Grant Hart’s Punk Love
You know the universe is bad whenever two people emerge who need each other creatively as much as they can’t stand each other socially. It’s not that there was some special acrimony behind Bob Mould and the now dearly departed Grant Hart, who passed away Sept. 13 at 56 after battling cancer. It’s that their incredible eight-year stint together as the songwriting nucleus of Hüsker Dü never made it to the Internet era.
Sure, the great, great records are available, in all their atrociously mixed glory: I recommend 1983’s unsung power-nugget Metal Circus but you can’t go wrong with understood classics like New Day Rising, Zen Arcade or Flip Your Wig either, and the primitive early Everything Falls Apart and mellowed-out later Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories have solidified better than fellow Minneapolis legends the Replacements’ too-early and too-late stuff as well.
But we’ve watched their peers reunite, even fellow Our Band Could Be Your Life doomed marriages like J Mascis and Lou Barlow in Dinosaur Jr. We’ve witnessed screeching-guitar heroes like Archers of Loaf return from bad-label catalog purgatory with great-label reissues decorated lovingly with bonus tracks and new album art. Mission of Burma spawned a whole second career on Matador, the New York Dolls on Roadrunner. Even Sunny Day Real Estate mustered up a few reunions after patently bizarre our-singer-became-born-again mythology, despite the fact they keep falling apart. Pavement did it.
And you know Van Halen and the Misfits and the Police have tried. It used to seem unthinkable that the musical heroes of our youth would return, but over the last 15 years, it was Hüsker Dü’s total finality that became impossible to fathom. No longer producing infinite content, as one indie-rock successor put it, Hüsker Dü lived for eight years, no more, no less. No oral history, no headlining Coachella gigs, no surprise performance on The Tonight Show.
And it’s not difficult to see which of the two singer-songwriters it impacted most; I have more Twitter followers than Grant Hart did. Bob Mould has maintained such moderate success, first with the excellent Sugar and then on his own, that he could barely be bothered to get Hüsker Dü’s SST catalog remastered, much less reunite the band. God love the deluxe editions of Sugar’s two glorious albums on Merge, but you can find 84 percent of the music on those CDs in a dollar bin and their production left nothing to be desired to begin with; Numero Group has a rarities box coming soon and they’re working on reissues of the early records, but Hart won’t get to be part of that.
Mould’s Facebook tribute to his friend and former artistic foil is warm but frank: “We stayed in contact over the next 29 years — sometimes peaceful, sometimes difficult, sometimes through go-betweens. For better or worse, that’s how it was, and occasionally that’s what it is when two people care deeply about everything they built together.”
For years following their breakup, Mould wouldn't play Hüsker Dü’ songs either with Sugar or his solo band, although he would break them out when performing by himself. It wasn't until his 2005 Body of Song tour, captured on the excellent Circle of Friends DVD, that he was able to revisit those defining songs with other musicians.
Meanwhile, following the trio’s split, Grant Hart released one full-length solo album per decade for the rest of his life, and they branched out further than someone like me who never checked them out until his passing could believe. On 1988’s Intolerance, Hart played everything, including organ and harmonica, to invigorating if not fully-formed results: he invented Bruce-Springsteen-goes-punk ages before Against Me! on “Now That You Know Me,” challenged the Pogues with the Celtic roil of “The Main” and whistled through a Philly soul pastiche called “You’re the Victim.”
His short-lived band Nova Mob began his flirtation with conceptual frameworks like 1991’s The Last Days of Pompeii, which had a storyline as well as some musical twists, like the cha-cha lounge music of “Getaway (Gateway) in Time” that gives way to a “White Rabbit”-style chorus. The solo Hot Wax in 2009 was recorded with members of Godspeed You!, Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. Keyboards began to dominate Hart’s later releases, to the point that 2013’s The Argument, another literary cycle, this time based on Paradise Lost, often sounds like Procol Harum-style art-rock on tracks like the comic-goth “I Am Death.”
But Hart’s sporadic solo career left so much space for the reunion that never happened, the elephant in the room for the guy who came up with a good many of Hüsker Dü’s best songs: “Pink Turns to Blue,” “Diane,” “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Turn on the News,” even the nearly solo piano weeper “No Promise Have I Made.” He was in no way the John Oates or Art Garfunkel of the analogy. Hart’s frantic, hyperventilating drums always pushed Mould’s breakneck guitar and hurried vocals forward, and his own songs were almost classically measured in their mastery of verses and choruses. He brought in piano as early as 1985’s delightfully swinging “Books About UFOs,” and if anyone in the band was trying to truly get them on the radio when they made that major-label gambit in 1986, it was Hart, whose “Sorry Somehow” could’ve been a hit if they had given it a contemporary production.
Amazingly, it wasn’t just Hart’s furious drumming or naturally instantaneous melodies that made Hüsker Dü iconic, but the relationships he outlined in otherwise simple pop-punk tunes. Candy Apple Grey indulged the breakup song as much as any emo band would but New Day Rising had plenty of happy love going on in real time, usually emanating from Hart. “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” detailed his infatuation with a woman whose room is always a mess, whose “worn-out smile she’ll wear some more,” and the title of “Books About UFOs” comes from the song’s object of affection reading them. Flip Your Wig veered even closer to conventional love songs with “Green Eyes."
And Warehouse: Songs and Stories contained Hart’s “She’s a Woman (And Now He Is a Man),” which laid out as painful a breakup as anything else released in 1987 while functioning today as what could well be a tune about gender transitioning: “There's a vacancy between them everyday / And a sense of guilt that's not going away / When they get older perhaps they'll understand / She’s a woman and now he is a man.” Being 1987, it’s more likely that it’s just a rehash of the odious he-finally-left-her-now-he’s-a-real-man cliché. But Hart was steeped in LGBT culture; who knows! The pronouns match up in 2017, and it would be poetic for them to parallel the ‘Mats’ “Androgynous” as a prescient and respectful look at the transgender point-of-view at an insanely early time either way.
That’s the thing with Hart’s writing; it’s not difficult to believe he was ahead of his time about crystallizing all kinds of new or unconventional relationships into song. Hüsker Dü largely left out he/she pronouns from their tunes partly because they didn’t want their sexuality to define the band and partly because they believed their music should be as universal as possible without appearing to struggle much with the politics of that. They struggled with each other instead in service to that shared vision, which is love in a way. Tough love, to be sure. But the fact that Mould and Hart never reignited their prolific and sui generis musical partnership only made them seem all the more aware, and scared, of how they were only able to transcend the medium together. And it’s a genuine shame they couldn’t make that happen one last time after the world caught up to their brilliance by even inventing a whole new radio format for it: alternative rock.
Husker Du Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness