Monday, 26 October 2015

Hüsker Dü by Paul Hamilton

Paul Hamilton is a drummer, songwriter, and film critic for The Idler magazine. He is also a massive fan of Hüsker Dü, the seminal American post-punk trio who split acrimoniously in 1988.

For seven years they had been a brilliant self-sustaining firework and then it simply, quietly, conked out. What follows is Hamilton's personal take on the past adventures and achievements of Grant Hart, Greg Norton and Bob Mould.

Two months ago a, if you will, Dücumentary DVD entitled "EVERY EVERYTHING: The Music, Life & Times Of Grant Hart" was released, and then on Tuesday an official website for Hüsker Dü appeared. Take a look at the website and it seems to be is a shop for t-shirts. Are they hoping to become the next Ramones or Rolling Stones? It's so commonplace to see someone in a Ramones t-shirt and it's plain that they've never heard ‘Rockaway Beach' or ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue'. Yesterday's revolution is tomorrow's fashion accessory.

But it's early days, of course. The exciting - or potentially disappointing - revelation is that all three ex-members are "talking". What about, who knows? Maybe they've attained the rights to their back catalogue and they are going to get their records mixed properly - because some of them are atrociously produced - and re-released. A DVD of live footage and video and interview clips may be in the offing.

Maybe some fans will be excited about the possibility of them reforming and going out on the road again, like Pixies. Not me. I'm agoraphobic, so I couldn't go to a gig if I wanted to. But a few years ago, I had a crackpipe-dream. You know the Meltdown festival they have on London's South Bank every summer where they have curators like David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Patti Smith, putting together their dream itinerary of funtertainment? One year Morrissey was in charge and he had what's left of The New York Dolls reform. Well, I thought, when they eventually get around to asking me, I would have Hüsker Dü reform for one night - but they wouldn't play any of their own songs. I would have them play my favourite Who album, ‘The Who By Numbers'. And then I would have The Who perform my favourite Hüsker Dü album, ‘Warehouse: Songs And Stories'. The evening would be called ‘Hüskered Who' or ‘Go Dü The Who Dü That You Dü So Well'.

Hüsker Dü, after all these years, are still pretty much under-the-radar, aren't they? Your average person will not be aware of them - their name or their music. Quite distinct from The Velvet Underground, for example. Even professional fogies like Ian Hislop know of the Velvets. But their influence is enormous, though. They were the bridge connecting Buzzcocks power pop of the late '70s to Pixies, and then on to Nirvana and all that mob. When you look back at what was around - and good - in the mid-'80s in the field of white rock, there really wasn't much about. Over here we had The Fall and The Smiths, and in America there was R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü.

Hüsker Dü were signed to a major label - Warners - two years before the same label snapped up R.E.M. The reason I think R.E.M. lasted the course while Hüsker Dü fell at the second hurdle is that the Dü could not break through to mass acceptance because they were not pretty boys. Body fascism was as rife then as it is now, for males as well as females, and Bob and Grant were plumpingly porktastic whilst Greg had that enormous soup-strainer Biggles moustache. R.E.M. were blessed with the wasp-waisted, shape-shifting, charismatic and beautiful Michael Stipe. R.E.M. also had the benefit of managers and a back-up team dealing with tour bookings, fan club administration. They had sympathetic record producers and graphic designers. Delegation - that's what you need. Hüsker Dü was an entirely self-sufficient outfit; self-managing, self-producing the records, booking their own tours, Greg the bass player also having to drive the van to the gigs, Grant designing all the posters and record sleeves. And consider the output of releases: Between 1981 and early 1987, they produced five albums, two double albums, an E.P. and a couple of non-album singles. They were excessive in both quantity and quality.

Another reason they burned out was because they were absolute road hogs. And when you're living together in such close proximity with barely a day off, nerves will fray. There will be savage tournaments of blame tennis.

In the documentary, Grant talks about how incensed Bob Mould was when Warners chose ‘I Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely' and ‘Sorry Somehow' as singles. These were both songs written by Grant. The fact is, on that first album for Warners - ‘Candy Apple Grey' - Hart wrote all the best songs. This was the first time that Mould's ever-improving songwriting talent stalled (or just plain floundered). One song of his was a direct and very poor re-write of his excellent ‘Makes No Sense At All' from the previous album. Who was he trying to kid? Did he think no-one would notice? None of his songs on that album have any melodies or memorable lyrics, except one - ‘Hardly Getting Over It', a heartbreaking masterpiece, the most profoundly moving song about mortality.

And it's so touching that, despite all the friction and enmity between them, Grant plays that song in live gigs. But where Bob got it so right with that song, he got so wrong with ‘Too Far Down' - a tuneless, navel-gazing, acoustic dirge with no redeeming qualities at all. It's that awful, misguided belief that dredging one's hurt up and displaying it for all to see is somehow Art and Worthwhile. It's not. It's the musical version of being collared in a pub by a stranger who's droning on and on about his crap job and his wife doesn't understand him. Just fuck off!

