All Tomorrow's Parties - Minutemen Duet (Mike Watt and George Hurley)
Ben Tausig: Mike Watt and George Hurley played an inspired set of Minutemen songs to an audience whose enthusiasm grew palpably as the set went on. The potential for intimacy in the hull of the Queen Mary was never better realized than during their sharp, well-paced performance, and everyone—from the band to the owners of feet dangling through railings three stories above the stage—reveled in it.
Watt dedicated this reunion to the late Minutemen guitarist D. Boon, whose parts were replaced, in memoriam, by nothing. Still, as Watt took pains to explain, Boon's parts remain so fundamental to the songs that their presence was implicit "Much respect to D. Boon," he said, on several occasions, before reaching back into the Minutemen's incomparable catalog of hardcore/post-punk and playing with the kind of intensity that makes live rock shows worth seeing.
Sam Frank: Absolute highlight of the weekend for me, absolute highlight period. I didn’t think I got sentimental about rock music, rock death, rock life, but there you go. Their set ended with their Urinals cover, “Ack Ack Ack,” and an encore of “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand”—two gun songs for one president. Then—Watt on mic—“Punk taught us that people can start their own band, paint their own picture, write their own book.”
Why should we still care about the Minutemen? For one thing, they were maybe the great rhythm band of American punk. Watt and Hurley played rhythm, of course, but so did Boon—which, in turn, let melody sneak back in everywhere, in the bass, in the drums. So it was more than interesting to see the Watt-Hurley duo, rhythm section for the rhythm band, playing as the band—some of the guitar parts were rearranged for bass, but the songs had extraordinary melodic content even when Watt played it straight.
For another, they brought a lyrical approach unique to this day in its simultaneous verbose opacity and directness of implication. That is, they made politics art, art politics. As with the melody-rhythm binary, in Watt’s spiel politics became a field of aesthetic quarrel, never a fixed point, even as there’s clarity in the clutter. (Look at him talk, below—sense and nonsense, enjambed.) These are the propaganda songs we need.
We talked with Mike Watt directly after his set. In medias res, when the tape started:
Mike Watt: You could tell by my performance, Georgie’s too. We practiced, but…25 years. I wanted to play stuff really old, because it was so bizarre, when I was listening to the music again, me and Georgie, and I’m almost 46, another couple weeks, and I was half my age. And man, we’re in a terrific place! I love it! I love it! So I thought, “Georgie, we ought to play some of this really old—and I can’t even play with a pick anymore, it’s going to be impossible.”
Sam Frank: Why can’t you play with a pick?
MW: Because I haven’t done it in a long time.
SF: Were you playing with one tonight?
MW: No. I did it for J. Mascis a couple years ago, but it was way slower. And with all these changes.… And then to sing it—D. Boon, he would just stop playing guitar and sing, and I can’t do that here. And the bass is all on the offbeats. But you know, I just wanted to show people that if these fucking dudes could do it, you can too! Write a magazine; writers are so influential on me; we played a song called “June 16th” tonight. I was a young man, I was 23 when I wrote it. It’s not only [Raymond] Pettibon’s birthday but it’s Bloomsday! Heavy book! You saw what we played tonight—totally influenced by that book Ulysses. And then people, too, that have come into my life, like Pettibon. Pettibon turned me on to Coltrane. I never—me and D. Boon didn’t hear jazz. Pettibon turned me on, I thought it was old dudes playing—I never heard it. It was wild. It blew my mind so hard, the punk movement, ’76, high school, that I feel almost a debt to pass that experience on, not to try to say everything’s been done. Fuck, if anything, we can be manure for you to grow your new crop. Young people teach me so much, I’m way into it. It’s just circumstance that we were doing it back then. And to be asked to play it again is a treat. Maybe once for a benefit for Flipside, which was a great magazine, but was only like ten songs. This one was 30! It was about a half hour
SF: You gonna tour this stuff?
