fIREHOSE was a band to watch from the first note they played. After D Boon’s death brought the Minutemen’s extraordinary run to a tragic, premature end at the end of 1985, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley forged ahead with a new trio, this one fronted by Ed Crawford, a young singer-guitarist who had appeared out of nowhere and knocked on Watt’s door saying “Let’s start a band!” Impressed by his audacity, the pair took him up on it and just months later, hit the ground running for an eight-year voyage.
But if their prior bands’ history ensured all eyes were on them, it also put them behind an enormous shadow, subject to inevitable comparisons. D Boon was just not a fantastic singer, writer and guitarist, he was a beloved persona. Even never having met him, the sight of this chubby, beer-drinking, working class guy in a white t-shirt and a shaved head, bounding around the stage like Pete Townshend, hollering “It’s not John Wayne in a movie!” had me on the floor the first time I saw footage of the band. I mean they were all cool looking, Hurley the stoic surfer dude, Watt blowing another gasket with every bass line, but D Boon was maybe the most likeable character in rock.
Crawford didn’t try to compete with that, just showed up and did his part with a smile. He had something entirely different to offer, and as the band matured, he emerged as a formidable personality.
Elise Thompson was there for their very first show, and remembers: “There was definitely some resistance to the idea of a new front man. But by the second show I saw – which was also one of the Henry Rollins Band’s first shows – I could see people were already more open to the experience.”
I didn’t get to see the band until the fall of 1987, by which time they had fully come into their own. Crawford had found his voice on the electric guitar and the group had built up enough of a repertoire that they did have to dip into their previous band’s catalog even once. And damn were they intense; they had to stop about fifteen seconds after they started because Watt had broken his E string on his very first note. He slipped a new one on in less time than it takes most dudes to tune, and they started up again.
That intensity rarely flagged as I continued to see them. One night at the Roxy, a beet-red Watt grabbed the mic and hollered “Is it any great secret to you people why I got a screaming need to fuck this machine?” before ripping into the intro of “What Gets Heard”, manhandling the bass as if trying to beat it to death. Crawford only gained confidence and capacity with the years. And George Hurley was Neil Peart for punk rockers, mind-blowingly good, relentlessly creative, effortlessly on top of the beat while dancing around the outside of it like a one-man drum corps.
By the time of their two releases for Columbia/ Sony in the early nineties, reissued this week as a 2-CD set entitled LowFLOWS: The Columbia Records Anthology (Legacy Recordings), the band were playing to a new audience, one that heard them on alternative rock radio, or saw them on bills with the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Jane’s Addiction. Flyin’ The Flannel and Mr. Machinery Operator are both fine records, equal or better than anything they did for SST. I tend to think of their career peaks as being a reverse bell curve, with Machinery Operator competing against the debut for the title of best fIREHOSE album. The high points – “Formal Introduction”, “Powerful Hankerin’“ and “Rocket Sled/ Fuel Tank” – are very high, and if the the J Mascis production seems a little aurally overexcited for band that usually works dry, the material is strong enough to compensate. I saw the band live quite a bit around the time they were writing and premiering these songs, and it was exciting to see them take shape before our eyes.
Both albums are fleshed out with additional tracks. The couple of studio rarities I hadn’t heard – instrumental mixes of a couple songs, an early reading of “Max And Wells” which appears in a superior version on Watt’s 1995 solo album Ballhog Or Tugboat? – are underwhelming. But the Live Totem Pole live EP, a collection of mostly covers recorded at North Hollywood’s Palomino in 1991, brings back memories of sweaty summer nights and more broken E strings. The live tracks from Machinery recorded for the Columbia Radio Hour in 1993 are pretty foaming, most memorable for the way Watt re-works the “fuck”-heavy lyrics of “Formal Introduction” into something appropriate for the radio, altering the cadences so “fuck” can transform into “sleep with”.
Elise got to see their first show, but I got to see their last one, a disastrously-planned and under-promoted benefit on a rainy night in Pedro, at a Warner Theater so undersold, they had the smattering of an audience stand on stage with the band. There were no warm fuzzy “we love you all so much, thanks for all the great years” spirits in sight, just sadness. It was the only time I saw the band under-perform. So the prospect of seeing them reunited and having that not be my last memory of them is exciting. No LA area date has been announced outside of the two weekends at Coachella, those without tickets can drive to Fresno or Frisco if they really want to.
We got to hang out at one of the group’s final rehearsals before their west coast stint kicks off on April 5 in Sacramento. While we promised not to reveal any safely-guarded secrets prior to opening night, we think it’s OK to reveal that they sound tight and strong, that most of the songs you would think absolutely have to get played are getting played, and that the list of songs we saw performed was written in the exact order those songs appear on their respective records. It promises to be a rip-roaring night out, a fond re-immersion in familiar territory for some of us, a chance for others to experience it new. As Watt often reminded his audience from the stage, “the only thing new is you findin’ out about it!”
See also: Beat Reader Contest – Win An Autographed Mike Watt Print, as well as our Spielgusher review.