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Hüsker Dü's Propulsive Liberation

The Trail of Rage and Melody
By Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad
Illustrated, 403 pp. Little, Brown & Company, $24.99

The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock
By Andrew Earles
Illustrated, 288 pp. Voyageur Press, $24

It was early 1983, probably, after the Everything Falls Apart EP presaged Hüsker Dü's departure from hard-core punk and before the Metal Circus EP made it official. Just a gig at a crummy club near CBGB, and late--after 1. There weren't a dozen onlookers, but Hüsker Dü's two early records were knockouts, and that Minneapolis trio never came east, so there we were. From our booth in back the music sounded terrific: headlong and enormous, the guitar unfashionably full, expressive and unending, with two raving vocalists alternating leads on songs whose words were hard to understand and whose tunes weren't. Another half-dozen curious fans drifted in. And then, halfway through, the guitarist passed into some other dimension. When he stepped yowling off the low stage, most of us gravitated closer, glancing around and shaking our heads.

The climax was the band's now legendary cover of "Eight Miles High," which transformed the Byrds' gentle paean to the chemical-technological sublime into a roller coaster lifted screaming off its tracks--bruising and exhilarating, leaving the rider both very and barely alive. Three decades later I still feel lucky to have experienced that transmutation of wrath into flight. Not only did Hüsker Dü generate an impressive recorded legacy during their eight years on earth, they were ferocious live--as memorable onstage as Nirvana or the Rolling Stones. They deserve one great book, not these two mediocre ones.

The memoirist Bob Mould was Hüsker Dü's guitarist and power source, and he has mixed feelings about it. He's led an eventful life, and most of his adulthood postdates his first band's permanently acrimonious breakup in January 1988. It must have hurt him to give his estranged mates the 125 pages he manages in See a Little Light. But even with editorial advice from Michael Azerrad, whose 2001 indie-rock history, Our Band Could Be Your Life, looms admonishingly over both books, the many subsequent projects he details don't generate much pull, and neither does the Memphis-based journalist Andrew Earles's story of Hüsker Dü proper. Earles plods usefully through the band's catalog and chronicles the trail they blazed on the nascent indie circuit in shows he's too young to have witnessed. But plod he does, and without any access to the guitarist with his own book in the works.

This is not to blame Mould, exactly. He did have a tale to sell, and though the Hüsker Dü angle couldn't have hurt his advance, the core audience for his book is Bob Mould fans, who do very much exist as such. Unlike the Hüsker Dü bassist, Greg Norton, now thriving as a restaurateur in Minnesota, or the band's drummer and co-leader, Grant Hart, still scuffling in the Twin Cities, however valiantly Earles praises his negligible solo music, Mould, at 50, remains a modestly prominent musician. Starting with the 175 I.Q. he confesses to on Page 6, he wants to explain how that happened in his own words.

Even more in his memoir than in Earles's slightly less positive account, Mould comes across as an intensely driven man. As Earles insists, Hart is a talent and probably a nice guy, and he wasn't just Mould's creative partner. He was in many respects also Mould's business partner, as the two ran Hüsker Dü's busy little label (Reflex Records), produced Hüsker Dü's many records and booked Hüsker Dü's grueling tours. (Norton drove.) But as Mould walks away from booze and speed and later steroids; negotiates the labyrinthine ups and downs of the record business; relocates from Minnesota to New York to Austin to New York to Washington to San Francisco, with real estate deals every step of the way; spends six months scripting professional wrestling; and D.J.'s the parties he promotes in the gay "bear" subculture where he finally finds a fit for his lifelong homosexuality, there's no doubt who's the achiever of the two, or who deserves a memoir.

