Review Summary: An overlooked classic that recalls Mike Watt's life serves as both an emotionally powerful experience and window through which one can discover the glory of early hardcore.
With the right entry point, Contemplating the Engine Room is gem of the American Underground and a classic document covering an escape from the shackles of a home town, the joy and exuberance of finding your tribe, and the tragedy of a loved one’s death. Mike Watt tells the truth of both his father’s life, his relationship with punk rock, and D. Boon specifically, through the fictional tale of a day in the life of three Navy men. Listening beginning to end without interruption (the way the album was played throughout the tour), can provide a view into Watt’s life and his place in punk rock both factually and emotionally.
It was the heady days of Napster’s first generation. Suddenly, the casual music fan had virtually the entire discography of the previous century available to them at no cost, after a lifetime of being restricted by personal finances and the whims of their local (probably chain) record store. Prior to this revolution, I had just been getting into hardcore (Misfits via Metallica). A buddy of mine got Black Flag’s My War because Henry Rollins was on the Evilive version of “We Are 138,” but punk rock was still a lot of whispers and legends. “This is not a Fugazi shirt.” What did that mean? Keep in mind, this is pre-Wikipedia, Google was just coming up, and social media (let alone Sputnik) did not exist. Sure there was a lot of music information online at that point, but if you were looking for something outside of the mainstream it was not so easy. Eventually, I found my way to the touchstones of early 1980s hardcore, including Double Nickels on the Dime). Music. Life. Changed.
A month or two later, I was sitting in front of the TV. The theme for this new show called “Jackass” came on, and I was immediately taken aback by the first few notes. “That’s a Minutemen song!” Afterwards, I immediately checked out more about the Minutemen, D. Boon, and Mike Watt, and downloaded Contemplating the Engine Room.
It was a rock opera, or so I had read. That label puts me off a little, but I dove into it. Watt structures the narrative well so that it is easy to follow, while leaving enough space for the listener to find their own meaning. After the introductory song, the next few set the backstory for the record, including the one song that could be called “hardcore” (“Bluejacket’s Manual”).
The subsequent handful are tributes to specific people. The highlight of these mini-biographies is (as it should be) “The Boilerman,” the one for D. Boon. Nels Cline nails an all-time guitar solo to begin the song, using D. Boon’s own guitar. To say this song is heartfelt is an understatement (“Together with you I think we can make it,” “I love you man”). Simply stated? Yes, but the honest emotion is there. By my count, there are more than 25 people covered in these mid-record songs. Most of them in “Topsiders,” which served as perfect fodder for further exploration. The Kirkwoods? Who are they?
It should be mentioned that Watt uses atmospherics throughout the album. As the album progresses, their importance only increases along with the emotional weight of the songs. Knowing his father died at 51 and D. Boon at 27, one may expect this album to be a depressing slog, but it is not. The album does not even lean in that direction until the final three songs, but those songs cover the needed ground. The pain of accepting loss, lamenting unnecessary nature of an accidental death, and what a survivor is left with. Even the ending bassline can be viewed as having multiple emotion laden meanings.
These days, we can find the details of any noteworthy scene, band, or album with a couple of clicks. Debates about a song’s lyrics (though not their meaning) are a relic of the past, and while this record is more than 20 years old, it can still serve as an opening into a new world.