Mould breaker

Since Husker Du almost never put band pictures on its album covers, and the record label’s publicity photos neglected to identify the individual members, my Eighties self spent some time poring over the occasional publicity shots, wondering which member of the trio was the guitarist producing that awe-inspiring racket. That Eighties self concluded it was probably not that guy with the handlebar ‘stache. Something about him said “drummer.” It must be that intense-looking guy with the long, wavy hair. Yep, he definitely fit my preconceptions of how a godlike guitarist should look. Certainly not that doughy little schlub off to the side — he had “bass player” written all over him. Not him. No siree.

I quickly learned how wrong I was, and when I got my first and only look at Husker Du in person — Livingston Gym, Piscataway, concert tinnitus for miles — I watched Mould at work and had my epiphany. The sincerity police have always had it wrong: rock and roll was never about who you really were, but who you really wanted to be. And pudgy, sweaty Bob Mould, slashing away at a Flying-V guitar that would have looked more appropriate in the hands of some poofy-haired glitter rocker, was the principle made flesh. With that ax in his hands, he was a monster.

According to his bandmates, Mould was also a monster when he wasn’t holding a guitar, which was part of the reason Husker Du fissioned in 1988, leaving behind the kind of catalogue that can only be achieved by inspired workaholics. And in the quarter-century since the breakup, as Husker Du’s influence has been certified by an army of noisy progeny, Mould has gone solo, done a stint as leader of the short-lived band Sugar, dabbled in electronica, certified himself as a gay man of the bear variety, buffed up in a serious way, and resumed touring as a solo performer. But odds are that the people who want to read his new memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody do so because of that string of albums, EPs, and concerts that were the loudest, most definitive “no” to Reaganism the Eighties had to offer apart from Bruce Springsteen.

Count me among them. Though I think Mould’s work with Sugar is undervalued — if I had to choose, I’d keep Beaster over Mould’s share of the songs on Warehouse: Songs and Stories — none of it offers the creative high-wire act that makes New Day Rising, portions of Zen Arcade and later Copper Blue fresh and exciting after two decades. And very little of his solo work plays to his strengths, aside from a song here and there.

The first warning to people like me comes right at the first page of the book, which opens not with some anecdote about amphetamine-fried gigs in reeking clubs, but Mould and his partner getting into a pissing match with some functionary at a clothing-optional resort. Rock and roll! Throughout See a Little Light, Mould reminds us that he’s left Husker Du behind him with the regularity of Big Ben tolling away the hours. True, and good for him, but fans will want to read the book for tidbits like this:

In the beginning, our shows had the up-surf and elemental punk rock feel: simple, stupid lyrics that rhymed and maybe didn’t mean a lot, but were funny and punk. Then, as the months went on, another side to the band’s sound emerged, a slower, darker droning feel. A lot of that was my doing, and one huge inspiration was Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures. You come across only a handful of records in a lifetime that have that immediate impact, where you never forget the sound. It gets embedded in your cellular structure, and it seeps into the work you create. Joy Division’s music was sad and poetic, and I felt we needed to add those elements to the mix. I also played chiming guitar parts that were influenced by early Cure, and a warped and warbling sound inspired by Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd (PiL). Another band that inspired us was Pere Ubu. The three of us went to see them play twice in one evening at the Walker Art Center in 1979. We sat in the front row for both shows, and after the second, we walked onstage and chatted with the band. We didn’t want to sound like Pere Ubu, but they showed us how a band could have a unique sound and an unusual, less than glamorous look, and still succeed in every way that was important to us.

I don’t know about you, but any band that attends a Pere Ubu concert and thinks “role model” is okay in my book. And never in a million years would I have connected Joy Division with the early Husker sound. That’s why you follow artists — they always lead you to interesting places.

I thought Robert Christgau’s review in yesterday’s NYTBR was a tad harsh, but he was dead right on how Mould’s continuing anger at his old bandmates keeps him from delving into what made classic Husker Du so riveting and groundbreaking. After two discs of tyro work, the band hit its stride with the Metal Circus EP and the ambitious Zen Arcade double album, then achieved liftoff with New Day Rising, Flip Your Wig, and the underrated Candy Apple Gray. Mould’s guitar, with its torrents of molten noise, was the centerpiece of the sound, but Grant Hart’s drumming — light on its feet, emphasizing cymbals and snares over the bass pedal — pushed the songs without making them overly heavy, which would have happened with a more John Bonham-style player. Any judgments on Greg Norton’s bass playing will have to await the efforts of sonic archaeologists, or a team of ace engineers assigned to remix and extract the band’s catalogue from SST’s substandard production.

But just when you might have been inclined to dismiss them as noise merchants, the Huskers delivered the other half of their one-two punch: songwriting. Both Mould and Hart were budding masters of the form, and throughout the band’s sonic assault, great lines would surface like pieces of wreckage. The menacing riff of “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” turned out to disguise one of the great oddball love songs of the Eighties, and the pounding chords of “I Apologize” accompanied a domestic drama about a couple unable to get past their anger at each other. And then there was “Celebrated Summer,” an ode to warm weather that could only have been written by a man who grew up in upstate New York and went to college in Minnesota.

There are flashes of insight within Mould’s recollections of the Husker days, some of them inadvertently revealing. Reading how Mould and Hart used their privileged positions as songwriters to reduce Norton’s share of the band proceeds reminds me of the acrimony between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, and confirms that disputes over songwriting credits have killed more good bands than music-biz accounting.

What made the initial Sugar album, Copper Blue, was that it sounded like a progression from Husker Du, rather than the denial that animated Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain, Mould’s two post-Husker works. Copper Blue and its successor, the darker and crazier Beaster, bring together more great melodies and riffs than any of his solo records before or since. Mould is far more revealing in the way he examines Sugar’s short existence, and deals himself some appropriate knocks for the weakness of the valedictory album, File Under: Easy Listening, and the subsequent breakup.

Oddly enough, See a Little Light may ultimately be more interesting to people who know nothing of either Husker Du or Sugar, but want to know if there is life for gay men after fifty. For Mould, the answer is a big neon-colored yes: having evaded the ravages of HIV and gotten some money in the bank, Mould is having the best time of his life. Late in the book he acknowledges that his shift to a more personal songwriting style has reduced his mass appeal, and here I must (sadly) agree. The man deserves his peace and quiet, but it is his racket that I value most, and apparently there will no more of that except in concert when he drops some of his older songs into the mix. Good for him, but as for me, I expect that when I want to read up again on Bob Mould, I’ll turn to the third person Our Band Could Be Your Life rather than the first person See a Little Light. When Neil Young sings about having slain his demons, he sounds like a man who remembers every blow and how it felt. Bob Mould simply sounds like a man who’s happy to be rid of the whole mess.

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