Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Hüsker Dü, by Andrew Earles

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Book cover image and videos from the Internet

Hüsker Dü: The story of the noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock
By Andrew Earles
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2010
288 pages; USD $24.00 / CAN $27.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-3504-8

I remember that day in 1984 when I went to my Post Office box and there was a package from SST Records. This wasn’t too unusual, except this one was heavy like a brick.

Rushing home I opened it up. Inside were two albums, each one a double disk: The Minutemen’s Double Nickel on the Dime and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. Apparently, they had both come out the same day. Then I took them out for a spin.

Hüsker Dü had grown quite a bit since their first LP, Land Speed Record, one I found excellent, but not a stand-out. With each HD release, though, their growth excited me more as they became somewhat more melodic. Still their rise was 45 degrees up until the end.

So what began as an above average fast-as-fuck hardcore band started to include some melody, rather than just trying to rely on proving how Speedy Gonzalez they were (after all, even a ratón rápido has a physical speed max). This is when HD became, well, more.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were lynchpin bands that were of great influence, such as the Ramones (NY punk), Talking Heads (art rock), Sex Pistols (punk rock), Blondie (New Wave), REM (college rock), and Black Flag (hardcore); HD to were to become highly influential about mid-way through their history. While the subtitle of the book seems a bit hyperbole, there is no denying that HD played an important hub in the huge wheel of indie music in the ‘80s.

Other than a 37-page full chapter in Michael Zaerrad’s intriguing Our Band Could Be Your Life (acknowledged by Earles), there has been nothing extensive written on HD. That is, until this book, which follows the career somewhat before, during, and somewhat after. Drummer / co-singer / co-songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton both took part in the process, giving Earles extensive quotes about the band. Only guitarist / co-singer / co-songwriter Bob Mould does not raise a voice here, except in quotes from previous sources such as fanzine interviews from the period. This could be because (a) he is currently working on his own auto-bio and didn’t want to be redundant, (b) he would not participate in anything that has to do with Grant Hart and / or Greg Norton, (c) he does not want to be associated with anything as singularly focused as a HD book that is not also about his other projects, or (d) all of the above. While his lack of participation does not eliminate the message of the book, it does leave a bit of a vacuum, and also a less-than-subtle message to the reader and / or previous members of HD.

Hüsker Dü is a fact filled telling of their early years, about finding each other, the growth of the band, recording sessions, the eventual break-up and a chapter-long follow-up of what-happened-since and where-are-they-now. What it does not reflect much, is the dynamics of the inner workings of the band (what made them tick).

In other words, as important a document as the book is, there is something missing as far as the band’s “personality,” even with extensive quotes by Hart and Norton and the fact that Earles is completely willing to face that HD were not perfect (e.g., there is, gratefully, no histrionics on the lines of “I have seen the future of…”). While the details are there, it’s a bit shy in the hues.

For example, it is clear that Grant and Mould were having huge ego attacks against each other, and that they fought for who would have what number of cuts on each release, but there is nothing about the form the “battles” took, just that they did. While their tours are discussed extensively, describing songlists, crowd reaction, and press mentions, there is no Get in the Van backstage stories, other than that Grant and Mould flew on separate planes while Norton rode back with the equipment. While not a dirt hound per se, I would like to see a little bit of juice to get the feel of being on the road with them, especially considering how often they toured. In other books there are wonderful stories about being on the road with the Ramones or the Clash, for example, and D.O.A.’s Joey Shithead wrote some wonderful road / war stories in I, Shithead. This book is dry meat with a hint of gravy (note that I would be just as critical if this was mostly gravy with little meat).

The last thing I will say in this direction is wondering if there was any fact checking going on with the book; there are some blatant errors that pop up here and there. For example, in discussing HD’s influence, Earles mentions Bostonian “all girl band” Salem 66. While they were all females for a very, very short period at their inception, during most of their career the two main women in the band were aided by a revolving series of males to round out the trio (and why he didn’t mention somewhat similarly sounding Boston band Christmas is a curiosity). But the biggest error I found was the repeated mention of Seymour Stein and his Sire bands (in a negative tone), including the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Television. Well, at least two of them were never on Sire (Blondie on Private Stock and Chrysalis, and Television on Elektra). Makes me wonder what else was off that I missed…

Despite these flaws, there is a lot to actually recommend about Hüsker Dü I was extremely glad to be able to read this more extensive story of their career. It made me go back into my collection and play all their records (yes, vinyl) again, as he discussed them in detail. I also appreciated the sometimes extensive republishing of articles about / interviews with the band during the period, especially those by Mould, since he did not participate in this venture.

I’d met HD during an interview on New York cable access show Videowave, when I was the cameraperson for the shoot. I noticed that while they all interacted well together, Grant and Mould never looked at each other (of course, having given them copies of FFanzeen, they decided to keep reading them during the actual interview, so there was little eye contact anyway). They were all pleasant enough, even Mould (who was known for being snarky), and their soundcheck was killer. A photo I took of Mould during the check was published in Brian Cogan’s The Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture.

Speaking of photos, there are two sections of great pictures (my favorites by Kathy Chapman; see of the band’s history (and after), flyers, and the like. Tour songlists are sporadically added throughout the text, and there is quite a few appendices, including (but not only) an extensive discography and filmography, bands who have covered HD songs, and bands who were influenced by them. Also included with the book is a free bumper sticker that states “What Would Hüsker Dü?”

Considering the strong personalities that inhabited the members of Hüsker Dü, this book could have been more, but even with the lacks mentioned within this review, there is surely more than enough of the history of the band and the world in which they spun, to keep the ardent fan’s attention, and inform those who are curious.

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