Monday, May 09, 2005

Minutemen documentary on tour

Indie rock fans in the NYC area might be interested to know that the documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen is coming to Lincoln Center on May 24th- this is going to be the film's New York premier- tickets are available at the Lincoln Center website. Admittedly, I did help to arrange this but that's partly because I'm a fan and because I wanted to see the film myself.

(Check the website at the link above as the film is also touring around elsewhere)

Minutemen were ragged, angry, hopeful, soulful, jagged, funny, tense, politicized and a few dozen other adjectives that you'd want a cherished band to be. When I was in college in the mid-80's, albums like Tim or Zen Arcade were like sermons from the mount that my friends and I endlessly dissected as soon as we got our hands on them. But above all else, Double Nickels On the Dime seemed like an endless source of amazement and amusement. This is what I said about it five years ago for a UK publication:
In the year of Orwell, as Springsteen, Tina Turner, Van Halen and Prince were hitting megastardom with U2 and R.E.M. well on their way, a poetically political punk-funk-jazz trio from a Los Angeles seaport unleashed an unassuming, sprawling double record on the Sun Records of the '80's. Though the band themselves would be the last ones to call it a masterwork, the sheer size and heft of the thing seemed to spell out their unique vision in more detail than any of their other records. This sweet excess made the critics take note and bellow in approval, not knowing that this was near the end of their career. As it turned out, the group was spearheading an underground rock movement in the States where the likes of Big Black, the Replacements, Meat Puppets were also crawling into the limelight.

Starting out as a quartet in '78, Minutemen were part of a fertile West Coast crop that the proceeded the skinheads populating the L.A. punk clubs. At first, their songs were chants and blurs, in the true spirit of their punk daddies. On WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? and BUZZ OR HOWL UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF HEAT, the band started to reveal some of its sophistication, build around the brief, jazzy guitar solos of the humongous D. Boon, funky, thumping bass of Mike Watt and George Hurley's intricate drum fills.

By the time of DOUBLE NICKLES, the three-some had nearly perfected their rowdy, friendly, angry, impassioned rock music while still keeping the songs at their custom 1-2 minute length (a minute, man). The record begins "serious as a heart attack" and ends with "can these words find the truth?", housed by pictures of band members in their cars (with their engines beginning and ending each side), savage Raymond Pettibon cartoons and a slap at their label-mates ("take that, Huskers!"). Despite calling the last part of it "Chaff" and filling it out with covers of Van Halen, Steely Dan (hilariously out-of-it) and Creedence (low-fi with crowd noise), this was far from a waste product. Highlights like the shout-a-long fan-favorite "This Ain't No Picnic," the straight-ahead rocker "Untitled Song For Latin America" and the mad, desperate "Little Man With A Gun In His Hand" were some of their strongest songs, period.

Musically, they were going everywhere without making excess like SANDINISTA! (by another buncha politically-charged funky white dudes). They were hitting on a jazz-funk fusion ala James Blood Ulmer (they actually jammed with Ornette bassist Charlie Haden) like a looser, sweater version of Gang of Four ("It's Expected I'm Gone," "Nature Without Man" and "Maybe Partying Will Help" are dead ringers). At the same time, these lovable lunks let their soft side show with pretty pieces like "Cohesion," "Take 5, D." and "There Ain't Shit On TV Tonight." For some breadth, they also threw in swing ("The Big Foist" "Nothing Indeed"), Sir Douglas Tex-Mex ("Corona"), sea-chantey ("Themselves"), and James Brown salsa ("Love Dance").

Lyrically, they could fall into slogans ("Viet Nam," "West Germany") but the song titles themselves were, as they put it, worth 1000 words. How can you deny tunes named "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts," "#1 Hit Song," "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?" and "Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing"?

Sadly, one year later, Boon died in a car accident and the band called it quits with Watt carrying on the spirit of the group with Firehose and his own solo career. Like their other releases, DOUBLE NICKLES is not Minutemen's definitive work but it's definitely a moving testament to band that ended too early and the likes of we see too damn little of.
I'm looking forward to the film to bring back a few memories. Hope to see you there.


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