Mike Watt - "History Lesson, Pt. 2"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Mike Watt of Minutemen.

"History Lesson, Pt. 2"

Artist: Minutemen
Writer: Mike Watt
Album: Double Nickels on the Dime
Year: 1984
Label: SST
I always refer to 1984's "History Lesson, Pt. 2" from Minutemen's classic double album Double Nickels on the Dime as the song with the saddest riff in the world. One day after playing back a mixtape I made I noticed how perfectly it segued into the Byrds version of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." The song's writer, bass player Mike Watt, even name checks Dylan, saying, "This is Bob Dylan to me. My story could be his songs." He also name checks punk icons, Richard Hell, John Doe, and Joe Strummer, while paying homage to his pal, guitarist D. Boon. The opening line "Our band could be your life" was later used by writer Michael Azzerrad for his 2001 book on the Indie rock scene of 1980-1990. He called Watt to ask for permission to use it. "I thought it was good that Michael was writing a book about that period, so I said, sure," Watt said. "I mean, up to that time they went from Sex Pistols to Nirvana and they didn't talk about anything in between and here's Black Flag, who built that whole circuit we still tour on."

The song was part of the soundtrack for the 2004 movie Levelland, one of the closing songs in the documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, a lynchpin moment in the 2011 documentary A History Lesson Part I: Punk Rock In Los Angeles In 1984. Lately the Hold Steady performed it live in L.A., changing the lyrics slightly to reflect their own band, their own life, their own story.

One of a handful of tunes to top the two minute mark in an album that is universally regarded as one of Indie rock's crowning achievements, Watt said most people still misunderstand the song.

"The meaning is like, I'm going to tell the story of this band and show you guys that we're not elitist over you, but I never really heard the meaning of the song described to me like I wrote it. It means something different to other people. What I always get from fans it that it's a true friendship song. That's what people tell me. And it did come out of my friendship with D. Boon. And I was even using that for an example. But in a way it was also like an ode to the scene. Nowadays, when people talk about the old days, I don't say scene. I say movement. Because I really believed it was. I don't believe the Minutemen would have even existed without that movement."
Mike Watt:
On Punch Line (the band's 1981 debut album) there's a song called "History Lesson." It's a nightmare song. It's about human slaughtering over power and money. I was thinking, well, maybe there's another kind of history, too, about this crazy scene. You've got to understand, punk in the US in those days was this tiny scene. But we were so involved in it, it seemed important. So this was a history lesson. I guess when you write a song, you don't want it to be too generic. You want to put feeling and something human in it. As a lyric it just came right out. Usually I start with the title and when I got the title, I got the focus. The music track was a little different for me, because I wrote it on the guitar not on bass. Even in those days I didn't do it that much. We had just played in Europe with Black Flag for our first tour over there and we were listening to a lot of Velvet Underground. There was a song of theirs called "Here She Comes Now" that influenced the music part. The words don't have anything to do with the Velvet Underground, though. The words came out of reading the fanzine Flipside in the early '80s, where people would write in letters. From reading some of those letters I got kind of a feeling that Minutemen were in a strange place.

We learned punk in Hollywood during the '70s. Minutemen started in January of '80. So when we started really playing gigs as Minutemen by that time a lot of those '70s punk people were into glitter and glam and artist types. And a lot of them stopped going to gigs. You didn't really have a lot of teenagers in '70s punk. And then it moved to the suburbs and that's where hardcore came from. So the Minutemen are strange because we have a foot in each world. So anyway, this stirred up the people writing letters to Flipside saying we were "posers," right? You know, these guys are posers; us and a band called TSOL. They were from the hardcore scene. You can understand the perceptions of young people. When you're young there's a lot of peer pressure in who I'm supposed to like. Any time someone gets a little too popular, they're always considered posers.

So, in "History Lesson Pt. II" I was commenting on this thing where even though Minutemen was kind of from a different world from these young hardcore people, we weren't old men yet. I think I was 25 years old when I wrote that song, but you know when you're younger, five or eight years is a big jump. A high school guy and a guy in his mid 20s, big difference. When you get down the road, there's no difference at all hardly. But in those days and in that time period, it was big. So I was trying to say, the way I looked at the aesthetics of this punk scene, there's not a lot of difference between us, except some stylistic things, which is natural, because we've all got different kinds of expression. But that's okay. I was trying to use the example of how I got into music, which was to be with my friend. I wasn't even a musician. I just wanted to be with my friend. One way was by playing music. I had D. Boon sing the words, so he changed them around to 'me and Mike Watt,' cause otherwise it would have sounded stupid.

