What Makes a Man Start Fires?
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he most prized record in my own collection, without a doubt, is my copy of What Makes A Man Start Fires by the Minutemen.
I obtained the record – definitely one of the early pressings, if not the first – through SST’s mail order after reading about the album through a review in Trouser Press magazine. I was anxious to hear how this sounded, but my normally often-enlighted favorite record store at the time (Listening Booth, a store since assimilated by The Wall and then by the accursed FYE chain) didn’t have this particular record in stock at first, despite its being the place where I had bought Let Them Eat Jellybeans, Damaged and Plastic Surgery Disasters.
So, having already done one relatively quick turnaround of a mail order with SST for two Black Flag records (Jealous Again and TV Party), and wanting to get the Flag’s Everything Went Black album anyway, I walked a few blocks down to the convenience store, got a money order for however much both albums were, and sent it off with a business letter written the way I’d learned how to write business letters in ninth grade.
And I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. And got both frustrated and worried. I wondered what was up with SST. I didn’t know at the time that SST was being forced to move their physical office/warehouse/living quarters from place to place from time to time by the cops, something that would have Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski (and no doubt the rest of Black Flag) going all over Los Angeles Country looking for their opened incoming mail and their warehouse stock amongst friends and associates who had rescued SST’s property from wherever their office was last, every time they came off the latest Black Flag tour. It wasn’t until, I presume, Ginn and Dukowski came back from their latest post-tour rescue mission that someone got around to opening my order, stuffing my overdue copies of Everything Went Black and What Makes A Man Start Fires? into one of SST’s familiar package-mailing manila envelopes, writing my name and address on it, stamping the familiar SST address stamp in various places on said envelope, and taking it, along with other overdue orders, to the post office.
Needless to say, once that envelope landed on my feet one afternoon upon returning from school, I was relieved. I ran right upstairs and proceeded to enjoy both records. What Makes A Man Start Fires? especially knocked me on my ass. Even though the relative compexity of the Minutemen’s music intimidated me at first as a novice musician (one time when I was sick in bed, I had sat down and figured out the changes to almost every song on the legendary The Future Looks Bright cassette on my unplugged Fender Strat, but didn’t dare try to figure out the Minutemen’s songs on that tape), I did manage to figure out Mike Watt’s bass lines to “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs”.
What Makes A Man Start Fires? quickly became one of my favorite albums, something I would tape and re-tape for my Walkman a few times until SST issued the My First Bells tape (with all of the Minutemen’s pre-Double Nickels On The Dime output) in 1985.
A few years later, having graduated high school, started college, and began playing semi-professionally in local cover bands (Hazleton, PA, sadly, did not have a punk scene at the time, although there were quite a few enlightened record buyers most of them didn’t play instruments), with that My First Bells tape becoming one of my favorite road tapes, I got up the nerve to write Mike Watt and ask him a few questions about bass. In the process of his response, he told me that the bass he had used on What Makes A Man Start Fires? was the Fender Precision Bass he had bought from Derf Scratch after the latter musican had left Fear. This blew my mind in more ways than one. I’d seen Scratch pound on that bass on Casey Casem’s American Top Ten syndicated show, New Wave Theatre and of course, Saturday Night Live, so my immediate reaction was, “Holy shit! That bass is on two of my all time favorite records!”
Fast forward to August of 2001. I interviewed Watt over the phone for a now-defunct webzine. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned the letter from 1988, which I have had framed on the wall of my bedroom long since then, and got to tell him my reaction to his mentioning his using Derf’s old bass on What Makes A Man Start Fires?. After the interview proper, Watt gave me the tour dates for Pennsylvania that he had planned and I told him I’d see him, if not on the forthcoming Philadelphia date, then on the next one.
Unfortunately, a couple of holdups (9/11, then my grandmother passing, then my mother going in for heart surgery) held up some of those plans, but I did get to finally see and meet Watt for the first time in May of 2003 at the Khyber in Philadelphia. On a whim, I pulled out my then-21-year-old copy of What Makes A Man Start Fires?, left the vinyl record behind as a precuation (even though I had the album on CD) and took it with me to Philadelphia. Once in Philly, I saw Watt hanging out in his van, and got up the nerve to approach him. Damn, a guy I’d idolized since I was in high school, took for a bass role model when the drummer in one of the cover bands I was in was trying to lure me away from punk and into jazz fusion, and had talked to on the phone a few times was a mere few feet away from me. Yes, I was nervous. So nervous that I didn’t get up the nerve to ask him to sign my album cover. I figured I’d wait until after the show itself.
I’d gotten a hotel room around the corner from the Khyber, so I went there, hung out for a bit, had something to eat, and went to the Khyber around 8:30, album cover in hand. The album cover ended up being an icebreaker to a lot of the folks I was meeting in the bar part of the club – including Watt’s sidemen on this tour, organist Pete Mazich (who I’ve long since become friends with) and drummer Jerry Trebotic. It was either Pete or Jerry who had told me that “Watt likes to sign stuff for folks”, which left me much less nervous than I originally was.
Folks were handing out flyers for a few other musical things,and I was idly putting them into the album cover. They still remain there to this day.
When it was Watt’s time to perform (after great opening sets from An Albatross and Jai Alai Savant) I happened to be standing at Pete Mazich’s side of the stage, and Pete very kindly let me rest my album cover on top of his organ so that I wouldn’t have to hold it for the entire set. Once the show (a great one, of course) was over, I lined up with the rest of the folks looking to buy merch, get stuff signed, etc. After buying a shirt from Watt and giving him a bottle of “Holy Shit” hot sauce (Watt is a huge hot sauce fan), I asked him if he would sign my copy of What Makes A Man Start Fires? and he agreed by saying jovially, “Oh, you want me to write on this for ya?” Which he did: “Love and bass, Mike Watt”.
I returned the record to its newly-endorsed cover when I got home, but haven’t played it in that format since. I didn’t get a chance to do it before I got married in June of 2010, but one of these days, I’m getting the record framed.