Book Review::Double Nickels On The Dime, The Minutemen

In another installment of the 33 1/3 series, Michael T. Fournier has written a book on the Minutemen’s album Double Nickels On The Dime. It is a really interesting inspection of a record that I have heard countless times in my life and still enjoy listening to. Furthermore, the book gives particular insight into a band that held as its members one of my favorite guitar and bass players of all time, and by far one of the most imaginative drummers ever. Frankly, as much as I have listened to this record over the years, I could have never imagined that Mr. Fournier had so much more to teach me about Double Nickels on the Dime. Below are just a few observations from the book, with the addition of a few thoughts of my own.

The record came about in no small part as a result of the release of Husker Du’s double album Zen Arcade. Nothing like Zen Arcade had ever came out of the punk world before, and The Minutemen were thus inspired to take such ambition into their own hands. The record was recorded by ex-Blue Cheer keyboardist Ethan James, and with its release the boundaries of punk were broken down for good. The Minutemen came around during a time when there were no rules to punk rock. Then hardcore installed itself and “coloring inside the lines took the place of creativity. The Minutemen’s biggest influences were CCR with their political themes, The Pop Group with their funk, reggae and jazz leanings, and Wire who showed that anyone can play in a band. The Minutemen were about making a statement through the band’s lifestyle. “Econo” was the theme, and the band illustrated this though the fact that no one overplayed. On the contrary, all of the instruments filled the space perfectly.

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Michael T. Fournier breaks down each song, showing such diverse themes as social statements, political commentaries, cultural oddities, and literary allusions. Some songs have lyrics that were ramblings from Hurley’s notebook. Others like “God Bows To Math” is about the now deceased cigar smoking radio evangelist Dr. Gene Scott whose theology often crossed into bizarre borders. Much more compelling was learning that Mike Watt was so impressed with Joyce’s epic Ulysses that he integrated many of the book’s themes throughout the album. The Minutemen even occasionally farmed out the lyrics to friends like Black Flag’s Chuck Dukowski and Henry Rollins. It was also really interesting to find that in choosing the contents of each side of the record, they did a lottery where they each picked a song they wanted on their side of the record. Moreover, the band was always determined to keep things fresh and avoid any ruts. This is best shown when you listen to Double Nickels On The Dime and hear that it not only stands the test of time, but for such a long album its multitude of short songs flow incredibly well.
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I have read a few books in the 33 1/3 series and while I generally have enjoyed them, this book seems to go a bit deeper than others have. This is the result of Michael T. Fournier actually getting the chance to spend time with Mike Watt, who was more than willing to discuss the band and record at length. Watt sums up the musical age of The Minutemen by stating that “punk wasn’t a style, it was a state of mind”, and more importantly back then “being a punk was like painting a target on your back – it wasn’t cool”.

Finally, in our age of shave your head into a mohawk, get a bunch of tattoos, and call your self punk, I am a little suspicious. Punk has long seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. When I see the “cookie cutter punk” bands that are so popular these days I have nothing but disdain and questions. What is this stuff people call punk these days? Isn’t it really just another cash cow of over marketed, sound the same bands that the masses eat up? It is so far removed from what bands like The Minutemen were trying to do that it would be inappropriate to even refer to them as their bastard child. What is presently referred to as punk is the same status quo in different costume that Watt and his peers were against. My, my, my, haven’t things changed.

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