MW: Oh, well…I don’t know. It’d be very interesting to—
SF: Because people loved it—
MW: But, yeah, for me, I haven’t played these songs, they are trippy little things. There were these two bands, Wire and the Pop Group, had a huge influence on us. We learned from Creedence and T. Rex and Blue Oyster Cult and all that, so…. Punk movement had a huge influence on us. But man, to play the songs, that might be a good idea. I never thought of trying to tour it. I’ll go ask Georgie. I did have a lot of fun hanging out this week. Unfortunately, I had to tour right before this, just came back from New York Stooges stuff. So I would have been playing this a month with him. But hanging out with him again, even though we live in the same town only a mile apart—
SF: What’s he do now? Play music?
MW: He does a little bit, but he does mainly construction stuff. And he has a family, a son. Oh man, it’s so righteous, it’s been like ten years. I played with him 14 years. So I needed to hang out with him, and I told him, “Man, we should play more.” Maybe not just Minutemen songs, maybe for young people, if they’re missing a bass and a drummer, Wanna go in the studio and have some crazy songs? We’re kind of a rhythm section.
SF: There are a lot of good rhythm bands out there now. Do you like any of them?
MW: Well, I’ll go help other cats, who need a bass and a drum. It’s trippy because it was always hard without D. Boon, even with Edward [Crawford who, replacing Boon, played with Watt and Hurley in fIREHOSE], Edward had a lot of courage and helped us. But that might be a thing that we can give back to the scene. Maybe play with other cats, help them on records. Or maybe do a tour too, of the old songs. Just to show people, anything, to get people confidence. To go for it, man, we need people taking chances!
[break in tape]
It wasn’t so hierarchical, bureaucratic. You know the Huskers, Meat Puppets, Black Flag—fuck, we were in the same van with them. And I still think that spirit can keep going; it isn’t all just done. The world was timed to make sure everything don’t happen at once.
SF: Will you talk about politics? What do you mean when you say [as chorus to the eponymous song], “Bob Dylan writes propaganda songs”?
MW: Well, I had a crisis. Remember, I’m in my 20s in those days. I’m wondering, are me and D. Boon and Georgie being a little too upfront about wondering about how power’s distributed? And then one guy, that I listened to words, because I didn’t really know what words were for in songs, I thought they were like lead guitar—I did listen to Bob Dylan. “And my Bob dreams could be seen and Bob put my head in a guillotine.” So I thought, he wrote propaganda songs, well, we can do it too. And we shouldn’t be afraid. You know, we never wrote our own songs till punk. We didn’t have confidence.
SF: Are there any bands that are writing good political songs now? I don’t really hear that. There’s a lot of shit going on, and I don’t hear many bands writing good propaganda songs or writing good political songs.
MW: Sonic sometimes do. Oh, Kathleen Hanna! The Bikini Kill band, Le Tigre now, does. Ian [MacKaye], Fugazi. This XBXRX, this guy Chris [Touchton]—Hawnay Troof. There’s them out there. They ain’t in the merch. But you know, before MTV is when we wrote a lot of our songs, so I think the stuff you’re talking about probably isn’t picked up by the MTV. They’re not into that kind of personal expression. They’re just trying to fit stuff in between commercials, so they’re looking at a target demographic. People who speak from the heart and stuff, they’re going to have a hard time fitting in, but I’m sure there’s people out there. And things come in cycles. And what you want, really, if people are gonna talk about how power’s distributed, and personal feelings about it, you want it from the heart. You don’t want people just careering on slogans. Heavy thing.
I was asked to be part of this thing called punkvoter.com. They were trying to get punkers to think about these fuckers with the guns, these fuckers with all the money, these fucking wannabe puppetmeisters. The punk movement! And so I’m part of this. I think what’s hurting us right now is this whole idea of labels. Left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative—they’re all bullshit, the way they’re used. They’re used to obscure the matter, I’m going to write up a piece on this. I think it intimidates folks from getting involved; younger people, they hear old words and old classifications, and they want to be in charge of defining themselves. I want them to know that I’m with that too, that a lot of this shit is smokescreen. I mean, what’s so left wing about Joe Stalin? What’s so conservative about taking the Constitution apart, and making one guy’s idea of church, in the government? See how they use these words? That’s not conservative, taking Tommy Jefferson’s document right apart. And what was he about? At least he admitted he was scared. He wasn’t saying he was righteous—he was scared. Nobody’s talking about being scared, and I think one thing about dealing with power in songs, you have to look a little civilian, you can’t be all Marine Corps. You know every fucking military unit had a drummer boy. They’ve always used this shit. A swastika’s an art symbol. They pollute all kinds of art.
