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Culture-jamming on the cheap with the Minutemen

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Brevity of song length initially gave the Minutemen their name, but their influence has been anything but brief even though the life of the band and founder guitarist D. Boon was cut short some 20 years ago this month. A new documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, finally gives voice to the players in their lambent story: three regular guys from San Pedro, Calif., who started jamming and changed music for those seeking an alternative when the word wasn't taboo. On Saturday, Dec. 10, Local 506 hosts a one-night screening party for the film along with a show by local bands celebrating their favorite Minutemen numbers.

The trio--rooster-haired drummer George Hurley, grinning bass player Mike Watt and the gregarious D. Boon--stood out in a hard-edged era. They played songs that sprawled from jagged rock jolts to jazz and rhythmic maneuvers to Pollock-style splatter, while the SST label bands around them, like Black Flag, went for the jugular. Econo tells a personal, oral history of these inspiring genre-benders.

"If you're a superfan like me, it's kind of a Kids are Alright for the punks," says Ed Crawford, best known as Ed From Ohio. "It was a real treat, a film of that quality about such an influential band." Crawford played with Watt and Hurley in fIREHOSE after Boon's death, reviving Watt's interest in music after the loss of his childhood friend and collaborator. Crawford, now a Chapel Hill resident who has worked with Whiskeytown, SCOTS and his band Grand National, contacted Watt by looking him up in the phone book.

"The first time I saw them was in Columbus, Ohio, finishing up the Post-Mersh tour. I was floored; a life changing experience. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I was going to school at the time. That was the end of that. Gave a kid a life direction."

Greg Barbera of The Chest Pains remembers their uniqueness. "I realized that punk had no boundaries, your musical pursuits limitless. This eventually led me down the path of anti-punk punk bands like No Trend, Alice Donut, Flipper and Big Black." Does "econo"--the term Watt used for the punk ethic of getting the job done on a shoestring--apply to his music? "I'd like to think of myself as a hobo musician. My bass was something I borrowed from [former local rocker] Sockboy years ago."

The Minutemen proceeded to shove musical boundaries throughout their career, bruising some punk purist fans. Chest Pains' Eric Hermann says: "When I first heard the Minutemen, I hated them. That wasn't punk rock! A few years later, a new roommate played them. Same record, but now I saw it in a completely new light. Where the hell did they get their ideas back then? It's punk rock, but it's not punk rock. Only the truest of rejects could have played music like that."

As critics John Leland and Ira Robbins said in the Trouser Press Record Guide, "They stuck to that twisted idea of dada with a groove until the end, and with one out-of-chronology exception, their records kept getting more ambitious and better."

Through the years, they were famously friendly and open, the nice guys among the sneering hardcore crowd. Local musician Anne Gomez ran into Watt at a Dos gig (duo with Kira from Black Flag), and the Watt charm glowed. "I told him that I played the bass, and he said, 'That's great, because women make better bass players than men.' I'll never forget that, because he could have just blown me off. I mean, how many bass players have come up to bug him during his life? About a million. But he still took the time to be nice to me and say something encouraging that was also a bit self-denigrating, as he was implying that he wasn't as good as he could be because he was a guy."

It can be difficult to make a film about a band this beloved by its fans ... unless you are a superfan yourself, like producer Keith Schieron, whose fandom started in 1989.

He said that as he and the film's director, Tim Irwin, got into the group, the were surprised to find that no one had put their history on film.

"There was no documentary on the band. We would go to the video store and we could find Target videos on the Dead Kennedys or Black Flag, but not the Minutemen. Since this was pre-Internet it wasn't easy to find information on bands. All we knew was that they totally blew us away and we figured they had to be huge and couldn't figure out why we couldn't find a video on them. That's when we first talked about doing a documentary on them."

Watt's personality made the project easier, Schieron said. "Contacting Watt was easy. The guy has to be the most approachable person on the planet. He's so friendly and down to earth. Gathering the interviews was really pretty easy and I think that says a lot about the band. The Minutemen really have this amazing aura about them. They really touched people on a personal level."

Everybody seems to have a story about the Minutemen, and many involve D. Boon's passing, like a punk's "Where were you when you heard about JFK?" Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe included an anecdote in an e-mail query to local groups about Saturday's show. "The last ever Minutemen show took place in Charlotte on Dec. 13, '85, opening for R.E.M. Not only was I there, but I was a guest of none other than D. Boon. Both bands had played in Winston five days earlier and, in a weird coincidence, current 506 soundman Todd Goss introduced me. The band stayed with me in Greensboro that night. D. Boon had put me on the SST mailing list for WUAG [UNCG's station] and the first piece of mail I received from that was a press release announcing his death. I can still remember the shock of reading it."

Crawford recalled a tale of passing in the night: "D. Boon sat right behind me during the R.E.M. set when they were playing near my town. Which was kinda weird, him looking over me. Turned out to be kinda ironic, too, if you think about it."

Crawford puts the band's legacy in crystalline perspective. "Double Nickels is the punk rock Exile on Main Street. Hands down, one of the great autobiographical songs of all time is 'History Lesson Part 2,' encapsulating their whole deal in one tune: 'Our band could be your life.' Something the average guy could get into, too. They didn't seem to care about fitting in with anything, the hardcore scene, the posing. They really did just care about the music. Like D. Boon said, 'Should be a band on every corner. And a record store on every other corner.'" Boon's plea in the song speaks for Minutemen storytellers everywhere: "Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me."

We Jam Econo shows at 8 p.m., followed by a tribute to the band at 10 p.m. with Cantwell Gomez & Jordan, Regina Hexaphone, New Town Drunks, In the Year of the Pig, Chest Pains, Dom Casual, Hotel Motel, Calabi Yau and the Minutemaids. Cover is $8.

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