19 February 2008

Book review: Double Nickels On the Dime (331/3)

To me, the primary appeal of the Minutemen has always been their friendly, unassuming vibe. I love the high energy, the instrumental chops and the angry-young-prole-with-a-library-card lyrics. But it's the fact that they always come off like dudes hanging out and jamming, regardless of what they're singing about, that's always kept me coming back.

Double Nickels, as it turns out, is ideal fodder for the 331/3 series. It's brimming with material, there's interesting stories behind many of the songs, the lyrics bear close listening, and it's the product of collaboration that includes contributions from more than just the band's principal members. Many of those involved were quite willing to talk, and Michael T. Fournier (who, by the way, teaches a class in the history of punk rock at Tufts; are you kidding me?) does a fine job of whittling those stories down to a concise and well-organised summary of the album's stories and meanings.

Fournier opens the book with a brief history of the band, follows with a brief history of the album, takes a quick detour to recount his own experiences listening to it as a teenager, and gets down to a track-by-track breakdown in less than twenty pages. He seems to feel that the point of the book is the music, so why waste time on the other stuff? I couldn't agree more.

One of the things I liked most about the book was that I learned things about Double Nickels I didn't know before. For instance, there are a few tracks I've never even heard; they were left off the CD in order to fit it on one disc. One of them is a Van Halen cover! Rest assured, this situation will soon be rectified; the vinyl is en route in the mail as I type.

I also didn't know that the running order was determined in a manner similar to a fantasy sports draft (Fournier's analogy): each member had one side, and they took turns picking songs for it. Anything unselected went on side four. I also didn't realise how many of the songs had lyrics written by some of the band's friends, including Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski and Henry Rollins. The idea was apparently, to keep the music fresh by incorporating outside ideas. The album never gets boring over the course of four sides and more than forty songs, so that seems to have worked out.

What works best of all here is Fournier's writing. Like the Minutemen's music, it's breezy and casual. Rather than coming off like the dry observations of a college professor (which...), Fournier's prose reads like the musings of your buddy who's really into this album, knows a bunch of neat stuff about it, and can't wait to tell you. Asides, interjections and unnecessary exclamation points abound, all of them adding up the a 100 page speil that perfectly fits its subject. Double Nickels greatest triumph may be that it is simultaneously dense and highly accessible. By packing his book with facts and insights while keeping it simple and readable, Fournier has followed the band's example and done the album proud.

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