NOW AND ZEN: A HÜSKER DÜ RETROSPECTIVE

TWO NEW BOOKS, AND REMEMBERING INDIE ROCK’S GREATEST ALBUM ON ITS 20TH ANNIVERSARY

Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould.   SST Records promo picture, c. 1984

Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould. SST Records promo picture, c. 1984

The story below originally ran on Salon.com in 2012

BOOKS ABOUT ROCK MUSICIANS are curious things. Are they written for devotees of the artist, or for music fans in general? And from the author’s perspective, which of those audiences is the more challenging to satisfy? Ideally you’d strive to make both camps happy, but this may be the toughest task of all.

My reason for wondering is that at last I finished chiseling my way through Andrew Earles’ Hüsker Dü biography, “The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock.” I also finished Bob Mould’s autobiography, “See a Little Light,” written with the well-known music journalist Michael Azerrad.

Let’s do Earles first.

Earles is a saint and a hero for giving us this long overdue account, there’s no denying that, and I feel terrible knocking anybody who appreciates Hüsker Dü enough to have researched and produced a 250-page biography. His heart was certainly in the right place. But I need to be honest: It’s a cumbersome read.

As a historical document the book is exhaustive and valuable. But I did not come away feeling that I knew or understood Hüsker Dü — the musicians themselves, their music, or any of the people around them — any more intimately than I already did. Earles’ writing is at once densely opinionated and emotionless. He expertly follows the chronology of the band’s tours and releases, but he never makes it understandable why some of us look back on this band so reverently, or why it would be worth somebody’s time to discover Hüsker Dü today.

Ideally, I should be able to hand this book to a person who knows nothing of Hüsker Dü, and by the end that reader should be hungrily intrigued – or at least entertained. He or she will certainly be “informed,” but Earles will not ignite any passion or interest that isn’t already present. In other words, this is a reference book for the established devotee.

And that title. I understand what he’s getting at, but “noise-pop” is borderline disrespectful, and what does “modern rock” mean?

I make one appearance, as it happens, on Pages 158 and 159. Earles excerpts an interview bassist Greg Norton once gave to a fanzine called Alternative Focus. I’m not named, but I am the person asking Greg those tedious questions. Alternative Focus was my fanzine (hey, if nothing else I was ahead of my time when it came to titles: The word “alternative” was not yet widely used to describe music). The interview took place in 1985 in a backstage space at the Living Room, a now-shuttered nightclub in Providence, R.I., that was a regular stop for underground artists throughout the 1980s.

As for Earles’ opinions on particular songs and albums, I’m in agreement about 80 percent of the time. Where and when we diverge, though, we do so sharply.

For one thing, Earles is harshly critical of the production and mix qualities of the “New Day Rising” album. “Hot, trebly, and very dense,” he writes. “Avoid the compact disc version for this very reason.”

No offense, but that’s a bit like advising somebody to visit Egypt but to skip the pyramids.

He’s right, the production on “New Day Rising” indeed is trebly, its melodies enveloped by a fuzzy, fizzing, needles-pegged curtain of sound. But rather than ruining it, this gives the record a brashness and crispness unlike anything else in the band’s canon. Earles uses the word “hot,” but that’s wrong. The sound isn’t “hot” at all. On the contrary it has a crystalline, sub-zero quality to it. “New Day Rising” is a Minnesota ice storm, colored and sweetened and rendered in song.

And while not as rich or brooding as the monumental “Zen Arcade,” in terms of overall greatness it is only a hair shy. There are at least four songs on this record that rank among the greatest in alt-rock history: Grant Hart’s “Terms of Psychic Warfare” and “Books About UFOs,” and, every bit their equal, Mould’s “I Apologize” and “Celebrated Summer.” Chances are you’ve never heard them, but those are the songs, and this is the album, that could have and should have changed popular music forever. It’s also the record I would recommend to first-time listeners.

Earles gives that honor to “Flip Your Wig,” on which, at least to my ears, Mould’s Ibanez sounds like a toy lawnmower bubbling up under 10 inches of mud.

