#413: Minutemen, "Double Nickels on the Dime" (1984)

for Bill

I've been watching a lot of spaghetti westerns lately. Which is to say, it's hard to talk about Double Nickels on the Dime in a way that doesn't simply repeat some aspect of the dense web of mythologies that has woven itself around the album, not to mention the Minutemen themselves. And so I will approach things slantwise, in the hopes of resisting the temptation to indulge in one or more received narratives for as long as possible.

My slant, in this case, is the spaghetti western. How slanted this slant will turn out to be, I don't know; Boon and Watt seem to share a polemical ambivalence about mass culture that a director like Sergio Leone happily foregrounds every chance he gets. Moreover, in a concerted and reflexive way, the spaghetti western, like the standard Minutemen song, is about its own tropes, in the sense that things are framed so that we cannot naturalize what we perceive as we perceive it. The shots—and sounds—are made, and it is that made-ness we are asked to take in and consider. A song like "Viet Nam" makes a clear political point all its own, but it does so by invoking the decade and a half of protest songs that came before it. The guitar plays a riff that would be at home in any Gang of Four song if you slowed it down by half, while the lyrics clarify the difficulty of protesting something in a medium with stark limits on its capacity to protest effectively. The lyrics, short as they are, are worth quoting in full:

Let's say I got a number
That number's fifty thousand
That's ten percent
Of five hundred thousand

Oh here we are
In French Indochina

Executive order
Congressional decision
The working masses
Are manipulated

Was this our policy?
Ten long years
Not one domino shall fall

I don't mean to say the politics here are somehow insincere, but the song is "about" political songs as much as it is about colonial exploitation of the working masses. The gambit here is to strip away allegory or figure and just say the political things, just as in every movie in the Dollars trilogy Clint Eastwood sells his services and his signature squint to the highest bidder, and tells us as much. The question, here invitingly asked, is whether or not we can make effective moral or political arguments in a particular medium—a film or a song—and, more pointedly, whether we can make these arguments in a totally serious way. It's a hard question to ask, and one that still needs repeated asking today. It's also the strongest point of contact between a spaghetti western and Double Nickels, both of which begin with fealty to the redemptive power of art and end in a hail of bullets and dynamite. I'm tempted to call it satire, provided we all understand by that a single impulse: the Minutemen want to blow shit up.

The feeling here is historically specific, hinging on an attempt to deal with the fact that all the seeming political foment of the 1970s and its protest songs could not stop the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. "Reagan," here, inaugurates such despair and rage precisely because he is not the evil mastermind that Richard Nixon was. He's a cartoon become flesh, a total joke of an evildoer twirling his mustache, what we thought was the stuff of allegory but which now actively lives and breathes in the Oval Office. You can't make fun of Reagan because he does the work for you. He's his own caricature! Protesting him feels futile, and he's folded a rebuttal to any conceivable protest into his very way of being. Protesters degrade the culture, they're children. And Double Nickels is an album that metabolizes this comic-strip situation. Everything from the slogan to the verse-chorus-verse format of the political song falls short in the face of actual, real evil, which, pace Hannah Arendt, isn't banal so much as it is cartoonish.

Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

Not to grant Reagan too much power. He's a comic-book villain, though not as handsome as Lee Van Cleef or Gian Maria Volonté. But he's also a cog, one among many representatives of the interests of the ruling class, and I think Minutemen make music that's aware of this. Their name, after all, comes from a joke about a 1960s reactionary group that sent bomb threats to Angela Davis. They know that the right wing is serious business, but that most attempts to describe it in earnest end up sounding like jokes. This brings us back to the sonic frenzy of Double Nickels in yet another way. The album is a hodgepodge, a gigantic pastiche and collage of influences and types of instrumentation. It refuses to commit to a single set of tropes, instead hoarding them, magpie-like, under the banner of a concern that extends beyond a musical scene and its internal debates and investments. That is, as songs like "Viet Nam" or "Untitled Song for Latin America" (one of my favorites) demonstrate, Boon and Watt are far from Marxists, but they also sieve the rivers of politics in Marx-ish fashion, looking for root causes rather than contenting themselves with repeatedly denouncing what amounts to a collection of symptoms.

The dynamism of Minutemen's aesthetic morass comes from a commitment to particularity and to the inadequacy of particularity in and of itself. Every particular implies a universal with which it forms an intractable contradiction—this is the basic tenet of dialectical thinking. And Minutemen are thoroughly dialectical. Their basic formal question runs something like this: how is it that the punk and protest music of yesteryear, which so emphasizes its freedom and individuality, sounds so much like other popular music, and sounds so much like itself, as to become self-contained and hermetic? The answer to this question is that there is no way of separating off punk from pop, even if everybody at a given Black Flag show agrees that the state and capitalism are bad in ways that everybody at a Van Halen concert doesn't. Thus songs like "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" start by naming their imbrication in the systems they want to protest, insisting that you can't have Minutemen without the King of Pop, using this tidbit of pessimism as the basis of a great optimism: namely, what happens if we start out knowing that as makers of popular music we have already failed, and then go from there? What can a popular song do?

The answer to this question is always Utopian on Double Nickels, whose musical archive spans genres and generations and brings together British punk and American folk protest with great speed and dexterity. It's as if Mike Watt and D. Boon are interested in practical rather than theoretical "punk"-ness, as if "DIY" for them, ideological though it is, should be a doing and not just a slogan. "Archive" may not be specific enough to describe how Minutemen treat the music they draw on; it's more like a lending library, they visit constantly and always take new items with them. What if we could, this music asks, make music however we wanted and out of whatever we wanted? What if that was a formal principle rather than a matter of content? If Johnny Rotten said he was antichrist and anarchist, Watt and Boon did their anarchy, made it a living and material force, in their music.

The result of this is something like watching Eli Wallach run around in a graveyard in the famous scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: we are aware that this is nothing narratively new, that it derives its visual and its feelings entirely from what came before, and yet the brazenness with which the camera states that we are in the presence of artifice exhilarates and delights us. So too with Double Nickels: it is an album that says "I borrow" in ways that overwhelm the listener, even if the songs don't crack two minutes in most places. Much can be said about the pleasures of derivation, but here it feels like a way into a genuine sense of human activity or agency; like an endless array of possibilities are at our disposal, should we attempt to engage with them. Such slogans sound dangerously close to ad copy or what you hear in a marketing department, which of course makes them that much more perversely delightful in the context of a band like Minutemen. So too my comparison to westerns: in bringing things together, one stands to discover something about those things and about the activity of combination. We can hear that discovery, and the joy that attends it, in every song on Double Nickels.

—David W. Pritchard