Skill, passion, emotional range, lyrical imagination - the things Hüsker Dü have going for them are beyond cataloguing. Prolific beyond belief, they release albums at a dizzying pace, tour tirelessly, just keep going from strength to strength.
Witness: 'Warehouse: Songs and Stories', their new double-album, a stunning work. In these very pages it ahs been called "a new benchmark for rock" and "an absolute masterpiece".
'Warehouse' has the heart-thumping, nervous-system-searing power and the brain-stimulating resonance to back those words up. Never, has there been a double album that rocked so relentlessly over the course of four sides. Rarely has there been any album that stared down the hard truth of human frailties and frustrations so unflinchingly or so yearningly evoked the possibilities of freedom and love.
'Warehouse' is a song cycle in which pessimism and hope, anger and joy, devotion and disappointment alternate and gain meaning from each other. The songs of Bob Mould and Grant Hart take turns, asking similar questions in different ways and supporting each other's refusal to toss off facile answers. It is a plunge into life's icy waters. It can be very sad, but that shiver its touch brings is a shiver of delight.
Witness: the Hüsker Dü back catalogue, a treasure trove. Beginning with 1984's 'Zen Arcade' (the record that first set them firmly apart from their sonic zoom hardcore roots) they've released five albums, including two doubles in three years. This band does not rest on its laurels, and every one of those records has its incredible moments.
Witness: the inspiring experience that is Hüsker Dü on stage.
On their current tour, they start by performing 'Warehouse' from start to finish, in its entirety, all 20 songs of it! This live run-through brilliantly dramatises the fact that 'Warehouse' is a dialogue. We watch Bob Mould and Grant Hart kick the ball back and forth, we hear them shout at each other, and at us.
Done with 'Warehouse', they run through some old favourites, maybe do one or two of their flaming detonations of a Byrds or a Beatles classic. Mould bounces around a bit, and when he's singing, Hart leads the band in a way that no other drummer ever has. But they have no need of theatrics. Their live immediacy is felt through the conviction they pour into every note: They tell you - this matters to us, this really matters.
WHO ARE DÜ
Greg Norton, bassist, is the quiet one, the sensible one. He is a solid anchor, lacking Bob's gravity or Grant's flightiness, but supplying something indefinable, a normality that's needed to make the group chemistry work. At the backstage party for the band after their last, totally triumphant New York show, he stands talking with his wife and mother-in-law, a family man. On the road in the Hüsker DÜ van, Greg does almost all of the driving.
Bob Mould, guitarist and singer, is the group's philosopher. He is basically a quiet contemplative man, though he's been known to cut loose with a quick side trip to the Atlantic City gambling casinos or a day-long marathon of film watching featuring the likes of Faster Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and The Faces of Death. At the after-gig party he sits unobtrusively in the corner, talking earnestly with whoever approaches. On the road in the van, he will drive occasionally.
Grant Hart, drummer and singer, is the Joker of the pack, the Fool, the wild-eyed laughing boy with the sunshine smile. At the after-gig party he parades around in a trench-coat and no trousers, joking with everyone. In the Hüsker Dü van, his antics can drive even stoic Greg to complain about rampant anarchy. He doesn't have a driving licence.
This band cares about the people who come to see them. It's more than just making themselves available for an autograph or a quick dressing-room door chat.
Take the night when Hüsker Dü hit the bleak Long Island suburbs to play Nassau Community College. This is not a prestigious institution, just a hideous building that, from the outside looks like a converted airplane hangar and from the inside like a prison rec room. There is hardly anyone here. But Grant walks out of the harshly lit cinderblock dressing-room saying 'I'm going down there now to rock my balls off." And he does. And they do. Because, as I said, this matters to them.
It's the middle of a Hüsker Dü tour, and it's a night off. Bob Mould and I are sitting on the empty stage in the back room of Maxwell's in Hoboken. We are relaxed, sitting in near darkness. Seems like a good time to try some therapy.
I ask Bob to play a little word association game with me. I'll throw out a word, and he'll tell me in what way that word is found in his band's music.
The first word, as it always is, is Love.