He also holds a peculiar fondness for Grant Hart’s “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely.” From the “Candy Apple Grey” album, this was the band’s first major label single. It’s not a bad song, but to call it a “thrusting underground pop masterpiece” that “stands as the catchiest, best-written song in the band’s discography” is nothing if not preposterous.

“Don’t Want to Know” is not the song that slapped you upside the head and made you reconsider the possibilities of pop. For that, try Hart’s “It’s Not Funny Anymore” from the “Metal Circus” record, or “Pink Turns to Blue” from “Zen Arcade.” Though, again, it was on “New Day Rising” that Hart took the power-pop meld to the promised land with the aformentioned “Terms” and “Books About UFOs.”

Green Day once covered “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely.” Enough said?

No less unpardonable is Earles’ dis of the song “Hare Krsna,” a booming quasi-instrumental on side 1 of “Zen Arcade.” He calls it “ridiculous.” I really don’t care if Mould was plagiarizing a Bo Diddley riff; “Hare Krsna” is a three-and-a-half minute cyclone that still gives me the chills, 25 years later. There are noises in that song that god himself couldn’t make with a guitar.

Ditto for the “Candy Apple Grey” kickoff, “Crystal.” Earles hates this one too. “Crystal” has always been a controversial song, the argument being that the band was trying too hard, opening their big-label debut with a noisy, hardcore-ish blast as if they had something to prove to longtime fans who feared the switch from indie label to major would entail an artistic compromise. There is some pretentious garbage on “Candy Apple Grey,” but “Crystal” is a kickass song — a gothic squall of guitar backed by a hypnotic, rhythmic thrum.

On the other hand, and much to his credit, Earles describes Hüsker Dü’s 1984 cover of the Byrds’ classic “Eight Miles High” as “the best 7-inch [single] of the 1980s.” No argument there. Hell, I’ll give you one better: Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book, “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” includes a 37-page Hüsker Dü chapter that prior to Earles’ effort stood as the band’s de facto biography. “Quite simply,” Azerrad writes of “Eight Miles High,” “it’s one of the most powerful pieces of rock music ever recorded.”

He’s right. It just is. “I’ll even go further,” says Gorman Bechard, the director of “Every Everything,” a newly released film about Grant Hart. “‘Eight Miles High’ is the greatest cover song of all time. [Roger] McGuinn and company didn’t know it at the time, but they were writing that song for Husker Du.”

Earles has little to say about the Huskers’ final release, the strange and overextended double LP, “Warehouse: Songs and Stories.” I guess I can’t blame him for letting this one lie. Bob and Grant had their power struggles, but as a songwriting tandem their talents seemed to follow more or less the same timeline, rising and falling in unison; this synchronicity is much of what made Hüsker Dü so great. Both hit their artistic peaks on or around “New Day Rising,” and both were laboring by the time “Warehouse” warbled to a close at the end of side 4. I will always love “Up in the Air,” “Back From Somewhere” and, perhaps Hart’s most underappreciated song, “She’s a Woman (and Now He Is a Man).” However, let “Ice Cold Ice” and “You’re a Soldier,” courtesy of Mould and Hart, respectively, stand as the worst Hüsker Dü songs ever recorded.

“Warehouse” also wins a prize for one of the ugliest album covers of all time.

There are those of us who believe that Hüsker Dü pulled the plug exactly when it needed to.

Which brings us to Bob Mould’s autobiography, “See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody,” written with the aforementioned Azerrad and published in hardcover last summer.

This is a book by and about Bob Mould, not a Hüsker Dü bio, but we get the full Hüsker story, start to finish in unexpurgated detail. What it lacks in Hart, so to speak, it certainly gives us in heart, and in a lot of ways this is everything Earles’ book isn’t. It’s all of the historical document that Earles’ provides, except that you actually feel something while reading it.

Though not everything you feel is good.

Mould has spent the better part of 20 years distancing himself from Hüsker Dü.  On the one hand we completely understand this. On the other hand, I don’t think he quite understands his own legacy, and the animosity he expresses toward his former bandmates at times comes across as extreme, even petty.

