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Music ‘Econo’ men 

Minutemen documentary celebrates punk as a rule-defying art movement

This is the story of two friendships linked by one band.

The first one developed in the early 1970s in the blue-collar Southern California town of San Pedro between two kids named Dennes Boon and Mike Watt, who went on to form a revolutionary punk band called the Minutemen. The second one formed in the late ’80s up the California coast in San Jose, where Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron attended the same communications magnet school, shared a love for the music of the Minutemen, and talked about one day making a documentary about the band.

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D. Boon, above, and Mike Watt, below, consistently challenged and encouraged each other during their six years in the Minutemen.

Irwin subsequently moved to Salt Lake City and went on to make films about extreme sports and the arts, and Schieron worked in college radio. The two friends fell out of touch for a decade, but when Schieron invited Irwin to his wedding, they remembered their old teenage dream-project. Schieron insisted they make their Minutemen film.

“Not long after that, the video-production company I was working for at the time kind of imploded, so I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next,” Irwin says. “I called Keith and said maybe it was the right time.”

An old college-radio friend of Schieron’s knew ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, and sent Watt an e-mail on behalf of Schieron and Irwin. A few days later, Watt came through Salt Lake City, and Irwin approached him before the show. He shared his ideas with Watt, and asked him to wait until after the completion of his tour before making up his mind. When Watt finished the tour, he gave the green light to Irwin and Schieron.

No one would have blamed Watt if he’d rejected the idea of a Minutemen documentary. Boon, his creative foil and best friend, died in a car accident over the Christmas holidays in 1985, and for all of Watt’s innate positivity and resilience, he’d never really gotten over the shock of that loss. Reliving that era was not his idea of fun.

“It was really hard for him,” says Irwin, who will attend a San Antonio screening of the documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, on March 26 at Café Revolución (presented by San Anto Cultural Arts and the San Antonio chapter of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers). “It was clear that on a personal level it was something he didn’t really want to do, but he realized what an important story it was. So he was willing to do his part, and suffer through it.”

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Mike Watt

We Jam Econo combines rare, archival Minutemen footage with reverent interviews from the likes of Thurston Moore, J Mascis, Henry Rollins, and John Doe. Former Minutemen drummer George Hurley provides a consistently affable presence, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that Watt is the nexus of this film. His relationship with Boon was one of those miraculous musical partnerships that can’t be planned or arranged. Best friends since the age of 13, when Boon jumped out of a tree, landed in front of Watt and blurted out, “You’re not Eskimo,” the two picked up instruments together and learned how to play by following each other. They spent endless teenage hours jamming on Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Boon taught Watt about world history, and Watt relentlessly challenged Boon’s leftist political assumptions.

Interview subjects in the film variously describe Watt and Boon as Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and “twins with a secret language.” Provincial kids from working-class families, Watt and Boon didn’t view punk as a trendy fashion choice or a means of playing at rebellion. For them, it represented freedom, both from society’s rules and from mainstream rock’s increasing lameness, and an entrée into a world of ideas that would have been inaccessible to them otherwise. “It `punk` got me really curious to start reading about these things like Dada and Futurists and Surrealists,” Watt reveals in the film.


Sun, Mar 26

Café Revolución
527 El Paso
$5 (suggested donation)

The Minutemen respected the spirit of punk too much to mimic any other punk band, and even within their small, insular scene, they were seen as wildly idiosyncratic and innovative. Watt played hyperactive jazz-fusion runs up and down the fretboard, while Boon played funky, staccato rhythms on guitar, and Hurley worked his hi-hat like a big-band drummer. Boon and Watt shouted their political provocations with no concessions to melody or rhyming, and just as you started to get a handle on where the song was going, it abruptly stopped and segued into a new one.

The group’s defiance of punk orthodoxy is what captivated Irwin when he first heard them in 1989. “I purchased this skateboard video from Santa Cruz,” Irwin says. “There was this music on it that was really blowing me away and so I was digging through the credits to find out what it was. All the songs that kind of interested me turned out to be Minutemen songs.

“That same week, Keith was digging through his brother’s old Spin magazines and there was an article about the Minutemen in one of them, and he went out and bought one of their discs and I went out and bought one of their other discs.”

Irwin adds: “The Minutemen’s music was so striking, it was so different. A lot of the skate videos were laced with punk-rock stuff, but it was all very typical punk-rock stuff. So their stuff really, really stood out to me. I was attracted to the quickness of it and the lyrics seemed really thoughtful, and not just, ‘Screw Reagan.’”

Because Irwin discovered the Minute-men four years after Boon’s death, and because he and Schieron felt like the only two kids at their high school who listened to them, he says he was stunned to discover how many people loved the band. When the film premiered at a historic San Pedro movie theater that seats 1,500, Irwin worried that the theater would be 80 percent empty. “In the end, it sold out and we had to turn people away,” he says.

Watt dutifully attended the screening, but did not watch the film. “He couldn’t watch it,” Irwin says. “He sat out in the lobby at the screening. He asked specifically that we not make him sit through it. He’s watched bits of it, but I don’t think he’s ever seen the whole thing.”

By Gilbert Garcia

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