Happily, though, those lapses are very rare in their catalogue. The best thing about the ‘New Day Rising' album, I thought, was their putting the two or three rubbish tracks, where they're just pissing about and making a racket, at the end of the record so you can just turn it off.
Viewers watching Grant in that film, especially where he's walking around the empty space where his house used to be before it was burnt down, saying, "Oh, and here's my bookcase with all my signed first-edition Burroughs novels", will find it all very sad but maybe that's because they buy into the capitalist notion of success. If he was swanning around in a vast palace with Dufys and Hockneys on the walls and pontificating about how much Bono was praising him over dinner last night, you would say he was a hypocrite and a sell-out. He can't win. I like the fact his teeth are as grey and manky as they ever were. I admire him for not working out at the gym. If there were a dramatised film about the band, you just know he'd be played by Steve Buscemi. Bob Mould would be Alec Baldwin. Or Philip Seymour Hoffman, if he wasn't turned-up of toe. It's a courageous film, choosing to centre entirely on Grant Hart and not have anyone else contribute any comment. I don't know whether it's a wholly successful venture. I mean, Grant Hart is a sub-cult within a sub-cult within a cult. Like Howard Devoto, he is an interesting, vital, restless artist who has made a splash. The problem is, the everyday record consumers are happy with the ripples at the edge of the water. They aren't overly concerned with what caused them. It's not an easy film to get into - you will have to do a bit of homework beforehand - and, even when you're in, it can be just as difficult, because Grant is not a person readily giving of anecdote. He is a serious person, preferring to discuss theory and method rather than tell hilarious tour stories and kiss-and-tell sour-grapes rants about Bob Mould.

Some may find it disappointing that he chose to be unrevealing about the band split. Or who the mother of his child is. But I can understand his reason for this: For 11 years I ran a fan club dedicated to Peter Cook and had obtained an interview with one of his collaborators who chose only to discuss aspects of the work they produced but with no intimate revelations regarding their offstage relationship. When asked why this was a no-go zone, he said, "When you start telling, and then re-telling, those stories, they become edited in your memory, they lose all the incidental details, they are no longer part of you and your private, inner self; it becomes a pale reflection of what once was. You will, in reality, gain nothing from my telling you what we got up to after a show, but I will lose everything. And because I treasure those moments, I can not share them. And I'm not sorry."

Although they were not a frivolous band, his ‘Keep Hanging On' track makes me laugh because, as it continues and he gets madder and madder, he sounds like Barney Gumble, Homer's dypso chum in ‘The Simpsons'.

 When I finally got Hüsker Dü - or when they finally got me - it was total. This was the band I had dreamed of playing in. Horrible Head, the band I was playing and writing for in the mid-'80s, were in the same postcode - the attitude of playing sweet melodic pop songs as loud and fast as possible - but they were masters of the game; we were strictly Sunday pub league amateurs. Their music was liberating, the lyrics inspirational - yes, they didn't shy from the frailties that can destroy us, but they had a rare compassion. Most other bands playing in that style would be screaming "KILL! KILL! KILL!" but their message was "LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!" Their breakthrough song, in terms of college radio airplay and recognition, was ‘Diane' in 1983, based on the actual abduction, rape and murder of a local waitress Diane Edwards by Joseph Ture in 1980. It is moving to hear Grant in the film admit his regret at using someone's tragic murder as the basis for a song, and his confusion and mixed feelings when his audience shout requests for him to sing it.

There was a time in the early '90s when everything was falling apart - another Hüsker Dü song title! My hoped-for music career has stalled, I was stuck in a shit job, living in a shit bedsit, my relationship was falling to bits, my best mate was emigrating. I could not see any way out or any way of carrying on. It sounds corny and trite but playing Sides 3 and 4 of ‘Warehouse' at speaker-shredding volume exorcised those demons and inspired me, gave me hope. They were like a brotherly arm over my shoulder, giving me comfort in extremely difficult circumstances. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Hüsker Dü saved my life. Probably drove the neighbours to suicide, though…

Should I mention that I once met one of the band? All right. I know this sounds like I'm living the jet-set life, and I assure you I'm not!, but in 2003 I had saved up for a holiday, going to New York City. There was a huge indie festival going on, zillions of bands - I think Bathtub Shitter were on; Black Box Recorder, Killing Joke - and I managed to get in for free, being chummy with John Moore out of the ol' Black Box Recorder there. In one of the halls in this enormous building was a 20-foot long sign on the stage saying ‘BLOWOFF'. Of course, me being English as Hell and never quite getting over toilet training, I got the giggles badly about a band that had called itself after a botty burp. A huge bald bloke enters and yells, "Have you got any business being on that stage?" so I get off it and say sorry. Then I realise it's Bob Mould. I do the usual fan thing and crumble and burble, "You saved my life". He's "OK, glad to have been of service" but then it transpires that BLOWOFF is his DJ name and he is playing some records a bit later. "Your name is BLOWOFF?" I keep asking him. "Yes, I am BLOWOFF", he keeps answering (in some weird parallel-universe version of ‘Spartacus'): "Why? What is your problem with that?" Then I tell him what a blow-off means in Britain and he pauses for a moment… I thought, "Well, legend has it he has a bit of a temper. Is he going to clump me?" But then he lets out this enormous single laugh: "HAW!!! I'm a fart!"

In circuses of metal, arcades of Zen and story-stuffed warehouses, they made the new day rise. Consider wig permanently flipped.

Hüsker Dü's website is here:

"EVERY EVERYTHING: The Music, Life & Times Of Grant Hart" is available from Amazon

Paul Hamilton is the drummer/co-writer of Yellowjack's ‘Godot Woz Ere' CD:

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