by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 2, 2003
Minutemen Live On!
Bassist Mike Watt remembers his days in one of the best rock bands (punk or otherwise) of the '80s.
Finding Your Own Way
In 1985, before the punk trio The Minutemen went on stage each night while on tour, the three would listen to the John Coltrane recording "Ascension." "In fact we discovered jazz through punk," former Minutemen bassist Watt writes in the book "Spiels of a Minuteman," the second edition of which was just published by L'Oie De Cravan, the Montreal-based publishing house. "[We] loved what John Coltrane said about using music to 'uplift people' and that all of music was 'one big reservoir' w/all the notes and rhythms being tools to help tell your story. ... We saw ourselves as a link somehow in a big chain stretching through time."
During the first half of the '80s, The Minutemen, along with Black Flag, The Replacements, Flipper, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth, were one of the core third-wave punk bands that helped bring rock back to its essence while bringing something new to the party. (The first wave being the mid-'70s New York bands; the second being the British bands that formed in reaction to the New York scene.)
L.A. hardcore punks listening to Coltrane is not what one expected back in the day, though, on second thought, it wasn't such a stretch even in '85. After all, the MC5's manager, John Sinclair, was a jazz freak, and The Stooges' Fun House is proof that someone in that band knew about "free" jazz. Still, The Minutemen, gathered around a boombox listening to Coltrane before each show, is an image that I cherish.
"Spiels of a Minuteman" is a beautiful document of an important band. It is a lo-fi art piece, but more important than its value as a cool book is its ability to remind us that nothing need be taken for granted and that everything (EVERYTHING) is up for grabs.
The book consists of a lengthy "Intro" by Watt. It's really the story of The Minutemen in his own words, plus all of the song lyrics he wrote while in the group, his 1983 tour diary, short essays by Thurston Moore, Richard Meltzer and Joe Carducci, and all of the incredible Raymond Pettibon artwork that appeared on The Minutemen's record sleeves. Plus a totally cool silkscreened cover by Simon Bosse.
The music of The Minutemen formed in 1980 by the late D. Boon (who sang, played guitar and wrote songs), drummer George Hurley and Watt didn't sound anything like hardcore punk when it was first released, and more than two decades later, it only sounds more out of context. If there is any music to which the Minutemen's music shows a kinship, it's that of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. But that's not fair either, 'cause as I listen to The Punch Line and What Makes a Man Start Fires? (both combined on the CD "Post-Mersh, Vol. 1"), I'm yet again startled at how original this music sounds. (The group disbanded following a Dec. 23, 1985 van crash that left Boon dead and Watt in despair over the loss of his childhood buddy and bandmate..)
Some of Watt's words are timeless. Consider how on point the entire lyrics from "Badges" are right now:
"we don't need
Watt makes the point that for him and his fellow Minutemen, as well as the other bands they knew, there was a "pretty big burden to finding your own way of seeing and putting things." He notes that "the worst thing you could do was imitate your friends and peers."
Punk was never about copying a look or a sound. And, in fact, the important bands, the bands that we still care about all these decades later, found their own way. The Ramones and Talking Heads and Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Patti Smith Group from New York in the '70s, the Sex Pistols and The Clash and X-Ray Spex from London, or Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Flipper and The Minutemen none of those bands in any way resembles another. Each created a unique sound that has had tremendous impact.
And then there are the black-and-white drawings of the great Raymond Pettibon, which appear throughout "Spiels of a Minuteman." Pettibon created images that were, arguably, as important to early-to-mid-'80s punk as the music. His drawings of naked, drug-addled pseudo-hippies leaping off buildings, psychotic punk teens with knives ready to off their parents, and a young woman showing her two-headed mutant baby to its father provided a visual social commentary that matched the lyrics and music of the bands that, primarily, recorded for SST Records.
Oh yeah. The essays about Watt and The Minutemen by Moore, Meltzer and Carducci are excellent. "Mike Watt is complicated," begins Moore's piece. He goes on to write, "we love watt. Punki rock as divine shift. Deliver us from the lame-out."
Or Meltzer: "To cut to the chase, Mike Watt is pure and simple the most important songwriter since Bob Dylan. Listen, I don't just mean great songs mountains of 'em I'm talking shit like the STRUCTURE of songwriting, first principles, that type of biz. After Mike, after the minutemen, songs never ever have to rhyme again honest!"
Yep, it's time to dig out those old Minutemen albums (or get yourself some if you don't already have 'em) and do some serious listening. And do yourself a favor and get a copy of "Spiels of a Minuteman." Worth every penny ($14, postage included).
Watt and Hurley will likely perform as Minutemen at this falls's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, which takes place in L.A. late September.
Note: "Spiels of a Minuteman" can be ordered from the L'Oie De Cravan Web site.
Coming Soon: Lora Logic
When Lora Logic was 16, she played sax in Poly Styrene's amazing British punk band, X-Ray Spex. Logic (real name Susan Whitby) went on to form Essential Logic, which released a number of singles on Rough Trade, including the wonderful "Music Is a Better Noise," and the album Beat Rhythm News.
Greil Marcus wrote in the June issue of Interview, "From song to song on the 1979 Essential Logic album Beat Rhythm News, a voice that is silly-high goes down so low it sounds stupid and then a guitar whisks the voice off with a snapping riff, the whole band begins a rush to an invisible finish line, the singer's saxophone floating above the race as if she knows how it will come out or doesn't care, and you have no idea how you got from the one place to the other."
Marcus goes on to note the "freedom" in Lora Logic's music. Her recordings have been out of print for years, but later this month (June) Kill Rock Stars will release Fanfare in the Garden: An Essential Logic Collection, with liner notes by Marcus.