INTO THE GROOVE
A PUBLICIST IS BUGGING ME TO INTERVIEW BOB MOULD,
leader of the group Sugar, for the San Francisco Examiner, the daily paper
where I work. I explain that I already interviewed the Hüsker Dü
guitarist for the Examiner when he went solo a few years agoand then I
say that I'd really like to talk to him for The ADVOCATE.
"I don't know if he'd want to do that," she says, her voice
heavy with what goes unsaid. I never hear from her again.
In case you haven't been keeping up, Sugar is being hailed as the next Nirvana, the
latest punky guitar band spinning tunes catchy enough to sell millions. The trio's
debut CD, Copper Blue (Rykodisc), seems primed to win acceptance with the
same mainstream fans who have been buying Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Red Hot
Chili Peppers albums by the truckload. After all, Hüsker Dü invented the
pop-meets-hardcore hybrid sound"popcore"that Nirvana took to the top.
As usual, though, something's missing from the story. Us.
Copper Blue's emotional and musical centerpiece is a song called "The Slim."
Written in first person, "The Slim" is quintessential Mouldsad and angry,
confessional and elliptical. But what's left out of the lyrics is as important as
what's sung. As with all Mould love songs, "The Slim" doesn't specify the gender
of the love object; there is no he or she, only you. But the
fragmented phrases paint a horrifying picture:
"I felt you rushing in/... I'm left behind; it's a matter of time/...
Your protection from injection/... I with your breath on my pillow/... When You left
with your death, I felt anger when I looked back/... The chances seemed so slim/...
Till death do us part."
Mould may be the first alternative-rock hero with the balls to sing about getting
fucked without a condom by a guy who infects him with HIV and then dies, leaving him
to worry about his own mortality. Will he be acknowledged as such by the straight
music press? Not likely. Like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Tracy Chapman, and George
Michael, Mould is reluctant to discuss the meaning of his songs for the usual reasons.
Straight rock critics usually don't have a clue about gay lyrical content or
sensibility. They lack the nerve to ask about what they consider dirty secrets.
They get lost in what they perceive as journalistic ethics. The result: We queers
rarely get to confront our heroes with lyrical interpretations that come close to
home for both of us. Our story goes untold.
Copper Blue is fabulous. It's loaded with memorable tunes, tight ensemble
performances, intelligent lyrics, and more sensitivity than most albums made by bands
flaunting big guitars and maximum decibels. So-called alternative rock is
currently undergoing a macho phase where women and queers are once again reduced to
the role of spectators, but Sugar is exactly what its name implies: sweet and
accessible. In Mould's tormented love lyrics and frustrated instrumental attacks,
we can hear ourselves. But because Copper Blue doesn't sound like Pet Shop
Boys and because Sugar doesn't look like a bunch of androgynous twinkies, the chances
are slim that we'll get any credit for giving birth to the latest music-biz buzz.
After centuries of appropriation by whites, African-American culture is finally
getting credit for the art forms it created. But when will queer musicians be
properly honored for their contributions? Do all those college disc jockeys
infatuated with pop-punk (specifically Mould's crucial predecessors, the Buzzcocks)
really understand the sensibilty and suffering behind songs like "Orgasm Addict"
and "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have Fallen in Love With)?"
When I interviewed Mould a few years ago, I asked him point-blank if he is gay. He
rambled on about not being able to answer that question and how difficult the record
industry can be for anyone who is trying to do anything interesting, let alone for
people who are gay. A part of me was sympathetic to Mould; it's hard not to feel
protective of tormented poets. But a part of me was angry. When will we ever be
honest about who we are? How many of us have to die from fag bashing and AIDS
before we all get fed up and start screaming the truth about ourselves en masse?
I let Mould off the hook and started to go on to the next question, but he
"I'm sure you can guess from the way I've avoided answering that question what the
truth is," he added with a guilty smile.
Barry Walters is the pop music critic for the San Francisco Examiner.
He writes about the arts and gay culture for the Village Voice and has
contributed to Rolling Stone and Spin.