Crate-Digging: Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll skip around for all of March…

(SST, 1984)

I just watched We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen last weekend, Tim Irwin’s documentary on the idiosyncratic SoCal punk band. I’ve gotten into the habit of sharing my deepest personal secrets with you – well, about music anyway – so here goes another one: I missed Minutemen. Yeah, you heard me right – this self-described music journalist has never gotten around to digging into the band’s catalog. I should probably be punished for this, as you all are well aware how Minutemen’s legacy has been engraved into rock history since they were an active touring unit, standing separately from their LA peers while fully embracing the punk culture and ideals inherent in the late-1970s/early-1980s underground music scene. They were different then, they remain unique today. But not once did I venture into a record store looking for a Minutemen album, and never did I glance through the “M” section and wind up staring longingly or even quizzically at one of their releases. That’s just how it was. I knew of them – what kid who ever bought an SST tape didn’t spend hours reviewing the included catalog, committing the entire roster to memory? (Not any self-respecting one, that’s for sure.) I had a fIREHOSE tape and Mike Watt’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat, but that was it.

So, I viewed We Jam Econo knowing very little about the players or the story, save singer/guitarist D. Boon’s tragic death in a car accident just before Christmas in 1985. (I didn’t know much about that either – turns out he was sick and therefore lying on the back seat of a van, without a seatbelt, when it crashed, and he was thrown from it.) But I was surprised at the outpouring of love and goodwill shown toward the band, and how much their contemporaries revered their output. Both punk rock and SST luminaries such as Ian MacKaye, Saccharine Trust’s Joe Baiza, Henry Rollins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, LA producer Spot, The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood, J Mascis, and other crusty old scenesters wax poetic and philosophical on the band’s influence and impact, and it hit me what this band of “corndogs” from “Pedro” meant to this music community then, and what they mean to us now. They were steeped in punk and hardcore music but moved beyond it, forever changing the rules of what it meant to actually be “punk.” And without getting into that – admittedly stupid – discussion, all I’ll say is that Minutemen did away with the aesthetic conformity but kept the anti-establishment idealism, filling notebook upon notebook with heady diatribes (aka “spiels”) and speaker upon speaker with their unique brand of classic-rock-influenced punk.

With all this in mind, I was inspired to dig into Double Nickels on the Dime, widely considered the band’s opus, representing the greatest leap in creative and artistic direction in their careers. The story of the band presented in We Jam Econo was fascinating, yet the archival footage of Minutemen performing live was damaged-VHS quality at best. And even then, you had to hope that the band was mic’d properly. So I figured that Double Nickels would be the place to start, and I’ve got a few impressions.

  1. It’s really long. I mean really long. According to recollections in the film, the band had an album ready to go, but decided, because labelmates Hüsker Dü had just released a double album – 1984’s Zen Arcade – that they would too. So they recorded twenty(-ish) more songs to flesh out the album. The totals: 43 songs, 74 minutes. Sheesh – that’s a lot to get through. As my friend Adam posted on a Facebook discussion about Double Nickels, it’s “all the album a person would need for a month.” He’s right.
  2. There’s not a lot of “punk rock” going on here. In fact, it seems that D. Boon channels a more Creedence Clearwater Revival into his guitar playing than anything. They even cover CCR’s “Don’t Look Now” on the record, even though it’s a live take. Jazz, blues, and country all make appearances as well. Boon solos, and Watt’s a nimble bassist, so if I nudge the dreaded “jam band” phrase in the direction of Minutemen, it’s apt, but take it with a huge brick of salt. The longest track on the album is 2:55, and only 10 of the 43 break the 2-minute barrier. That’s not very jam-bandish – in fact, it’s virtuosic in both ability and brevity. I should also mention here that drummer George Hurley has a healthy funk addiction, and is probably the band’s secret weapon.
  3. The writing style is as unique as they come. When they’re not directly challenging media, the government, and even the scene that spawned them, often with hilarious precision, they’re talking about themselves (going so far as to mention each other by name), how they tour (they, duh, “jam econo”), where they’re from (“Pedro,” as in San Pedro, its highway exit appearing on the cover), how they write (“Shit from an Old Notebook,” “The World According to Nouns”), and even how they got into punk and what they’re up to (“History Lesson, Part 2”).
  4. There are simply some great songs here: “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” “History Lesson, Part 2,” “This Ain’t No Picnic,” “D.’s Car Jam/Anxious Mofo,” and “Corona” are all brilliant. But man, there are 43 songs to choose from…
  5. The album title itself is a playful response to Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” and its goofy rebellion. Minutemen play it straight – they go exactly fifty-five miles on the highway.

I almost feel that this is one of those albums that I should have gotten into back in high school or something, that I missed the primeval and youthful exuberance of discovering something a band like Minutemen hidden in the SST catalog, but alas, I never took that leap. I kind of had a similar feeling – although more pronounced – when I read The Catcher in the Rye in my late twenties rather than in high school. Yeah, it was good, I guess, but it would have meant more to the younger me. I think Double Nickels on the Dime makes sense in that way. I understand its merits, and I can grasp them a lot more easily than I could Salinger’s, but I’ll probably file this away for a while. Maybe in tribute to Mike Watt or George Hurley one day, as I would have D. Boon in 1985. Hopefully not too soon though. (For their sake.)

RIYL: Minor Threat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Meat Puppets

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2 responses to “Crate-Digging: Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

  1. How weird is it that you wrote about this album the same week I did EVOL? I say that because Watt plays on EVOL and was encouraged to do so by Thurston Moore to help him recover from Boon’s recent death and his feelings that he might never want to play music again after the tragedy.

    Like

  2. that’s cool of thurston. i should have mentioned his and lee ranaldo’s participation in the film as well.

    sonic youth is eternally cool.

    Like

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