Ed Ward hooked up with the Hüskers during the spring 1987 Warehouse
tour, traveled with them for a few weeks, and put together this collection
of anecdotes, published in Musician magazine in the Aug 1987 issue.
[Apologies for the extra width of this first page, but I wanted to try to reproduce the spread more or less faithfully.]
Where the kids
can outsmart the adults
By Ed Ward
That's Joan Rivers, all right, and she's got the new album in her hand.
"Joining us right now is one of the most prolific rock groups in the
country," she says. "This is their latest album, Warehouse: Stories
And Songs. Here, to sing 'Could You Be The One,'* is Hüsker
Dü!" And there, on a
set replicating the brilliantly-colored vegetation on the album cover,
is Hüsker Dü all right. Bob Mould looks like he's been waiting
for this moment all his life as he rips into the song, taking great
liberties with the song and bobbing around, and Grant Hart, looking
impish, flails with great precision at the drums. The camera-work catches
the live performance perfectly, and when the song is over, Bob sets his
Flying V down and shoots over to the set where Rivers awaits him. Bassist
Greg Norton follows, and then, straggling behind, Grant bounds onto the
set, grabs Joan for a big hug, and plops into his seat.
After the obligatory question about the name (it means "Do you remember?" in Danish, was the title of a popular board game in the late 60s and early 70s, and, although nobody mentions it, became the band's name one day when they were parodying the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and singing the French verse with various foreign phrases) and Grant admitting that nobody in the band is "Danish in the least," Joan decides to impress us. "I've been doing my homework," she says, "and you used to be a more underground group, more radical." Grant, master of unfinished sentences, says, "We used to be seventeen and eighteen years old, too, but the band has evolved over the course of."
"Are you getting any knocks for this? 'Cause you've signed with Warner Bros., and that's a very big label." "That's sometimes an excuse not to do anything, is to knock people who are," Grant says, filing another incomplete. "But do you find yourselves playing different music?" Joan persists. "Have you changed?" "Anything you do, any craft or art, as you get older
We thought we were damn good when
your emotional spectrum gets a little more involved," Mould
says, "a little wider, and it's not just screaming about how messed up the
government is and how you hate
your parents any more. It's..." "Playing
to a better medley," Joan says, cold-cocking him into stunned silence
with the malapropism. Finally, she asks the teen-mag question of which
is the calming influence, which is the wild one, and Bob cops to the
former, Greg admits to being in between, and Grant rolls his eyes. "We'll
be back with the eighty-five-year-old marathon winner and actor David
McCallum, okay?" Joan concludes. Okay, Joan.
A week later, Hüsker Dü is in Denver. All is not swell in the Mile-High City: A lack of advance sales has caused the promoter to move the gig from a beautifully restored downtown theater to Norman's Place, way the hell out in the suburb of Aurora. In fact, it looks like he's been keeping it a complete secret. The band goes to an in-store appearance at Wax Trax, a funky, comfortable record store in a collegiate-looking area. It looks like there are only six non-band, non-employee types in the whole store. Over the next hour, several more people drift in, but most don't recognize the band or know what they're doing behind the counter. The guys are taking it instride, though, chatting affably with the fans, signing album covers, posters and 12x12s, and surprising me with their encyclopedic knowledge of America's underground bands. Of course, they've played on bills with many of them. Bob Mould scores a stack of fanzines to read.
"So how many songs have you guys released, anyway?" a fan asks, and Mould jots some figures down in a long string, going back to the top to pull out subtotals and comes up with an answer. One hundred thirty. More or less. "How many unreleased?" "Not many. We tend to use what we record right away. Maybe two or three songs. Hundreds on cassettes and in notebooks though." "Hey," the fan says, looking at the sheet of numbers. "I recognize that: card-counting." Mould's eyes light up. "Did you do any playing when you guys played Vegas?" And they're off into a conversation about that.
