I recently saw two films that through the story of a band or musician relate the greater story of the DIY scene of late 70’s early 80’s DIY American punk.
The first one was WE JAM ECONO. The Minutemen were my second favorite band of the indie American punk and I’ve often gone as far to say my third favorite American band of all time. A powerhouse trio who coupled funk Gang of Four/Wire bass to a clear guitar tone and stream of consciousness beatnik type lyrics to very pointed political statements. They made many great records especially their masterpiece DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME a double record with over 40 amazing songs.
This documentary, like their philosophy towards touring and recording which is summed up by their expression the WE JAM ECONO title, is stripped down no frills. It tells the story of how bassist/singer/songwriter Mike Watt met guitarist/singer/songwriter D Boon as kids when Boon jumped out of a tree onto Watt in their hometown of San Pedro, Ca. we hear about how they took up instruments encouraged by Boon’s mother and then had their eyes and ears opened by the first appearance of punk rock (“Punk rock changed our lives” as they sang in one of their most famous songs “History Lesson Part II”).
Recruiting local drummer George Hurley, they set about making records on the SST label and touring incessantly before Boon was killed in a tragic auto accident in 1985. The film treats Boon’s death much like it treats the details of The Minutemen’s life as band-straightforward with a minimum of sentiment although the scene with Watt, his lifelong friend who has honored Boon in every other project he has done since, where he states what a dark day that was and then stops speaking is emotional.
WHAT WE DO IS SECRET is a biopic about the late Darby Crash the singer for the punk band Germs who were peers of the Minutemen but were based closer to the action (clubs etc.) in Hollywood. They made one classic record GI, one of the first hardcore records and a real template for what as to follow before Crash’s heroin overdose death in 1980. Despite this being a film with the actors, the format is like a documentary with interviews with the real life characters and Darby (all played by actors). Again starting your own scene out of nothing and perhaps being a little bit freaky to begin with (being the school outcast) are the repeated elements here.
Of course, this being a movie as opposed to a documentary film, there is the desire to tell a dramatic story that would resonate with the average filmgoer (not someone who is freaky or the school outcast). The end result has been roundly criticized for its glamorous look. The actor playing Darby Crash looks like he just stepped out of an episode of 90210 (although he does a decent job of imitating Crash’s snarling vocal delivery). This lush filmmaking look doesn’t catch the smell of sweat or the feelings of tension in a punk club and I’ve never seen shooting up heroin look so clean before. In addition, the film also downplays Crash’s homosexuality leaving us the viewer to infer much of what is going on.
But what WHAT WE DO IS SECRET and WE JAM ECONO have in common is the idea of a community forming and out of that community comes a movement and that is do it yourself. Unfortunately music breeds a much more immediate and driven type of fandom. I am very DIY myself when it comes to my books and my writing. I have an independant publisher and do much of my own promotion. However, it’s much harder to build a community out of that. Still, on line is a different situation and I am making efforts there.