Graded on a Curve: Minutemen,
“Project Mersh”

Well, I can cross another item off my bucket list. I got busted this past weekend, and shoved handcuffed into the backseat of a Pennsylvania State Police car, and it was thrilling in a traumatic way, even more thrilling than the first time I heard the Minutemen’s “Paranoid Chant” off SST’s 1983 compilation LP, The Blasting Concept. I was in Boston where a friend put it on, and I can’t describe the wonderment of that moment, because I’d never heard anything like “Paranoid Chant” before, and it left me hungry for more.

Which is more than I can say about my run in with the state trooper, who said I was driving erratically. I wanted to tell him I always drive erratically, and in fact do everything erratically, but he gave every indication of not having a sense of humor. Why, he even refused my request to take a photo of me in cuffs. I even offered to let him use my cell phone to take it.

But back to the Minutemen. They were the quirkiest post-punk band ever, musically speaking, what with their off-kilter time signatures, jagged edges, unusual song structures, and funk and jazz influences. They had about as much in common with such by-the-numbers hardcore bands as SSD as Miles Davis did with KC and The Sunshine Band. Throw in some really cool lyrics (guitarist and vocalist D. Boon’s frequently addressed political concerns, while bassist and vocalist Mike Watt’s were often opaque and indecipherable “spiels”) and the Minutemen quickly established themselves as the best post-punk trio in business.

I still think their 1984 double LP Double Nickels on the Dime is one of the top five LPs recorded during the eighties, and I would happily review it were it not for the fact that it’s 45 songs long, a feat made possible by the fact that most of its songs clock in at a minute and change. Plenty of people think this is why they called themselves The Minutemen but they’re wrong; Watt has stated that the name was taken from Colonial America’s minutemen militia, or a poke at the 1960’s far-right-fringe militia The Minutemen, or both.

San Pedro’s Minutemen (which in addition to Boon and Watt included George Hurley on drums, backing vocals, and miscellaneous instruments including the trumpet) were formed in 1980 in the aftermath of the breakup of their previous band, The Reactionaries. Mike Watt tells the band’s story better than I ever could in Double Nickels’ great “History Lesson Part 2,” in which Boon famously sings that anyone can be a punk musician (“Our band could be your life”), describes the long-time friendship between Boon and Watt (“We learned punk rock in Hollywood/Drove up from Pedro/We were fucking corndogs/We’d go drink and pogo”), and finally spells out the band’s influences (“Our band is scientist rock/But I was E. Bloom and Richard Hell/Joe Strummer and John Doe/Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar”). It’s a moving song, and you should listen to it.

The Minutemen spent their tragically truncated career on Greg Ginn’s SST label, although they briefly recorded a single under Joe Carducci’s Thermidor label and some “product” under their own New Alliance label. Those were the days when I lived on an almost all-SST diet, and grew strong, and stayed as drunk as possible, and the Minutemen were the best of the bunch—the most avant garde musically; the most incendiary politically (with the exception of the Dead Kennedys, who weren’t on SST and besides never moved me); and the most down to earth. You just knew that if you met these guys, you’d like them. They adopted no poses, came from the wrong side of the tracks and were proud of it, and were funny to boot. They may not have been as funny as early Black Flag, which put out hilarious anti-alcohol tunes like “Six Pack” and “TV Party”—which sounded great when you were shit-faced—but that Black Flag disappeared after Henry Rollins took over as front man and the band made a fatal turn towards DC-style earnestness, to say nothing of “flex your head” machismo.

But on to 1985’s “Project Mersh”. That “mersh” is Minuteman speak (they had their own lingo for everything) for “commercial,” and the EP was a lark of sorts, a The Who Sell Out for the post-punk set. But that’s not the only reason it’s the odd man out in the Minutemen discography. First, its songs are much longer than your typical Minutemen fare—”Project Mersh”’s closing track is almost as long as their entire 1980 debut EP, “Paranoid Time,” which had six songs on it. In addition, “Project Mersh” included songs with traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. And the trio even employed a synthesizer and fade-outs! And a trumpet! (To be fair, they’d used a trumpet before. But still! A trumpet!)

Not surprisingly, purists declined to buy it, although I wasn’t one of them. That said I must have played it less than their earlier releases, because I completely forget, listening to it again after many years, that it includes a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama.” The Minutemen always loved their covers, and over the course of their career recorded songs by the likes of Van Halen, Steely Dan, Meat Puppets, the Urinals, Blue Öyster Cult, Roky Erickson, and no less than three songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival. If I missed any covers, I apologize. At the time it seemed radical, putting covers of Van Halen and Steely Dan on a post-punk LP, and in a totally non-ironic context yet. But the Minutemen loved the songs they covered and didn’t give a shit what their audience thought. They weren’t afraid to proudly wear their influences on their sleeves.

