The Minutemen’s 1983 LP What Makes a Man Start Fires? begins with a fast, jittery bass riff. At the 7-second mark, the drums and guitar kick in, the latter sounding even more agitated. At 13 seconds, the vocalist begins to declaim, more than sing, the first verse, which is two lines long.
I’m waitin‘, in third person, I’m collecting
Dispersing, information, labeled rations
At 26 seconds, the chorus arrives, which is one line, repeated twice.
Bob! Dylan! Wrote propaganda songs!
The song is over in one minute and 27 seconds, and it is by no means the shortest track on the album, which squeezes 18 songs into 27 minutes.
The Minutemen existed from 1980 to 1985, a platonic love story with a tragic denouement and a long, redemptive coda. They put out their own records and booked their own tours before technology made those activities (relatively) feasible and cost effective. Their music and lifestyle asked questions about what is really valuable, about how to live your ideals and to love and support your community without oppressing yourself or others. Sometimes they were naive, sometimes they were contradictory, but they never stopped playing the music they wanted to play and attempting to make a real connection with the people that might want to hear it. They were, and I do not say this lightly, American heroes.
Mike Watt met D. Boon in San Pedro, California, a working-class Navy town, in the mid-70s. In the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo, Watt revisits the park where he literally ran into Boon for the first time. “I was quite smitten with him,” Watt says. The story that follows is told so comprehensively in the film, as well as Michael Azerrad’s seminal book Our Band Could Be Your Life, that recounting it here is unnecessary. Suffice to say that, after adding their surfer classmate George Hurley on drums, the Minutemen spent the first half of the ’80s producing a torrent of music. From 1980 to 1985, they released something like 5 full-length records, 6 or 7 EPs and singles, a double-live album, and countless compilation appearances. Then D. Boon died in a car crash, and it was all over.
The Minutemen embodied many of the archetypes of punk rock, one of which was the de-fetishization of commodity in favor of the celebration of community. For as many records as they put out, the physical product was seen as the means, not the ends. Watt famously summarizes the philosophy in Azerrad’s book: “We had divided the world into two categories: there was the flyer, and there was the gig. You’re either doing the gig…or everything else to get people to the gig. Interviews were flyers, videos were flyers, even records were flyers.”
Not only was the record-as-object demystified, but the song itself. Song titles like “Shit From an Old Notebook” and “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” belied their stream-of-consciousness creative method. As a song title and chorus chant, “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” sounds like a phrase that popped into Watt’s head one day – it’s not clearly explicated by the rest of the song, and I honestly can’t tell if it’s intended as praise or insult. The Minutemen represented an act of constant creative becoming – opinions, influences, styles and more were constantly in flux. Nothing was embarrassing because there was no pose, no hidden agenda. Their songs were short, intense bursts of emotion – sometimes joy, sometimes anger, often both mixed together.
There may be an alternate universe where Watt, crushed by the death of his best friend and bandmate, goes back to Pedro, gets a job in the shipyards, and spends the rest of his life in near-anonymity. Instead, he carried on in music, ascending to a sort of secular sainthood among the tastemakers of Generation X. Within the span of a few years, he was enshrined via answering machine message on the coolest rock album of the 1980s, and the dedicatee of one of the biggest albums of the early 1990s.
Watt emerged from the tragedy of Boon’s death by forming fIREHOSE, another trio with Minutemen drummer Hurley and Ohio transplant Ed Crawford. fiREHOSE scored an unlikely major-label deal in the post-Nirvana gold rush, but had played out the string by 1994. Still signed to Columbia Records, Watt released two extraordinary solo albums in the mid-90s. His debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? has a ludicrously stacked lineup of guest musicians including most of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, as well as Eddie Vedder, Evan Dando, Flea, and a 12-minute version of “Maggot Brain” featuring Bernie Worrell and J Mascis. It’s a celebration of Watt as working-class hero and a victory lap for an entire generation of musicians, one last house party before the post-Cobain chill set in and rock music retreated to the edges of the culture, probably forever.
The follow-up, 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room, is one of the true lost classics of the ’90s, a three-hander featuring Watt, drummer Stephen Hodges, and the great guitarist Nels Cline (later of Wilco, among much else). A loose double concept album, it creatively occupies two of Watt’s personal timelines at once: his father’s tour in the Navy, and his own time in the Minutemen. Surprising parallels abound: the close quarters of a Navy boat recall the Econoline van the band packed themselves into for endless tours. Perhaps most poignantly, Watt lost both role models too soon. His father died of cancer at age 51, possibly as a result of the nuclear vessels on which he served, and of course Boon died all too young, when that same Econoline van crashed.
I was fortunate enough to see Watt play Contemplating the Engine Room when he was still touring the album in the Fall of 1998. With Cline and drummer Bob Lee in the band, it was one of those shows I’m still grateful for the opportunity to have attended more than twenty years later, not least for having heard Cline solo on Television’s Little Johnny Jewel for the encore. (The video above is from the very next night, in Detroit.)
In true econo fashion, Watt had no merch table – instead, he sold t-shirts from a garbage bag at the front of the stage after the show. The shirts were $10, an incredible bargain for tour merch even then, and after I bought one he shook my hand. The shirt lasted for a very long time.