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Husker Du bio needs a rethink

Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock
Hüsker Dü. From left: Greg Norton, Grant Hart and Bob Mould. Steve Hengstler/Courtesy of Numero Group.

Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock—book review

Late in Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock (Voyageur Press, hardcover, 271 pps, $24 US/27 Can), author Andrew Earles makes an outrageous claim.

Shaking his finger at music journalists, he writes: “Except for the occasional review of a solo [Bob] Mould album, no piece of posthumous Husker Du-related coverage… exists in which the writer does not expend an inordinate amount of wordage ensuring that, at the very least, open wounds stay open.”

This is absurd on the face of it, but even if we say the accusation might be true, it is at the very least, simplistic beyond belief. The band members with the “open wounds” – Bob Mould and Grant Hart, the musicians/songwriters who propelled the Minneapolis rock band through a five-year-blast of almost unprecedented (in the punk scene) creativity – are grown men; surely they have the wherewithal to bury the hatchet by now – 23 years later! – if they so desired. Fuck, even Metallica went into therapy.

But Earles’ conjecture underlines the most glaring fault in this repetitive, sloppy book. The Memphis music journalist repeatedly tells us that his tome is not about Mould and Hart’s purported drug intake, their personal lives or even about what made the two guys work so well together (and then not) in the context of the band.

In short, it’s not about anything interesting. Instead, Earles has substituted long, wearying passages about the hardcore punk scene circa 1981, whether Husker Du sold out by signing to a major (included: two pages of a yawn-inducing defense written by Mould at the time), and who was or may have been influenced by Husker Du, all the while hammering home how important/influential the band was, and is.

Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock

So much is missing in Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers… (an unwieldy title, that, and one that makes it sound like the band was as responsible for Finger 11 and Nickelback as it was for the Pixies, Nirvana etc) as to beggar belief.

Here is a book about the Minneapolis music scene in the early ’80s that mentions Prince once, in passing. Prince! Granted, the Purple One wasn’t in the hardcore scene, but surely his influence must have been felt in every corner of the city – and he did, if I’m not mistaken, own (not mentioned here) the 1st Avenue and 7th Street Entry, the two venues Husker Du played most often in its adopted hometown. (Mould was actually originally from upstate New York; Hart and bassist Greg Norton were from nearby St. Paul).

At another point, Earles alludes to Mould and Hart shutting Norton out of the recording process via “a blatant gesture or two.” Uhm, what are these “blatant gestures”? There is no direct quote from Norton or Hart about this, even though Earles apparently had access to both. (They are both quoted at length elsewhere, sometimes with the same quote twice.

Mould, whose own book is due out in 2011, apparently declined to be interviewed.) Elsewhere, Earles writes, “Because Mould wouldn’t allow Hart to have equal billing…” Says who? Why wouldn’t he? I dunno, but all of this sounds like unfounded conjecture to me.

Also alluded to, but never discussed in any length, not even to the extent of the principals declining comment: Hart’s drug use; Mould’s passive-aggressive power-tripping; band members’ homosexuality (in a music scene where homosexuality seems to have been rare, or at least rarely acknowledged); Norton’s take on any of this.

In the book, Earles analyzes every release – well, almost every release. Inexplicably, he writes almost nothing about Warehouse: Songs and Stories, even though it’s the group’s last album and Earles refers to it (in the appendix) as “largely underrated.” In fact, he writes more about a posthumous tribute album than the band’s final (double) record, which is rife with some of Mould and Hart’s most revealing lyrics.

Early on, Earles brings up the fate of the portion of the band’s catalogue that was issued by the indie label SST and re-released some years later, but not since. According to Earles, “the official status of Husker Du’s back catalogue on SST is not known.” Well, here’s an idea – ask. Ask the label owners, ask Hart, ask Norton. Hell, ask the lawyers if you have to. Surely someone knows something. The same problem occurs when Earles spends an inordinate amount of space questioning whether Husker Du’s groundbreaking double record Zen Arcade really was a concept album. Surely Hart and/or Norton could shed some insight into this, if nothing else.

Also missing: any insight about David Savoy, the band’s manager, who committed suicide on the eve of the band’s first tour in support of Warehouse. Except for noting Savoy’s death postponed the tour, and that later the Husker Du members learned he was “prone to disappearing for long periods of time,” Earles gives us almost nothing on Savoy, how close he and the band members may have been (i.e. were they friends, was this a devastating loss, what memories they have of him) or possible reasons for his suicide.

Then there are the typos – at one point Norton is referred to as “Horton”. The first mention of the music zine Your Flesh calls it “Young Flesh”.

However, I have do admit, Husker Du did enlighten as to one amazing (no sarcasm intended) fact: Robert Palmer covered a Husker Du song (“New Day Rising” ) in the encores during his ’86 tour. Granted, it’s in a medley that includes a song called “Planet of Women” and “Jealous”, but still.

Robert Palmer, “New Day Rising” (Husker Du cover):

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If, as Earles believes, music journalists have done a disservice to Husker Du with too much unfounded speculation, then Earles has also committed a disservice to music journalism by leaving huge parts of this story blank. Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is an opportunity to set the record at least partly straight, squandered.

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