Twenty-five years ago today, rock music lost one of its true originals when Minutemen guitarist and vocalist D. Boon died in a car accident. Today we look back on his short life and legacy.
Born Dennes Boon in April 1958, Boon grew up in a converted Army barracks in San Pedro, California. At age 13, while playing in a local park, he met Mike Watt after literally falling out of a tree and almost landing on him. The two soon became friends and in 1973, along with D. Boon’s brother Joe, formed a group called Bright Orange Band (Boon’s mother had taught him guitar and encouraged the band’s formation). It proved to be shortlived, but in 1976, shortly after the death of Boon’s mother, they discovered punk rock and were re-invigorated. Joe dropped out, but D. Boon and Mike Watt recruited a friend named Greg Hurley to play drums and thus was born the Minutemen – one of the most electrifying, influential bands to come out of the early punk rock scene in LA.
It was a turbulent period for rock in Los Angeles. On the Sunset Strip, coked-out hair metal rock god wannabes in spandex churned out endless guitar solos between bouts of screechy, vacuous lyrics. But outside the strip, in small, seedy clubs, a revolution was not-so-quietly brewing. Influenced by the British punk scene of the late 70s (and to a lesser extent the No Wave scene in New York), Los Angeles was developing its own breed of punk rock – a heavier, faster, less fashion-obsessed offspring of its cross-Atlantic cousin. As one-time Black Flag and Circle Jerks front man Keith Morris said of the T-shirt and jeans aesthetic, “We looked like kids who worked at the gas station or submarine shop.”
The no-nonsense approach extended to the music itself. Songs were short and to the point (it was widely believed, though not actually true, that the Minutemen took their name from the fact that many of their tunes clocked less than 60 seconds) and musicianship was secondary to passion and originality. Unlike British punk rock bands, who were signed by major labels like E.M.I., the American hardcore bands took a hands-on approach. They started their own labels, recorded on the cheap, and sold more EPs at their concerts than at record stores. As D. Boon would sing on “History Lesson – Part II,” “Our band could be your life.”
No one would epitomize this DIY ethic more than the Minutemen. They were soon signed to SST Records (hands down the most important indie label of the 1980s) and their early efforts were recorded with extreme economy. The band would book studios after midnight, lay down well-rehearsed tracks on previously used tape, and even record songs in the order they wanted them to appear on the album in order to spend less time mastering the record. D. Boon even contributed artwork for many of the band's cover sleeves.
Though all held down day jobs, they toured extensively, driving to gigs in an Econoline van and acting as their own roadies and stage techs. “Jamming econo” the band called their approach, and while it may have been necessitated by the economics of underground music, it was also a kind of political statement amidst the decadence of Reagan-era Los Angeles.
What set them apart from their hardcore peers, though, was the music itself. Many punk bands at the time relied on three chord bursts of verse-chorus-verse, masking their lack of musicianship with attitude, aggression and trainwreck stage theatrics. The Minutemen, with D. Boon’s buoyant, angular guitar at the center, expanded punk rock’s palette to include R&B, acid jazz, funk and spoken-word influences.
Their masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, featured punk rock no-no’s like guitar solos, clean-toned instruments (no distortion), and even instrumentals. Though it sold modestly at the time, it has since gone on to enjoy a reputation as one of the most important albums of the era, with Rolling Stone (who originally gave the album only 3.5 of 5 stars) recently naming it among the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, and Pitchfork naming it among the Best Albums of the 1980s. Its daring stylistic experimentalism (the band were avowed fans of Captain Beefheart) made it, according to American Hardcore author Steve Blush, “either the pinnacle or the downfall of the pure hardcore scene.”
As the LA hardcore scene started gaining increasing national and international attention, the band saw themselves touring even more extensively, including a grueling European tour with labelmates Black Flag. They were on tour on December 22, 1985, driving from a gig in Arizona, when the van went off the road. D. Boon, sick with a fever, was lying down in back with no seat belt. When the rear doors flew open, he was ejected and would die instantly of a broken neck. D. Boon was 27 years old.
The Minutemen were no more. Mike Watt and Greg Hurley would later reform and enjoy success as fIREHOSE, with every recording they produced dedicated to the memory of D. Boon. The two have occasionally performed Minutemen songs – but instead of replacing D. Boon on guitar, they simply set up his guitar and amp on the stage, where it stands in silence.
“Folks ask me what kind of bassist I am,” Watt wrote on his webpage. “My answer is ‘I’m D. Boon’s bass player.’”