Minutemen

I’ve just finished watching We Jam Econo – The Story of the Minutemen. It is not the first time I have watched it, but it is the first time I have managed to watch it all the way through in one sitting. How come I have never watched it in one go before? It is not because it is heavy going, and it is not because it is particularly long. The reason I have never made it through in one go is because it always makes me cry.

Minutemen where one of the bands of my teenage years, one of the influential bands of my teenage years, maybe the most influential band of my teenage years. They had a massive impact on me musically, at a time when my musical tastes where maturing.

I was introduced to Minutemen by one of my best friends at high school, who in turn was introduced to them by his older brother. It was in the summer of 1985, and although punk music and the American hardcore scene was not new to me, (I had been listening to Black Flag, Dead Kennedy’s, Minor Threat and other great American bands since I was eleven years old along with the British greats of the secomd wave of punk, The Exploited, GBH, Chron Gen etc.) Minutemen were completely new and completely different.

Hailing from San Pedro in California  and despite being labelled a west coast hardcore band (literally, I guess, having signed to Greg Ginn’s SST label), there was more to them than just another hardcore band. They were fast, they were loud and they were shouty, but there was something about D. Boons trebly guitar and the contrast to the deep solid funk bass of Mike Watt. Along with George Hurley hitting drums like I had never heard before, these guys could really play. And these guys were really close, you could tell by reading the interviews in Maximum Rock and Roll and other publications of the times the deep affection Watt and Boon held for each other and what solid friends they were.

I was fifteen in the summer of ’85, and in those days I was more recognisable as a goth, heavily into The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees and the like, along with trying my very best to look like Robert Smith with my crimped hair and moody manner. Minutemen had been about for a few years when I was introduced to Paranoid Time, their first E.P. and it completely blew me away. I couldn’t get enough of them. I would save my dinner money every day and on Saturdays would hit Andy’s and Backs Records in Norwich to feed my Minutemen addiction. By the time I had caught up with their back catalogue and fallen completely in love with Project Mersh, with a much more commercial, yet edgy sound, Minutemen were over, D. Boon was dead at 27. killed in a car crash on 22 December 1985. The news didn’t reach me until the January of 1986 when I picked up the first copy of the NME after Christmas (I still have it). I was devastated, the loss of someone I didn’t know, had never met, yet felt I knew so intimately through his music, hit me pretty hard for a sixteen-year-old from Norfolk.

The Minutemen, D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley, were the first musicians that made me really want to play in a band and dared me to dream that being a musician could be an actual career choice, even though the careers advisor at school, along with the majority of the teaching faculty were saying I would never amount to anything, I truly believed I could conquer the world with music.

I had been playing the classical guitar for a good five years at this point, since receiving my first one for Christmas in 1979, and in all honesty, even if I do say so myself, I wasn’t that bad a player. At fifteen it seemed a logical step to get an electric guitar, so I purchased an Eros Les Paul copy from a kid at school for twenty quid and began my path to rock guitar glory. There was a bit of a problem though, when it came to the electric guitar, I just couldn’t get the hang of it. My fingers fumbled all over the fret board, I got very frustrated and just couldn’t do it, no matter how hard I tried.

I put it down to the strings being too close together, and having played a full-size classical acoustic since the age of 10, I reasoned that being accustomed to the larger size of the classical fret board, and having played it with tiny hands to begin with, was the issue. That is why I switched to playing bass. I didn’t have a bass guitar though, I was a poor kid from the archetypical council estate after all, and I couldn’t afford one, neither could my mother afford to buy me one. So, what I did, much to my mother’s horror having only had the thing a couple of weeks, was to cannibalise the Eros Les Paul and turn it into a bass. The first licks I taught myself on this makeshift bass guitar where Minutemen songs. I loved Mike Watt’s sound and style and I played and played until I could jam along to every Minutemen record I had (I had them all). Playing a make shift bass guitar wasn’t good enough though. I needed a proper one, but had no means to do so.

It the summer of 1986 myself and another best (and now my actual oldest) friend picked strawberry’s all summer. In all honesty I wasn’t very good at it, hated doing it, couldn’t really be bothered and only managed to make about twenty five quid that I mostly spent on Guinness and Marlboro’s.

My friend though was the strawberry picking king, and he manged to make £80. I convinced him that he should spend it on a Black Vox Standard bass I’d seen in Secondhand Land as he already had a guitar and, my reasoning was if he bought a bass, we could form a band. I remember going in to get it and him paying for it with eighty one pound coins.

Needless to say, we never formed a band. We jammed for a bit, trying to play Cure and Bauhaus songs, but that was about it. A couple of years later he went to university and I had his bass. He did return having dropped out after eighteen months, but having got my hands on a bass guitar, I flatly refused to give it back. He very kindly let me keep it, on the promise that I would get my own soon and give his back. I managed to cling on to it for nearly five years! Using it to form a band in late 1990 with another friend from the village.

This was a more serious effort though, the two of us clicked very quickly, we had very similar music tastes, and would talk endlessly about different bands and musicians, introducing each other to all manner of new bands and going to a lot of gigs together. We also practiced and practiced and practiced. We got a few covers down and wrote a few of our own songs and continued to practice and practice and practice. Just the two of us, him with his purple Ibanez and a Peavey amp, me with the Vox and using my Pioneer midi stereo system from my bedroom as an amplifier, as well as using it to play the drum machine through.

