by JIM KNIPFEL
November 19, 2017
Two or three weeks after first arriving in Philadelphia, right around the same time I started writing for the Welcomat, I also began a short stint writing about music for the Village Voice. It turned out to be one of the most nightmarish experiences of my less than illustrious writing career. I had no fucking clue what I was doing at the time, didn’t understand the language, and it was my first experience with an intrusive, heavy-handed editor, long before I learned I could tell people like that to go fuck themselves. The editor told me what I could and could not say out of fear of offending readers and advertisers, he rewrote everything I turned in without consulting me, and the stories that came out under my name were an embarrassment, even back then. Thank God all those pieces were written on my old Smith-Corona, so no record of them exists today. If not for my simultaneous dealings with Derek Davis at the Welcomat, my short stint at the Voice may well have marked the merciful end of an inglorious career, and I would have found myself steady work as an industrial snoop instead.
But forgive us our digressions, as Jim Backus once said.
Given I had just arrived on the East Coast from Minneapolis, my first assignment for the Voice was to write a piece on the recent breakup of the seminal Minneapolis-based punk band Husker Dü. The band’s drummer, vocalist and co-songwriter, Grant Hart, had just released a solo single about the breakup, so that was to be the hook.
Well, I guess I was the guy for the job. After first hearing Husker Dü’s song “Everything Falls Apart” on WGBW, which back in 1981 had been Green Bay’s one and only free-form indie radio station, I was hooked. It was a hardcore song, sure, but in simple musical terms a few cuts above the dominant incoherent thrash and burn of the day. It was a tad slower and more melodic, the musicianship was good, you could understand what the singer was saying, and I appreciated the lyrical focus on entropy. The day I heard it on the radio, the deejay never bothered announcing who actually performed the song, so it was a few months later, after accidentally stumbling across an EP also conveniently titled “Everything Falls Apart,” that I realized the band in question was Husker Dü. Once I made the connection, and after hearing the rest of that EP, I began following them closely.
Okay, quick and stupidly geeky history lesson. Husker Dü was a power trio out of Minneapolis with Bob Mould on guitar and vocals, Grant Hart on drums and vocals, and Greg Norton on bass. They took their name from a Swedish board game (it translates as “Do you remember?”), the commercials for which were in heavy rotation in the Upper Midwest in the late Seventies. After a few singles and EPs released by a little local label, they were signed by L.A.-based SST, which at the time was the most prestigious and respected hardcore label in the country. In the early Eighties, SST released most of the top-tier punk acts in the country, all of whom knew how to play their instruments, and each of whom had a very unique sound and lyrical focus. Black Flag fused punk and classic heavy metal, with songs about depression, rage and mental illness. Minutemen had a lighter, bouncier sound, with lyrics that read like little haikus about Reagan-era politics. Husker Dü brought in elements of pop, psychedelia and a Spectoresque wall of sound, and tended to focus on inter-personal issues and relationships and the like, avoiding the standard punk tropes of politics and religion, except in very general terms. Their first full-length album, 1982’s “Land Speed Record,” was a live recording, which was considered a risky, almost unheard of move for a hardcore act in those days, but there were reasons behind the decision.
Around the scene, they came to be known for a few things. Thanks to the range, intelligence, and simple darn catchiness of their tunes (as well as the occasional harmonies), as a songwriting team Mould and Hart were referred to as the Lennon-McCartney of hardcore. Along those same lines, their epic 1984 double album, “Zen Arcade”—which featured everything from standard thrash to melancholy solo piano to long experimental acid jams played backwards—was considered by many the punk “Sgt. Pepper.” They had a reputation for recording all their albums in a single take, and their live shows (hence that first album) were exercises in physicality, with the band performing song after song after song without a break, and without the slightest bit of between-song banter with the audience. Beginning with “Zen Arcade,” whenever they went on tour in support of a new album, they would simply play the album in question start to finish, and that was it. That was the show.
Tempting as it is, I’m going to refrain from mentioning all those persistent “chickenhawk” rumors that followed them for years, less out of fear of a lawsuit than not wanting to jump on the whole “let’s destroy every famous person we can think of by accusing them of everything” bandwagon that’s become so popular in recent days. Forget I ever mentioned it.
Chickenhawks or not, they were still a fucking great band.