“Project Mersh” turned out to be the band’s final EP before D. Boon died in a tragic van accident in December 1985, putting an end to the Minutemen forever. It opens with D. Boon’s “The Cheerleaders,” a remarkably straightforward protest song by Minutemen standards that includes a guy named Crane (not Bob Crane, I don’t think) on trumpet. And it works! Especially on the savage choruses, in which Boon makes it clear we all bear responsibility for the crimes the United States commits in our names: “Can you hear them when they call your name?/Can you count the lives they will take?/Do you have to see the body bags?/Before you make a stand?” Poor idealistic D. Boon: thinking he could change the world through song. The only way of changing the world is by destroying it, and odds are the New World will be worse than the old one. Still, I think we should destroy this world just for the hell of it. “King of the Hill” follows in the protest strain, but is faster and more of a “typical” Minutemen tune. It too includes Crane on trumpet, which is especially prominent on the choruses (“I can’t believe it all/Was good for humankind/And I have to read the lies/Between the lines”), the second of which is followed by a brief but very cool guitar solo. The song then slows for a brief instrumental break, with Watt’s bass standing out, before the band kicks back into overdrive and fades out.

Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama” is a surprising cover for the Minutemen, but then so is Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu,” so that’s that. It opens at a breakneck pace, only to be interrupted by a very slow chorus with group vocals. The vocals of the verses are mostly spoken, with D. Boon following each stanza with “It’s all right, hey lawdy mama, it’s all right.” Following the second chorus the band goes into a funky groove, with Boon playing one whale of a guitar solo that finally makes way for some droning noise and another fade out. At 2:44 “Take Our Test” would stand out like “Green Grass and High Tides” (a little Outlaws reference for all you hillbilly readers) on your typical Minutemen LP; here it’s the shortest song on the record. It’s a fast-paced and melodic number with a nice guitar figure, and could be a pop tune, it’s that catchy, if it weren’t for the speech Mike Watt delivers (“And when reality appears digital/And the big hankering cometh/I’ll vote yes for life in the big choice poll/I’ll be glad I did”) about halfway through the song, and lyrics like, “Your mind/Organized by Nazis/Your heart and mind conspiring.” The Minutemen test is simple; all you have to do is open your eyes to the nightmare occurring all around you. As for “Take Our Test,” it closes on a lovely note, with D. Boon repeating the phrase, “Forever with you/Ever without you” while behind him Watt repeats, “Take our test.”

As for “Tour-Spiel,” it comes in at a lengthy 2:45, and is probably my favorite song on the EP. A raw and balling rock’n’roller with a mean guitar riff, it’s a song about life on the road, and covers the band’s collective stench (“Now when we took me and D. Boon’s/And George’s stench/And put them up on stage/We’d fight at practice/Then jam econo/And spout the tour-spiel”) as well as the pressure to come up with new material (“Now you got your guitar/And your practice amp/You travel the USA in a van/And Troccoli’s [i.e., SST employee and front man for Tom Troccoli’s Dog] counting on some situation/Are you going to write the song I demand?”) It even covers Mike Watt’s disappointing dream life (“I dreamed I was E. Bloom/But woke up Joe Bouchard/In some town out on the road”) and comes complete with a great Boon guitar solo. As for “More Spiel,” it’s just a jam based on the previous tune’s chorus, and opens with that trumpet sounding an awakening while Boon shreds on guitar before hitting an ecstatic series of notes, after which the band repeats “Tour spiel” over and over and over again, while Boon plays the fuck out of his guitar—he’s certainly not jamming econo on this one—and Crane’s trumpet comes in and out along with ex-Blue Cheer keyboardist Ethan James’ synthesizer, and I swear there’s something sad in there, something sweet and tragic and angelic, that makes me think of Boon’s approaching death, because to be an angel you have to be dead.

Or perhaps it’s just my imagination. What isn’t my imagination is this: while definitely not the Minutemen’s best release, “Project Mersh” is an excellent EP that demonstrates the trio had range and weren’t afraid to deviate from their “sound” lest they piss off their core audience, because as they entitled one of their songs, the roar of the masses could be farts. Sure,”Project Mersh” has an atrocious cover, but that’s really the only thing wrong with it, although if I were King of the Hill I’d have swapped out “Hey Lawdy Mama” for either Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu” or their brilliant take on Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black.”

Mike Watt may have dreamed he was Eric Bloom only to discover he was Joe Bouchard, but Bouchard was no slouch on the bass, and to return to the beginning of this snake-eating-its-own-tail of a review, being Joe Bouchard beats the hell out of sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car.

Three more things before I go. First, I’m innocent! Second, listen to this album! And third, be sure to listen to Double Nickels on the Dime first!


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