Back in the early '70s, the seaport town of San Pedro, California, wasn't exactly a haven for youthful rebellion. There were tide pools, to be sure. There was one tiny record shop. (It's since been razed to make room for a Petco.) Expensive, eye-straining arena rock was in ample supply an hour north in Los Angeles. But otherwise, you really had to get creative if you wanted some relief from the boredom. Especially for hyperactive childhood friends Mike Watt and Daniel Boon.
As the story goes, the founding Minutemen (then, just boys) were introduced one afternoon at the park, when chubby, unbalanced Boon fell out of a tree and into Watt's life. The chance meeting seems fated now—their paths literally collided and an odd, nearly psychic musical alliance was born. They immediately took to each other. They went back to Boon's mom's place and listened to records. When the local music shop began selling electric guitars, they each bought one and taught themselves how to play.
This was years before punk rock came about, but there was a recognizable kernel of true punk aesthetic in their San Pedro childhood: Do it yourself. It's a theme that's echoed countless times throughout We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, even in the title of the movie itself. If we do it ourselves, we can make our own fun. If we follow our own rules, we can fulfill our own destinies.
Watt, Boon and drummer George Hurley spent five incredibly prolific years creating their own rules in the trembling dawn of the Southern California punk scene. Their music was, to say the least, unlike anything else at the time. Minutemen songs are quirky, angular compositions that stitch together the raw energy of punk, the bouncy baselines of funk and bebop, folk's politically-fueled song-speak and jazz's rolling scales and syncopation. Most songs are under a minute long.
Don't be fooled, though. The "Minutemen" part didn't come from the length (or shortness) of their tracks, as I learned from We Jam Econo. The name comes from hours spent practicing Deep Purple riffs in their mother's basement. At the time, corporate radio anthems were the only type of music that seemed possible in San Pedro. The boys, already deviating into their own homegrown style, were minute in comparison.
I learned quite a few things from this documentary, actually. I didn't realize that the Minutemen had such an enormous impact on music in general. The documentary is overflowing with interviews from close to 60 die-hard fans, nearly all of them comprising a kind of who's who of alternative musicians, including Jello Biafra, John Doe, Thurston Moore and Flea. It's amazing to hear some of these guys talk about the Minutemen with such wide-eyed admiration. I mean, these are arguably among the most provocative artists in the world, and they describe this odd, relatively obscure trio as "the best band of all time."
Boon died in a car accident in 1985, ending two creative lives—his and the band's—that were really only getting started. Watt still smarts from the loss of his best friend and musical partner, and it shows with ringing clarity even after these 20-some years. The pain is still there, but so is the music. So are the legions of fans from every style of music that's relevant today. And let's not forget the countless millions who've been exposed to the Minutemen without even knowing it through skate videos and the guitar-slinging theme song from MTV's Jackass. (Yeah, that's them, too.) Buried beneath all of them is the backbone of youthful rebellion, and it's as true today as it was in 1971: Follow your own rules. Short and simple.