Monday, October 02, 2017
Of Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Hüsker Dü
I have never seen Bob Mould live. I have had plenty of opportunities. It's kind of strange to me.
I began listening to Hüsker Dü with two albums, acquired around the same time: Metal Circus and Zen Arcade. I'd given my father a list of records to pick up for me on a trip to the United States, because punk rock was hard to find up here, and I'd been hearing about these records, reading reviews (some previous Hüsker Dü naysayer in Seattle's The Rocket had finally seen the light and called Zen Arcade a double album of "pure protein," and I still remember the phrase). Somewhat to my shock, Dad came back with everything on my list, which was how, as memory serves, I first acquired the Circle Jerks' Group Sex, the Minutemen's Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat and Double Nickles on the Dime, and the two Dü's (unless I had Metal Circus before that; I might have). I think maybe M.I.A's Murder in a Foreign Place was in that stack, too. I'm not sure how old I was exactly - about 15? - but Zen Arcade had only just been released (it came out in 1983). These were the days when I was using my parents' old TV console for the turntable, and could stack records to drop and play, living in a condo at 21555 Dewdney Trunk Road in Maple Ridge. Zen Arcade (and the Minutmen's Double Nickels) fast became my favourite records and got double stacked so many times I ended up replacing both of them.
1983 was a pretty good year for punk rock, actually.
Zen Arcade, for those who don't know it, is not exactly a narrative - the story it tells has no beginning, middle, or end - but it's sort of the punk Quadrophenia, noisy and artful, about troubled youth, and about as passionately played as any rock music ever could be. There are moments on it that speak to free jazz and avant-gardism - like an epic, spastic, backmasking-heavy jam called "Reoccurring Dreams" that ends the album. But there are also some of the greatest teen angst anthems ever, both tightly focused ("Chartered Trips," say) or sprawlingly loose ("What's Goin' On?"). The songs on it are almost always ("Pride," "Indecision Time," "Whatever") intensely personal, filled with anguish, but mostly driven by inner conflicts, not social malaise. It has the distinction of being one of those few rock albums, like Mission of Burma's vs., the Meat Puppets II, or the Flesh Eaters' Forever Came Today that, since I heard it, has remained forever in my top-10 desert island discs, albums that I hope I will always have with me in some form or other. The Metal Circus EP is slightly lesser - it was marred, for me by a song by Grant Hart, "Diane," that describes a murder from the point of view of the murderer. It's probably a wholly respectful song - it's quite mournful, as I recall it - but the content was too disturbing for me at the time, making that side of the album one I seldom played (though every other song on it is great). "Real World" was an interesting lyric, for someone whose awareness of punk was pretty much co-extensive with the arrest and trial of the Squamish Five (as I knew them then; of course they called themselves Direct Action).
People talk about anarchy and taking up the fight
Well I'm afraid of things like that and I lock my doors at night
I don't rape and I don't pillage other people's lives
I won't practice what you preach and I won't see through your eyes
You want to change the world by breaking rules and laws
People don't do things like that in the real world at all
You're not a cop or a politician
You're a person too
You can sing any song you want -
But you're still the same
There were things I didn't identify with in those early Dü albums - like Grant Hart's song about heroin ("Pink Turns to Blue"). I can't say I ever had much interest in Krishna culture, either, but I loved the song about it on the album. Zen Arcade's passion and soul-searching made it eclipse every other youth culture album I owned - more than My War, more than anything the Replacements or Sonic Youth did, and certainly more than the political punk of Dead Kennedys and DOA. About the only other band that was in competetion in terms of engraining themselves with my own emotions, my own feelings about the world was Nomeansno.
I loved Zen Arcade so much that when the vastly less cohesive New Day Rising came out - which, coincidentally, my MOTHER picked up for me on a trip to the States - I threw it under the bus. Every song on it, pretty much, is great, as is the cover image, and I can see why some friends of mine consider it the band's masterstroke; but the songs spin off in too many different directions, from the playful (Hart's "Books About UFO's") to the savage (Mould's "Plans I Make"), from pop ("The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill") to noisy avant-punk ("59 Times the Pain"). There remains some soul searching ("I Apologize") and a sense of alienated observation of the outside world ("Powerline") but - though I can see now that it's a kind of masterpiece in its own right, and that it does cohere on SOME level - at the time, it just wasn't Zen Arcade enough for me. I didn't spin it very often.
I bought every Dü album after that, though, out of loyalty and hope, and discovered after several tries on each that I didn't really like one of them. There were a few songs I understood and could enjoy - but they were all by Grant Hart, who, while obviously always the lesser songwriter, remained consistent through Dü's career. His palette expanded, but his songwriting remained pretty much in vein with the earlier songs - unlike Bob's, which seemed to undergow a marked change, as he continued to mature. While Mould's trajectory makes sense - from the savage onslaught of Land Speed Record to the artful powerhouse of Zen Arcade to the soul-searching, self-reflecting singer-songwriter of Warehouse: Songs and Stories, I never wanted that last incarnation. I was ready for him to stop growing in 1983, maybe 1984. He didn't, and I held it against him. About the only post-New Day Rising release of theirs that I thoroughly loved was the 7" of "Eight Miles High," and that song was a cover.
