Now and Zen

On the 20th anniversary of its release, Husker Du's landmark album "Zen Arcade" proves there was way more to '80s music than kitsch, camp and bad haircuts.

Published July 1, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

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 unprecedented in the history of popular culture. Back in the day, we called it "indie" or "underground," until such adjectives grew wildly out of sync 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 slicked-up sound-alikes whose smirks and snarls look up from compact discs across the country and around the world.

If I had to choose The Moment upon which I gave up on rock 'n' 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? As 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 and bloated with noisy self-assurance.

The 1980s were an intensely prolific decade for rock, a reality seldom acknowledged anymore. Indeed, one of 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 (Totally)," 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 -- promoted mainly through word-of-mouth advertising and a handful of independently published fanzines -- became legendary. 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. Concerts were never more than a few dollars and musicians mingled with the crowd, holding impromptu interviews with zine writers and breaking down the artist/audience barrier at every level.

And what they played was no longer the proto-punk of Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer. Traditional punk was passé, 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, and 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 timeouts and cascading refrains, or the clever metaphorical songwriting of Jello Biafra, 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 grass-roots ethos aside, it was all coming full circle, the heretofore cutting edge hemmed into a whole new typecast of post-adolescent 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, chain-smoking men who obviously hadn't shaved or showered in a while. Norton, trimmest and most dapper of the threesome, wore a handlebar mustache. 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 sweat-bucket thrash fest 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." Amid Side 1'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 as a note's worth of smirk or parody.

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 kindergarten melodies with equally hefty injections of hippie love and heavy-metal thunder.

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 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 magazine would award "Zen Arcade" the No. 4 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 No. 33. Not the choicest of praise, until you remember that not only this band, but their entire musical domain, 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 multiside 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 ambition or conceit.

Side 1's leadoff is the straightforward kick of "Something I Learned Today," and it 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 20 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 16 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, a can't-forget anthem of wrist-snapping guitar (Mould) and heartbreak vocals (Hart) done entirely in 12-string acoustic: not the syrupy, melodramatic strum you'd hear in 2004, 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 2 in a kind of post-orgasmic calm, to the ramshackle fury of Side 3's "Somewhere," is arguably the record's finest moment.

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 H|sker 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 disc to "Zen Arcade," on which 23 Minneapolis bands replay the entire album, start-to-finish (one of two full-length tributes paid to the Dü, by the way). "Their games of hide and seek took place not in some lilac-scented Eden, but under the opaque ice of six-month Minnesotan winter."

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. It's amazing to think anyone could concoct a 14-minute bombast of guitar leads and layered feedback -- "Reocurring Dreams," Side 4 -- 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 apparent that your notions of punk are forever changed.

"A strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy," Michael Azerrad calls 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 than 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 Bros. 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 Bros., 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 legacy of "Zen Arcade" probably meant less to punk in 1984 than it does to rock as a whole in 2004 -- a glimpse of all the things it could have been.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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