Sunday, January 02, 2011

Print the Myth
So the last book I read in 2010 was something I ran across totally by chance in the Barnes & Noble on Court Street in Brooklyn on December 29, after a meeting in their cafe. I was looking for Kristin Hersh's memoir and instead found a history of Husker Du by a Tennessee-based writer named Andrew Earles. When Annie saw it, she commented that it resembled a textbook; this is true, and in price as well as presentation (a hardback with a solid cover rather than a book jacket). It seemed unreal to me; there's a "What Would Husker Du?" bumper sticker inside the front cover, which itself is a great live pic of the band early in their run. In fact, I wasn't totally sure it had objective existence; it's the sort of thing I'd stumble across in a dream and bemoan the loss of upon waking.

But I'm looking at it on my shelf right now, so at worst it's an unusually persistent delusion. After purchasing the book Tuesday night, I finished its roughly 300 pages in about 30 hours despite the usual and proportionate activities of sleep, work, exercise, eating, and so on. Its considerable faults notwithstanding, I really enjoyed it--the substance of a book about my favorite band ever as well as the fact of its existence.

Earles is a year younger than me, and had even less experience of the Huskers during their existence than I did. I saw the band in early 1987 at a show at Temple University my best friend's older brother helped organize; it was the first real show I ever went to, and seeing Bob Mould and Grant Hart sitting in the stairwell was probably our equivalent of a devout Christian's vision of the Virgin. They played "Warehouse: Songs and Stories," which turned out to be their final album, almost straight through; it occurred to me at one point that they might be lip-synching, though if memory serves at one point they interrupted the run of songs with "What's Going On," which is not on Warehouse. I had a great time even though my back hurt from standing by the stage; the first opener was the Electric Love Muffin, my favorite band ever to come out of Philadelphia.

There's a ton of great information in the book I hadn't previously known, from the fact that Bob's guitar was an Ibanez knockoff rather than a real Gibson Flying V as always stated, to the story of Greg Norton's post-Huskers career as a restauranteur, the basic fact of which I knew but not the full story, which I found quite moving; it's great that the guy whose contributions were always underrated, and who personally seemed by far the most relatable and flat-out likable of the three, made a fulfilling and successful life for himself away from any spotlight. Earles tells that story, as well as Grant's more tumultuous post-Huskers road, with clear and appropriate warmth. He also gamely attempts to present the Huskers as not just a great band in their own right but true institution-builders in terms of the post-punk touring circuit and living a DIY ("Do It Yourself") aesthetic in everything from management to PR to recording and distribution.

That said, the book had its problems: the editing was pretty sloppy in both content--I think some whole paragraphs were repeated in different chapters--and theme; as Earles tells it, the band repeatedly "gives a final kissoff to hardcore," which you can really only do once. Having read a couple interviews with Earles this weekend after finishing the book, it sounds like he was largely on his own with this project, so it's probably fair to attribute these flaws to his own DIY process as well as rookie mistakes.

The other problem, which wasn't at all Earles' fault, is the absence of Bob Mould's voice. He asked all three for their participation in the project; Grant and Greg agreed, but Bob (whose autobiography is due this year) politely declined. While it's way too much to say that Bob "was" Husker Du--Grant carried an almost equal share of the songwriting load, and all three were huge contributors to the band's sound--if the story you're looking to tell is how the band built its business model as well as its sound, the absence of Bob's perspective is going to be felt. Grant himself acknowledges Bob's leadership on the business side as well as his victories in the band's various internal power struggles.

Maybe this is a bigger deal for me than it would be for others because I'm a Bob Mould guy; in the now 23 years since Husker Du disbanded, I've purchased almost every piece of music Bob has made, through solo work and Sugar, and seen him play in different formats probably eight to ten times. While Grant wrote and sang a number of my favorite Husker Du songs (It's Not Funny Anymore, Pink Has Turned to Blue, Terms of Psychic Warfare, Back From Somewhere), I own none of his post-Husker Du work and haven't seen him play.

I'd still strongly recommend the book, both for its own merits and because Earles gets at what I consider the essential truth about this amazing band: the point is what they did on record and in performance, not their personal drama or excesses. (Many of which, by the way, I think can be chalked up to the convergence of a few home truths: young men are often jerks, artists are often jerks, and when you've got artistic young men working nonstop and living in close quarters for about a decade, tensions are inevitable.) He's appropriately expansive in considering their impact and legacy, though there is one point about their work I think he didn't get quite right. In my view, Husker Du never so much "moved past" pop-punk, hardcore, psychedelia or whatever other genre you care to name, the way Earles suggests they did, as mastered them, incorporated them into an ever-growing sonic palette, and then went off in search of new realms to conquer. At the end, they were playing music from the entirety of their career, and killing every song. The sound kept getting better, but they never really slowed down much, literally or figuratively.


l.e.s.ter said...

I saw them in '87 as well, and still remember being kind of heartbroken to hear they'd broken up. I've seen Bob Mould a bunch of times since then (and Grant Hart once, which was much better than I'd expected -- some of his solo stuff is really good). The '87 show was during the Twins World Series run and the crowd was yelling Twins, as if made up of Minnesota expats rooting on local guys (this was D.C., so maybe it was). I remember Husker Du mostly ignoring that, except when they would give a sort of collective sneer. The other time I saw them was opening up for the Feelies, which must be a memory of a fever dream. This book sounds intriguing. I liked the coverage of them in Our Band Could Be Your Life, but this sounds more intensive.

David said...

In the book and in the interviews I read, he seems to be pretty ambivalent about "Our Band Could Be Your Life," appreciating its significance but taking issue with some of Azzerad's research as well as his conclusions.

Huskers opening for Feelies does seem too good to have actually happened, but I think I remember seeing a Husker Du archive online somewhere that had all their gigs catalogued. Maybe I'll take a look for that one.