It gets to be 4:30, and with soundcheck not until six, the question of finding something to eat looms large. The issue of food is complicated: Bob and Grant are strictly teetotaling vegetarians, a hard regime to hold to on the road. We wind up at a Greek Mexican place and head off to the gig via the hotel.
Greg Norton, as navigator, knows where everything is everywhere in America. He has maps, for one thing, but he also has a hell of a lot in his head. I guess after six years of cross-country travel that's not too surprising. Tonight's gig is in a shopping center, close by a Gold's Gym and a Fuddrucker's. Norman's Place is a teen club serving no alcohol, and even at this early hour the parking-lot is swarming with rent-a-cops. In the dressing room we find music writer Gil Asakawa with an older man he introduces as George Beck, owner of the toy company that made Hüsker Dü. Gil has talked Beck into coming along to meet the band and give them a new copy of the game. Beck is friendly enough, although the sound coming through the closed door is frighteningly loud for him. "Where the Child Can Outwit the Adult!" it says on the Hüsker Dü box. According to New Times, the game has a scandal in its history: An overzealous ad agency inserted the subliminal message "GET
IT!" in a Canadian Hüsker Dü
TV ad, and Beck and his company were denounced in Parliament.
The band is really happy to see Beck and they trade Hüsker Dü lore
for a while. "Hüsker Dü is a Norwegian television show similar to
Lawrence Welk, too, you know, and when we played Norway the government asked
us to stop using the name," Mould reveals. So did you? "Naw." Then the
four of them settle down for a game which, considering Mould's methodical
mind, I'm surprised that Greg Norton wins.
The show begins early, and although the sound leaves a bit to be desired, there is fire coming off the stage tonight. Playing for a small but devoted group of fans, suburban punk-by-numbers kids and curiosity-seekers, they let it rip. I wonder if the regulars here realize what kind of show they're getting tonight, how seeing the light at the end of the tour-tunnel is making the band cut loose.
I also think about how difficult this band seemed for me at first. Metal Circus was a roar from one end to the other, but with a little bit of melodicism peeking out to let me know this wasn't your average hardcore band. Subsequent albums made that clearer until the magnificent single "Makes No Sense At All" proved that this band could write hit songs, or at least songs that were hits with me. But there has always bee an angularity to Hüsker Dü particularly Mould's numbers, which seem to have very irregular meters (but only seem to) and emotionally opaque lyrics that make surrendering to the music just a little more work than it is with most bands. The hooks only sink in after three or four listenings. After that, the floodgates open and I remember how I had the same trouble with the early Who. True, Grant's not the flashy drummer Keith Moon was, but Greg's bass fills in more rhythmically than Entwistle's. The Mould/Townshend comparison works (and I'm not talking about their noses, either), except that Bob doesn't leap around. Where the Hüskers have it over the Who is that they have two prolific songwriters and a third who's getting back into it.
When I ask Grant about the differences between his songs and Bob's, he says, "The fact that we're two different people might have something to do with it. I mean, Bob and I aren't each half of Paul Westerberg."
"We started in the same place," Bob elaborates, "and developed differently, separated quite a bit, and I think now are getting more the same."
The next morning we prepare to leave for Kansas City. Warners publicist Les Schwartz has rented a car and the band have a van. Yeah, van; no Silver Eagle tour bus for these guys.
The tour is almost over: Only Kansas City and a gig the next night in Decorah, Iowa remain. It hasn't been an easy one so far. The band had been off the road for a while and was enjoying it after virtually living in the van for five years. It was hard getting back, if even for six weeks. Two weeks before the tour was to start, their manager, David Savoy, killed himself, plunging the band's affairs into Bob Mould's competent but overworked hands for the first time since Savoy had taken over in August '85. The band elected to hold off finding new management until after the tour, so Bob's toting an extra briefcase and making more phone calls every day.
Playing to a better medley? "I don't know. Money hasn't changed the way we do it."
