fIREHOSE
Ragin’ Full On
SST Records

The Minutemen ended with the tragic death of legendary frontman and guitarist D. Boon, on 22 December 1985.  The rear axle in the Minutemen’s van broke on the highway back to San Pedro, CA (their hometown) from Arizona.  D. Boon was asleep in the back.  He was hurled from the van.  He died instantly.  Remaining members Mike Watt and George Hurley were devastated.  Destroyed. Watt, in particular, was beyond himself with grief.  He lost his will to play music.  He and D. Boon had come up together, learned to play guitar together, had been best friends since they were kids in Pedro.

Then this kid in Ohio, Ed Crawford, originally known as eDFROMOHIO, was told, falsely, by Camper van Beethoven, that Watt and Hurley were auditioning a new guitarist.  Crawford found Watt’s number in the phone book.  Watt was not interested.  Then Hurley showed up, unannounced, in Pedro.  He begged Watt for a chance to audition.  Eventually, Watt and Hurley gave in.  Crawford played a few Who and a few Minutemen songs.  Watt and Hurley were blown away by Crawford’s enthusiasm.  They decided to give it a go.  Crawford relocated permanently, sleeping under a desk in Watt’s one-bedroom apartment.  The new band got its name from Bob Dylan, who held up a cue card that said ‘firehose’ in the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video.  It was sylized fIREHOSE as a tribute to the Minutemen, who were stylized in all-caps: MINUTEMEN.  Watt has dedicated every bit of music he has played and/or written since to the memory of D. Boon.

Ragin’ Full On is their first album, released in late 1986.  It shows a remarkable continuity with the Minutemen, most notably in Crawford’s guitar.  Like D. Boon, he played with the treble and reverb cranked up and the bass cranked down.  I love the Minutemen.  D. Boon’s death, I remember. I had first heard the Minutemen in 1985, in the fall, not long before the end.  I was hooked.  I loved D. Boon’s passion, his voice, his guitar, unlike so much I had heard to that point. Watt’s bass played and toyed with the rhythm, independent from Hurley’s drums.  Hurley is, for my money, one of the greatest drummers in the punk/post-punk genres.

But, at the same time, Ragin’ hints at a new direction.  Crawford’s voice (as he took over vocals) was much higher pitched than D. Boon’s.  He had greater range.  The songs on Ragin’ were written by various combinations of the members, plus Kira Roessler, Watt’s wife and the, by then, former bassist for Black Flag.  And they were amazing.

I don’t know where I first came across fIREHOSE, but it was sometime in 1987, and so I’m guessing it was on UBC’s CiTR station; I know it wasn’t Muchmusic.  But I do remember the song.  It was the first track off Ragin’, ‘Brave Captain.’  All these years later, this remains one of my favourite tracks.  Beginning in a squall of angular guitar, Watt and Hurley join the party.  Watt’s bass flows up and down the scales and Hurley provides one of his greatest drum tracks, stuttering and rolling.  Crawford sings about the poor captain and his travails:

