Monday, February 28, 2005

Down to Pedro

Some time back, one of my siblings asked if it was true that their neighbor George Hurley used to be a rock star. The name was familiar, more so when cross-referenced with their San Pedro address--“sure was! in the Minutemen!” But never having been able to penetrate that band's dense, masculine curtain, there wasn't much more I could say. I felt like I was letting the kids down; they expect more pop culture awareness from their 'zine-editing big sis. So when I heard that a new documentary on the Minutemen, We Jam Econo, was debuting at San Pedro's classic Warner Grand Theater on Friday night, I suggested the Cooper Family attend. Yet somehow, none of the kids seemed to understand that they were being invited to a movie starring George--I guess “documentary” isn't an SAT word. But my dad was interested, both in the film and in a rare chance to get out of the house for something other than a peewee sporting event.

First, though, I was treated to a guided city tour in Pop's wood-paneled station wagon--the one my brother Dylan requested be stopped around the corner from the Boys & Girls Club so no one would see him climb out of it. We circled downtown with its taco stands, skateboarders darting in front of cars, rough-looking bars and coin laundries… then down to the cruise ship harbor, where a fancy boardwalk is being laid, to the eventual destruction of the corny Ports O' Call restaurants and gift shoppes… then out onto the bluffs where the Korean Bell stands black against the sunset. My dad says he doesn't especially care that Pedro-resident / L.A. Mayor Hahn is demonstrably dirty, because so many nice projects have been started around Pedro since he began his term. Well, it's 2005 and, had he lived, D. Boon might well be a San Pedro homeowner with an eye on property values and school ratings, too.

Down at the theater, it's cross-demographic punk rock central, a long line of 20+ year fans, high school classmates, L.A. scenesters and historically-minded adolescents. The house is packed; we grab a pair of seats in the balcony. I'm a little worried my dad won't dig the movie, as his musical tastes run more to folk and world music than aggro poli-punk-heck, me, too. I don't worry for long. We Jam Econo may be packed with performance footage (regrettably unsubtitled), but those short-short tunes are interspersed with interview footage that keeps us giggling as Mike Watt tools around Pedro in his banged-up old van, recalling the days when he thought guitar strings had tuning pegs because some guys like their strings loose, some like them tight.

The story that's told--through contemporary interviews with Watt, Hurley and a large cast of family members, rock crits, musicians and neighbors, plus a section of vintage band interview footage presumably shot in an orchard near where the Minutemen were (pardon the expression) crashing on tour--is one of nerdy, provincial buddies who empower each other to create, express themselves and ultimately matter to thousands of people. Watt's mom comes across as a heroine, letting the boys bash out songs in her apartment, going to shows and just believing in them. It's perhaps crass to suggest that a band that ended so sadly was lucky, but how else to describe their stumbling into playing a hometown show with Black Flag, BF's label releasing their debut as SST-2, and the passionate affection stirred up by this odd, spiky assemblage with the hefty, hyperactive leader and abstract, politicized lyrics?

When the story gets to D. Boon's death, the mood of the room turns raw. It'd be sad anywhere, but in the Warner Grand, where (Watt reminds us later) the band members used to come and watch horror movies, surrounded by folks who loved him, it's especially moving. And it's a skillfully made film, feeling like a complete narrative, despite the suddeness of the band's end. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it.

The filmmakers and surviving Minutemen sit onstage post-screening, taking questions and mash-note praise, and then the tribes filter out into the art deco lobby, where the generations linger in animated rings.

The Minutemen's music is still too angular to spend much time inside my head, but I walked out of the film with a fresh respect for their creativity, energy and daring, and with a much better sense of how to explain George's history next time one of my siblings asks. But I'm kind of hoping dad will fill them in. -Kim Cooper

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005) was directed by Tim Irwin, and includes interviews with D. Boon, Mike Watt, George Hurley, Brendan Mullen, Byron Coley, Carlos Guitarlos, Chris Morris, Colin Newman, Dave Markey, Dez Cadena, Flea, Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins, Ian Mackaye, J Mascis, Jack Brewer, Jello Biafra, Joe Carducci, John Doe, Keith Morris, Kira Roessler, Milo Auckerman, Nels Cline, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Hell, Richard Meltzer, Thurston Moore, Tom Watson, and others. More info is at

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