The problem is that Bob Mould couldn't be the only fully formed human being to have entered Bob Mould's life story, but except for his bitterly abusive yet heroically supportive father and one departed lover, he seems to be. For financial reasons he lays out and personal ones he leaves indistinct, he cares so little for Hart and Norton that they seem like repositories of minor vices like lassitude and passivity--deficiencies Mould feels were more destructive in the end than Hart's hidden heroin habit. His stories about the celebrities whose paths he crosses stay on the terse surface. And his prolonged dealings with a number of fascinating, not-quite-major figures--the down-and-dirty SST Records house producer, Spot; the Warner Brothers A&R goddess Karin Berg; the drum maestro Anton Fier; Mould's larger-than-life wrestling colleagues--fail to result in the character sketches such characters deserve. For an amateur, Mould's an efficient stylist. But he either leaves his gifts as a raconteur at the dinner table or hasn't matured into empathy quite as ripely as he thinks.

Even if he has, however, the disquieting question both books raise is how important Mould's maturation is to a broadly conceived "us" that includes old Hüsker Dü fans, younger Hüsker Dü fans, folks who've never heard them and might not like them if they did, gay men embarked on their own identity quests, and miscellaneous observers of human affairs. The question is disquieting because Mould has excellent reason to put Hüsker Dü behind him, as Norton has and Hart probably wishes he could. And yet for most of "us"--with gay men the exception, because Mould's embrace of the bears' burly bonhomie is clearly a major spiritual achievement--what he accomplished as a young seeker on "the trail of rage and melody" is more meaningful than all the saner music he's made since.

That, of course, is why Earles wrote his useful book. The song breakdowns are careful, the album critiques worth bouncing off, and like Mould, Earles augments Azerrad's evocative documentation of the D.I.Y. tour grind. But Hüsker Dü is a chore to read even if you come in caring. Earles never seems to hone a metaphor or find the precise verb, devotes a tedious chapter to every one-off Reflex Records ever released and regularly beefs up the proceedings with extraneous quotations. (Where was Reflex's P.O. box located? Let Norton explain.) The nearest Earles comes to a summing-up is also a more than fair sample of his prose. "Hüsker Dü made music that precisely informed a particular aural attitude of the future: one that combined volume, speed and noise with overt melody and hooks."

Sadly, Mould never puts it better. In fact, the most revealing thing you can read about Hüsker Dü is still Azerrad's 37 juicy pages in Our Band Could Be Your Life. Take as an example these 51 words on Metal Circus: "Not only were Hart and Mould singing more tunefully, but Hart's busy drumming, all singsong beats and light-speed snare rolls, rushed the music along more precisely than ever; Norton's bass lines often carried much of the tune while Mould's guitar swathed it all in a crackling blanket of electronic distortion."

Azerrad is describing a band--a musical entity that coheres as it becomes larger than itself. What his technical description elides is the anger Mould emphasizes in his subtitle. Mould takes care to mention that as a kid he loved the used pop 45s his dad bought from a jukebox jobber, and strongly implies that on his life's path, melody gradually subsumed rage. That's how it worked in Mould's second band, the worthy early-'90s trio Sugar--only somehow Sugar's foregrounded tunes never provided quite as much liftoff. Hart's devotees would attribute this to the loss of their man's supposedly more buoyant melodies. My take is that Hüsker Dü's separate but different tunesmiths were both buoyed by Hart's drumming, as Azerrad indicates, thus transmuting the rage most fans hear in Hüsker Dü into a propulsion that in the moment was provisionally liberating. In either analysis, the band worked the magic. And the band is gone.

The liberation was, to repeat, provisional. You'd be lucky if it lasted all the way home, or onto the other side of the LP. It was an enticing taste of something sweeter than the frustrations that enraged you too--the pall of Reaganism, say, which the indie circuit hated, even if only the simpler bands wrote many lyrics about it. Yet though Earles has a right to claim Hüsker Dü "launched modern rock," the "particular aural attitude of the future" he brags about was more timebound than he admits. These days, guitars are hanging in there at best, and the legacy of Hüsker Dü--of Sonic Youth and the Pixies and Nirvana and all their grungy offspring--lives on primarily in reunion tours and hard rock genres where melody is of small account. The young seekers are middle-aged, and like so many lyric artists were deeper when they still believed they could fuse heaven and hell. But the recorded music remains--too down and dirty sometimes, but vivid nonetheless. It deserves words to match.

New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2011