If you don’t believe me you can ask John Doe
’Cause his heart is made of glory, his voice is made of gold
He’ll tell you in a minute about the men he knows
He’ll tell you about a band called fIRE-HOOOOOOSE!
—Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Good Time Boys,” from Mother’s Milk (1989)
fIREHOSE was hardly the most unlikely band to sign to a major label during the great alt-rock gold rush of the early ’90s. True, bandleader/bassist Mike Watt was something of a leftist firebrand during his days with beloved early-’80s art-punk act the Minutemen, but with fIREHOSE, he was less ornery, lyrically and musically. Watt didn’t shy away from politics in his middle age, but he, drummer George Hurley (another former Minuteman) and guitarist/singer Ed Crawford seemed more interested in pumping out catchy, funky rock songs, meant to get crowds moving. In other words, the band was a solid fit with what the major labels of that era were up to, and in some ways, it was more mainstream than many of its contemporaries.
Still, whenever fIREHOSE toured—which it typically did twice a year, in the spring and the fall—Watt would tell any fan who asked about the band’s recording plans that the albums were secondary to the shows. He said the same in an interview with Billboard: “Most bands tour to promote records. We make records to promote tours.” So it was somewhat surprising to find out that Watt cared enough about fIREHOSE’s albums to leave the cozy confines of his longtime label SST for the sake of Columbia Records’ promotional push. And now, the band’s complete Columbia discography is available on a double-disc Sony Legacy set, lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology (’91-’93), which is surprising yet again, given that fIREHOSE never did become a critical or commercial sensation.
I was a devoted fIREHOSE fan for the band’s entire run, both on SST and Columbia. I was too young to see the Minutemen while they were still around—though not too young to feel devastated when frontman D. Boon died in a traffic accident—and I never lost that sense of awe whenever I got to see Watt and Hurley up close, even though a large part of Watt’s appeal was the way he shrugged off that kind of hero worship. I saw fIREHOSE every time the band rolled through Athens, Georgia while I was in college, and even made the trip up to Atlanta to catch them a couple of times. Watt always stuck around after a show to talk with fans and sling merch. Once I tagged along with a friend who’d been assigned to interview Watt for a fanzine, and when we walked backstage about two hours before showtime, my friend shouted “Watt!”, and the man himself walked out of the shadows, shook our hands firmly, and sat right down to chat with us for about half an hour, even though he probably had no idea why we were there.
True to Watt’s philosophy that the tours were his bread and butter, fIREHOSE’s albums were rarely anything special. lowFLOWs contains what’s easily the band’s best record, 1991’s Flyin’ The Flannel, which features a beefier sound thanks to Boston-based alt-rock super-producer Paul Q. Kolderie, along with some of fIREHOSE’s most fan-friendly, road-tested songs: “Down With The Bass,” “Up Finnegan’s Ladder,” “Can’t Believe,” “The First Cuss,” “Toolin’,” and more. The Sony set also includes the J. Mascis-produced 1993 follow-up Mr. Machinery Operator, which also sounds good and full, but suffers from a scanter selection of standout tracks. (Mr. Machinery Operator’s “Blaze” is a kick, though, and the album-opening “Formal Introduction” always killed live, if only for the way Watt shouted, “The way I like to screw? Screw loose!”) lowFLOWs is rounded out with EPs, live cuts, and bonus tracks to make for a nice package, overall. Now it’d be nice if someone—Merge, perhaps?—could do the same with fIREHOSE’s three SST albums, which at the least need a decent remastering.
Although to be honest, there are limits to what a clean-up can do for those early records, which each sport some terrific songs, stymied by largely punchless production. As a carryover from the Minutemen days of “jamming econo,” fIREHOSE recorded and mixed albums quickly, not always stopping to make sure everyone hit all the notes or sung on-key. When it comes to SST’s output, I often recall what Robert Christgau wrote about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade: “It was certainly groovy (not to mention manly) to record first takes and then mix down for forty hours straight, but sometimes the imperfections this economical method so proudly incorporates could actually be improved upon. It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.”