My new song’s about almost dying from a sickness, because the politics got in my body—that struggle. I almost died as a 22-year-old, but I never wrote songs about it, because I bounced right back. Middle age, man, it’s kind of different. But that don’t mean I don’t think about this other shit—I’m very much for it, and that’s why I say I need the young folks. You can only tell where the wall is by pushing against it. You can’t just arbitrarily say so over here. Unless you just gave up. Unless you’re one of these persons—fucking troughs, spoon-fed gravy-train bullshit. Which means, motherfuckers are going to have to be eating shit. That’s what I was singing about in “Toadies”—I read this thing Dimitri Shostakovich—these guys didn’t have big power, but they had a little more power than you, fratboy mentality. “I got my ass whupped; now you’re gonna get your ass whupped.” Well, you know, Fuck that! You need to get beyonder.
And the fanzine? It’s like the Web. No middleman, no gatekeeper. Let the freak flag fly. Let the words be heard. What’s Ashcroft trying to protect us against? Free speech? That’s really what. Motherfucker. Conservative—conserve what? He’s pretty liberal with that shit. And what are liberals, what is right wing, what is left wing, what are all these things? You got to throw them up in the air and talk about it. That means clear thinking. Of course this shit can’t be sold. A lot of waste, paradox, struggle. Got to admit to ourselves no system’s perfect. But we’re gonna go for the least worst! Damn sure!
SF: So you’ve got together with George Hurley, you’ve done the Stooges—
MW: I may do an album about my sickness
SF: What about Paul and Ringo? Get together with them.
MW: I don’t know. The Stooges is wild, though. You got to understand—that’s like being part of the soil that grew me. I can’t even imagine that. I was 16 years old—that’s 30 years ago. And I’m finally the youngest guy in a band! I’m the young man.
Ben Tausig: Is there anybody who could have played guitar with you tonight?
MW: No. No. [Some guy standing next to us: Boon was there!] I wanted people to kind of do that—I wanted them to hear themself. [Guy: I felt Boon here tonight.] It’d be jive to bring somebody else up there. That’s why we didn’t call it the Minutemen; we called it George Hurley, Mike Watt as duet, playing some Minutemen songs.
SF: Next to last song you did was “Political Song for Michael Jackson.”
MW: “…to Sing.” “…to Sing.” That’s the most important part, because I did want him to sing it. He never called.
SF: You have the line in there, “We’d cut down our guitar solos”—and then Boon does a guitar solo. Tonight, nobody did a guitar solo; instead, it was a bass solo.
MW: Yeah. I played around a little with the form. The Minutemen were about making fun of themselves a lot.
SF: But that moment reminded you of Boon there, too.
MW: Oh, it all did! All of it did, because I wouldn’t have wrote any of those songs, wouldn’t have played any of that music without—his mother made me play bass! You don’t know how close Boon is to my music, my life. Thirteen years old, I can take you to the tree in Pedro he jumped out on me on. It’s trippy. It was like, I’m not really a musician. There’s a guy, you want to be with your friend when you’re young, and music was a way. And then punk came, they let you do it in front of other people! That’s what it’s all about, that’s why I wrote that song “History Lesson Part Two.” The hardcore kids thought—the Hollywood people started burning out, there was only hardcore kids to see us—and they thought we were like Martians from Planet Jazz or something. We were trying to tell them, “We’re like you, believe it or not.” It’s a state of mind, it ain’t a style of music. But they were young and it was very social and we understood, we never looked down on them. But we wanted to say we were involved with a lot of the same issues they were. I remember me, and Jack [Grisham] from TSOL, would meet good-looking guys with tans. “Why are you at this scene?” And then I figured it out.
SF: Didn’t he run for governor of California?
MW: Yeah, and I voted for him! Because it said, “Musician/Laborer.” I wanted Arianna Huffington, but she dropped out. But then I saw this, “Jack Grisham! I know this guy,” and it said, “Musician/Laborer,” and I said, “That’s the greatest, I’m voting for him.”
By Dusted Magazine