DVD: We Jam Econo
THE STORY OF THE MINUTEMEN (The Minutemen's official page)
By: Howard Libes
I was a disc jockey at my college radio station, WCDB at SUNY Albany, when I first heard the Minutemen. The year was 1983. I was awed. I'd never heard anything like it, and although the Minutemen had been labeled as punk rock, their music was nothing like the hardcore/punk music which had become part of my life at the time. I was originally drawn to punk for the music and the ideal that it was about non-conformity. As a young man, I believed that the conformist way was the cop-out non-thinkers way. Yet I saw conformity engulfing the punk/hardcore scene and had begun to become disenchanted with it. SST, the Minutemen's label, became my label of choice because they weren't conforming. They were putting out original sounds from artists who could care less about the scene.
In 1985, myself and a crew from the radio station drove two hours to Manhattan to see the Minutemen at the Peppermint Lounge. We bought our tickets early and entered the club at the earliest opportunity. We spotted Mike Watt and D. Boon of the Minutemen setting up their merchandise table. I bought my 'Project Mersh' t-shirt. A few of us talked to Watt and Boon while other customers came up to the table. Clearly, the Minutemen were for the people, not the masses.
The opening band was an unoriginal rock band with an unoriginal name, Philadelphia. I still remember it, 20 years later, because they were the polar opposite of the Minutemen. They wore eighties fashion and played glittery guitars and played straight ahead unoriginal unenthusiastic rock ballads. They were the poster children for conformity. The punks didn't even bother to heckle them.
Inbetween sets, the punks gathered at the foot of the stage. Then the Minutemen came out: T-shirts and jeans; Big men. They looked like day laborers. And when they went to work and broke into their set, a mesmerizing sonic shock wave of song after song washed over the audience. I was overwhelmed by the mind-blowing musicianship and the scene onstage. D. Boon was a large man but he bounced around stage for the entire set like a Superball while ripping out chords. The rhythm section of Watt and Hurley were locked together in time, hurling each song forward. The three of them glanced at each other, smirking in joy as they played. They seemed to push each other in a way that the crowd couldn't detect as the music intensified as the set progressed. The songs were concise powerful political and personal songs - - sometimes 30 second songs - - that emerged one after the other. Then the set seemed to be over as soon as it began and the crowd screamed for more so the band accomodated with an encore. When the music finally ended, I stood there stunned.
On the ride home, the passengers were mute until each stated in their own way, "The Minutemen are the ultimate punk-rock band." I now understood that the Minutemen embodied everything that I loved about punk: The Minutemen embodied non-conformity. They were individualists expressing themselves through their words and music, and it didn't hurt that they were fine musicians.
Now 20 years later, "We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutmen" tells the story of punk rock's punkest of bands, if not its most unique. The documentary is framed and interspersed with clips from a 1985 interview of the band, months before their final tour with REM, a moment captured in music history where one band is about to rise to fame while another is entering its final phase. The film goes on to tell the story of how Watt and Boon met by happenstance as kids, their learning how to play their instruments through the encouragement of Boon's mother, then it moves through the inception of the Minutemen, their development as a musical entity, the story behind each of their album's, and the death of D Boon and the band: A jam-packed 90-minute storyline.
Bassist Mike Watt is a key narrator, sitting behind the wheel of his van while driving around San Pedro pointing out places of importance in the Minutemen history. George Hurley plays a lesser narrative role. The cast of commentators include Flea, Thurston Moore, Richard Hell, Raymond Pettibon, Greg Ginn, Joe Baiza, Jack Brewer, Dez Cadena, Henry Rollins, Milo Aukerman, Jean Watt (Mike's mom), among many others, who state their views on the history of the band, the Minutemen's music and albums, and the pivotal relationship between Watt, Boon and Hurley. Also, concert footage is strategically placed in thematic divides in the documentary, familiarizing the viewer with the stage presence and musical intensity of the band. The acoustic performances are noteworthy: With amps removed from the mix, in their subtlety - - Boon and Watt on guitar, Hurley on bongos - - these performances underline the timeless resonance of the Minutemen's songwriting.
The filmmakers take the viewer deftly through each step of the story. There is an even-handedness between discussing the dynamics of the Minutemen's music and the band itself, and also a reverence for the topic that avoids the documentarian's trap of a narrator telling the viewer how to feel. Sometimes what is implied in the commentators' stories and in the performances are the most insightful moments in the film, and a credit to the filmmaker's storytelling talents. The documentary also never harps on the tragedy of D. Boon's death, avoiding the Behind the Music formula, but emphasizes the true story, the band's musical legacy.
The flaws in the film are few. The documentary only runs into trouble in the large quantity of commentators. Many of the them are unfamiliar names even for the viewer with a working knowledge of the band and the early '80s punk scene. Who are these people? Why should their view be important to the story of the Minutemen? The filmmakers neglect to put these commentators into context, which could have been easily rectified with a reference under the name of the person.
Aside from this miniscule point, this documentary is well-crafted and worth seeing, even if you're not a Minutemen fan. When a documentary ends and you want more, you know that you've been both informed and entertained. This was the case with We Jam Econo. One can tell that the filmmakers dug deep to come up with the best film possible and this is obviously a work of passion. The film is an homage to the Minutemen, and the enduring lifespan of their music. If you weren't a Minutemen fan before watching this film, then there's a good chance you will be afterward.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the posting of this story the problem with the descriptions of the narrators has been fixed for the screen and DVD.