Since the band doesn't have to play until tomorrow night,
they're going to take their time. First stop is Federal Express, where
Bob has some stuff to mail off to the Today show, which is going to
broadcast a week from the Twin Cities and wants Hüsker Dü as guests.
After that, it's decided we'll find something to eat, and I get an idea of
Greg's road-sense. We drive along the interstate until an exit with several
franchises appears. Greg exits and bypasses the pancake houses and burger
joints for several blocks until we find Hai's Vietnamese Restaurant.
Ta-dah! Good food that even veg-heads can eat, even if the vegetarian aspect
of the menu isn't immediately obvious ("Oh no!" Bob exclaims after a quick
perusal, "They kill everything here!"). The food is wonderful, but the big
hit at Hai's is the rich espresso dripped into a glass and poured over ice.
Considering that it's almost three and the drive east has yet to begin, this
goes over very well with Greg, who also has a couple of Cokes.
Grant, Greg and soundman Lou Giordano head off to the K-Mart to buy electrical supplies to rewire part of the van's interior. Bob and I head to an Oriental market, where even more kinds of coffee are gleefully purchased. We emerge to find the rest of the guys fussing around the van, discovering they're not going to be able to do the work on the spot because the dashboard padding has to be removed. Grant has found a huge inflatable killer whale which he's trying to blow up. Greg, getting wired from the multiple caffeine hits, gives us directions, and at four, we're off.
Grant, Greg and Lou get the van. Bob and I climb into Les' rental car. Bob's been mentioning that if we get to Kansas in time, he might visit "Bill," who lives in Lawrence. "Is this some friend of yours?" I ask.
Bob explains. "We've known him for a while. Actually, Naked Lunch
was my huge revelation in college. I'm originally from Malone, New York,
which is way upstate. My parents own a, literally, mom-and-pop store. I
mean, you have to walk between the refrigerator and the stove to serve the
customers. Anyway, I got this complete scholarship to Macalester College
in St. Paul, I guess because they had need of a few smart poor kids, and I
had this boring job where I could read a lot. One night I got ahold of a
copy of Naked Lunch and read it all at one sitting. I was pretty
green then, and I guess it showed me some stuff."
"College is where we got the band together. I met Grant one day when I was going to the grocery store. There was this guy wearing a leather jacket, crankin' the Ramones through this PA in the middle of Grand Avenue, this proper middle-class neighborhood. We found we had similar taste in music we were buying a lot of the American independent stuff, a lot of the British stuff that was coming out in '77 and '78. We were just kidding one day and he said, 'Do you play an instrument?' I said, 'Yeah, I play guitar,' and Grant said, 'Oh, I play drums.' So we called each other's bluff and it turned out we could play."
Bob was working in a record store called Cheapo Records whose owner had another store where Greg worked (and where Grant had been pestering the management for a job for some time). Eventually the three hooked up, playing "a lot of wild noise" in Greg's basement.
"We had our own theory on how to change the world," Bob continues, and I guess one way was you have to bear in mind that we were all seventeen, eighteen years old when this
"We're Hüsker Dü, not Bob Mould or
was going on through our common interest in music. We ended up writing
what we thought were real catchy songs, but they were real abrasive and real
fast. Faster than bands had ever thought of playing before. In hindsight,
you can go back and look at some of the early stuff the Beatles did and you
can see how fast they played when all the yid was drink and take speed. Not
that we patterned ourselves after the early Beatles, but.... Were influenced
by a lot of things. I was listening to a lot of punk rock and a lot of, not
so much free jazz, but weird fringe music. Grant came from much more of a
pop background, and Greg was from a more jazzy end. We just did what we did.
It was pretty natural. We didn't sit down and have a world domination plan.