Captain, there are doubts
Regarding
Your ability
To lead them.
The men
Lead them
There are doubts in your ability
There’s too many blanks in your analogies.
Lieutenant there is talk
Pertaining interpretations
The problems
Describe them.
Problems
There are doubts in your ability
There’s too many blanks in your analogies.
The enemy turns captain
The captain turns civilian
The lieutenant becomes casualty
The lieutenant becomes casualty.
The enemy turns captain
And the captain turns civilian
The lieutenant becomes casualty
The lieutenant becomes casualty.
There are doubts in your ability
There’s too many blanks in your analogies
There’s too many doubts in your ability
There’s too many blanks
In your analogies.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve listened to Ragin’ in the past 34 years.  It took a long time to get a copy.  SST albums were hard to find in Vancouver in the late 80s, though I had found some Sonic Youth and Screaming Trees.  I did have a copy of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade.  But that was more luck than anything at the old Track Records on Seymour Street.  I don’t think it was until 1989 or 1990, in a trip to that strip of Seymour St., that I finally found Ragin’ just casually filed away in the cassettes section at A&B Sound.  I think I squeed in joy at finally finding it.
Since then, I have gone through periods when I listen to this album a lot, like several time a week.  And I have periods where I don’t listen to it for six months.  But, generally, I play it a lot. Still.  I’ve been on a big Minuteman kick lately, blasting their entire discography.  And so eventually that led me to fIREHOSE.
The third track is a classic of early fIREHOSE, jazzed out bass and drums, and Crawford’s scattershot guitar.  As with D. Boon, there is no bass in Crawford’s guitar.  It is all treble and reverb as it slides around.  That feeds directly into ‘Chemical Wire,’ which sees Watt join Crawford to fuzz out the guitars now and then.  But it is Watt’s bass that is the lead on this song (and damn near all songs on Ragin’).
fIREHOSE were not as overtly political as the Minutemen were, though I think this was a conscious effort on the part of Watt and Hurley.  At least, they weren’t at the outset.  By the turn of the decade, fIREHOSE had gained a political stance.  The lyrics on this album, whomever wrote them, were also more abstract than had been the case with the Minutemen.  Even the occasional political song on the album.
‘On Your Knees’ opens with an acoustic guitar, before Crawford plugs in and is joined by Watt and Hurley.  Here, as on other songs, the greater range of Crawford’s voice as compared to D. Boon, allows the band to stray wider and further from the hardcore roots of Watt and Hurley.  There is no real way to categorize early fIREHOSE.  They were on their own.  And ‘On Your Knees’ is one of those oblique political tracks, written by Crawford and Hurley:
A political contribution
Like the weeds in a garden
Eyesore for the future
Can you take my pardon?
Savage or a saint?
Automation has trances
In my working state
Think I got a chance
I’ve been on my knees
Better get on your knees
Your knees your knees your knees get down on your knees
You better get down on your knees.
‘Locked-In’ is almost pretty, between the soft sway of Watt’s bass and the almost jangly nature of Crawford’s guitar.  And this is the song with this beautiful bass solo from Watt that remains, to this day, one of my favourite passages in rock’n’roll.  It’s this supercharged rock bit, with Hurley riding the cymbal, and it takes the song out.
Crawford’s ‘Choose Any Memory’ is one of my favourites from this album.  There’s even this part where fIREHOSE almost sound like REM with backing vocals from Watt and Hurley.
Enough today
Too long silent
Please send a feeling
Think me a thought
Gone too far again
To no surprise (no surprise of mine)
Direct stellar contact
Wait for dark (waiting for dark)
Hear me! hear me!
I sometimes know.
It felt so near
Don’t close sad eyes
Choose any memory
Gone too far again
To no surprise (no surprise of mine)
Direct stellar contact
Wait for dark (waiting for dark)
Hear me! hear me! hear me! hear me!
‘Perfect Pairs’ is close to a perfect song.  It was one of my first favourite song songs on the album when I first got my hands on it.  It begins with a simple riff from Crawford before Watt’s bass, playing a descent and Hurley’s drum rolls, join in.  I love this bit of the song.  The lyrics are a continuation of ‘Choose Any Memory,’ a song about a failed relationship.
With the message comes pain
With the dreams come sadness
With the emptiness comes reality
Staring me in the eye.
With the contact comes questions
With the love comes pain
With confusion comes the hate
Clear as a bell.
With the time comes the answer
With the knowledge comes the end.
With the conclusion comes the sanity
(Just a little bit too late).
There’s this bit in the song, after the band break it down for the lyrics ‘With the time comes the answer/With the knowledge comes the end,’ that the song explodes into a fury, drawing on the emotional resonance of the lyrics (though Crawford sounds more resigned than anything in singing them).  All three musicians hammer into their instruments and Crawford essentially plays this wicked guitar solo, all at the high register of the guitar, and then we carry onto the end.
And then that is followed by ‘This…’, just Crawford and his acoustic guitar, about perhaps the ideal for the misanthrope, the life in the woods, away from it all.  I fucking love this song:
This is my key
And I have seen
This is my cup
An eye on the land
This is my house
By the river
And a lonesome pine
Sighs resignThis is my land
And no one will stand
This is my hand
Without reserve
This is display
Sit mighty high
A way to learn
And a way to feel.

And then it’s over in one minute and forty-three seconds.
And we’re rocking on again.  And then we get to the last track, ‘Things Could Turn Around.’  But the question is what could turn around?  The song was written by Watt and Roessler, but Crawford sings it, as he sings all songs on the album.  Is Watt learning to deal with D. Boon’s death?  Is Crawford’s disintegrating relationship coming back together?  Is the United States, in the throes of the Reagan Era, imagining a better future?  Me, I think it’s the first.
Silence to regain composure
Or rather music to soothe
Maybe a little magic could help
Things could turn around
Freeze this mood for now
Hold tight till it thaws
Wetness pulled out of me
So I’ll cry less easilyA hasty decision
Hardly used
Jokingly punished

Icy fingers touch warmth
Trickles to the floor
Wetness pulled out of me
So I’ll cry less easily
Wetness pulled out of me
So I’ll cry less easily
Wetness pulled out of me
So I’ll cry less easily.

And then it’s over.  Fourteen songs.  Thirty-four minutes.  fIREHOSE jam econo, like the Minutemen.  And, of course, this is two-thirds of that band and a huge fan of that band.  I often wonder what it was like for Crawford in 1986, having convinced Watt and Hurley to carry on?  A fan with those of the greats of the hardcore era.  How did he keep his emotions in check?  How did he play it cool?
fIREHOSE carried on for eight years.  Over time, their sound changed, it hardened, it became more aggressive and moved far away from the Minutemen.  In many ways, they were like the great titans of new wave, New Order.  Their first album after the death of Joy Division frontman, Ian Curtis, Movement, sounded like it could’ve been Joy Division.  It took New Order time to find their legs in the wake of Curtis’ suicide.  Similarly, it took fIREHOSE time to find their legs.
But this album remains my favourite of theirs, by far.  It was a time and it was a place and it was an emotion and it was energy.  It is the wake of D. Boon’s death.  It is Watt and Hurley finding a way to carry on without him. It is Watt grieving his best friend (think back to ‘History Lesson,’ one of Watt’s songs on Double Nickelsas D. Boon sings:
Our band could be your life
Real names’d be proof
Me and mike watt played for years
Punk rock changed our lives.
We learned punk rock in Hollywood
Drove up from Pedro
We were fucking corn dogs
We’d go drink and pogo.
At the end of the song, the lyrics return to that, ‘Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar.’).  And because this was an album of a transitional time, of deep emotion, of mourning, and Crawford willing the other two men on, it is beautiful.  It is a tribute to D. Boon, but it is a tribute to finding the way and the will and the means to carry on when everything is dark and shitty.
I played this album a lot this week following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I think it’s obvious as to why.