SAN PEDRO, A WORKING class enclave of Los Angeles, is a port district, one of the busiest in the United States. The waterfront, the commanding feature of the area, is the fulcrum of commerce and life. San Pedro is dominated by labor; it is not a place for leisure. For that, you have to leave the docks and go to Catalina Island. But beneath its rank and file seaside charm, San Pedro has a combustible underbelly that can be traced back almost to its annexation to the City of Los Angeles in 1909. In 1923, Upton Sinclair famously stood at San Pedro’s Liberty Hill and, in a bit of street theater, read the Constitution out loud in front of the striking dockworkers. Sinclair appeared in San Pedro in support of the Industrial Workers of the World, who were protesting low wages, terrible working conditions, and the imprisonment of union leaders. He was quickly arrested, but the moment lives on in local memory, commemorated with a plaque embracing the site as a historical landmark.
The town also has a little-suspected, homegrown artistic history. In 1941, the “Gateway of the World,” as San Pedro was commonly known, gave Bertolt Brecht, in flight from Nazi Germany, his first view of America. A forced exile who disliked his new home even before he arrived, Brecht’s early impressions colored the works he wrote during his short stay in the U.S. As the playwright arrived on the S.S. Annie Johnson, black crime novelist Chester Himes was working below in the shipyards. Himes had arrived in San Pedro after serving a seven-year prison sentence, hoping to take advantage of the labor shortage on the waterfront. What Himes found was an environment where, as he describes in his autobiography, “Black people were treated much the same as they were in an industrial city of the South.” He soon turned the bitter experience into one his best novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). Around the same time, a young Art Pepper was making trips at night from the San Pedro streets to blow his horn at the jazz clubs along downtown Los Angeles’s Central Avenue.
Mike Watt, adopted son of San Pedro and future bass player for the Minutemen, was a product of these energies and tensions. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Watt relocated all around the country for his first decade, following the assignments of his father, a Navy lifer. When they landed in San Pedro in 1967 his mother decided to stay, moving the family out of naval housing and into low-income apartments nearby. Soon after, Watt’s life would suddenly change. It’s a story Watt tells frequently, mysterious and innocent, like something out of a fairy tale: walking alone in the local park, a large kid jumped out of tree and landed right in front of him, asking, “Are you Eskimo?” Watt, confused but intrigued, said no. This was Dennes Boon, who would soon drop everything but the first letter of his given name. The two walked home together, D. Boon — or “d. boon,” as it eventually appeared on Minutemen releases — reciting routines from a George Carlin record, Watt thinking he was the most insane, brilliant, kid on the planet.
Boon’s mother, trying to keep her son and his friend out of trouble, suggested they start a band. Why not? Watt claims he didn’t even know what a bass guitar was when they first started, or that tuning wasn’t arbitrary. They just banged away, performing choppy covers of their heroes: Blue Öyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival ...read more