We thought we were awfully damn good when we started out. People hated our
The early Hüsker Dü not only played an unpopular kind of music although the Twin Cities was a more receptive place for punk than many but they were from St. Paul, which enjoys the same sort of "second city" status that Brooklyn does to Manhattan, or Oakland to San Francisco: Nothing cool can come from a place like that. So they took what gigs they could get. "We've done our share of 3.2 bars (pouring low-alcohol beer for eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds) and old folks' honky-tonk polka clubs and other wacky gigs," Mould recalls, "but we did demo tapes before we played out, 4-track stuff that we thought was the greatest stuff in the world. After we'd been together a year, a year and a half, we decided to put out a single. We did three songs at Blackberry Way with Steve Fjelstad in August 1980. We had people documenting live shows for us even back then, and we took 'Statues,' which was a studio song, and 'Amusement,' a live track, got a loan, and put that out as a single. We pressed up 2500 of them, printed the sleeves ourselves, stuffed them all into plastic bags and sat there and looked at them for a couple of months.
"In March of '81 we decided to go down to Chicago, just for the hell of it, to level the entire
city. We met the SST people there at one of the hell gigs,
the one with the
blue paint. Oh, that gig.... We got psychotic one night when we played
this club, bouncing off the walls, picking up hammers between songs and
smashing everything in sight. There were two lights in the whole place and
we had them focused on the mike stands so all people could see was these
silhouettes and these bright lights staring them in the face. And at the end
of the set, we just went nuts. There were no dressing rooms, just a storage
closet behind the stage, and one of us went back there and found this big
thing of blue latex paint. I was out of my fuckin' mind, so I just picked
it up and pitched it over the drum kit and it landed on the floor. The top
flew off and blue paint went all over the place. This girl, who was the
club-owner's roommate, dressed head to toe in leather, decided she was going
to scoop up the paint with what was left of Grant's cymbals and pour it
over his drum kit. She had a cymbal-full of blue paint, and just as she
got to the kit, Grant came out, picked her up, power-slammed her into the blue
paint so she was covered, her whole backside, and people decided they were
going to pick her up by her elbows and bounce her off the walls, leaving these
blue buttprints all around the club. Needless to say, we didn't get paid,
although I think we sold some records. This was before what I consider
hardcore was even hardcore. We pretty much...it was the Who."
Well, now. Imagine that.
In May, as soon as school let out, the band rented a van andspent the next three and a half months on the West Coast, where "we did a lot of gigs for twelve bucks, twenty bucks. If we could play a gig for twenty bucks and have a place to stay, we'd do that. A lot of generic beer, a lot of sandwiches, a lot of days without eating. But we discovered that, lo and behold, there were other bands doing somewhat the same thing we were doing." And the rest, as they say, is discography; first Land Speed Record came out on New Aliance, then the first SST record, the Metal Circus EP. Suddenly the trio from (ugh) St. Paul was one of America's leading avant-garde bands. From there, they set up the cycle of tour, record, tour, record, tour some more and record some more, that they only broke with the six-month hiatus that led up to Warehouses: Songs And Stories. Even or maybe especiallyAmerica's leading avant-garde bands stand a good chance of turning into crispy critters if they don't watch it.
You leave the hills behind in Colorado. It's amazing how you can start the day with snow-capped peaks looming overhead and within a matter of a couple of hours the whole countryside flattens out and becomes, well, Kansas. The aggravation of the road is taking its toll on the homesick Hüskers. When we cross into the Central time zone they let out a big sigh of relief almost home. Bob quotes his lyric from "Celebrated Summer": Somewhere in April time they add another hour."
"The underground community is more
After we gas up, Bob takes Grant's place in the van and Grant jumps in with
Les and me. I take over the wheel and point the car east. The van overtakes
us and stays just barely visible ahead on the plains. Van driver Greg is
in a hurry.