'70s punk was a reaction against people who went to arena rock shows. They'd never even been to clubs, except maybe some of this glitter and glam stuff. The Ramones started it all off. And that became the paradigm for hardcore. But I would say for us it was a little more hard rock. The Ramones didn't play so much with the Eddie Van Halen kind of guitar. Some of those guys played like that in the hardcore bands, or were moving towards that. Actually, the Ramones provoked a whole bunch of crazy shit, too, like Devo and No Mercy, a San Francisco band that was just a singer and a drummer. And Zev. He was one guy who just beefed up pieces of metal hanging on ropes. Anything you could get away with, right? The Ramones had a huge influence on us. They got us to play faster and faster. They did these slam dancing shows. They liked that. Fast, fast. You listen to the other '70s punk, it ain't really that fast like the younger people got it to go. And arena rock bass was like the bottom of the totem pole. It's like right field, where you put your worst player in Little League, where nobody hits the ball. So I had an insecurity thing about that. And then I found out about Richard Hell and the Voidoids and this guy not only was a trippy bass player, but he wrote the songs for his band. And so I put a picture of him on my bass in 1977 when I got that record, and it was like I didn't want to copy him exactly, but he was an inspiration to me. And so I was saying in the song that's the way many moments are in the healthiest manifestation. You're inspired, you bounce off, you don't just become clones or an army or a mindless herd or something. You're all connected in a way, but it's to inspire each other.

What really blew our mind about the punk scene was these people, who you could tell were just learning and stuff, but they sang words, like if you talked to them, you could tell it was very personalized. Even the bands we didn't see, when we heard them English records with their accents and their slang, it wasn't just trying to use the cool rock and roll words. They were using music for personal expression. We were very influenced by that. There was one English band called the Pop Group, that put Captain Beefheart with Parliament. And we were thinking, you know what, bands like the Stooges and Beefheart were already playing punk and nobody had given it a name yet. Beefheart was definitely an influence. We got to see them play live. The Doc at the Radar Station tour. He was a tripper. His music has still got a big blues influence. It's rooted in something. With slide guitar and a kind of Howlin' Wolf voice. It's a trippy mixture. There was another English band called Wire that had an album called Pink Flag, which had little songs. That gave us the idea of little songs. I mean, really little. And in the form, too, where you didn't have to have chorus/verse/chorus. They were really instrumental in opening or knocking that door down for us. I'd never really written about the scene that much. Usually, our thing was more like thinking out loud. That's what we called our technique. What's ever on your mind, you're going to just start talking about. But in "History Lesson, Pt. 2" I was actually talking to those younger guys, the younger punk guys in a way, saying we don't look down on you.

The album, Double Nickels, was inspired by the Hüskers, you know. We had an album done and ready to go. They didn't have a title for it yet, but the Hüskers came to town and recorded Zen Arcade. And we go, Wow, they made a double album, we should do that, too. So we wrote a whole bunch of songs and recorded another album and put them together. We couldn't really have a concept as much, except this idea that Sammy Hagar couldn't drive 55 miles an hour. You know, that stupid thing. "We'll drive the speed limit and we'll try to play crazy music." The album still sells. The documentary, We Jam Econo, came out in 2005 and that revived a whole bunch of interest in us. The guys who made it were too young to even see us. So this documentary's kind of the story of them finding out about us by talking to people who were there. I agreed to it because they were genuine in their feelings. But also I thought it was a way of paying back the scene, because I wasn't trying to say Minutemen was the best band of those days, but I thought if younger people saw bozos like us making a band, then anybody could try to make one. Because that's what the scene did for us, it empowered us. You could see that these guys did it and are trying it. Why don't we try it? To me that's the story of the Minutemen and of a lot of the bands from that scene. Buddies getting together, no matter what the style. You understand, we didn't really believe punk was a style of music. That was more up to the band. But the scene was more like a kind of state of mind, a style of living, a set of ethics. I don't know. It was about people who couldn't fit in with the other people.

Ultimately, I guess, the song is a eulogy for D. Boon. He got killed in that car wreck a year later. I couldn't even listen to Minutemen for a long time after that. I didn't listen to Minutemen until I was asked to help make that documentary, because it would make me sad whenever I'd hear it. But during the filming, they wanted me to drive them around town and do history stuff and go through the album. I was like, whoa I kind of like these little things. Man, I want to try this again. So I kind of used Minutemen format for my 2010 rock opera Hyphenated Man. The last part is called "Wheel Bound Man" and it's in the "History Lesson, Pt. 2" vein. Maybe not a lot, but in some ways. I've done three rock operas now. Stuff I never, ever thought I would be doing, but it just seemed like I couldn't say what I wanted to say about those things in two minutes or less. Actually, the first one, Contemplating the Engine Room, is about the Minutemen.

But Double Nickels is probably the best record I've ever played on. I didn't realize it while we were making it. Maybe it took until a year later when we tried to make Three Way Tie. Then it was like, whoa. The way we were thinking was hills and valleys. People that are around for a while, the journey's full of valleys. But we realized when we were making Three Way Tie what an intense record Double Nickels was. That was definitely a hill, we thought. That was a peak of ours. And now looking back even more so. But what can you do about that? You get put on the path. The worst thing to do is stop trying. So I just keep trying. I'm about to leave on a tour next week; I think it's my 66th tour. I've been doing this for 32 years, so I keep trying. Even though it ain't the same. It can't be the same because D. Boon ain't there.

October 26, 2012.
For more on Mike Watt, check out Mike Watt's Hoot Page.

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Comments: 1

  • Vanessa from Halifax, CanadaGreat article! I always enjoy hearing from Mike Watt and this album is so very dear to my heart. In fact, I'm listening to it right now :)
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