Grant Hart, center, in Hüsker Dü

Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü's drummer and inspiration for a rock generation, is dead at 56

Pragmatic about heartbreak and driven to write songs about life's hard truths, Hart was catholic in his rock taste


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Annie Zaleski
September 14, 2017 10:59PM (UTC)

Overnight Thursday, news broke that Grant Hart, a versatile musician who's best known as the drummer/vocalist/co-songwriter in '80s underground legends, had passed away. He was 56. The Star Tribune reported that the musician had recently received a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, with his former Hüsker Dü bandmate Greg Norton adding that Hart was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday night.

News of his death was wrenching. Just last week, the reissue label Numero Group announced "Savage Young Dü," an extensive (and long-awaited) three-CD boxed set encompassing Hüsker Dü's ferocious early years. Each member of the trio contributes to that ferocity, but Hart's drumming kept the band's legendary speeds topped off. In fact, vintage Hüsker Dü live footage shows Hart as the eerily steady nexus of this hurricane-force sound and speed—a mighty drummer who somehow manages to be both feral and calm, and nonchalant about the power he wields.

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Still, figuring out where to begin with Hart's musical talents is daunting. He was that rarest of drummer breeds — one who also sings lead on occasion, while playing — and the songs he contributed to Hüsker Dü were brisk and to the point. Early on, this led to the chilling and harrowing "Diane," with its lyrics based on a real-life murder. Later, Hart honed his knack for emotional brutality. The roiling, acoustic-based "Never Talking To You Again" is a crisp and no-holds-barred kiss-off toward an ex, while "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" is about the tortured aftermath of a breakup that's difficult to let go. "Please leave your number and a message at the tone," the song ends. "Or you can just go on and leave me alone."

Sonically, Hart's songwriting went in scattered directions as Hüsker Dü progressed beyond hardcore punk, although his direct nature and melodic gifts always shone through. "Diane" is a scabrous and harrowing metallic drone; "Green Eyes" and "Pink Turns to Blue" are noise-coated power-pop; and "The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill" is punkish and freewheeling. "Books About UFOs" is even a positively jaunty, '60s pop-kissed number. No matter what the style, however, Hart's ability to craft indelible hooks was almost supernatural.

This ability to shapeshift between genres became even more pronounced when Hart went solo after Hüsker Dü's 1988 breakup. The records he released under his own name and with the band Nova Mob are defiantly uncategorizable. Over the years, Hart dabbled in shirring psych-pop ("2541"), dazzling psych-drone (Nova Mob's pulsating "Shoot Your Way to Freedom"), Elvis Costello-esque power-pop (the organ-stung "Now That You Know Me") and shambling indie-rock ("Narcissus Narcissus"). On his last solo album, 2013's "The Argument," Hart sounds like a weathered and mischievous raconteur — his vocals are lilting and folksy, like a clear-headed Dylan — as he waltzes through lo-fi glam, keyboard-iced lounge croons and theatrical rock.

And, really, that's barely scratching the surface. Hüsker Dü's influence on modern rock music is impossible to overstate. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong said as much in an Instagram remembrance, that his own trio exists because of Hüsker Dü, and groups such as Foo Fighters and Pixies owe obvious debts to the band.

But Hart's influence is best exemplified by the fact that musicians shared so many different songs by him, culled from different eras, once news of his death broke. "Grant Hart wrote some of the songs that matter the most to me," Hold Steady's Crag Finn tweeted, in addition to a clip of the shambolic, "It's Not Funny Anymore." Ryan Adams posted the "Zen Arcade" fuzzbomb "Somewhere," and tweeted, "RIP Grant Hart. Your music saved my life. It was with me the day I left home. It's with me now. Travel safely to the summerlands."

The Posies, meanwhile, tweeted their buzzsawing 1996 song "Grant Hart," a loving nod to Hüsker Dü that actually led to Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer backing up their hero. Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger posted his stark, piano-based cover of "Sorry Somehow" and wrote, "I am not a partisan about Hart vs. Mould. I love them both a lot, but Grant's songs had a slight edge in the vulnerability department." Jon Wurster, who's drummed in Hüsker Dü guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould's solo band for years, tweeted the solo song "The Main" and wrote, "His drumming was so incredible I feel like a fraud when we play Husker Du songs. AND he could write & sing like this."

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In his own lovely statement, Mould called Hart "a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller and a frighteningly talented musician," and remembered their "amazing decade" together in the influential band. "We made amazing music together. We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world. When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared. The band was our life."

That care and vulnerability no doubt explains why Hart's death feels so devastating. His music never shied away from hard truths or the heartbreaking side of life, even if these things were difficult to hear, because Hart knew there wasn't always a silver lining. That made his music enormously relatable and endearing, as he voiced the kinds of anxiety-inducing things that keep people awake in the middle of the night. But even the darkest moments had smudges of beauty, Hart's way of leaving the door cracked, just in case, for better days and brighter possibilities.


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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