I was particularly struck by the section in which he talks about the 2004, two-song reunion with Grant Hart in Minneapolis. Grant offers an olive branch, and Mould, in what comes across as needless arrogance, refuses it. Come on, Bob. Life is too short to be carrying around grievances like this. No, there is no excuse (as Bob tells it) for Grant calling you a “fucking prick” in a magazine, as later happened, but maybe he’d never have said that if you hadn’t been so unfriendly, declining his offer to help carry your luggage and to grab a bite to eat.

Other post-breakup references to Hart and Norton are similarly purple, and sometimes mocking. Mould’s description of running into Greg Norton at a concert in England — “He looked like he just pissed his pants” — was so gratuitously rude that I nearly put the book down for good.

And we wonder if Andrew Earles’ book might have been a more compelling read had Mould not “respectfully declined” an invitation to participate. What would the harm have been, seriously?

It would be one thing if Mould were merely resigned to estrangement from his former bandmates. He actually sounds proud of it.

As for the possibility of a Hüsker Dü reunion, which Bob predictably nullifies, he says: “I’ve left Hüsker Dü in the past. I’m not interested in diminishing whatever legacy exists just so people can say, ‘I saw Hüsker Dü.’”

Except, that’s not it. That wouldn’t be the point. This is what I mean about not understanding his own legacy.

This theoretical reunion wouldn’t be for the people who never saw the band. It would be those who did see the band. Nobody would expect, or even want, new songs or a new album. But a show or two, for old times’ sake? That’d be pretty cool.

Here’s the thing: When you’re a musician, you make a sacrifice. Music, like any art, is more than a simple commodity; it’s a part of you that you’ve given to your audience. And you can’t take it back. Once your music becomes important or meaningful to somebody, only that person, not you, can ever make it unimportant. It’s a deal with the devil of sorts, and there’s no getting out of it. Thus, when Bob Mould says these caustic things, and when he declines to take part in the only published biography, it’s not just Greg or Grant who feel the sting, but also the people who loved and supported the music they made together.

Mould will claim that’s unfair. That bad blood, he’ll tell us, exists for good reason, and meanwhile he has moved on to a better, more satisfying place both as an artist and a person. His feelings and choices are none of our business, and who is somebody like me to begrudge a person that?

But is it so simple? I’m not sure.

With the reunion idea/lost cause in mind, I find it very frustrating that Hüsker Dü never developed the same posthumous cachet that other bands of their era did. Like the Replacements, for example, or Sonic Youth. The Hüskers’ could run circles around either of these two, but they never became “cool” in quite the same way.

I suppose it’s due to a total absence of what you might call sex appeal. To say that Hüsker Dü never cultivated any sort of image, in the usual manner of rock bands, is putting it mildly. These guys just didn’t look or carry themselves like musicians. And they didn’t care. Heck, it wasn’t until their eighth and final album that they included a photo of themselves as part of the cover art (the washed-over image on “Zen Arcade” notwithstanding). This modesty, I guess we can call it, was for some of us a part of what made Hüsker Dü so special, and is a testament to the band’s relentless work ethic and almost total lack of pretentiousness. But it has hurt them, I think, in the long run.

As has the fact that only the band’s final two albums — their weakest by far — are available on iTunes. But that’s another story.

In the end, holding these books side by side, neither Earles nor the Mould/Azzerad collaboration offers a whole lot to the fan who doesn’t have at least some predisposed fondness for the music of Hüsker Dü or Bob Mould. But that’s to be expected, perhaps; we’re not talking about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones here, whose stories transcend the music they made. “See a Little Light” comes closest, and love him or hate him, Mould tells a story that you don’t just read but can actually feel. This is the smarter and and more refined product by far. Which, for Hüsker apostles, is a little bit sad, because it’s Earles who was writing for us.

Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, circa 1984. Photo by Robert Francos.

The following story originally ran on Salon.com in 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the release of Zen Arcade

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, MAYBE, IS THE HALLMARK OF A DYING ART. Surely it’s the case with what eventually became known as “alternative rock,” a genre whose tailspin into artistic banality is maybe unprecedented in the history of popular culture.  In the day we called it “indie,” or “underground,” until such adjectives grew wildly out of synch with its mainstream embrace.  Today, bankrolled by billion-dollar labels and obsessed with little more than its own self-image, alt-rock drones on, a cadre of snarky, slicked-up soundalikes.

