A lesson in punk, optimism and history with the Minutemen
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In the heat and humidity of the summer, it’s easy for me to revert to total pessimism and just silently seethe as I sweat through yet another shirt collar and try to pull myself together to not be disgusting in public.
But that’s laziness; I’ve wasted enough time being miserable in the sun. An easy way to embrace the benefit of summer in Boston is the eschew the T and walk more. The T stations become stuffy sweat boxes anyway, and being outside, on the sidewalk and in the midst of the city’s ambient noises is an easy way to make the most of a period where things aren’t covered in snow and ice.
So, whenever possible, I like to walk home from work, partially obscuring the sounds of cars and squealing kids with my headphones and whatever the iPod in my pocket might have to offer. Usually I pick something specific in an exploration of that mood — everything Nirvana did, or yet another kick down the Otis Redding discography. Earlier this week, though, I hit shuffle and let the tunes fall where they may. And a lot of my usual suspects started popping up, with the Black Crowes, the Beatles and Dead Kennedys all jostling around in there.
And then a sweet little guitar riff with a loping bass line started up — the Minutemen’s “History Lesson, Part II,” Mike Watt’s brief tracing of the band’s path from the living room to the stage to the recording studio, placing all these disjointed pieces of rock and roll history within the context of creation.
I hadn’t heard it in a while, and it was so jarring and unexpected that I actually stopped for a quarter of a second and some kid wearing sunglasses walking behind me nearly ran into me. When it was over, I spun the control around to Double Nickels on the Dime, the band’s double record triumph, and let that take over for the rest of the walk, creating a somehow even more disjointed listening experience than the shuffle button had.
The Minutemen, of course, didn’t write an album of 10 or 20 songs as much as they created a collection of riffs and poetic fragments that numbered past 40 on the tracklist. Watt hit on this weird habit of sketching out microscopic songs in the documentary We Jam Econo, looking over a copy of one of the band’s early EPs, The Punchline.
“A lot of these songs aren’t even a minute,” he explained. “A lot of them are 40 seconds and stuff, 38 seconds. Again, they weren’t supposed to stand on their own. They were supposed to be part of this big river.”
That idea of not writing full songs but rather these little snippets of lyrics and riffs that were meant to hold together in a way that, if they didn’t seem to make sense, they at least created a cohesive mood in the end, is so interesting and runs counter to so much of pre-programmed listening, then or now.
The Minutemen — D. Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley — were never elitists when music was involved. Where even Kurt Cobain buried his Sammy Hagar t-shirt as a teenager after discovering punk, out of a combination of newly formed disinterest and a dedication to remaining true to this new ethos, the Minutemen were never interested in that kind of compromise. Instead, punk provided the D.I.Y. blueprint to write music, make records and play shows. The idea of taking this new-found freedom and immediately installing a set of arbitrary boundaries didn’t jibe with their interpretation of the format. Music was music.
So, on the original pressings of Double Nickels on the Dime, one of the beacons of punk to emerge from the era, there were covers of Van Halen and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs (they’d keep covering CCR, plugging “Green River” along with “Don’t Look Now” into their shows). On “History Lesson, Part II,” Watt lists Blue Oyster Cult and X in the same breath. It was all music. They stripped away the rules and the borders and even the clock in an attempt to sew all of the music they loved together into one continuous flow of sound.
And “History Lesson, Part II” is such an important piece to that. When Boon sing’s Watts words — “Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me” — it’s a reminder that all the music was as important as the work of an artist so universally regarded as important. It’s slow and quiet and runs counter to whatever punk and hardcore was supposed to be by 1984, and it does so by design. As the song goes on, it all comes back together to Watt and Boon in their rooms, playing guitars, making the most of the day.
And, importantly, enjoying the moment. Everything builds to whatever moment we’re in, and all there is that the moment. So it’s hot out. Suck it up, enjoy the air and, if you need to, put on some music. It’s not like there’s any shortage of it available, and it’s all out to help.
July 22, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org