ACHIEVING GREATNESS Hüsker Dü

A
long-overdue new biography of the Minneapolis
punk trio charts their sometimes fractious, frequently glorious journey through the ‘80s.

 

BY STEVE PICK

Every day, there are new rock bands forming. Because we live
in the modern world, these bands are documented extensively from birth with
home-made recordings and videos, and web pages of varying degrees of
comprehensiveness. Once they’ve been together a few weeks, contacts picked up
on line have enabled them to sketch out a tour. If they’re lucky, they’ll have
at least some small amount of national following within a year or so. There is
no plan for reaching the pop charts; success is defined by the ability to do
exactly what they want musically, and have a reasonable expectation that some
people will actually care.

 

Thirty years ago, bands formed in vacuums. Maybe they
started in a city with some kind of original music scene pre-established, but
recording was expensive, audiences were tough to find, and tours outside their
surrounding area were rare. The goal was to find a way to make it big, to
record music capable of being played on the radio and thus to achieve enough
sales to play before big crowds. The only way seemed to be through the record
industry as it existed, with its reliance on radio, press, and concert venues.

 

Husker Du wasn’t the first band to break out of that system
and begin to form the world all rock musicians take for granted today, but they
played key roles in the change, and stand even today as paragons of independent
achievement. They had their own record company and worked with other
musician-owned labels. They made contacts with bands around the country,
helping to set up an ad hoc network of places to play wherever they went, and
of course, provided the same services for bands coming to their home town of Minneapolis, MN. Along
with their fellow townies the Replacements, built up a tremendous enough
following on their own that they were eventually signed to a major label on
terms which didn’t change their music at all. From their example came the first
rush of corporate interest in the underground scene, which briefly led to an
explosion of sales before eventually contracting to the point where independent
rock became a concept in itself.

 

The story of this band was documented well in Michael
Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life,
but one chapter in a book couldn’t cover everything. Journalist Andrew Earles
steps in to focus tightly on this ever-evolving trio which, across the eight
years of their existence helped to define the parameters of what became known
as hardcore punk before finding ways to meld pop melody and hooks with the
noise, volume, and energy they had shown originally. Far from a perfectly
realized band biography, Husker Du: The
Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock
(Voyageur Press) suffers
from the lack of cooperation by guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Bob Mould, one
third of the band, not to mention some serious editing deficiencies. But the
story told is compelling, and the research seems to be as exhaustive as
possible without access to Mould himself. Mould is working on his own book
covering the subject.

 

Since Mould and drummer/songwriter/guitarist Grant Hart
ended their close friendship some time before the band broke up, and since
bassist Greg Norton was caught in the middle without much access to the true
motivations of his partners, the book is forced to rely on speculation a bit
too often. That said, the quotes from Hart seem honest enough, and there is
corroborating evidence from discussions held with virtually everyone who every
worked with these guys in any capacity. Earles also captures the spirit of the
times admirably for one who wasn’t old enough to be involved with them. The
difficulty of finding places to play original music, the expense and complexity
of recording while learning how to shape your sound, the crowding of gear and people
into a van and heading off to play tiny places far apart, building audiences
little by little through the sheer power of the music, all ring bells of memory
for those involved in the music revolution of the 80s underground.

 

On the other hand, Earles assumes some information to be
common when perhaps it’s a bit more specialized. To those who ordered product
for record stores at the time (like myself), the chapter on distribution
difficulties for Husker Du’s Reflex Records label is revelatory. But most readers
aren’t that aware of the role Dutch East India Trading Company played in making
music available, or that they were one of a number of such distributors
competing fiercely for the same market share. Still, it’s easy to forget, since
Husker Du was best known for records released on SST and New Alliance, that
these guys were label honchos as well. There wasn’t much Husker Du didn’t do to
try to expand the audience for music so far removed from the mainstream of the
time.

 

Earles is clearly in love with the band, but he does do a
reasonably good job of discussing the music with something of a critical eye.
He discusses each album, EP, or single without blindly lauding the band as
perfect every time out. He is perfectly fair to both Mould and Hart in terms of
any rivalry which came between them as far as songwriting. He expresses
surprise more than once that Norton stopped writing early on in the band’s
career, though can’t get anybody to go on record with a reason other than the
speculation that Mould didn’t want to give up more of his songwriting space.
Earles also spends very little time on the drug use and acrimony between
members; he doesn’t ignore it completely, but it doesn’t impinge much on the
story he wants to tell of the band’s history.

 

Editing mistakes are mostly just annoying – referring to Your Flesh fanzine once as Young Flesh was a typo that deserved a
chuckle; quoting from the Jan. 12, 1986 issue of Jet Lag puzzles this former co-editor of that zine, which published
monthly, not weekly or daily. But sometimes the same quotes will pop up in two
different places, as if individual chapters were written more as separate
magazine articles than a full-length narrative. As magazine articles, they’re
pretty good, very informative and breezy. But it would have been nice to
tighten things up a bit more, to leave out some quotes which may have been
shoe-horned in just because a person was interviewed. And, while there is
context relating to touring, independent labels, fanzines, and the early days
of college radio, the book would probably have been stronger with more of that,
and less of the laundry list of obscurities who covered Husker Du songs over
the years since they broke up. (However, the news that Robert Palmer briefly
performed “New Day Rising” was fascinating.)

 

Earles contends that Husker Du set the stage for the
alternative rock revolution which shaped the ‘90s and beyond, and in some
sense, they did. But for all the obvious influence they had on the Pixies, and
the share of influence they had on Nirvana, the Modern Rock world of 20 years
ago was at first so widely disparate – the Meat Puppets, Pearl Jam, and
Smashing Pumpkins all had hits without nodding to any of the specific Husker Du
approaches – and then so suddenly homogenized that it hardly seems fair to put
the blame on Husker Du. What they achieved in their day was frequently glorious
on its own merits. All you have to do is listen to “Diane,” or “Makes No Sense
At All,” or “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” or that magnificent explosive
cover of “Eight Miles High,” and the reasons to learn more about this band
become obvious. They were originals, flawed sometimes to the point of
embarrassment, and capable of achieving greatness many times. That they
themselves didn’t reap the financial rewards so many expected has much to do
with the way they changed the goals for everybody who followed. For Husker Du,
making music the way they wanted was all that mattered, and though they didn’t
have the internet at their disposal, their example of staying true to their
musical selves remains a powerful one to this day.

 

[Source of image: official promotional photo; by Daniel
Corrigan]

 


Leave a Reply