Rock bands are like extramarital affairs; they end so gruesomely, it’s a wonder people start them as often as they do. For the Minutemen, things weren’t even that rosy in the beginning. At their early gigs in the late seventies, the San Pedro, California, punk trio were routinely spit on by the crowd. Not here or there, not once or twice. Great gobs of saliva flew in their direction pretty much all the time. This was a perverse rite of passage. The Minutemen had to prove to the crowd how badly they wanted to be on the stage.
The Minutemen passed that test, and many more. Theirs is one of the great romantic DIY stories of the punk era—two inseparable misfits taught each other how to play music, found a drummer who had this crazy funk-jazz style (as well as crazy hair), and were well on their way to greatness when singer-guitarist D. Boon was killed in a car accident at the age of 27. The Minutemen catalogue, to my ears, sounds tinny, abrasive, and disjointed, but the punk cognoscenti adore them precisely for these qualities, and the documentary We Jam Econo, just out on DVD, makes an eloquent case for their importance. It and Tell Me Do You Miss Me, a film about the final tour of the beloved New York cult band Luna, neatly bracket the history of indie rock, illuminating what made the scene so vital and why, even though great new music abounds today, something is clearly missing.
We Jam Econo is a skillful assemblage of archival footage and fresh interviews with indie-rock luminaries (few of whom have aged gracefully), but the best parts are the recurring bits of bassist Mike Watt’s steering a van through the streets of San Pedro, reverently pointing out the Minutemen landmarks. It has been twenty years since his friend D. Boon died, but Watt’s broken heart has not mended. What sustained the fiery musical madness of the Minutemen was a beautiful friendship; the band was really an extension of their adolescent bond. And, contrary to punk tradition, they didn’t come from dysfunctional homes. Their mothers were their biggest fans, happily encouraging them even before they discovered that guitars can be tuned. Someone once asked D. Boon’s mom, “How can you stand being in the house with all that racket?”—to which she is said to have replied, “At least I know where my son is.”
For the Minutemen, there weren’t many clubs to play in or labels on which to put out records. They made music because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Their classic album, Double Nickels on the Dime, was a 46-song opus recorded in a week and a half and inspired by, of all things, Sammy Hagar’s idiot-rock anthem, “I Can’t Drive 55.” The Minutemen played their last gig a week before Christmas in 1985, opening for R.E.M. in Charlotte, North Carolina, then joining the band onstage for an encore rendition of Television’s “See No Evil,” one of the great lost moments of rock history.
By that point, the indie-rock system was taking shape, enabling laid-back bands such as Luna to have actual careers. Like We Jam Econo, Tell Me Do You Miss Me is an unabashed love letter, and it, too, is an affecting one. After watching it, I dialed up Luna on my iPod for days; their layered, minor-key dirges are ideal headphone music. Though their place in the indie-rock canon is not nearly as secure as the Minutemen’s, their music is easier on the brain cells. Dean Wareham, the singer and chief songwriter, is a gloomy portraitist who loves the gentle, droning rhythms of the Velvet Underground, and in the course of a thirteen-year, seven-album career with Luna, he built a devout following.
Wareham, however, never wrote a hit, and as the band members found themselves pushing 40 and still barely getting by, Luna decided to break up. The movie starts with them composing the press release of their split, and then heading out for one last swing around the world. Though they played to packed venues everywhere, Wareham and his crew are unrelentingly somber. For a while, this is understandable. It’s their last go-round, after all, and maybe chronic disappointment is what fuels their art anyway.
But all the sad-sack navel-gazing ultimately gets comical. Retelling war stories from the road, guitarist Sean Eden cites Zurich as “the absolute nadir.” Why? Because the hotel they stayed in “was a low-budget whorehouse.” Horrors! Maybe this is what’s wrong with indie rock today—the barrier to entry has sunk too low. If Luna had been spit on more in their formative years, maybe they’d be more cheerful about all they accomplished.