Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Listening to the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime while driving down I-5

Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia
-Jean Baudrillard

The first sound is that of a car starting. If you have the actual album the cover shows Mike Watt driving a car down the highway looking in the rear view mirror. The title was a joke on Sammy Haggar’s “Can’t drive fifty five”, deciding that it wasn’t much of a rebellion to drive fast so they would drive the exact speed limit, or as better said in the words of Mike Watt, "the big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin' songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can't drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we'll drive 55, but we'll make crazy music." ( pg. 10.Fournier, Michael T. Double Nickels on the Dime 33⅓. Continuum, 2007.)
Speeding is ubiquitous in the life of our country. It is an agreed upon and excepted rebellion. One that you are punished for only if truly excessive. Originality is a much less excepted sin.
After the sound of the car starting inside the hollow vessel of your own vehicle the songs follow, over an hour of them, each usually around a minute or two long. Spindly post punk, hardcore, funk, jazz, poetry, Captain Beefheart, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, Blue Oyster Cult, the noisy and politically fiery post-punk group The Pop Group, and other influences and sounds are chopped up and regurgitated in the stop start dynamics of the trio. Nervous energy of hardcore and post punk channeled into the art rock or classic rock concept of a double album. The band’s name was a three part joke like most things related to them (they loved in jokes), for the brevity of their songs and in irony for the right wing anti-immigrant militia groups and the silent white missiles that lay sleeping across the prairies of the United State, whose baleful existence continuing the standoff of the Cold War, that still continued in the 1984 of the album’s release. Saber rattling with Soviets had been renewed by the rubber faced actor in the president’s office as Central America, Iran and Iraq, and Afghanistan burned. The record is filled with references to the situation in Central America where the Guatemalan army burned village after village in an ongoing genocide (a word that appears in the lyric sheet), death squads patrolled El Salvador leaving bodies with crosses carved in their faces on the roadside every day, and cocaine dealing rebels fought the government of Nicaragua. It seems needless to say American money and arms fueled each of these conflicts.

Untitled song for Latin America
The western hemisphere and all inside
We know who's murdering the innocent
They are children playing with guns
They are children playing with countries
Mining harbors, creating contras
The games they play, the lives they take
They bank their money in this country
They steal from the innocent
A colonial trait that's much too old
The banks, the lives, the profits, the lies
The banks, the profits, the lives & the lies
I would call it genocide
Any other word would be a lie.

I-5 is a strip of highway from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico. It travels through the belly of Washington, Oregon, and California State. It bears the car you are in. It can bring you to all the major population centers of the west coast. You hope the wheels of your car will hold together at a speed far exceeding fifty five. This is an everyday act of faith. The cities, the food, the trucks bearing goods, are connected and sustained by this highway, this artery. You heard once that not one of its bridges would survive an earthquake. The Juan de Fuca plate sits in the deep waters off the coast overdue to provide one. Silently like the hand of a god waiting to stir from its slumber.
You remember when you first heard these songs. You remember those roads. You remember abandoned factories. Cracked highways sweltering in the heat. Suburbs with parking lots fissured with rivers of grass and filled with hungry children waiting, and staring. You remember the basement shows solid with heat and sweaty comradery,   blaring punk rock, and cheap beer and wine. An almost vegetable stink of humanity. You remember the record and those times.
D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley make up the band. Watt and Boon provide most of the material. They have differences in style. Boon loves Creedance Clearwater Revival and he loves slogans for the working man and left wing politics, but he loves Beefheart so his songs twitch and zigzag, but they shout out for us. Watt always has a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses by his side, he spits out poetic obscurities over the twisting and rumbling racket of the band. The poetic and political, The Minutemen value both. They famously say “our band could be your life” They offered an alternative.
“Jam econo” was their aesthetic. Book all your own shows, practice all the time, and stay on people’s floors in the small town and cities of the country. Get in the van and drive. The country is crossed with a spiderweb of highways each of us individually or with our small family units hurtling down them. These spiderwebs leak a pall of invisible stink filling the atmosphere. Every road has claimed a life. We risk everything every time we enter the freeways.  The aesthetic of “jam econo” was one passed on for years up until your generation. You throw together a band with little hope of making a dime and you entered the roads. In a van with your equipment, homemade merch and a couple changes of clothes you traveled the highway. You had that spirit, your tour only took you down I-5, and you never left the west coast. You played music that was more discordant and unforgiving then the Minutemen. You remember how fun it was for a couple people to dance to it in a dingy galleries or punk clubs. You met kids who wanted to start their own bands, they wanted to get in vans and roll from town bearing the gift and curse of this tradition. You promised help when they came to your town. You remember when someone told you about I-5 catching fire once and they couldn’t drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. You remember seeing fire on the side of I-5 as you drove north. Would the road soon be impassible? You wondered what we would do without our highways; our train tracks were too rusty to bear that weight. You remember your train pulling into Chicago once in winter and they had set all the switches on fire to keep them from freezing. You remember a house on fire while driving through Detroit. No one was around. There were no fire trucks. You remember a truck on fire alongside the Chicago highway. Memories of fire. Outpourings of light.
D boon died on the road. A van accident.  The van they toured in. His girlfriend fell asleep at the wheel. Boon was asleep in the back. He died in the California desert on highway I-10 far from the guiding light of his beloved hometown of San Pedro. The exit sign for San Pedro is visible on the album cover. One presumes the car pictured is about to take that exit.
The roads offered freedom for a while. But what are they now, a trap? They connect everything we know, they are everything we know. They let this great system we built hold together. Do they hold us to it also?

Highways leading to nowhere. Highways leading to somewhere. Highways the Occupation used to speed upon in their automobiles, killing dogs pigs and cattle belonging to the poor people. What is the American fetish about highways?
They want to get somewhere, LaBas offers.
Because something is after them, Black Herman adds.
But what is after them?
They are after themselves. They call it destiny. Progress. We call it Haints. Haints of their victims rising from the soil of Africa, South America, Asia.

-Ishmael Reed

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