"I can safely say," he replies after a moment's thought, "that it's at least 80 percent of what we write about. It just doesn't take the form of 'baby baby I love you.' But I'd say it's the basis of most of the material. 'Bed of Nails', from 'Warehouse', is a love song."
But a rough one, full of pain.
"Love isn't always chocolates and nights at the theatre."
"Sex! What's that?! No, not literally. In this day and age it would be interesting to write songs about sex. Would they be love songs or would they be swan songs?"
"A lot of it is anger that's internalised that has to be gotten out. Earlier, the anger was so raw, and so vicious, whereas now I think the anger is possibly stuff that I feel about myself. I'm not that angry with the world about anymore. I've gotten to be a little more tolerant as time's gone on."
"Some of the songs deal with the conclusion that death is an inevitability, that none of us are immortal. It's something as a youngster I had trouble dealing with. And over time I've learned to deal with it, recently in very immediate ways."
"Oh, lots. Confusion is something you have to have in your life. Without confusion, you have no questions. Therefore you have no answers.
"As a person you change so often, in ways that you don't even realise. Do you like the same food that you did two years ago? Do you read the same type of books that you did? Maybe. Some things will always remain. I like wrestling, for instance, I still watch wrestling, I always will, and horror movies. There are things that are far from reality that you will always go back to for your escape.
"But other things, your philosophy about life, your tolerance for other people, your views on politics, all those things can change and you have to be open, you have to get mixed signals in order to sort things out. Confusion is the essence of learning.
"You can learn by being taught, but at that point you're only a parrot, a bird that can mimic language. Whereas if you learn from confusion, you can have a number of options in front of you. You can choose what kind of person you want to be."
COULD THIS BE THE ONE?
Bob Mould firmly believes that 'Warehouse' is Hüsker Dü's best record. I'm not inclined to argue.
"I think just the volume of material is a statement. It says 'Look out!' Just the way that 'Zen Arcade' signalled something. It says, this is a band to be reckoned with a band with a lot of ideas, a band that feels strongly about all of their songs and is willing to go out on a limb and face the criticism. You know, people saying that it should have been a single album, that it's too much for one band to do.
"The main difference with this is that the songwriting is stronger than on any of our other records. On this one I think each song is real powerful, and that makes the strength of the record. For the full 70 minutes that thing is cooking away.
"It came from the three of us working on it intensely, as a band. Through really rehearsing a lot, you find out what language everybody's speaking with their instrument. You come to a common language, and you can incorporate that into the record."
Over the last few years, the alternative music circuit in America has reached a kind of maturity and has become a real presence. Its chief voice is a large network of college radio stations that dots the country. Its business chronicles are the college radio and clubs tipsheets - the Rockpool Newsletter and College Media Journal being the most widely read - that review new releases and chart radio and club play. The clubs, the fanzines and the independent, non-chain record stores are the links that bring the vinyl to the audience.
In this world, Hüsker Dü (along with REM) are the absolute kings - They Rule.
But so far, Hüsker music is not played on Top Forty radio, and only occasionally on that in-betweeny commercial category called AOR. They are not MTV heroes.
"It's strange that we're held in this reverence," say Bob Mould, "that
we're placed up on this pedestal, that we're the biggest college radio band in the last
four years, and this and that. Critics are nuts about the band
but it doesn't sell
"It would be nice to be played on those commercial stations, just to be given the chance to have people say, thumbs up or thumbs down. We haven't even had a hearing yet on that level."
Not Top Forty, then, but still a band that has had an enormous influence. Pick up the latest American indie rock records, and chances are that 80 percent of them will sound very much like either REM or Hüsker Dü.
Bob: "It could be. I've gotten a lot of tapes by bands that sound very similar. That midwest guitar sound, ourselves, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, has a long line going back, a long history. The MC5, the Litter guitar bands have always been the big thing in the midwest."
Grant, "I don't think I'm being brash in saying that 'Zen Arcade' set a lot of people free. We never made a direct attempt to be hardcore, because we were among those who invented it. But opening up some doorways leading away from a musical style that was dictated by firm rules meant that it was just a short time before every avenue was being explored."
