Friday, July 28, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: Minutemen's Project: Mersh (1985)

I have developed a block about this post. I think it has something to do with a clear memory I have of playing this record, the Minutemen's Project: Mersh (1985) EP, on my 21st birthday. The summer sun was shining brightly. I drank beer from one of my high-school debate trophies. I stood in the living room of a second-story apartment near the U.C. Berkeley campus. My girlfriend was there, and so too was my father. My father had driven down from Solano County to celebrate the occasion. I was now officially a man.

Last month I finished reading Michael T. Fournier's 33 1/3 series book devoted to the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) double album.

To my mind the high point of the 1980s was 1984, when, between April and July, SST Records released Meat Puppets II, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade double album and the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime. (Of the three, Double Nickels is the only one to make the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list.)

Taken together it was as if a brand-new counterculture had been formed in the space of a summer, and I was part of it. But what was it?

It was Hardcore, but not of the clownish, reactionary, dress-coded Nazi Punk variety. The Hardcore of Double Nickels, Zen Arcade and Meat Puppets II welcomed everyone who wanted to listen. It was politically engaged, openly intellectual (Double Nickels devoted songs to Dmitri Shostakovich and James Joyce), guileless and egalitarian. Primarily, it espoused an ethic of do-it-yourself hard work.

Imagine the Hippies without all the "Summer of Love" marketing overlays and metaphysical pretensions, and the First Wave U.K. Punks without their perfunctory negativity, and you get a sense of what SST Hardcore 1984 was like. Another world is possible. So let's just do it. (Nike cashed in on "Just Do It" later in the decade. Without being preceded by the Hardcore avant-garde, I doubt the shoe company could have.)

Fournier's book reminded me of several things about Double Nickels that I had forgotten. I remembered that the double-album length was a response to Hüsker Dü's planned release of the double-album Zen Arcade ("Take that Hüsker!" appears somewhere on the gate-fold Double Nickels album cover), but it had slipped my mind that the Minutemen had copied Pink Floyd's Ummagumma (1969) in giving each band member his own side of the record. Double Nickels has a D. Boon side, a Mike Watt side and George Hurley side. The fourth side is labeled "Chaff."

Another aspect of the album that I had forgotten is that the title refers to butt rocker Sammy Hagar's 1984 smash hit "I Can't Drive 55." In Double Nickels on the Dime the Minutemen are saying "We drive 55 m.p.h. on Interstate 10. So what? Does that make us square? What does speeding have to do with making music?"

After listening to the double album again non-stop for two weeks, I realized that I couldn't do it justice. There were several years, probably 1985 to 1987, when I pretty much exclusively listened to Bob Dylan and the Minutemen at night, and Van Morrison in the morning. It was a dividing-line period in my life, a time when I came to believe that "doing-your-own-thing" in a do-it-yourself fashion was more important than status, than acquiring a four-year degree and then quickly moving on to graduate or law school.

While it's too daunting at this point to take on Double Nickels, I thought I could manage the follow-up, Project: Mersh, the six-song EP released the winter of 1985 that contains the last great Minutemen song before the death of lead singer/guitarist D. Boon in December of that year.

The EP is three A-side songs, and three B-side songs adorned with a painting by D. Boon lampooning cigar-chomping record executives, one of whom proclaims, "I got it! We'll have them write hit songs!"

The big departure from previous albums is that the songs, with the exception of the final track, "More Spiel," are more conventional in structure. Gone is the 90-second free-jazzesque deconstruction of the pop tune, like in "Polarity" off What Makes a Man Start Fires (1983). Most of the tracks on Double Nickels are approximately 90 seconds; in fact, the longest song on the double album is two minutes 55 seconds.

An important point about the Minutemen in particular, Hardcore Punk in general, and one that connects it with the psychedelic ballroom San Francisco Sound of Happy Trails (1969) and Anthem of the Sun (1968), not to mention Eno's ambient records or PiL's Metal Box , is the destruction of or attack on the three-minute pop tune.

In Project: Mersh the Minutemen embrace the three-minute pop tune. The two first cuts "The Cheerleaders" and "King of the Hill" are both overtly political.

The third and last cut on the A-side is a cover of Steppenwolf's "Hey Lawdy Mama."

The Minutemen were always reaching back and covering bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf and Blue Öyster Cult -- politically-engaged rock bands from the Hippie era. (If you don't think Steppenwolf was political, listen to Steppenwolf Live (1970) again sometime.)

These bands provide a clue into who the Minutemen were emulating among the Hippies. In choosing "Hey Lawdy Mama," a sexist rant about coitus with groupies on the road, the band is poking fun at its flavor-of-the-month status as top of the heap left of the dial.

The B-side starts with "Take Our Test," before arriving at the best song of the EP, and the last great song the Minutemen produced, "Tour-Spiel," performed by bassist Mike Watt. (The final studio album, 3-Way Tie (For Last), released the same month as D. Boon's death, is not that good.)

I've been reading No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson. One thing Richardson makes plain is that the Dead were a continuation of the Beats, of Kerouac and Cassady and On the Road (1957). The Hippies and the Beats are organically connected. (We visited this subject before.)

If "Hey Lawdy Mama" is Steppenwolf's tribute to life on the road, and "Truckin'" is the Grateful Dead's, then I would say that the Hippies had lost their way as early as 1970. But with a song like "Tour-Spiel," a song about life on the road that is much truer to the Beats, I think we can say that Hardcore Punks had rediscovered Ground Zero:
Now you got your guitar
And your practice amp
You travel the USA in a van
And Troccoli's counting on some situation
Are you going to write the song I demand?
And with the guitar turned off
And the gas tank empty
And the typewriter on
But my head is empty
And to really find me
I've got to look inside me
From there the song segues into a five-minute acid rave, the last cut, "More Spiel," part of an emerging rave or neo-paisley psychedelic scene.

If you had to neatly encapsulate the message of the counterculture -- from Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception (1954) to the Beats, the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests and Trips Festival, including Easy Rider, on up to George Harrison's Dark Horse and Patti Smith's Horses, before arriving at Project: Mersh -- it's those two lines: "And to really find me/I've got to look inside me."

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