshoreman. Then 1976 happened. Suddenly, every freak, street urchin and Average Joe realized they too could start a band, whether they knew how to play an instrument or not.
“What struck us about punk,” says ever-loquacious bassist Mike Watt, “well, the big thing right off the bat is all these guys are weirdoes, but they don’t care. In fact, they celebrate it. In a lot of ways, it was the perfect scene for us.”
Nobody believed in punk as fiercely as the Minutemen, and We Jam Econo, director Tim Irwin’s posthumous homage to these underground working class heroes (released in a two-disc DVD set on June 27), is, by proxy, a testament to punk as a tool for empowerment. The film zips by with the economy of one of the group’s songs, stringing together comments from practically every major figure in the American indie rock scene of the ’80s, new interviews with the surviving members and some scorching live footage with little attempt at technical flair. It has no delusions of grandeur, and neither did the band. After all, their name was not a reference to the Revolutionary War militia or to their penchant for writing tunes that clocked in at less than 60 seconds; it had to do with their place in the grand scheme of things. They were minute (as in “small”) men. And they were proud of it.
For all their modesty, though, the Minutemen were a band of big ideas. Everything they did was a political statement, from their song lengths, to the decision to clearly separate Watt’s rumbling bass and singer D. Boon’s sharp, trebly guitar into two “sovereign states,” to when and where they performed. Best friends since they literally fell into each other’s orbit as kids, Watt and Boon constructed the group’s populist platform before they even understood the concept of tuning. They’re referred to here as the trio’s heart and soul, but they were also its brain and spleen: Their epic arguments over the Communist Manifesto nearly broke the band up several times. Onstage, however, backed by elephantine drummer George Hurley, they plowed through their sets with united determination. We Jam Econo’s second disc packs in three full shows, and its thrilling to hear their disparate influences — Wire’s angular rhythms and cut-and-run songwriting, Funkadelic’s groove and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s common-man speechifying — congeal into a heated whirlwind in front of the crowd.
Sadly, Boon died in a car accident in 1985. To hear Watt speak about his death, it’s obvious he hasn’t gotten over it. It’s largely the reason he continues to tour incessantly to this day, and why he still speaks about the Minutemen in the present tense.
“To really know about us, you have to ask about us,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like anything got out that was understood by people easily, from our name to our records to our songs. It all got twisted up.” He looks into the camera. “That’s okay. That’s why we do things like this.”