You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s obvious, but usually only in retrospect.
What I thought would be judged to be one of the greatest records of all time, a real high-water mark in American rock’n’roll, turns out to be seen as a nothing more than a feel-good footnote, a pointer to what might have been. Most kids (the people who could most benefit from the record’s spiky wisdom) haven’t heard it, much less heard of it, and that’s sad beyond belief.
I’m talking about The Minutemen record Double Nickels on the Dime. A Christmas car crash killed guitarist and singer d. boone, leaving the bereft bassist Mike Watt to spend his career alone, trying to do the job of two men, extolling the virtues that punk rock jettisoned well before the bullet exited the back of Kurt Cobain’s skull.
What could be more uncool than honesty and hard work? What could be less hip than admitting that you are flawed and scared and incomplete? What could be more devastating to your carefully-constructed image than openly acknowledging that you love your friends and care about your country and its place in the world?
Double Nickels on the Dime championed all these awkward things with a furious grace that still sounds fresh twenty-some-odd years later. Jagged, angular guitar riffs soar over propulsive drumming, all of the swirling chaos anchored by sinuous bass lines that leap and plummet like a love-struck teenager’s heart. The songs are short: each musical and lyrical idea is worked to its conclusion, and not a second more. The record (what was then known as a “double album”) is crammed with music, but it cannot be described as “sprawling”. It is intensely focused; rather than a flash bulb that blindingly illuminates a crowded space before plunging the viewer back into the gloom, it is a flashlight, playing across details in the dark, tying things together song by song.
Unlike the Ramones, whose simplicity and directness made everyone who heard them think, “I can do that!”, the Minutemen made us marvel; “Wow, they can DO that?” But the message was clear: you CAN do this, all it takes it time and effort, like anything good. Unlike so much punk rock, it wasn’t disposable, it wasn’t ephemeral, it wasn’t just a joke set to a hammering three-chord riff. It was real music, guts and balls and brains intact.
Even the choices of cover songs made a statement: CCR? Steely Dan? The band was deliberately flipping off the doctrinaire punks who were the self-appointed enforcers of the Punk Purity Code. The Minutemen even made it OK to like Blue Oyster Cult again, no small feat.
But it was in their original compositions that the band left their mark on American rock’n’roll. No one has ever sounded like this, before or since. Their sound is instantly recognizable, uniquely their own. It’s the sound of three people reading each others’ minds.