Graded on a Curve:
Minutemen,
Double Nickels on
the Dime

Like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s 1984 LP Double Nickels on the Dime is a comedy album by concept. What could be funnier than tweeking hardcore’s anti-music industry ethos by birthing that most bloated of all music industry beasts, the double album?

Overweening ambition flew in the face of the entire hardcore konzept—the medium was bested suited to the EP, where you could rip off six or eight songs in six or eight minutes and be done with it (see for example the Minutemen’s seven-song “Paranoid Time” EP from 1980, which clocks in at just over five minutes). But the Minutemen pulled it off and by so doing bequeathed us one of the finest and most expansive albums of the eighties, or any time for that matter.

And San Pedro’s favorite sons produced their double LP without surrending any of their much vaunted principles. Guitarist/vocalist D. Boon, bassist/vocalist Mike Watt, and drummer extraordinaire George Hurley heroically refused to elongate their trademark abbreviated song forms to make the task of filling four album sides easier. Instead they gathered up 45 songs—most of which were less than two minutes long, and none of which broke the 3-minute barrier—and fired them at our ears in a gattling gun, no time to pause between songs blur.

The results are dizzying, giddy-making, and sometimes bewilderingly eclectic, because like SST label mates the Meat Puppets the Minutemen never allowed themselves to be straitjacketed into the loud and fast constraints of hardcore. Jazz was always an integral part of the Minutemen sound, and they weren’t afraid to go the funk, country, folk, and spoken-word poetry routes either. Theirs was hodgepodge aesthetic, and half of the joy of Double Nickels on the Dime is waiting to find out what undreamt of turn will come next.

From the mellow philosophic meditation that is “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?” to the Tex-Mex-flavored romp across a Mexican beach that is “Corona” to the scratcy post-punk that is “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts” to the affectionate “reading” of Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu” to D. Boon’s truly pretty acoustic guitar turn on “Cohesion,” which wins my award for Unlikeliest Song by a Hardcore Band Ever—Double Nickels is a smorgasbord of fish, fowl, and every other beast you can think up.

The Minutemen were an overtly political outfit, but D. Boon sang about politics in a way that didn’t set off my bullshit detector in the way, say, the Clash’s political turns always did. This is probably due to the fact that D. Boon was both an idealist and a realist; he wanted to change the world but he was far too world-weary to cry out for some bogus revolution that was never going to happen. He simply addressed the issues of inequality and injustice with a commitment that was personal and “felt” rather than polemically anthemic.

Unlike, say, Jello Biafra, D. Boon was a friendly humanist with a compassionate heart, and the innate friendliness (and good humor) of his songs is one of the most likable things about the Minutemen. Of course Boon was angry—you can hear it in “Toadies” and “This Ain’t No Picnic”—but innately decent soul that he was he eschewed hardcore’s nihilism and savage scorn in favor of the perhaps naïve hope that the world could actually be changed one mind at a time.

One of the most obvious things about Double Nickels on the Dime is the utter love and commitment the three bandmates have for one another. I have a hard time believing this band could ever have broken up over personality differences (or any other reason) because they shared such a deep and obvious bond. The three men’s commitment to one another—from their days as “fucking corndogs” in San Pedro and extending to the tragic day D. Boon died in an automobile accident—is patently self-evident in every song they play.

They name drop one another in songs, share a musical telepathy that borders on the uncanny, and lovingly write their own will and testament as a band in “History Lesson Part 2,” one of the most moving songs ever written. D. Boon calls himself Bob Dylan’s “soldier child,” makes the expansive punk-egalitarian announcement that “our band could be your life,” and ends the song with the simple but touching words, “Me and Mike Watt playing guitar.” Then, just to prove they’re not insufferable sentimentalists the lads follow it up with the weird beatnick shuck “You Need the Glory,” go on to crank out a hilariously sloppy “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love,” and deliver up a deranged foray into mutant blues on “Jesus and Tequila.”

I consider the terribly premature death of D. Boon to be the biggest rock tragedy this side of Ronnie Van Zant. By 1985, when the Minutemen recorded their final studio LP 3-Way Tie (For Last), the songs had gotten longer and big D. Boon’s big heart had only gotten bigger, and his commitment to the good fight had only gotten bigger too. Double Nickels on the Dime will always be my favorite Minutemen LP, but I was with them all the way. Then D. Boon died. And something inside of me died too. If you were a fan like I was a fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • lightningmetropolis

    Good review. I though I was reading a millennial’s take on classic punk recordings until I saw your D. Boon remark.

    > birthing that most bloated of all music industry beasts, the double album?

    It was actually a triple album. They wanted to outdo the Du.

    • Michael Little

      Thanks for pointing that out. And thanks much for your kind words. Long Live D. Boon!

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