This is partly why fIREHOSE never received the kind of critical attention Minutemen did. The Minutemen were brilliant, eclectic, witty, and wise, and when D. Boon died, the beanpole proletariat Watt and preternaturally talented surfer boy Hurley lost their burly, charismatic counterbalance. So rather than trying to replace Boon with someone as strong, they gave a break to devoted Minutemen fan Ed “fROMOHIO” Crawford, a likeable youngster with a sweet voice, a jangly college-rock sensibility, and the kind of ambition that led him to write guitar parts for himself that he lacked the skill to play. Live, the trio was a hoot, but on record, the band’s weaknesses were exposed. Every time a new fIREHOSE album came out—even the mostly great Flyin’ The Flannel—I was always disappointed at how the songs I’d loved in concert could sound so thin and sloppy.
That’s a rite of passage for most music fans, I think: experiencing the moment of letdown when a band we cherish puts out a record we don’t like as much as we’d hoped, even though we loved every song on it when we heard them live. This happened to me a lot in high school and college, when I first started going to shows, and seeing local bands. Thanks to college radio and the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out, I already knew a lot about the Atlanta/Athens music scene before I attended UGA, and it was initially a thrill to see to some of these bands in person. But I quickly discovered the downside. My first week at UGA, I went to see Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ three nights in a row, months before the band’s third album, Mystery Road, was released, and as righteous as “Honeysuckle Blue” sounds on that album, it’ll never match the first three times I heard that song, at each of those September 1988 Athens gigs. (Incidentally, the opening act for one of the Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ shows was an up-and-coming local folk duo called Indigo Girls, and say what you will about that band, but hearing “Closer To Fine” for the first time in a crowded club was a real thrill.)
For someone raised on radio, the demystification process of going to rock clubs could be as melancholy as it was enlightening. It’s an experience that Mike Watt himself has talked about. Whenever he describes the origins of the Minutemen, Watt typically recalls sitting around with D. Boon, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blue Öyster Cult, Funkadelic, and Ornette Coleman, along with The Germs and The Voidoids; and how when they drove up from San Pedro to see punk rock shows during the heyday of the Los Angeles scene, it was a revelation to see that the musicians responsible for some of his favorite records were just ordinary dudes. The lesson Watt learned: Anyone with access to a few bucks and the right materials could put out an album.
Of course, that was all well and good for someone who lived so close to the action. But in my little suburban Tennessee bedroom, it wasn’t the “anyone can do it” aspect of the Minutemen’s music that appealed to me; it was the uniqueness. One of the only items I ever ordered from the SST catalogue was the cassette compilation The 7 Inch Wonders Of The World, which brought together early EPs and singles by the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Overkill, and Würm. When I went out to all-age hardcore matinees (another rite of passage for many young music fans), I was frequently bored by the repetitiveness of raw aggression. But records like the Minutemen’s Paranoid Time and Meat Puppets’ In A Car allowed space for poetry, experimentation, playfulness, and lyricism, and helped convince me there was a place in punk for those of us who liked The Band and Steely Dan as well as The Clash and X. In addition to lowFLOWs and the accompanying fIREHOSE tour, Mike Watt is publishing a book of photography and tour diaries next month under the title On And Off Bass, but what’s wonderful about Watt is that he could’ve published artsy nature pictures and prose poems in his mid-20s, and it wouldn’t have been out of character. He’s always been a booster of personal expression, no matter the mode or medium.
That’s why it’s a shame that he shortchanged himself when it came to fIREHOSE. The music on lowFLOWs is mostly good, but it’s only a faint echo of what it was like to see the band in person, and to hear Watt laying down a line of G-droppin’ Watt-spiel between songs. fIREHOSE’s curt little funk-jazz-pop-punk concoctions really came to life onstage, strung together in 90-minute sets that featured Watt puffing and bobbing like a cartoon steam engine, Hurley hitting a variety of percussion instruments in the proper succession, and Crawford struggling to keep up, in a way that was charmingly human. By comparison, the records were diminished: like Polaroid snapshots of a national monument.