Then sometime in the early 1990's, two things happened: a friend of mine got into heroin - an ugly and painful journey, the final upshot of which was that we were no longer friends; and I discovered that Bob Mould was gay, and that Grant Hart was bisexual.
My becoming aware up-close of how stupid a drug heroin was made me a lot more judgmental about it, and/ or public figures that openly used it, like Hart (Kim Deal bothered me too, though Lou Reed always got a pass, because I'd been listening to Lou long before I saw how ugly that drug was). It didn't help that Mould's disapproval of Hart's heroin use was a key factor, apparently, in the band breaking up. It didn't affect my feelings about Mould, but it sort of made songs like "Pink Turns to Blue" or "She Floated Away" less easy to consume.
The queer thing was a little more complicated, because suddenly I became confused about my own identification with Zen Arcade: I felt that album like no other, but it was, apparently, the feelings of a gay man that I was feeling, even though I didn't know that at the time. So it kind of interacted with my own repression of my own queer leanings, became something that worried me a little, that maybe threatened to undermine my identity as a straight dude. Which was already kind of on shaky ground, since I occasionally had feelings for men, as well as women. They just seemed too complicated to act on, which meant maybe Zen Arcade was "complicated," too - or moreso than I had ever realized.
Mostly the reason that I stopped with Bob Mould, though, is that I didn't care that much for his music anymore, no longer felt it. I barely remember any of his songs between Flip Your Wig and Warehouse. I gave brief listens to his albums with Sugar, but it wasn't Zen Arcade. I think I spun Workbook once, but it wasn't Zen Arcade either. It wasn't even New Day Rising. It wasn't the Bob I thought I knew and loved, who obviously I had never known at all. It was kinda like trying to come to terms with 21st century Wim Wenders, having loved 1970's Wim Wenders so much; or being a political folky having to come to terms with electric Dylan or introspective druggie Dylan or Christian Dylan or such.
Add to the bitter taste that I never had gotten to see Dü play live, and it looked like I never would, since reunions weren't really on the table. I did once go see Grant Hart, and really didn't enjoy myself, so much so that I walked out - which I wrote about here. I kinda wish now that I'd stuck around; his sort of chatty immediate face-to-face presentation sounds pretty appealing now, even if it seemed unprofessional then. And I wish I'd gone to see Hart's show at the Biltmore a few years ago, too. A couple of people have remarked about an episode from that show, I believe, where someone threw a glass or bottle at the stage, and Hart said to the thrower, "I've fucked tougher guys than you." It's a pretty great line. (May he rest in peace).
As for Bob Mould, I maintained my lack of interest until pretty much this year, when I saw this live clip of Bob doing "The End of All Things" (no relation to Nomeansno) and went - holy shit, wait a minute, this is kinda great.
So I bought the album, Patch the Sky. It's similar, a bit, to the jammy-but-downbeat slacker guitar-worship of 1990's Black Sheets of Rain - which I've only been checking out recently, on the advice of friends - but the songs are tighter and faster, rock out a bit more. It also has spawned a really charming (in the "charmingly bad" sense of the word) rock video, for "Hold On," in which Bob struggles with alienation and loneliness (and the temptation to laziness represented by elevators), apparently feeling estranged from pretty much everyone (including the femme queer scene) until he finds himself in a bar full of bears, where he takes the stage and happily sings his song. This is one super-dorky little video, but in a touching, likable and weirdly personally revealing way.
And I kinda like bears, since if I were gay, it's the bear scene I would be drawn to. I mean, I just don't have the body for Celebrities, you know?
And you know what? Who cares if Patch the Sky ain't Zen Arcade. I have Zen Arcade right over there (gestures towards turntable). I can listen to it whenever I want, and I can love it as much as I want, but the band that recorded it is never, ever coming back, especially now that Grant Hart has died. Patch the Sky is a really good album, and whoever this Bob Mould guy is these days - this guy whose music I have now been ignoring for longer than I had ever paid attention to it - he kind of is someone I'd like to see live.
(Plus last I saw, "Chartered Trips" and "I Apologize" were still on his setlist. I mean, it'd be nice to hear "Chartered Trips" live at least once. It's gotta be one of my favourite opening lyrics in a rock song: "I picked up my belongings in a nylon carry-all...")
Bob Mould plays the Rickshaw October 22nd, with Ford Pier opening. I have bought at ticket, so this was not written with "intent to cadge;" and I was going to go to this show long before Grant Hart passed (though I feel bad for Mould that he finds himself touring during this time; a solo show must be demanding to do, but now that his former bandmate has passed, he surely feels more vulnerable?).