Me and Hüsker Dü

I was the band's biggest fan, and even I'm not sure whom these two rock histories were written for

Published December 2, 2011 1:15AM (EST)

Hüsker Dü      (Daniel Corrigan)
Hüsker Dü (Daniel Corrigan)

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As a historical document the book is exhaustive and valuable.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.

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 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 (it got a little eye-rolling on "Candy Apple Grey," but any band that could cover “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme without being ironic about it ...) 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.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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