Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Way We Were

It's been a real trip down Punk Rock Memory Lane for me the last few days. I just watched We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, a 2005 documentary about my Second Favorite Band of All Time. At least that's what I used to call them, back in the early 80s, with tongue in cheek and hyperbole in full effect.

And a few days ago, this item I stumbled across at the info-packed music site Tiny Mix Tapes indirectly led me to a half-hour BBC radio documentary on my FAVORITE Band of All Time, Gang of Four. I'm still kicking myself for missing the Toronto stop on their current reunion tour last spring, and it doesn't look like there are any shows anywhere closer to me than Philadelphia in the fall. Perhaps I can ease the pain by listening to this US radio broadcast of a recent live show sooner or later.

(While I'm at it, here's...
the band's skimpy official UK site
a much more informative fan-run site,
Dave Allen's label/site/blog, and
Andy Gill's site, which includes info on his other production work, his studio, and other solo endeavors in addition to G4 content.)

I can't possibly overstate the importance of these two bands in my own life, particularly when I (like their members) was in my early twenties. They--along with the Clash (my Rolling Stones) and the Talking Heads (my Beatles)--showed me and like-minded folks my age around the country/world that radical art and radical music and radical politics could intersect and inform each other in all sorts of amazing ways. That you could combine danceable rhythms, complicated lyrics, and sheer noise to reach the body and the mind at the same time, albeit in different ways. That the most exciting music of the moment was not on commercial radio. That songs could be about something other than love, though they could also make room for the most romantic of notions.

I still remember standing in some indie record store on some road trip in December of 1985 learning that D. Boon had died the day before, and feeling heartbroken. That sadness came back as I watched the Minutemen movie (and damn if they didn't follow up the section on his death with an acoustic version of "History Lesson Part Two," the band's best and saddest song, just to rip me to pieces). The film isn't particularly impressive on a technical level (it combines long-lost, ultra lo-fi footage and new, student-level interview sequences shot on a shoestring budget), but I can't imagine any fan of the band minding very much. In fact, anything more high-quality would probably not feel true to the group's, and the era's, DIY spirit. I hope that younger people, and older folks who missed this music the first time around (like my partner, who was more of a Rush/Floyd/Sting fan than a punk rocker), can at least get the basic idea from the movie. (For their sake, it's kind of unfortunate that 95% of the music is live footage with crappy audio and intense performances that don't entirely translate on tape. It's definitely an exciting document of the times, but most of the band's recordings, while raw, were not nearly as crude sounding as the concert videos.)

I'm honestly not sure I'd still call the Minutemen my Second Favorite Band of All Time anymore. I really need to pull those old albums out again, but after hearing vast numbers of their songs for the first time in almost 20 years, I have a sneaking suspicion that they were the right music for a very particular moment in rock and in my own life, and that that moment is long gone. Which is fine; most of the band's songs, as various friends and colleagues note in the documentary, were designed to express a short, simple thought and then move aside for the next one, or ten, or twenty. They were like journal entries, or beat poetry, or improvised theater: here for one glorious instant, then gone.

As for the Gang, hey, I've got no problem permanently enshrining them at the top of my personal pantheon even today. It's sort of funny to see them become the influence du jour for a whole bunch of buzz bands (none of whom, I predict, will be so fondly remembered 20 years down their own road). They always did sound ahead of their time, and now that their time is here, I say, cash in, guys, you deserve it. Do the reunion tour, put out the remix album (even if it doesn't sound like a good idea to me), do whatever the hell you want. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

You may have noticed that this entry is probably the first time I've mentioned anything in this blog about punk (okay, postpunk), and one of the few in which I've said much about rock at all. And I gotta say, the older I've gotten, the less interested I've been in that whole world--not because I'm older, necessarily, but because I don't really think that that kind of music has evolved in very interesting ways in the last couple of decades. The Minutemen and Gang of Four (and, yes, some other bands of that era) blazed trails and suggested possibilities that most of their successors in rock haven't really picked up on yet (other than imitating their overall guitar sound and marketing it to a larger audience, which is not what I had in mind). I know that, at least for a few years in the late 90s, I heard some of that radical spark in electronic music, particularly in stuff by Autechre and Aphex Twin. But they're primarily instrumental, which means the political content is less overt. (By the way, there's an interesting moment in We Jam Econo where someone notes that the band's approach to music itself--scratchy, angular guitar, kept distinct from the bass--was a conscious political act.)

For large chunks of the movie, Mike Watt drives around his old stomping grounds in San Pedro, CA, pointing out the former sites of long-gone landmarks, retelling the band's story, and reflecting on its legacy. At one point he talks about how, in the 70s, musical options were far more limited than they are today: there were great big arena-rock bands, and tiny garage bands, and not much in between. Punk changed that, of course, and bands like the Minutemen pushed it even farther, suggesting connections between rock and a whole other universe of music: bebop, free jazz, c&w, reggae, psychedelia, you name it. That got me thinking about how punk became a jumping-off point for so many different things in the years that followed: one path led to 20 more years of generic hardcore, another path led to alt country, another to experimental/electronic stuff, and so on. I know for a fact that just about everything I've listened to obsessively since the days when punk really mattered to me--old-time country, 50s R&B, the Beach Boys, electronic(a), Brazilian stuff--is tied in one way or another to the noise I listened to when in various college dorm rooms and smoky clubs in 1979, even if the links aren't immediately apparent.

Punk gave American kids of the Ford/Carter era permission and encouragement to listen outside the box. Granted, for some of them, it quickly became a new, rigidly constructed box of its own. But for artists like the Minutemen--and those of us lucky enough to find out about them through the most haphazard of means--the world became a much bigger, more interesting place overnight.

1 comment:

Kevin J. Hosey said...

Geez, Ron, thanks for bringing back some great and important memories. I missed the movie due to work stuff, and didn't make it to Toronto, either, but the Gang of Four show at Uncle Sam's touring on Entertainment is still one of my five all-time top concerts.
No, I don't listen to the Minutemen as much as I used to, and I share many of the same feelings for The Clash and the Talking Heads (for me, toss in Husker Du as well). I agree that a lot of the feelings I had for the music had to do with time, place and my situation, although a good amount of the music of the Clash still resonates through me. Much of this music and the philosophy and movement behind it made me become much more politically aware and active.
Hmm, now THIS is why I should take the plunge and start a blog.