"These guys are all weirdos," Mike Watt recalls thinking about the early Southern California punk community. "It was the perfect scene for us."
"Us" was Watt and D. Boon, who with George Hurley would go on to form The Minutemen, a band that had a lot to say and usually didn't take very long to say it. But 20 years after Boon's death, Tim Irwin's documentary We Jam Econo -- The Story of The Minutemen demonstrates why the group's legacy is more than just a catalog disproportionately full of brilliant sub-two-minute songs, or even their two-album opus, Double Nickels on the Dime. Irwin also celebrates the impact true individuals can have when they're in some ways outsiders even among their own.
But first, a love story. "I was quite smitten with him," says Watt of his initial meeting with Boon, when both were 13. A few years later punk came to these shores and -- encouraged by moms who liked their boys to have a creative outlet -- the two became the working-class brothers in musical arms they'd remain till Boon died in a car crash in 1985.
With no commercial success to speak of -- those, kids, were the days before advertisers bought Ramones songs -- The 'Men cultivated a cult following despite their defiance of punk's musical, lyrical and sartorial norms. They were too fast and furious for anything but punk, yet their inspired, self-taught musicianship incorporated funk, jazz, Beefhearty art rock and other influences ("avant garage," someone says). Their often politically charged lyrics delved rather than preached, and they were (un)hip enough to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Irwin's key materials are a 1985 video interview with the band and modern-day footage of the merry Hurley and the thoughtful, abstracted Watt, who pilots a van around his old stomping grounds, philosophizing and reminiscing. (The music shop where he bought his first bass is now a Petco.) Irwin gets anecdotes and perspective from graying contemporaries such as Flea, Henry Rollins, John Doe and maybe 40 more, including music writers and standbys from venerable indie-rock label SST.
We Jam Econo is no stylistic watermark: Irwin's toggling between talking heads and grainy video concert footage is pretty metronomic. But what shines through, despite those mostly amateurish live vids, is the group's passion on stage. Watt, Boon and Hurley were, as Richard Hell says, "happy and inspired to be up there playing."
Today, Watt dismisses the back-in-the-day dismissals of The Minutemen as "narrow-minded shit," but he never seems bitter. Instead, he's Irwin's key witness in making the case for the DIY spirit.