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January 18, 2005

Pre-American Idiot, Double said it short and sweet

An ontology of the punk rock sound-image: 1) Lose the image. 2) Jam econo. Get in the van! 3) Say things to the press like, "We don't rehearse; we practice. Actors rehearse; we're musicians." 4) Most important of all: Recognize the monumentality of the microscopic. Don't render your sentiments monumental with orchestral sweeps through chiaroscuro production techniques. Counter these Rockist tendencies towards Wagnerian grandeur (the macroscopic) with minimalist production techniques, lyrics voiced in the patois of poetic Socialist modernism, and really short songs. Lots of really short songs spread out over two LPs. Make one of these songs a Steely Dan cover.

The album is 1984's Double Nickels on the Dime. The band went by the name "the Reactionaries" on their first single, found that name too reactionary, and changed it to "the Minutemen." It's a fine name because it describes what they did (played short songs), and for what they stood. They embodied truth and justice and the anti-Amerikan way. They employed the discipline and tactics of the guerilla band. The classic line-up contained three soldiers: D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley. They tell their story in the song "History Lesson, Pt. 2": "Me and Mike Watt, we played for years/ Punk rock changed our life/ We learned punk rock in Hollywood/ Drove up from Pedro/ We were fucking corndogs/ We'd go drink and pogo."

The "here's three chords; now start a band" aesthetic theory of punk presupposes a lack of technical training or virtuosity. The democratizing principle of this aesthetic remains vital, but results in standardization, not individuation. It is assumed that the punker will learn a few more chords eventually. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This ethos has encouraged good artists to unlearn what they know and become bad three-chord punk bands. The advantage of this naïve aesthetic in the marketplace is easily perceptible: If the kids will settle for three-chord punk, that's all we have to give 'em.

The Minutemen reveal that playing well can render your message more succinctly, more provocatively. Only through the use of multivalent aesthetic tools might the Minutemen have expressed their complex identities, both cultural and political. In the hands of the naïve punk rockers, working class consciousness often constitutes an empty tropic device for establishing authenticity. The Minutemen cared not for talk of authenticity, but for actually practicing what they preached. This demanded hard work and radical creativity at a healthy distance from mainstream musical culture.

Double Nickels on the Dime represents an extended, consistent expression of the Minutemen's unique aesthetic. In my aural experience, I have found few antecedents to the record's sound or vision. The album succeeds in all the ways that a great album should. It is lyrically sophisticated, technically polished, thematically coherent, and acoustically innovative. Many albums surpass Double Nickels on the Dime in one of these categories, but I would argue that no single album does all four things as well simultaneously.

As you have probably gathered, the Minutemen were not another Ramones clone, although they could do that more tightly and creatively on numbers like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" than even the Ramones could in 1984. The great moments on Double Nickels come when the Minutemen totally re-imagine the punk rock song. "Corona" sounds like the Gang of Four and Creedence Clearwater Revival jamming with the worst mariachi band in Southern California, while Chuck Bukowski raps over the groove: "The people will survive/ In their environment/ The dirt scarcity and the emptiness of our south . . . I could see it in her eyes there on the beach/ I only had a Corona/ Five cent deposit." This song more than any other posits an alternative history of the punk rock impulse divorced from the hegemony of the New York/London sound.

The leader of the Minutemen, D. Boon, died in a car crash in 1985, before the band made their planned move to a major label, a step that many of their contemporaries had already taken. I have never agreed with the assertion that nothing good can come out of the mainstream or that a band sells out by dint of its want for exposure. The Minutemen had a cultural and political message that I wish more listeners would hear. Through its ferocious musicianship and cool intellectualism, Double Nickels on the Dime delivers the Minutemen's message in an epic mode of microscopic precision. Again from "History Lesson, Pt. 2": "Our band is scientist rock . . . Our band could be your life."