Soundtrack in my head: Minutemen, “No! No! No! To Draft and War”
In a relatively recent post, I wrote about the passing of Arthur Lee, the leader of the 1960’s rock band Love and how I was lucky enough to see him perform once. Today marks the birthday of another departed rock legend: D. Boon of the Minutemen. Who? The Minutemen? You mean the anti-immigrant vigilantes patrolling our borders? NOT. The Minutemen I’m referring to were a 1980’s punk band, but with a creative impulse really not found anywhere in modern music today.
I went to a number of punk shows when I was in college. I listen to very little punk nowadays—when I do, I usually grow tired of it after about ten minutes. But I’ve never grown tired of the Minutemen–indeed I listen to them now more than before. They did not fit the stereotype of spiked, pierced and leather-clad punk rockers (which usually wasn’t accurate anyway), they were just three regular guys from San Pedro, California who played a high-octane mix of punk, funk, jazz and folk. They eschewed distortion guitar in their music–the sheer energy they put into their music and shows gave the music all the energy it needed and then some. D. Boon was a huge guy, bigger than anyone you’d find in a Casual Male XL catalog, but that did not stop him from jumping, flailing and flying all over the stage.
Their songs were notoriously short—many of them less than a minute (though some of their improvisational jams could last quite a long time). Their album Double Nickels on a Dime albums stuffed 45 songs onto two LP’s, and this was in the vinyl days when an average LP contained 10 songs. One example of their love of brevity was “Badges,” a 38-second song featuring a thumping bass line from fellow band member and songwriter Mike Watt and the famous “we ain’t got no badges” quote from the Humphrey Bogart movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It’s not James Joyce, but as a song it works quite well, and would have lost something had they tried to stretch it out to three minutes.
Some of their song titles give insight into the madcap thinking of the Minutemen,
- “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,”
- “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,”
- “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?”
- “Maybe Partying Will Help,”
- “God Bows to Math,”
- “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts,”
- “Song For El Salvador,”
- “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost.”
As you can see from the title of the last two songs, the Minutemen were deeply concerned about social justice issues and war. They wrote a lot of songs about Vietnam, Cold War paranoia and Central America—the latter of which was subject to a lot of civil war and U.S. intervention during the 1980’s. One of the most poignant lyric about war and the threat of war came in the song, “King of the Hill” in which D. Boon sang “Is it peace to point those guns/Is it war to fire those guns?”
A friend of mine invited me to see the Minutemen in Champaign, IL in the fall of 1985. I declined his invitation because I wasn’t familiar with them at the time. I would later regret this decision, because on December 22, 1985 D. Boon was killed in a van accident in Arizona. He was lying in the back of a van without a seatbelt because he had been suffering from a heavy-duty fever. The van lost control and Boon was thrown out the van’s rear doors, killing him instantly.
The Minutemen disbanded immediately, though surviving members formed fIREHOSE, which existed until the mid-1990’s. Mike Watt, who wrote many of the songs for the Minutemen—particularly the wildly creative stream-of-consciousness ones—has continued with various musical projects to the present day.
I have many compilation tapes that I made between the mid-80’s and the mid-90’s. One of the last ones I made I entitled “Alternative Rock—They Named It And Then They Killed It.” That pretty much encapsulates how I’ve felt about the music industry since the early 90’s. There are a lot of musical gems out there today—it’s just that you have to look really hard to find them. I find myself more and more taking on the mission of telling people the truth about the 1980’s so that people realize that this much-maligned decade was about much more than mullets, mall hair, Michael Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. The reality is that the 80’s–or specifically the years 1977-92–witnessed a more creative, thriving, and diverse underground music scene than at any other time since the advent of rock n’ roll.
The Minutemen were just one small part of this scene, but listen to Double Nickels on a Dime or Ballot Result, and you get a sense of the energy and creativity that existed then. The making of Ballot Result in particular says a lot about the creativity, spontaneity and interaction with the fans. The band decided to do a live album, and passed out ballots to fans to help determine which songs would be on the album. Boon died before the live album could be recorded, so instead the surviving members used the ballots and existing live recordings to put together the album. Amazingly, many of the tracks were from tapes sent in by fans—the track “No! No! No! To Draft And War/Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” was recorded at an encore performance here in Madison in 1985. I don’t think you’d see many record companies allowing that nowadays.