30 Years Ago: Minutemen’s D. Boon Dies in Tragic Van Accident
Much has been made of the "27 Club," that unfortunate roll call of musicians who took their final bows at that tender age. Blues legend Robert Johnson is the club's first inductee, but the roster includes the holy trinity of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. More recent members include Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
But there's another name among those ranks – one that 30 years later, should resonate particularly with fans of alternative music: Minutemen guitarist-singer D. Boon.
Dennes Boon (pictured above left) was born and raised just south of Los Angeles in the beach town of San Pedro, Calif. To this day it remains more working class than southern California chic, but when Boon was coming up, it was really working class. His family lived in an old Army barracks that had been converted into housing projects, but he was rich in terms of family. He had the kind of parents who inspired intellectual curiosity, love of art and a sense of adventure.
Boon grew up making his own fun, playing army games in the local park and learning bass, though his mother wished he'd take up the guitar like she did. He met his best friend Mike Watt when both were 13 years old. The story goes that Boon jumped out of one of the park's tree and landed in front of his future bassist. It was a case of mistaken identity: Boon was playing a game of war with his buddies and he thought Watt was his friend named Eskimo.
Boon and Watt became friends immediately, with Boon taking the intellectual lead and Watt following. Exceedingly bright even at a young age, Boon got his new friend into history and exposed him to music. Mrs. Boon talked Watt into playing bass, freeing up her son to move over to guitar and they played along with records in Boon's bedroom at the old army barracks.
The pair graduated from San Pedro High School in 1976 and Boon's mother died shortly after. That's the year that punk broke and the outsiders and misfits in the area created "the perfect scene for us," as Watt said in the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo.
A few years passed before the two buddies, along with fellow San Pedro High alumnus George Hurley, formed the Reactionaries – precursor to Minutemen. They were a four-piece with Martin Tamburovich on vocals and they played their first gig opening for Black Flag.
But the Reactionaries didn't last long. Boon decided they didn't need anyone else singing and that they'd be better as a trio. The two childhood friends named their new band Minutemen both as a jab at the right wing and as a parody of huge rock bands, the latter being a play on minute (as in tiny) men. They played only one gig as Minutemen before SST and Black Flag honcho Greg Ginn asked them to record. The result was 1980's Paranoid Time EP which packs seven songs into seven minutes.
Hurley's funky drumming, Watt's noodling bass and Boon's expressive guitar were the perfect backdrop for the almost free verse vocals shared by Boon and Watt. Minutemen were almost jazzy – like Pere Ubu – but with that hardcore edge distinct to southern California. The sound was both their magic and their curse. In a hardcore scene that demanded three-chord songs, Minutemen's intricate playing and occasional covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Halen branded them as outsiders among outsiders – but it also made them favorites among their fellow musicians. Everything about Minutemen was a little different from the hardcore scene: their lyrics were political but not pedantic; their vibe was more fun and jokey than dark and apathetic and their musicianship was a level or two above everyone else in their scene.
Boon didn't look like a front man, nor did he move like one. Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis once said, "I never saw a fat guy move that much." But, man, could Boon play guitar. Black Flag's Keith Morris likened Boon to a punk rock Wes Montgomery – one of the great jazz guitarists – but he could just as easily play country licks like those featured in "Corona," (known to many as the theme to Jackass). Rolling Stone's David Fricke summed up Boon's playing like this: "The telegraphic stutter and almost scientific angularity of singer-guitarist D. Boon's chordings and breakneck solos heighten the jazzier tangents he dares to take."
In 1984, the band released their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime featuring 45 tracks inspired by an odd combination of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma and Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55." The former inspired the album's structure: it's a double album with each side reflecting one band member with one side – "Chaff" – to spare. But the Hagar influence was entirely in the title with "double nickels" being slang for "55." It remains one of those records that changed everything for those who heard it at the time, and it suggested a new direction for alternative music.
On Dec. 13, 1985, the band opened for R.E.M. in Charlotte, N.C., while Minutemen were supporting their covers album 3-Way Tie (For Last). R.E.M. invited the band to join them onstage during the encore and it would be the last time Watt would ever play with his childhood friend. Nine days later on Dec. 22, the van in which Boon was riding swerved off the road, ejecting him through the rear doors. He died on the scene of a broken neck.
Following Boon's death, Watt and Hurley originally intended to quit music altogether, but instead formed fIREHOSE and released five albums between 1986 and 1993. Both have also had their own solo projects and Watt's solo debut, 1996's Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, features a veritable who's who of alternative music including Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Frank Black, Thurston Moore and Beastie Boys Mike D and Ad-Rock. Still, nothing will likely match the creative output of Minutemen.
And what sets Boon apart from the other members of the 27 Club is that his life was cut short through no fault of his own. They're all tragedies, mind you, and we wish we had all of them back for at least one more album, one more show or even one more song. But Boon's death comes down to a driver losing control for a single moment. In that split second, one of the '80s brightest flames was extinguished. As Minuteman drummer Hurley says in We Jam Econo, "It's kind of like having a hole where a heart was."