If I had to choose The Moment upon which I gave up on rock and roll — and it, perhaps, on itself — it was probably the day in 1994 when Kurt Cobain shot himself.  Peter Jennings was reading an obit during World News Tonight; I could vaguely recollect the name until he next said “Nirvana,” and then I thought, Oh, right, them.  A mainstream outfit as far as I knew; cock-rock stuff, wasn’t it?  I was a kid who’d gone through high school in the early 1980s strung out on hardcore punk.  Sure, I’d heard Nirvana’s songs.  And I hated them.  They were everything punk rock had taught me to hate — mangy, overindulgent, noisy and bloated.

The 1980s were an intensely prolific decade for rock, a reality seldom acknowledged any more.  Indeed one the most annoying examples of pop-culture revisionism has been the focus on 80s camp.  If you ever endured a half hour of Fox’s travesty of reminiscence, That 80s Show, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Rhino Records similarly went bottom-scraping when it gave us Like Omigod! — the 80s Pop Culture Box, showcasing the dregs of those nascent days of MTV — including Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” as if these artists, in hand with Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo, were the essence of the era’s talent.  Truth is, we laughed at A Flock of Seagulls as much then as we do now.

Behind the coiffures and kitsch was a far more intriguing and vital scene.  The only trick was knowing where to find it.  Indie bands of this era, often led by teenagers, perfected the art of creative self-sufficiency.  Radio play was solely on college stations, usually late at night.  Acts like Minor Threat, Black Flag and the Misfits became legendary, promoted mainly through word-of-mouth advertising and a handful of independently published fanzines.  They toured in station wagons, lugged their own equipment from the stage, and slept on the couches and floors of fans.  Handbills advertised concerts.  Imagine a group of kids from Boston renting a car and driving to a Grange hall in the western Massachusetts hamlet of Greenfield to see a show.  Imagine hundreds of kids.  It happened.  Concerts were never more than a few dollars and musicians mingled with the crowd, holding impromptu interviews with fanzine writers and breaking down the artist/audience barrier at every level.

And what they played was no longer the proto-punk of Rotten or Strummer.  Traditional punk was passe, supplanted by a bolder, faster, and thoroughly American incarnation known colloquially as hardcore.  If you’ve ever seen Penelope Spheeris’ hilariously awful documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, you’ve seen the overripe caricature that was old-school punk by the end of the 70s.  Hardcore pushed the movement to the edge of sonic viability, with no limits to how noisy or obnoxious a group could be.  Song structures were often brutally minimalist, clocking in at under 20 seconds in a furious, unwrought sub-style known as thrash.

On one hand, it was easy to brush off hardcore as a semi-musical novelty.  After all, how much subtlety could be excavated from a half-minute, hundred-decibel onslaught?  But lurking beneath, one could sometimes locate complexity and nuance.  Hell, the Bad Brains were Rastafarians who broke up their sets with reggae and fusion.  Talent could be a dirty word in the hardcore world, a slap against all its egalitarian impudence, but still you’d stumble on it.  Listen to Scream’s Still Screaming, for instance, with its acoustic time-outs and cascading refrains, or the clever metaphorical songwriting of Jello Biafra, the twitchy frontman of the Dead Kennedys.

For the most part, however, and as in-your-face innovations tend to go, the hardcore framework proved a fast-arcing artistic smother.  Successes of the grassroots ethos aside, it was all coming full circle, the heretofore cutting edge hemmed into a whole new typecast of postadolescent screamers and I-can-play-it-faster guitarists.

But just as punk rock appeared doomed to a legacy of broken guitar strings and blown-out amps –- but not so entirely that a band with the right ideas couldn’t make gold from the pile — along came three weird guys from Minnesota.

Led by guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart, ably assisted by bassist Greg Norton, Hüsker Dü took the volume and do-it-yourself credo of their contemporaries, swirled in a generous measure of melodic hooks and 60s-era psychedelia, and pushed the boundaries of punk into unprecedented territory.

