From the 'Reading 33 1/3' blog
45. Double Nickels on the Dime (Minutemen) - Michael T. Fournier [Continuum]
Double Nickels on the Dime is a 45-song double album, with each side’s tracks chosen by a band member (Side D, Side Watt, Side George) and then the remainder on the last side (Side Chaff), and the structure of the book is a logical one: a short introduction to the band (‘History Lesson’) and then an introduction to this album (‘History Lesson (Part II)’ - well played), and then track by track through each side.
More than anything, it reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a huge set of notes and ideas that’s gathered, sorted and presented. Arcades Project is unfinished, but there’s an immense pleasure in discovering 19th century Paris in the fragments. Michael T. Fournier’s book is definitely finished and so the comparison is risky, but he’s kept the traces of thoughts and of assumptions he’d made and why they turned out to be wrong, and somehow this allows for examination, for picking up bits of the album and turning them over in your head to see how they might look from some other angle.
The tracks, taken one by one, throw up bigger themes in the album and the band’s music. Mike Watt has a fixation with Ulysses and this shows up lyrically and as narrative devices, mostly on his side but also beyond. He’s also amused by things that would be funny coming from a singer D.Boon’s size, so there’s a little of that. The band’s fear of ending up in a rut led them to ‘outsource’ songs to friends. In general, when George Hurley wrote the lyrics, he probably didn’t remember the origin, but when he selected songs, he picked the ones most challenging for him as a drummer. There’s explanations for the in-jokes as well as public jokes (often missed, to the band’s confusion). It demands reading while listening and re-listening, and it changes how the album sounds.
Fournier admits to having listened much less to Side George and Side Chaff before the project, and I found he allowed a way into them through exploring them with that caveat - though I’ve listened to the whole thing many, many times, my heart’s always been with Side D and Side Watt, with the latter winning because ‘My Heart and the Real World’ and ‘History Lesson (Part II)’ make the back-to-back pinnacle. He considers the track selections and drafting throughout, even suggesting an alternative running order which begs to be tried out.
Fournier, who had taught the history of punk rock at university level, achieves a tone where he’s examining the album but also present as a fan, and excerpts from his interview (singular?) with Mike Watt fit in with ease. (Of the many other interviewees, my favourite was Lance Hahn (J Church), who died the same year the book was published.) There’s a funny thing about the Minutemen and that’s that they’re earnestly thinking about and contributing to something big while also being unassuming bros, and the album too manages to have a massive sway (broadly, but also affecting as a listener). The book’s success in capturing this quality makes it far better than just a companion guide, and more like a careful, loving tribute.