Put It in Simple Words

Working men are pissed

It starts with that guitar. It's tempting to call it “jangling” (though that word has become the sole property of critics writing about R.E.M.), but it’s not really appropriate to the sound. D. Boon’s guitar wasn’t calm enough to jangle. It chatters, scuttles, skitters — makes that wandering noise that seems almost accidental, but never quite gets away from him, that noise that always kept you guessing whether he was the best guitarist in the world, or the worst.

Then the rolling, loping, implacable bass shows up, the anchor, making a booming sound and pushing everything where it’s supposed to go — the instrument with an essence precisely summed up by its owner, who called it a “thunder broom.” And then the words:

Bodies stacking, hands shaking
Have you been there? I’ve been there!
I’ll put it in simple words: working men are PISSED

In this simple declaration — it’s not an argument, or a slogan, or a call to arms, just a statement of fact — there is more power than in a lifetime of so-called “protest” and “political” songs. In 1994, almost a decade after the man who wrote the words flew out of the back of a van and broke his neck a hundred miles from where I lived, I was working in a factory, making golf clubs, going deaf and getting hurt and suffering a thousand little humiliations every day. The job reduced me to nothing, and it was only music that kept me going. I listened to it in my broken-down car on the way to the factory, I listened to it exhausted and bruised on the way home, and, when I could, I would climb into the back of the empty trailers waiting to be filled up with the product of my sweat and listen to it on a tiny, tinny boom box. Sometimes it was with a few friends, lighting up a joint and praying to hell the foreman didn’t catch us, and sometimes it was just me, but always there was music. And even though seven years (an eternity in pop) had passed since their final album, we still listened to the Minutemen. Why? I’ll put it in simple words: working men were pissed.

I came to the Minutemen late. I was only 11 when the Paranoid Time EP was released, 12 years younger than Mike Watt and D. Boon. By the time I was making my first tentative explorations of punk rock, the band was already well-established. But I didn’t miss them; I was too hungry for what they were doing. My first taste of the Minutemen was the Project: Mersh EP; I was living in Texas at the time, very much against my will, and I was lucky enough to discover punk rock and hip-hop the very same year. It was Run-D.M.C. and the Minutemen that got me through the nightmare year of 1985, who kept me from killing myself with drugs. I devoured everything I could find by both bands, and in doing so, learned about other bands, other ideas, other worlds, and in exploring those worlds, I had a reason to keep going. I bought as much of the Minutemen’s back catalog as I could find and developed a ticket-scalping business to help me pay for my new obsession (punk rock wasn’t easy to come by in the lily-white Dallas suburbs of the mid-’80s, and rap even less so). But I had to have it, I had to hear it. Hip-hop showed me that there was more to American culture that I was being told, that there were people unlike me in every way who were, nonetheless, making music that I connected with in more ways than I would have imagined possible. Punk taught me an opposing, but complementary, lesson: that there were people like me, people who would accept me, people who were making inspiration out of alienation. I had to have more.

I moved back to Arizona late in 1985. I had a lot to look forward to: I was returning to a place that, if it wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, was at least better than where I was. I was off the drugs that would have made me into a corpse. I had hip-hop and punk in my life; I had something besides my own doubt and hate to believe in. And there was a new Minutemen album out: 3-Way Tie for Last. Of course, I wasn’t the only one coming to Arizona; just before Christmas, Dennes Boon, the band’s fat, argumentative, impossible genius of a singer and guitar player, piled into his van and took a nap while going to visit his girlfriend’s parents in the state where I was born. He slept in the back, while she fell asleep at the wheel; it ended with him dead on the freeway. I came home to Arizona, because the Minutemen had saved my life: together, me and Arizona paid him back by killing him. It’s a misplaced, even absurd, guilt I felt, but I still feel it today. I’m in Chicago now, but whenever I go back to the state where I was born, my mind always says it even if my voice can’t: thank you D. Boon and I’m sorry.

Nine years after, me in a factory, rebelling in little ways against the bosses who don’t want to hear the Minutemen blaring in the echo-chamber of an empty trailer; 19 years after, me at home, writing about the Minutemen when I have time after working at another empty job. Would I have had the courage to write, to create, to make my life tolerable with art if it wasn’t for them? Time and again they talked about the importance of art, of music, in everyday life: for them it wasn’t a statement, or a luxury, or a way to set themselves apart from everyone else; it was a necessity. (Or was it? In Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life — its title drawn from the Minutemen’s most famous lyric — he recalls one of Boon and Watt’s arguments, one of thousands they had. “I’m just the average Joe,” boasts D., to which Watt responds “But the average Joe doesn’t write songs.” “I was borne out of being average because of my rock band,” D. retorts nervously, obviously uncomfortable with the implied elevation of self; Watt goes in for the kill: “You’re special and you’ve got to cop to it.”) Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t a hustle for the Minutemen; it wasn’t a way for Watt to make a fortune, for the gross Boon to get laid, for drummer George Hurley to make friends. It was something they had to do.

Their commitment to punk — which they, more than perhaps any other band to whom the word was applied, understood to mean not a musical style or an aesthetic, but an approach, a worldview — was deep. So thoroughly did they apply it in every aspect of their existence, from their relentless touring schedule to their intense emotional and intellectual explorations to their personal approach to self-promotion to their endlessly inventive music, that it got its own name: they called it “econo.” They did things themselves, with efficiency and effort and thrift, and even if the audience didn’t always appreciate or even understand their message and their music, the Miinutemen made sure they got it. Throughout their heartbreakingly short career, they were dedicated to the ideal of anti-elitism, to treating people with respect, to making songs for their idea of the working man: a person who wasn’t stupid but who had been stepped on a lot of times by the system, who deserved to have art and music and literature in their life, who should look at creators as allies instead of idols.

