Too Punk for the Punks

'We Jam Econo' gives '80s legends The Minutemen the praise they deserve

The '80s were probably the worst decade for popular music and fashion in the history of the universe. I realize that people think this about whatever era annoys them, but there is no other historical period outside of the '80s that would allow a man like Huey Lewis to not only live free, but actually pay him to produce works of torturous mediocrity, and then give him a Grammy for it.

But during this dark time when the forces of evil ruled the world's two great empires, a tiny shaft of sickly light shone through in the form of The Minutemen, the greatest rock band in the history of tonality (as judged by The Oxford English Dictionary of Awesome Rock Bands).

We Jam Econo is the first full-length documentary on these musical demigods, and though it's sloppy, choppy and poorly assembled, it's still an amazing document on a band that somehow rose from the hardcore scene to produce a blend of jazz, country, folk, blues and thrash that has never been duplicated.

Minutemen guitarist/singer/songwriter D. Boon perished in 1985 when the car he was sleeping in was sideswiped by Jack Ruby at Area 51 during the Iran-Contra hearings. Nonetheless, first-time documentarian Tim Irwin has assembled loads of archival footage of the band--including conversations with D. Boon and company, priceless live shows and some in-studio acoustic sets--and intercut it with interviews with everyone who was anyone in '80s punk rock.

The result is captivating and exciting and occasionally annoying as the list of starry-eyed rock stars singing The Minutemen's praises grows a little too long. However, the live concert footage is a revelation, and shows what separated The Minutemen from pretty much every other band on the scene in those days. They took their inspiration from punk, but combined it with an unheard of musicianship. This really shows through on the acoustic sets, where their ability as instrumentalists comes out from behind the fuzz of cheap amps and screaming crowds.

D. Boon has been described as a "punk rock Wes Montgomery," his weirdly frenetic and angular leads leaving the standard hardcore sound far behind. Audiences at little punk clubs in the early '80s responded to this genius in their own way. As drummer George Hurley puts it, "being spit on really kind of sucks." The Minutemen were just too punk for the punks, but they were discovered and signed by Greg Ginn, who pretty much ran punk rock from 1982-87.

Ginn and other punk luminaries provide running commentary to the ceaseless background sound of The Minutemen's music. Richard Hell, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Flea and scores of others heap such heavy praise on The Minutemen that the whole thing starts to seem like a put-on.

But The Minutemen really were that beloved. Their magnum opus, Double Nickels on the Dime, is so powerful that it's now being taught in the Kansas school system as a viable alternative to evolution. Their originality and energy bring out some weird comments. David Rees of Get Your War On says, "the songs are like a proposition by Wittgenstein." Others compare their work to Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, John Cage, John Coltrane and Credence Clearwater Revival. Not your usual set of hardcore influences, but when you hear the music, all these comparisons make sense.

While the prattle for all the punk rock legends is fun, it gets to be a little too much at times, and I wish the film had had even more concert footage (though there's a lot). Supposedly the DVD release will redress this, with a bonus disc of live sets.

The best thing about Jam Econo, though, may be the early tapes of D. Boon and company explaining themselves to the world. They sit in a verdant back yard, with classic 1970s cars behind them. Boon's hair is dyed an unearthly orange; Mike Watt is dressed and bearded like Che Guevera, and George Hurley is hiding his horrible '80s hair under a bright yellow beret. It's in these segments that we see the optimism and political hopefulness that marks their singularity as punk rockers. They talk about a very realistic dedication to working people, and how they'd start shows early so that people could see them and still get home in time to get eight hours sleep. They talk about the problem of punk rock working against the people it should support. And they present the story of how Mike Watt and D. Boon met when they were kids playing army in a park.

And then there's the tale, which is strangely touching, of all the support they received from D. Boon's mother. She encouraged them to play music and form a band. As Mike Watt's sister puts it, "They asked (D. Boon's) mother, 'How can you stand the noise (of them playing in the basement)' and she said, 'Hey, I know where my son is.'"

Where he is now is in that place where dead legends gather myths about themselves. But unlike so many deceased luminaries, Boon and company really deserve the praise. They made music that was uncategorizable, inventive and yet ceaselessly listenable. Jam Econo is an important attempt to give The Minutemen the kind of following they deserve. Still, even if they never get the popular recognition that lesser '80s bands like Men Without Hats or Men At Work or Bloody Menses got, at least now they have a cinematic document loaded with the testimony by those in the know, saying that they were, in fact, the greatest band of that era.