“There’s no success like failure.” —some guy from Minnesota
As we approached the front door of Motorco, we saw that a singer/ guitarist was flailing away on stage. He had long, dark hair and for a few frantic moments, we thought Grant Hart had already begun his set. We hadn’t really seen recent photographs of the Hüsker Dü drummer, so the singer on stage—who turned out to be Erik Sugg of The Static Minds—was a passable doppelgänger for Hart two decades ago.
After The Static Minds’ tight, exuberant set of 1970s-style twin-guitar rock, I was standing alone in the still-lightly populated bar. I noticed an older and somewhat frail-looking man standing near me. He seemed to have a slight hitch in his gait. He had long stringy hair and a thinly trimmed mustache that made him look just a bit like a dissipated John Waters. This man was awfully thin but he seemed to be in a good mood.
“That’s not Grant Hart,” I told myself. But of course it was. How we’ve all gotten older.
I came late to Hüsker Dü, tuning in right as they released their 1987 swan song, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Like people in the 1960s who saw the choice between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as a deeply personal statement, American indie music fans in the 1980s faced an aesthetic dilemma when surveying the generation of angry white guys from Minneapolis who’d organized themselves into Hüsker Dü and the Replacements—two-thirds of that decade’s holy trinity.
Because I chose the Replacements, my tribal loyalties kept me from digging into the Hüskers catalog until the end of their career. And there, too, was a Paul-or-John dilemma: Do you like guitarist Bob Mould’s searing, self-lacerating sonic barrage? Or do you prefer the melodies and wordplay of the band’s sunnier drummer, Grant Hart?
I chose Hart. Mould had some wonderful songs—I especially liked his efforts on New Day Rising, like “I Apologize,” “Celebrated Summer” and “Perfect Example.” But I had little interest in his personal demons, and his sullen mien and melodic parsimony grew wearisome. I didn’t follow his solo career.
Hart, on the other hand, seemed as if he actually liked music. Even his contributions to the Hüsker’s destroy-the-furniture-and-burn-the-fucker-down canon had distinct hooks: “What’s Going On,” for example, or “Turn On the News.”
Both of those songs are highlights from Zen Arcade, the most famous Hüsker Dü album, but for me, the emotional apex of that album comes with another Hart composition, “Standing By the Sea”:
The waves kept on repeating
Each one crashing to the shore
And my footsteps nowhere leading
As they disappeared once more.
Your senses are bombarded
By the roaring that you hear
In a shell, you can hear the ocean
When you put it up to your ear.
Twenty-three years ago to the month, Hüsker Dü broke up. Hart’s heroin use was one problem, but Hart and Mould’s increasingly bitter songwriting rivalry—which had fueled five brilliant albums in four years—finally became unsustainable.
Bob went on to a well-organized afterlife, releasing albums with steady regularity as he took to smartly building his brand on the Hüskers’ limited commercial success. He’s a buffed-up middle-aged guy these days—I imagine encountering him at the farmer’s market, for some reason—and you can keep up with him at bob mould (dot) com. This summer, his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, will be published.
Hart isn’t blessed with a business-oriented skill set, so his output for the last two decades has been erratic, chaotic and sporadic. His first solo album is a great listen—and “2541” alone should pay his bills for the rest of his life, if it will only get picked up for a movie soundtrack.
Later albums alone and with Nova Mob demonstrate that his diverse interests (Pliny, Nietzsche, Milton) continue to inspire him to make music—even if he coughs up a record about once every five years or so. (I can’t say I’m especially drawn to his latest, Hot Wax, which is his first album since 1999’s much stronger Good News for Modern Man, but I’ll give it a couple more listens.)
The Hüsker Dü breakup seems to eat at Hart, too, more than two decades later. When he was interviewed earlier Friday by WUNC’s courtly Frank Stasio, bitterness crept into his voice when he was asked to discuss writing songs with Mould.
Hart told also Stasio that he doesn’t use computers or cell phones. He makes me think of the existential choice made by his fellow Minnesotan, Bob Dylan, to just live out his life as an itinerant musician on a never-ending tour. But Dylan has the advantage of being Dylan. I don’t know how Hart gets by—perhaps the surely meager Hüsker Dü royalties are sufficient for his needs.
It was, on one hand, a little upsetting to see Hart playing alone on stage in front of 50 people who’d paid $7 for the privilege. But then again, what else is there to do in this world?
Hart may deserve more, but I don’t get the feeling he particularly wants or needs it. He seemed shy, and oddly youthful. His face, worn as it was, still seemed guileless and even innocent. He fumbled with his guitar strap and amps, and made nervous, self-deprecating jokes. He opened with “Never Talking to You Again,” from which he segued into a verse from Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.”
After a few more unaccompanied numbers, including “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” from New Day Rising, he was joined on stage by the Chapel Hill-based Venables. For a few songs, the handful of people in the room were treated to a thrilling flash of 1980s Amerindie underground, by one of its underappreciated creators—and survivors. They played “Pink Turns to Blue,” “She Floated Away” and Nova Mob’s “Admiral of the Sea.” Hart went solo again for the last couple of numbers, which included “Green Eyes,” from Flip Your Wig. (Lo-fi mobile phone video is below.)
And I got to hear a live rendition of a perfectly crafted pop gem called “2541,” which he wrote for his first solo album. It’s a catchy yet wrenching ode to a collapsed relationship. Hart wrote it about being forced to vacate an apartment he shared with a lover, but it’s hard, too, not to think about Mould, the demise of the Hüskers and the unending struggle to live.
Things are so much different now
I’d say the situation has been reversed
And it’s probably not the last time
I’ll have to be out by the first.