“double nickels on the dime” by the minutemen is a favorite album of mine and was hugely influential back when i was first trying my hand at live music in the late eighties. you’ll have a hard time finding an album more energetic and original. the rare balance of vision and humility has always been an inspiration.
i wasn’t cool enough to know about the album when it first came out in july of ’84. i’m still not.
my brother gary first introduced me to the pleasures of sst records in 1985, but it wasn’t till i visited my bandmate matt margolin in england in ’87 that his new friend (and my current old friend) peter sherman played the album for me in its entirety and my mind was blown. the hash definitely helped.
the drums for this song are stolen from the track “it’s expected i’m gone,” fifth song, first side. it’s one of my favorite drum hooks, and i’ve always wanted to steal it for something. a few months back i built the loop and started goofing around with steely dan-style chords on my nord – a highly phased rhodes with a good deal of added distortion and an envelope generator – and did a single take, at the end of which i played a clavinet-style freak out. i saved the file and didn’t think of it again.
in early june, i was struck by the fact that the thirty-year anniversary of “double nickels” would be this year and the phrase “double nickels turns three dimes” seemed fitting. (“double nickels on the dime” is minutemen vernacular for going 55 on the santa monica freeway, aka “the 10.”) turns out the album was released in july of ’84, so i hadn’t missed it.
a few weeks later i wrote some words, a few sets of rhyming couplets, and a few sets of non-rhyming couplets, in honor of the minutemen’s preferred style. as i was wrapping up i landed on the phrase “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, double nickels turns three dimes.” (the worst of times summed up by two words: “ronald reagan”) it’s one of the few times i’ve written words without having any melody in mind. it was at that point that i revisited the track i had recorded months earlier. i couldn’t match the piano effects i’d used in the original recording, so i was stuck with what i had improvised. i did a bunch of cutting and pasting, and the result was the song structure you hear. mother necessity strikes again.
that takes us to july fourth, where i had some free time and worked at finding a melody and bending my lyrics to fit it, and vice versa. definitely some marvin gaye “mercy, mercy me” influence here. i didn’t think i had anything until i introduced the harmony in the second half of the first verse, and then things started rolling.
just when it was coming together i realized how weird of a tribute song this was: a straight-forward seventies soul song about a band that essentially flushed the slickness of the seventies down the john. but what worked for me was the fact that this groovy uplifting funky pop tune pretty much captured how i feel when i listen to “nickels.” that music and those performances make me feel happy and hopeful. the creativity, the energy, and, more importantly, the love on those recordings gives me goosebumps every time. mike watt and d. boon were the best of best friends, and it shows. anyone who wants to start up a band should spend some time with this album and listen to the interplay, the enthusiasm, the joy that cements all those angular chump rock nuggets together.
it felt like kismet pulling this song together of the fourth of july. for me, the minutemen represent the best of american music: the activism, the independence, the originality, the working class ethic. for a holiday that tends to celebrate boorish patriotism and me-first xenophobia, it was great to spend my day reflecting on a music that could only have come out of the good ol’ u.s. of a. woody guthrie would have loved this band.
i had the good fortune and privilege to share the same stage with mike watt and george hurley a number of times at the cusp of the nineties, when they were playing in fIREHOSE. they even invited my band smokin’ rhythm prawns down to l.a. to open for them when they were doing a release party for their major label debut. hurley was a friendly guy, but mostly quiet; watt made a lasting impression. one of the most unique and authentic people i’ve met. he’s like the indie rock pete seeger: a generous soul and a monster performer. a real hero.
this song is dedicated to mike and george, and to the memory of d. boon. his death at 27 years old, with his talent still growing and his career rocketing skyward, is one of the great tragedies in rock music: in a class with hendrix and cobain, but with the important distinction that boon’s death was entirely accidental. as i move deeper into middle age, experiencing more of the years he was cheated out of, the scope of that tragedy only grows more vast.
if you’re unfamiliar with the band, there’s an excellent documentary that recalls their inspiring career.
bring a hankie.