And what do you think about speed-metal? It's a pace you've already been at.
Bob: "Early on, yeah. By default. Just as we were hardcore by default."
Grant: " Hardcore with a lot more feeling, a lot more sincerity, a lot more real topics to sing about. To me, there's not a memorable lyric in that entire genre. Not that it's something I've studied."
TIME OUT FOR TRAGEDY
Literally on the eve of their current tour, David Savoy, who had been Hüsker Dü's "manager" - really more their organiser, confidant, friend and link to the world - killed himself by jumping off a bridge. He had suffered from manic depression. He was 24.
"He was a fan and a friend before he came to work for us," Bob Mould recalls. "We met him years ago, when we were travelling around playing the smaller clubs, and he was promoting some shows around suburban Boston. We became friends, we traded information back and forth, and when things began to get more hectic we decided we needed someone to be the band's spokesperson.
"Why did he kill himself? I don't know. David was good at hiding his problems. Once he disappeared for a while. Everybody thought he was dead then. This time, I don't know what precipitated it. All of us were under a lot of pressure, with the tour, with things moving at this rate. But there's always a lot of tension around this band, which is part of what keeps it creative.
"On a practical level, we've all had to assume a lot of the responsibilities that David had taken over, pick up the slack and keep moving. Emotionally it's brought us closer, at a time when people were drifting away a little bit. Personally, I blamed myself for awhile, but I think I'm over the hump with it.
"I remember when D. Boon (of the Minutemen) died, what Mike Watt and George went through. You can sympathise, but until you've been dealt a card like that you don't know how they feel."
MY WISH IS GRANTED
Before 'Warehouse' my favourite Hüsker Dü songs were the ones Grant Hart wrote. I could admire Bob Mould's serious intent, but it was Grant's loopy visionary epiphanies, tied to hummable, unforgettable melodies, that kept me coming back again and again.
On 'Warehouse' the aesthetic distance between Mould and Hart has been bridged. Even on 'Candy Apple Grey' it seemed that Grant's writing had moved from exuberant love songs ('Green Eyes', 'Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill') to breakup songs with a poignant, bitter edge ('Sorry Somehow', 'Don't Want To Know').
"But then on the same album that contains 'Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill' there's 'Terms of Psychic Warfare'. Just because of the current concentration of that type of song, you shouldn't think that they didn't exist for me before.
"Sometimes if it hurts too much to talk about, it's easier to write a song. 'Green Eyes' was on an album with 'Keep Hanging On'. Which, although it's not a love song or a breakup song, there's really no need to state 'keep hanging on' unless there's a danger of letting go.
"'Don't Want To Know' and 'Sorry Somehow' were the result of this. You're in this rock band and you're away from home. Then ultimate goal is to keep feeding this monster, this rock band, and if you don't watch it, eventually it eats you. But now, having had some time off, actually moving things from boxes onto shelves, these things have made it better lately. A circuit has to be grounded or else it electrocutes you."
Do you feel a need to break out of the sound that Hüsker Dü has established for itself?
"Constantly. I'm a pretty anti-established kind of guy.
"Well, you can become established as an individual, or you can become established as just another prick.
"Right now, Hüsker Dü is feeding maybe a couple of dozen people, and, half of you wants to keep that, and enrich that. And the other half of you wants to surf on chance."
DÜ YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?
"I couldnt sit here and say it wouldnt be great to have a hit" muses Bob Mould. "But Im not expecting one. Its like, if Im walking down the street and I find a hundred dollar bill, thats great. But if it doesnt happen, Im not going to be disappointed, and Im not going to stop walking down the street because of it.
"Just to be able to express yourself and get all those things that drive other people to insanity out of your system, is a strange gift. To have the confidence, the anxiety or whatever, to get up and do what we do. Its a rewarding act."
Its because they feel that way that Hüsker Düs music is so vital, their records so affecting, their performances so stirring. Its because they feel that way that their songs really speak to your heart. And that matters.
ReproDÜced from the New Musical Express, 25th April 1987
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