Not that Mould, Hart, or Norton acknowledged such confines to begin with, never exactly pleased with their classification as a punk outfit.  For one thing, they just didn’t look the part: these were big, sweaty, chainsmoking men who obviously hadn’t shaved or showered in a while.  Norton, trimmest and most dapper of the threesome, wore a handlebar mustache long before they became trendy among hipsters. Wrote Terry Katzman, the Hüskers’ first sound engineer and friend still, “Hüsker Dü seemingly defined the punk ethos…without necessarily embracing or endorsing it.”

Sure, they’d been at it since ’79, and the band’s first LP had been a sweatbucket thrashfest called Land Speed Record, but even at breakneck velocity there was something ineffably refined and just, well, different about Hüsker Dü.  If pressed to explain, one might break out 1982′s Everything Falls Apart.  Amidst side one’s hypsersonic avalanche is planted a cover of Donovan’s 1966 hit, “Sunshine Superman.”  Trite, perhaps, on the face of it, until you hear how tellingly and astonishingly un-ironic is the remake, without so much a note’s worth of smirk or parody.

Photo by Daniel Corrigan

While the blending of power/pop extremes was nothing the Velvet Underground, or even the Beatles hadn’t done years earlier, the Hüskers pulled it off in a way that transcended gimmickry, and did so on such terrain –- the American hardcore punk scene –- where nobody saw it coming or even believed it possible.  Mould and Hart would, in a way, finish the job Reed and the others tinkered with one-dimensionally almost two decades earlier, compounding their melodies with equally hefty injections of hippie love and heavy metal thunder.

Hüsker Dü could make you cry, but just for good measure they would rupture your eardrums in the process. Depressive? Angry? Delirious with angst? Conventional gauges of intensity are, at last, irrelevant. Hüsker Dü were all of those things, but they didn’t brood. “In time I came to think of Hüsker music as the shadowy underside of REM’s child-eye vision of love and loss,” says Terri Sutton in the liner notes to Dü Hüskers, a 1993 tribute album. “Their games of hide and seek took place not in some lilac-scented Eden, but under the opaque ice of six-month Minnesotan winter.”

Before their stormy demise in late 1987, the band would release six full-length albums, two EPs, and a catalog of singles and extras.  But the pinnacle of all that output was a double-LP called Zen Arcade, first delivered to stores in July, 1984, by California-based SST records.

“The most important and relevant double album to be released since the Beatles’ White Album,” bragged SST’s own press release.  Such lofty hyperbole would be preposterous, until you consider the full context — or lack thereof — of the underground in 1984.  Eleven years later, Spin would award Zen Arcade the number four spot on its ranking of the hundred best-ever “alternative” records.  Rolling Stone, in its laughably manic list of the best of the ’80s, gave it lip service at number 33.  Not the choicest of praise, until you remember this was not only a band, but an entire musical domain, that lived and died far below the mainstream waterline.

Zen Arcade is best savored not as a CD but in the old, cardboard-and-vinyl format.  Each of its four sides is a distinct chapter with its own temperature and architecture, and each flip of the licorice seems a perfectly placed respite.  Even more than London Calling or Sandinista!, the Clash’s own multi-side megaprojects, Zen Arcade sets the mark for the most brilliantly arranged opus of all time.

The scourge of most double LPs, back when there was such a thing, is they went on for too long — padded with live cuts, covers, and extras.  But here, each and every song belongs exactly in its place, a flawless complement to those on either side.  Zen Arcade can haughtily claim par with the likes of London Calling in the Pantheon of classic two-record sets that aren’t bogged down by their own overreaching or conceit.

Side one’s leadoff is the straightforward kick of “Something I Learned Today,” and concludes with the entrancing earthquake of “Hare Krsna,” a deafening, tambourine-backed instrumental.  The first time I heard this song, sizzling over the stereo in a Boston area record shop twenty years ago, I remember the young clerk furrowing his brow, looking up toward the speakers and saying, “Somebody should write a dissertation about this song.”

