#267: Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen
Listening to a new album is like entering another dimension; even if it’s strange or unsettling or has Bob Dylan in it, I want to walk around for a little while, figure out what makes people settle down and live there.
That said, I’ve written before about being a vegetarian in a relationship with a trained chef. “Food is a journey,” he said recently. I mimicked him in a snotty voice because I don’t relate to that. Food is not my journey. Food is Doritos and veggie sausage patties, and if it looks weird, then no, thank you.
Still, I’m dating a chef, so sometimes I try mushroom soup and have to hide my icky face. And he’s dating me, so sometimes, he suffers through the Minutemen.
I’ve been putting this one off for a good reason: it’s monstrous, 46 freaking songs, four albums in one. I’ve always had a lot of love for punk ambition, and this album’s ambition is especially compelling because it was inspired by a competitive spirit between the Minutemen and labelmate Hüsker Du (who by the way make the list at #428).
The M. Men divide it into four sides, so we’ll do the same, but keep in mind that I didn’t listen to this on vinyl as God apparently intended, so for me, it might as well have been one long, staccato song.
The rule is always that the driver picks the music, and my boyfriend and I had a two-hour drive ahead of us.
“No,” I said, “I don’t mind driving at all. I love to drive.”
The Minutemen were a punk trio made up of guitarist D. Boon, bassist Mike Watt, and drummer George Hurley. A year after this record was released, Boon was killed in a van accident at age 27. Like most people in the 27 Club, Boon is an outsized presence on his seminal record, serving as the lead vocalist and lending his name to several songs throughout the album, including opener “D.’s Car Jam/Anxious Mo-Fo.”
At first, both of us found a lot to love. He loved the political songs like “Viet Nam,” and cooed with surprise and delight at the perfect 2-minute acoustic “Cohesion.” When the jazz-tinged “Theatre Is the Life of You” came on, he said, “They sound a lot like Modest Mouse.” I don’t know if I agree, but he loves Modest Mouse, so I didn’t disagree with him.
I was a little surprised that he was vibing with such a punk rock band, since he usually reacts to punk with something between patience and disgust. I think it didn’t hurt that all the songs were so short and different and yet still somehow catchy; every single one stayed stuck in my head after the record ended, even though there were freaking 46 of them. And they’re all so dramatic; “It’s Expected I’m Gone” has a full two-second pause in it. It’s silly, it’s serious, it’s amazing.
But not only was this a silly band. I could tell immediately that this was a smart band. Look at “#1 Hit Song,” a funny song with a funny name and prototypical rock radio guitars, a la Weezer. Twinkle, twinkle/Blah, blah, blah. So true! And like all secretly brilliant bands, they aren’t loyal to any particular sound, but somehow always still sound like themselves. “Two Beads at the End” has the soft-quiet dynamic that grunge takes to its limits. “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth” put my boyfriend off with its spoken word poetry, but I was taken in by the magical-fairy-guitar. (It’s also NOT new wave, making it clear where the Minutemen stand on the question they ask.)
Indeed, sometimes I suspected that this whole album was an excuse for them to find a home for some guitar riffs. “Shit from an Old Notebook” and “Nature Without Man” were both built around some bratty guitar riffs. If you’re looking for something truly snotty and irritating, though, look no further than “One Reporter’s Opinion,” a snarky song written by Watt where he describes himself as follows: He’s only a skeleton/His body is a series of points/No height, length or width. According to Watt, Boon “hated the idea of my name in the song. I did that a lot.”
Finally, “Don’t Look Now” genuinely surprised me. It’s a goofy, earnest cover of a CCR song. Even though it stands out like a sore thumb among these other grassroots punk songs, you can tell that they feel just as comfortable in the blues.
Have I mentioned that this record is 46 freaking songs long? Well, I didn’t end up listening to all 46 of them on this car ride. According to all sources I can find online, the CD versions omitted certain songs “to ensure player compatibility.” Basically, there have been several versions of Double Nickels released over the years, and none of them have been complete.
One of the sacrifices made was two more the “Car Jams.” That’s right, Mike and George each had a car jam of their own. Maybe D.’s was kept because he opened the whole record. Regardless, “Mike’s Car Jam” is lost to time and streaming services, never to be heard again.
At this point (remember: we’re in the car) the Minutemen were still being received by my boyfriend rather well. He had a hard time not being won over by the album name and song titles. “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” got a great reaction, as did “God Bows to Math.”
Still, two hours is a long time to listen to punk music for non-punk fans. I’ve talked about being a Ween-lover before, but I don’t know if I’ve discussed the challenges of loving Ween. Early in our relationship, he came over while I was cleaning and listening to Ween’s The Pod. We talked for about five minutes before he made me shut it off. “How can you listen to that?” he asked me. “I’m so anxious right now.”
Well, we’ve finally come across a band that reminds me of Ween. A lot. The Minutemen walked so Ween could run.
