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33 1/3 Books: Loveless and Double Nickels on the Dime

Although I’d previously only read one of the 33 1/3 books from cover to cover—Ben Sisario’s solid, if unspectacular tome on the Pixies’ Doolittle—I’ve had my eyes on a few of them over the last few months, eagerly waiting for the available time to read something other than critical theory. I skimmed through a handful of the books today at the Harvard Book Store, opting for entries on Loveless and Double Nickels on the Dime (which was written by my ’90s-indie-rock-lovin’ doppelganger, Michael T. Fournier). Despite running into Mike at the Newbury Comics in Harvard Square shortly after purchasing his book (“It’s funny I ran into you… guess what I just bought?”), I somewhat arbitrarily opted to read his book second, perhaps because I’d been waiting to read the other book for some time. Just like I’ve been waiting for a My Bloody Valentine record for some time. Imagine that.

Mike McGonigal's Loveless

Though the numerous delays that marked the slow-crawl publication of Mike McGonigal’s entry on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless are amazingly appropriate given the book’s subject, I worried about whether the book would justify the delays. Well…

McGonigal simply tries to do too much. I would have been happy with a detailed account of the recording sessions, but McGonigal skips between his memories of the band’s live show, the interpersonal discord, the label issues, the aesthetic touchstones (in a goddamn top ten list in the middle of the book), “where are they now,” the notable followers, a stripper dancing to “Sometimes,” his connections to the I Love Music board (really), and his short reviews of the songs. There’s a chapter essentially on Rafael Toral’s Wave Field. Loveless (the album) has such a massive mythology surrounding it that 117 pages isn’t enough to go in-depth about all of these topics, even if the inclination is that all of them (well, most of them) need to be discussed. Are there interesting facts in almost all of these categories? Sure. Would the book have been a more compelling read if he had cut a few of them out? Yeah.

Perhaps the cause of the book’s topical happy feet is Kevin Shields, who consented to interviews for the project but frequently comes off of as a frustrating interview subject. While he does his fair share of debunking myths and giving insights into this particular recording process, many of his answers deny one thing without filling in the actual information. When asked about lyrics, for example, Shields laughs about how massively incorrect the various online transcriptions are and then avoids giving any examples of the actual lines. There’s a myth to debunk and a myth to maintain, after all. The other members of the band give far less, if any input (Colm O’Ciosoig did not contribute). Yes, Loveless is Shields’ album, but hearing about his thought process from the others involved, especially Bilinda, is frequently insightful.

Rather than close the book with the dishearteningly vague possibility of a reunion/follow-up record (which he even notes wasn’t his original ending), series editor David Barker told McGonigal that a more upbeat ending would help the text. Oh. After that point, McGonigal gets self-referential about the project, recognizing that “I know this is a short book…” before stumbling onto Loveless’s critical legacy and then a final chapter on that Toral album. What is this, A.I.? I understand Barker’s impetus for a different ending, but having three separate, disjointed endings and discussing each as such is rather infuriating.

Despite the overly broad scope of the book, Shields’ gentle posturing, and the stuttering conclusion, Loveless (the book) still has moments that spur my genuine interest. Hearing briefly about O’Ciosoig’s illness, depression, and eviction during the recording process made me understand why he’s essentially a digitized ghost on the album. Reading about how Deb Googe had almost no part in the recording process clarified her later fronting role in Snowpony. Finding out about Bilinda’s dissolving relationship with Shields and her son from a previous relationship gave shape to her frequently amorphous voice. McGonigal had a fairly thankless role in writing about such a mystified album, but I wish more of the book had focused on the points of interest rather than baffling semi-tangents.

Michael T. Fournier's Double Nickels on the Dime

In contrast to an underwhelming entry on an album I love, Michael T. Fournier’s entry on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime did exactly what I hoped it would: stoke my interest in an album I’m not nearly as familiar with. Between the conversational insights on the songs from years of listening, the discussions with Mike Watt, and the close readings of the songs’ topical and musical motifs, Fournier makes the forty-five-song behemoth seems entirely approachable.

Although the book’s organization (chapters on each side of the album, specific discussions of the songs in order) seems considerably more straightforward than the books on Doolittle and Loveless, this structure allows Fournier to establish the thematic ties of each side and of the record as a whole while keeping the focus on the individual songs. While Fournier encourages skipping around to read about your favorite tracks on the album, reading about them in the context of each band member’s side helps makes sense of how D., Mike, and Georgie each operated. Thinking about the record in terms of the “fantasy draft” (each band member picked the songs for their side and left the rest for the “Side Chaff” ) is endlessly entertaining for me, given my fondness for fantasy hockey, but it also establishes who prefers which songs and why.

This structure is held together by a deluge of information from a variety of perspectives. Thinking about who wrote which songs (many were contracted out to the band’s friends to keep things fresh), which bands influenced particular songs (whether funk or Wire), and the political commentary of specific tracks keeps the book moving along, but deeper insights like Mike Watt’s admission of the influence of Joyce’s Ulysses on a number of his songs made me sit up and take notice.

Fournier doesn’t dwell much on the band’s fate, avoiding McGonigal’s urge to append ending after ending. While I wouldn’t have minded a post-Double Nickels on the Dime summary after the final chapter, the book seems complete without it since Fournier contextualizes the album within the band’s larger catalog. The best course of action would be to watch the Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, to fill in the biographical gaps and to feel the sweat of the band’s live performances and then read the book to truly embrace the individual songs.

Michael T. Fournier’s Double Nickels on the Dime accomplishes the two feats all of these books should aim for: bolster my knowledge about an album and make me want to hear it again. After finishing the book, I wanted to skip through the record and listen to “West Germany,” “June 16th, “No Exchange,” “The Politics of Time,” “History Lesson Part II” and countless others while re-reading sections of the book. Oh, but I also wanted to listen to each side as such and then listen to the album as a whole. I can’t say that I felt the impulse to hear more than a few songs of Loveless again after finishing that book and certainly didn’t twitch to re-read the book itself.

I imagine that I’ll read a few more of the 33 1/3 books over the next few months (the entries on David Bowie’s Low, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand are all intriguing), but for now I’ll have to do with listening to Double Nickels on the Dime as I flip through the particular notes.