By ’91 we were good enough to start gigging, but couldn’t do it with my makeshift equipment. Although I now had my own bass, having purchased a sorry looking 1976 Fender Precision Bass from the same second hand shop as the Vox, for £250 (a week’s wages back in those days). At the time I was back home living with my mother and she was horrified when I came home with this expensive, shabby looking item and instantly took it to bits. It stayed in bits for two weeks, as I replaced the wiring, tweaked the pick-ups, resprayed the body, straightened the neck and added a picture of Uma Thurman to the scratch plate. A truly unique piece of equipment, and one that is remembered by others and associated with me to this very day. Nearly thirty years later, despite being well gigged, she still looks fantasitic and sounds awesome. Anyway, I digress, we couldn’t gig using my tin pot stereo to amplify my bass, with the DR 550 drowning me out. I needed a proper amp.

How I managed it, I don’t know, but I talked my mum into buying me an amp. I guess having watched how meticulously I rebuilt the Fender, listened to the noise coming from my bedroom as we practiced, and seeing the effort we were puting in, she could see how serious I was, and one Saturday, out of the blue, she took me to Carlsboro and parted with £450 of her hard earned wages on a spanking, brand new,  Peavey TNT 110 bass amplifier  with a massive 20 inch speaker (I wanted an Ampeg head and cabinet, but that was way too expensive). A couple of pedals later, I finally had my first full rig.

Instead of gigging though, we just practiced more. We moved from playing in our bedrooms to practicing in the dressing rooms at The Waterfornt in Norwich on a Sunday morning, and then to alternating between Noicebox and Steady State Studios. We soon recruited a drummer, and just kept rehearsing. This went on for months. There was a reluctance from the guitar player to gig, we shared vocal duties, each singing different songs, but he was not confident with his vocals and wanted to get a singer in. Which I was happy to agree to as long as I could continue to sing my songs, as I really enjoyed it and in actuality I was pretty good at it. We advertised, auditioned several candidates, and pretty soon an amazing female vocalist joined our line up. Now we were a foursome, a proper band, and it felt amazing. And once again, instead of gigging, we just rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. We must have been the tightest band that never played a gig.

In the end the whole thing fizzled out. I’d been moonlighting in other bands as a session bassist, picking up quite a reputation for myself and actually earning a bit of money from it.  I got to play on a few records, had one of my songs picked up by a fairly well-known indie band, and I got to play a lot of gigs at a lot of great venues as well. I loved playing live, it was exhilarating, on stage I could be anybody I wanted to be and really gave it my all, it was so liberating not to be the insecure, introverted individual I was in reality.

It wasn’t enough though, not financially or artistically, so I gave it up. The last paying gig I played as a professional was a one off, hardly rehearsed, drunken and drugged up mash up of covers and improvisational noise at Norwich Arts Centre sometime in 1995 with a couple of mates from different bands. I was in such a state I managed to fall off the stage while trying to pose with one foot on my monitor, I missed it completely, and landed on my knees in the crowd, although I did get back on stage and carry on playing, they swelled up massively and haven’t been the same since.

By the following year I had a well-paying factory job which I loved (the teachers at school would’ve been so proud) and had bought my first house away from the city. I did a little bit of playing with new friends I’d made in a local pub, but that didn’t last very long, and following an accident at work where I dislocated nearly all the joints in my fingers, I gave it all up, having decided I would never be able to play again due to my injured fingers. Looking back on it now, that was just an excuse, in my heart I felt I had failed at the only thing I was ever good at and I just couldn’t face it. I sold all my gear, except for Uma and the Peavey who went in to storage (these were far to precious for me to part with) and that was that. I symbolically joined the 27 club that my hero D. Boon had become a member of 11 years earlier. Instead of me dying though, I quite purposefully and deliberately, killed my musicianship.

That wasn’t the end though. I came out of retirement four years later in 2000 and re-joined the village band, who were picking up quite a reputation as a local covers band, replacing the departing bass player. And I still had it, I could still play and I rediscovered my love for playing music again, the guitarist and I were both semi ex-professionals and I gelled with the drummer very quickly, forming a monster rhythm section. We played together for fifteen years. Until I got kicked out, not realising for several months that I had actually been replaced. I’m still not entirely sure why, I had been moonlighting again singing and playing bass for a local punk covers band, I didn’t see any harm in this as the singer had loads of different side projects, although I didn’t tell my band mates, mainly out of embarrassment. I’ll admit I could be pretty lazy when it came to learning new songs, particularly if they were songs I didn’t like. But I would learn them, eventually, often rearranging the bass lines to create a more original sound while still maintaining the integrity of the tune. The whole experience was painful enough to stop me playing and give it all up again. Apart from the odd strum of the acoustic at home, I haven’t played since.

However, despite falling out massively with the drummer for a couple of years, we’re all still good friends, we sadly lost the singer to cancer last year and I miss him dreadfully and wish I had been able to play in the band to the end. I think of him everyday. His loss has had just as big an impact on me as D. Boon passing away all those years ago. This time around, rather than being inspired to emulate my hero, I have instead put away my musical toys, mostly sold everything off, and have finally lost the musical inspiration I had in my youth.