The seven opening cuts alone are worthy of any landmark LP.  But there are sixteen more to go.  This is the ultimate workhorse album from the ultimate workhorse band, one so rich with sonic nooks and crannies that an in-depth listen leaves you not only battling incipient tinnitus, but tired.  So many changes from fast to slow, hard to soft, love to hate, all in perfect working sequence.

Over the course of the 23 songs, you’ll find a gamut of daring effects: acoustic guitar, chair throwing, the crashing of waves, whispers and chants.  There’s even the breezy piano of “Monday Will Never be the Same.”  (If Ken Burns ever directs a documentary about the history of alt-rock, the tinkling of “Monday…” needs to be its backing theme.)  Such eclectics are brave, maybe, for what was supposed to be a punk album, but they never become overly reflective or maudlin.  Take “Never Talking to You Again,” for instance, an unforgettable anthem of wrist-snapping guitar (Mould) and heartbreak vocals (Hart) done entirely in 12-string acoustic.  Not the syrupy, melodramatic strum you’d hear nowadays, but a brash, coldly atmospheric attack.  These interludes tame what is essentially a hurricane of neo-psychedelic guitar, Mould and his Ibanez flying-V changing speeds across the four sides like a race car driver slamming through gears.  Ruddered firmly by Mould’s metallic storm, the experimental tweaks don’t have a chance to fester or steal the show.

If you think today’s co-opted rockers are clever with the tempo card, shifting from tough to tender, check out “Standing By the Sea,” with Hart’s cathartic bellows set against Norton’s eerie thrum and the soothe of a crashing surf.  The song, like so much of Zen, is at once gorgeous and terrifying.  And the transition from “Standing…” which ends side two in a kind of post-orgasmic calm, to the ramshackle fury of side three’s “Somewhere,” is arguably the record’s finest moment.

This is the album Nirvana and Pearl Jam only wish they could have made: intelligent, clamorous, and hashing out more torment and passion in four sides than all the grungers and headbangers since.  All without a hint of heavy metal pretension.  To think anyone could concoct a 14 minute bombast of guitar leads and layered feedback — “Reocurring Dreams,” side four — and have it not come out self-consciously.  And when the 40 second whine at the end of “…Dreams” is at last pinched off, the album trembling to a close in a congealed, numbing squeal, the silence that follows is palpable, painful, and disconcerting.  Not until you’ve stopped to catch your breath is it so apparent that your notions of punk are forever changed.

“A strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy,” as Michael Azerrad puts it in his book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. Zen Arcade was the final word on the genre, a scorching of musical earth.  The album wasn’t only about Hüsker Dü coming of age — it was about an entire musical movement coming of age.”

Zen Arcade was not the only Hüsker jewel, though its scope and expanse hold it forever above the others.  Six months after Zen sold more 20,000 copies –- an unbelievable number for a record with no corporate endorsement –- came New Day Rising, which woke the country from its winter freeze in January, 1985.  Along with Metal Circus, a seven-song EP precursor to Zen, these three records represent, possibly, the most potent 1-2-3 punch in the annals of indie music.

Warner Brothers would sign the band for its last two projects, a move that had critics either nodding proudly, “I told you so,” or sucking their teeth nervously.  Major label signings are commonplace today, even for upstart acts piped to the masses via the feeding tubes of MTV, but in the 1980s underground it was not only rare but controversial.  Fans waited anxiously to see if the new contract would nurture Hüsker Dü’s enduring genius, or seal its fate as the first alt-rock dinosaur band.

As it happened, Hüsker Dü never sold its soul to the cigar chompers at Warner Brothers, but nonetheless its final two albums were enormously anticlimactic.  Most disappointing was Candy Apple Grey, annoyingly titled and ruined by a handful of garish acoustic novelties.  It tried so hard to be the corporate Zen Arcade that it nearly became a parody of it, which only serves to solidify the strength and dignity of the original.

Two decades later, Zen Arcade still sounds fresh — the promises of punk rock fulfilled, and, in the same, breath left far, far behind.  In the end, the record probably meant less to punk in 1984 than it does to rock as a whole in 2009 — a glimpse of all the things it could have been.

 

Visit the author’s Husker Du photo group on Flickr by CLICKING HERE.

 

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