And that’s when my boyfriend’s impression started to turn. “Take 5, D.” has out-of-tune guitars underneath a passive-aggressive monologue to a landlord about a shower. “The Glory of Man” frantically asks about the affirmation of man in the very first line. So much subject matter covered, so many relentless guitar solos flung in your face. Just something about the tone of “Retreat” stressed him out. When D. shouts that he’s f***ing overwhelmed! in “The Big Foist,” my boyfriend shouted, “Me, too.”
Sorry, but I was still fully immersed in surreal, angsty punk to care, which is maybe not a great state to drive around in. There was so much to relate to in the discordant malaise of young punkery. I winced at the offbeat “Maybe Partying Will Help,” because I’ve been to a lot of parties with this desperate vibe. The song “Toadies” was not only weird and violent, it got me extremely excited because I thought that the Toadies might be named after it. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they’re not.
In terms of hits, Side Mike wins. You might remember “Corona” as the theme song to Jackass. It’s a straight killer song with the bounciest guitar riff I’ve ever heard. What a shame about the whole C-word virus now.
“My Heart and the Real World” proves that the Minutemen do catchy white-person ska better than Sublime. And speaking of Sublime, “History Lesson Part 2” is sampled in their “Waiting for my Ruca.” It’s just the line Punk rock changed our lives, but it’s extra poignant coming from a song about having reverence for punk lore, which is in some ways what punk rock is all about. I don’t know, I’m absolutely rambling. This record made me feel things. I couldn’t fathom the idea that someone sitting right next to me was suffering.
That’s only the first half of the album, so maybe take a bathroom break here or something.
My boyfriend didn’t get a bathroom break, just more uninterrupted Minutemen. This was when he started to kind of lose it. You see, the Minutemen become quite abstract around here, with songs like “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts” and “The Politics of Time.” What are the politics of time, you ask? Chaos and bullshit and farts. It gets weirder.
“You Need the Glory” is what can only be described as a tribal chant. “You’re enjoying this?” my boyfriend asked me as I turned the volume up. “You like this kind of music?” I didn’t say yes, but I couldn’t say no, either.
George’s side has maybe the most pure young person punk on it. “Nothing Indeed” is nihilistic indeed, “No Exchange” is all palm-muted power chords, and “There Ain’t Shit on T.V. Tonight” could be an outtake from Green Day’s Dookie. Nearly every greasy, smelly punk signifier is here, from the strangled wails of “This Ain’t No Picnic,” to the frank anti-fascist bent of “West Germany,” to the one-two masochistic punch of “Themselves” and “Please Don’t Be Gentle With Me.” I mean, the closing lines of “Spillage” are The idea of my life/Seems like a symbol. Doesn’t that sound like something you’d write on the back of your English notebook under an anarchy star?
Does it sound like I’m just spitting out hilarious song titles at you? I am, but that’s the experience of listening to this album.
As mentioned above, if you’re streaming this on Spotify, you won’t hear “George’s Car Jam.” But the other song that’s missing on Side George, “Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders,” is actually a lot of fun. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t include these songs on the streaming versions. Whatever. I’m not Daniel Ek.
Okay I didn’t know what “Chaff” meant either at first. It’s slang for crap, basically — worthless stuff. Bold to label something you made as garbage. (Then again, I guess I run a music blog with a byline that says “Fake Music Fan”…)
The Sixty-Second Friends flirt with anticolonialist and antiracist themes, with the surprisingly contemplative “Untitled Song for Latin America” and “June 16th.” I don’t know, maybe I admire the ambition more than the execution, maybe I want them to be smarter than they actually are. “The World According to Nouns” is where you start to realize that the Minutemen are in serious danger of losing themselves to theory. What’s the verb behind it all? they ask. Can these words refine that truth? Um, what?
But then they’re right back to committing to weird, desperate punk. “Jesus and Tequila” is a send-up of desert rock that’s actually cooler than desert rock, and both “Storm in My House” and “Martin’s Story” made me double-check that the car doors were locked. “Dr. Wu,” a Steely Dan cover, reminded me of Ween again, with their deadpan delivery that makes you question your very sanity. At least, it made my boyfriend question his sanity. (This is where he started begging me to turn it off.)
On the original vinyl release of the record, the Minutemen included a darkly funny tune called “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand” and a cover of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” I felt so gypped when I learned that my version of the album was missing those two tracks.
The modern streaming version of the record ends with “Love Dance,” an instrumental with a groovy bassline, and “Three Car Jam,” the sound of three cars rev-rev-revving, and that’s fine, I guess, but you know what would be better? A Van Halen cover.
So that’s Double Nickels, and it’s a monster. My boyfriend, who hates punk rock music, could have had a terrible attitude about all this, and you know what? He didn’t. In fact, he had a lot of good to say about the Minutemen, even though he said it with a grimace on his face.
When all is said and done, there’s a lot of ways you can look at this crazy world. My favorite way to look is through music. And how magical is it when you show someone a window into your world, and they almost understand?