Of course, it’s been fashionable in various degrees to profess solidarity for the working man ever since the 1960s. There’s never a shortage of guitar-wielding multimillionaires, art school graduates and guys with platinum-capped teeth to express their deep connection with the guy who washes their cars. And I won’t argue that they’re insincere, or that they don’t have the right; the quest for credibility has always been a dead end. Sure, Boon and Watt’s fathers were career Navy men and that Hurley’s was a machinist. Sure, Watt was a substitute teacher and Hurley ground tools like his old man. Sure, Boon had worked as a janitor and a construction worker (“Have you been there? I’ve been there!”).

But none of this made them the only band who could be described as champions of the commonplace without raising cynical eyebrows. It was, rather, the way they put it into practice, they way they did what they said they would do, the way they jammed econo. Their van (which they referred to in nautical terms, in homage to their fathers) was a forge for friendship and creativity, for anger and resentment, for camaraderie; it was a movable workplace. Boon booking shows of little-known bands with the expense coming out of his own pocket: when his acts would play the Star Theatre, he called it the Union Theatre, and the shows started early because people had to work the next day. Watt moving his huge bass cabinets himself: 20 years later, with a shattered knee and in questionable health, he still sleeps on friends’ floors when he tours. The band starting New Alliance Records, bringing the world Hüsker Dü and the Descendents: their artists were also civil servants, dockworkers, waitresses. Hey, Mr. Narrator: this is punk rock to me.

They weren’t immune to irony (it seeps through every note on Project: Mersh, and any band capable of writing a lyric like “if we heard mortar shells/we’d cuss more in our songs/and cut down on guitar solos” surely knows the value of a good twisted grin), but more than any other band of their time, they meant what they said; there was force in every statement they made, every line they sang, and when the loping guitar and pitiless bassline and crashing drumbeat threatened to overwhelm him, D. shouted “THE PRODUCT OF CAPITALISM!” He sounded scared, and he sounded angry, but he also sounded completely sincere. It wasn’t just their aesthetic sensibilities that distinguished — and distanced — them from their hardcore contemporaries; their jagged and angular music, folding jazz and funk and avant-garde into a loud-fast-rules framework wasn’t the only thing that made so many of the teenage punks at VFW halls wonder who the fuck they were.

The biggest problem with punk rock as a vector for political sentiment — no, scratch that: the biggest problem with all music as a vector for political sentiment — is that it generally neither invites nor allows the presence of anything more sophisticated than sloganeering. Hardcore’s legacy carries about as much intellectual weight as the catchy chants at any anti-whatever march you can name. But the Minutemen defied that limitation as deftly as they dodged every other rock ’n’ roll cliché: in the lyrics of their songs, in the way they made the life they led of a piece with the music they played (“our band could be your life”), they showed how politics were inseparable from real life. Their lyrics more often than not weren’t empty shouting or shock-value rants, but explorations of how the way they thought about labor and ideology and ethics intersected with the way they lived and worked and felt. They understood that the occurrence of moments, one’s attitude towards the everyday, was political in a concrete way; and while Malcolm McLaren was valorized by wishful-thinking critics for stunts like hanging a Soviet flag over the stage where the junk-sick New York Dolls played, here were three dudes from Pedro putting into action the ideas the Situationists had believed in all along.

When one of them would slide into propagandizing, the others were there to set him right. The arguments between Boon and Watt were things of legend, as intense as they were passionate: Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat features on its cover a cartoon of the two, faces inch apart, shouting objections at one another as the products of a consumer culture spit out in a geyser behind them. Watt never wanted D.’s informed leftist politics to degenerate into knee-jerk liberal reaction, and D. never wanted Watt’s emotionally powerful self-exploration to get lost in navel-gazing. They understood the difference between thinking and reciting dogma; listening to them talk, hearing their interviews, it’s easy to see that they’re arguing, circling around each other, taking jabs, asking questions, challenging assumptions, not just reciting pre-rehearsed positions. Each one knew the other wasn’t right all the time, and they cared enough to fight about it. Even when only one was writing or singing, you can hear them both, contesting each other’s most deeply-held beliefs. “How can I believe in books when my heart lies to me?” Watt sings in D. Boon’s voice; “bumming real hard on cold steel facts,” answers D. in his own. “I’m full of shit!” they both reply, speaking on each other’s behalf. They sang about the politics of time; they thought about the politics of everything.

But this is rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is always about myths and legends and magical invocations, conjurations that are triggered by a combination of words. With the Minutemen, even before a Rolling Stone reporter chose it as the title of his book about the punk of the ’80s, it was “our band could be your life.” It seems incredibly arrogant — they sang those words only three years into their existence, to a world that had never heard of them (and, for the most part, still hasn’t). How could their band be our life?, is the unasked question of the millions who weren’t there, who didn’t hear them or see them, who didn’t know — for, once known, no one forgets. The answer, like with a lot of punk rock, lies in a negation: our band should be your life, it goes, but even if it’s not, better us than Journey. It’s not enough, though, in the end. The phrase is too full of possibility, of uncertainty, of speculation. Had it not already been used by the Clash three years before the Minutemen were formed, someone might suggest “the only band that matters”; I certainly thought so at the time, and there are times when I wonder if it’s still true. But even if it were once the case (and it wasn’t; there’s never only one band that matters), the past tense can’t be undone. So, then, 19 years later, me at home listening and remembering, and as real as it was then and as real as it will be tomorrow:

I’ll put it in simple words: working men are PISSED!