Minutemen: “I Felt Like a Gringo”
I watched the Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, the other night. Not sure what someone who hadn’t heard their music before would make of it all (although I should add that my wife Elisabeth didn’t really know much about them and thought it was interesting, but then again she’s a big fan of X and a number of other punk bands from that era), but for me it was a reminder of how great the Minutemen were, beginning primarily with their classic 1984 double-LP Double Nickels on the Dime. Funny fact learned from the movie: The phrase “double nickels on the dime” was used for the album as an indirect reference to Sammy Hagar, of all people — whereas he had recently released “I Can’t Drive 55,” the Minutemen were replying “we’re perfectly happy choogling along at exactly 55 (“double nickels”) on the dime.” Who would have guessed?
Anyway, the Minutemen were one of the most creative bands, and almost certainly among the best musicians, coming out of the American punk scene of the early ’80s. Influenced by bands like Television and Gang of Four, they had a spare, intricate, and often funky sound that ended up being very influential on later bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Modest Mouse, and many others. In fact, listen to the Minutemen’s D. Boon sing, and you can hear where Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock might very well have picked up his singing style. D. Boon’s incredibly nimble guitar playing, along with Mike Watt’s guitar-like bass (in fact, he says in the documentary that as a teen he thought bass playing simply involved a 4-string guitar, not realizing until a visit to a guitar store that there was a separate instrument called the “bass,” with thicker strings) and George Hurley’s complex drumming all came together with their often politically charged lyrics to forge a sound unlike any other band.
Double Nickels on the Dime stands as their masterpiece, but one of my favorite songs of theirs, “I Felt Like a Gringo,” comes from the album prior to it, 1983’s Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It’s a short, tightly coiled funky punk number about feeling awkward as an American in Mexico in the time of Reagan — the feeling of being the butt of a joke that no one’s willing to tell them. It serves as a fine example of the kind of journalistic, Hunter S. Thompson-ish storytelling that the Minutemen fit into the confines of their song structures. Rhyming was secondary to getting the message across, and the Minutemen usually got that message across in under two minutes…they felt no reason to extend songs for the sake of filling them out.