Saturday, July 12, 2008

Punk Rock Changed Our Lives

Lately, I've been reading a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. The book chronicles the stories of a range of bands from the emergence of the indie scene in the 80's, including Black Flag, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and several others.

I've particularly been fascinated with the story and music of the Minutemen, a three-man punk band from San Pedro, California. A self-distributed, self-promoted band on Greg Ginn's (the guitarist of Black Flag) SST label, the Minutemen weren't afraid to mix funk and jazz elements into their sound. Their mantra of "jamming econo" and DIY ethics really set the bar for thousands of bands that woould follow them.

I think what I really love about the Minutemen, besides their great music and brilliant lyrics, is their overwhelming sense of optimism, something that isn't always on the forefront in a counter-cultural movement like punk rock. These guys just fucking loved being in a band and when frontman D. Boon said "our band could be your life", he really meant it. He and Mike Watt openly stated that they thought every neighborhood, even every house, should have a band. I really couldn't agree more with him. Music has such a powerful way of bringing people together that such a society would be undoubtedly be a happier and friendlier one.

In another passage in the book, Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye talks about his early days in punk, when he and his bandmates would shave their heads and wear chains and tacks to intimidate people:

In our shows and within our community, we were totally goofy guys. We were painfully honest--we didn't shoplift, we didn't vandalize, we didn't spray-paint. We were just good kids. That was our whole joke. We don't do anything--everybody hates us just because of the way we look...If you do something so dumb as spray-paint your hair, then the next thing you know you have grits from southern Maryland chasing you down the fuckin' street just because you chose to do something a little different. You realize just how fucked up our society is.

Besides being an excellent commentary on the deficient judgmental tendencies of the human race, I think that this passage further highlights the benefits that having bands in every neighborhood would have. I doubt that those "grits" would have treated MacKaye and his friends so poorly if their kind, courteous teenage next-door neighbor started a punk band our of his garage (beside their probable frustration with having their peace and quiet disrupted). Art is culture and culture humanizes us; I'm all for more of it.

Gettiing back to the Minutemen, D. Boon died in a car crash in 1985, effectively breaking up the band. What amazes me about the Minutemen however is that there isn't the same sense of tragedy around their existence as there are with other bands associated with death like Nirvana and the Exploding Hearts. The message of D. Boon and his band was so positive that people cannot help but celebrate his inspirational story and life, rather than dwell on his terribly premature demise.

This video is an acoustic version of their legendary biographical anthem "History Lesson Part II", taken from their 2005 documentary "We Jam Econo".


Clay B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clay B. said...

I own we jam econo. It actually does make you want to live your life humbly and happily playing music without all the indie pretension of leaving your parents house and being poor in brooklyn. just being in a band and playing music- its a great, great lifestyle. mike watt's interviews are priceless.