By the mid-Eighties a few other things began cropping up. They were talented, and they knew it. On their 1985 album “Flip Your Wig,” they were already writing songs about how famous they were, and the Rock Star Attitude took hold but good. I remember going to see them in Madison around that same time, and while most of the crowd hung around outside waiting for the show to start, a couple of kids in t-shirts and torn jeans wandered into the hall during the band’s sound check. It was a fucking all-ages punk show, right? Who the fuck cares? But Bob Mould stopped the check, refusing to go on until the interlopers were physically removed by security. I remember thinking what an asshole rock star move that was, especially at a five-dollar show, but I still went in and took my spot at the foot of the stage.
Although the pop influence was always clear, their music was fast evolving toward what would soon enough come to be dubbed “inoffensive college rock,” and it became clear they had bigger things in mind than a lifetime of five-dollar all-ages shows in rented halls. The whole “punk” thing was apparently a gutter genre far beneath them. And sure enough, around the same time “Flip Your Wig” was released, they became the first band to emerge from the Eighties hardcore scene to be signed by a major label. And while all this was happening Grant Hart’s heroin addiction was starting to get in the way.
Husker Dü put out two albums with Warner Brothers. The first, 1986’s “Candy Apple Grey,” was pretty great and not at all what you would have expected from a major label. The second, “Warehouse: Songs and Stories,” which came out the following year, was a bland and generic double album filled with jangly, college-radio-friendly pop songs. Then they broke up. The reasons remained a little murky. As I explained to the Voice editor when he was giving me the assignment, longtime fans who’d felt betrayed by the move to a major label claimed Warners execs had been pushing Mould to be the band’s one and only true front man, relegating Hart to drummer and nothing more. As this flew in the face of the band’s ideals, they broke up rather than be pushed around by the Man. It was a pleasant Romantic theory, but likely some distance from the truth. The more likely explanation was that Hart’s junk habit was making him more unreliable, that he was missing shows and rehearsals, and tensions between him and Mould had reached the point at which they were openly trading “Fuck yous” while onstage, something I saw myself at more than one show in those final couple of years.
The editor told me to leave all that out of the story, and for godsakes completely forget about using the phrase “chickenhawk” in any context. He suddenly had a change of heart about the whole breakup story, which I guess wasn’t as clean and upstanding as he’d hoped, and instructed me to simply write a few nice things about Hart’s new single. Again not knowing what I was doing, I did what I was told, filthy as it left me feeling.
Now, back in the day, knowing full well what an arrogant asshole he could be, I always preferred Bob Mould’s songs to Grant Hart’s. He seemed the smarter of the two, and was clearly a depressive, something that worked its way into a number of his lyrics. Hart, in the Paul McCartney role, focused on the silly love songs. He was also more of a storyteller. His ditties tended to be happier and lighter, which wasn’t what I was looking for in my punk rock at the time. I also didn’t care for his voice.
Here’s a telling comparison. Hart’s first post-Huskers single, “2541” (the title refers to the street address of the studio where they recorded all their albums) was a melancholy and bittersweet thinly-veiled look back at how much fun it had been in the early years. Mould’s first solo single, “Poison Years,” which came out a couple of months later, was simply bitter, a long complaint about how he’d wasted his time with those losers when he could have been going on to much bigger things.
But over the three decades that followed Husker Dü’s demise, I noticed something interesting and a bit ironic.
Mould released two solo albums, then formed a popular “alternative” band called Sugar, and now fronts something simply called The Bob Mould Band. These days he’s considered indie rock royalty, the man who was the primary influence on the likes of Nirvana and The Pixies. But throughout all of his subsequent bands, the sound and the songwriting hasn’t changed a whit—he’s been slavishly attempting to recreate Husker Dü every step of the way. I heard a song off his latest album this morning, and it sounded like an outtake from 1985. Hart, on the other hand, proved himself a much more adventurous multi-instrumentalist, eager to experiment with a wide and eclectic range of styles. He not only composed, arranged and produced all of his own albums, with rare exceptions he also played all the instruments and provided all the backup vocals. At the same time he likewise proved himself the more literate of the two. He was friends with William Burroughs, and one of his side projects, Nova Mob, took its name from a Burroughs novel. What’s more, Nova Mob’s album “The Last Days of Pompeii,” is a rock opera based on Werner von Braun’s escape from Germany after the war, and is filled with Thomas Pynchon references. I recently picked up his 2013 double album, “The Argument,” and quickly discovered it was a scene-by-scene retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, again in rock opera form. It’s pretty amazing, with songs ranging from bombastic metal to Twenties-style ukulele numbers. Needless to say, after Husker Dü, Hart was almost completely ignored.
Anyway, Hart died of cancer on September thirteenth of this year, and that’s what prompted all this. Only then did I come to recognize I’d put my allegiance behind the wrong Husker all these years. That’s all.
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