Now in direct contrast with card-counting Bob Mould and straightforward, mechanically-inclined Greg Norton, Grantzberg Vernon Hart (sorry, man, I had to tell 'em) is not the most, shall we say, linear member of Hüsker Dü. It can be maddening, the way he never finishes sentences, his mind having rushed on to something else, leaving you to...But you can usually get his.... On the other hand, he tends to be very epigrammatic. He talks about playing the couch circuit in the band's early days and I say the sort of underground community that supported so many bands was wonderful. Says Grant: "The underground is more a series of tunnels than a hole." After four hours of rigorous conversation with Bob, Grant's playfulness and general good humor give me the clue to the other side of the band's appeal. At a Hüsker Dü gig in Austin, a Dutch fan approached me and asked, "Zo, are you a Bob Mould fan or a Grant Hart fan?" and then I spent the intervening weeks developing a theory that one was a more hard-rock writer and the other more of the pop guy. Grant dismisses it with a short, "That's a bunch of bullshit." (About half of the pop stuff I like is by Mould, and the other half by Hart.) On the other hand, he freely admits that the songs he writes on keys are differently structured from those he writes on guitar.
But it's also clear that this end of the tour has left Grant pretty exhausted, so mostly we just trade general observations or drive along having conversations like this:
Grant: "I've never been in the same mood twice."
Ed: "That's an interesting thought. You really think that?"
E: (stalling, trying to figure that one out) "That's good.i You're very lucky."
G: "I've probably got six or seven categories of moods."
E: (increasingly puzzled) "But you don't slide into them the same way or experience them the same way?"
G: "I'm sure."
Or Grant Hart tells a joke: "There was this guy who woke up one day and all he heard was drums. Everywhere he went, drums pounding, pounding in his head. And the doctor listened to his story and said, 'You got here just in time.' So the doctor pulls out a needle and gives the guy a shot, and the drums disappear. Then the bass solo starts..."
We've lost the sun, and even though the moon's not up yet we can still see the horizon as we drive along. Reconnoitering at a rest-stop, we notice that we're not quite halfway across Kansas, and it's decided that the next stop will be someplace to eat. Grilled cheese again. Convinced that the van will catch up with us, we leave without talking to Bob and Greg.
That turns out to be a big mistake. We set out with Grant at the wheel, revved up and doing around ninety. Suddenly the van comes up behind us, and Greg, mad that we left without him,
passes us and disappears down the road.
So much for our navigator.
About three hours later we approach Kansas City
and realize that although we're headed to another Holiday Inn, we have no
idea where it is. Over the next two hours, the vision of the Holiday Inn we
passed on our way into the city dances in my head. We should have stopped
there just to use their computer to find out which one we were staying at
and get directions. But we didn't.
To keep from falling asleep, we've turned on the radio, which at 3:30 on a Friday morning in Kansas City, isn't much. But a song comes onthe oldies station: "Aquarius" by the 5th Dimension. "Awright!" Grant yells, and turns it all the way up. He starts pounding everything in sight, driving faster and faster. "I leaned to play drums to this song. My brother, who played drums and gave me my first set, said it'd be a good one to practice to; it had a couple of different beats in it.
Finally we find the suburb we're supposed to be in. There's a Holiday Inn. We're ecstatic. It's the wrong Holiday Inn. We're pre-psychotic. The place we're supposed to be is two freeway exits back. All the way there, Grant is trying to figure out whether it would be more sadistic to leave a 6:30 or a 7:30 wakeup call for Greg Norton.
The next day starts late. The hotel is a Holidome, with most of the rooms arranged around an indoor pool. Mould has decided there won't be time to visit William Burroughs. Instead he takes the modem out and starts doing business in his room. Grant takes the inflatable whale he bought in Denver and decides to donate it to the swimmers inthe pool. He gets up to the second floor and throws it in, to the delight of a bunch of kids. Throughout the day he checks in to see who's on the whale, and at one point there's a guy who must be seventy, all alone, riding it up and down the pool. Not much of a motel-vandalism story. Like I said, he's no Keith Moon.
At four, the band shows up in my room. I ask why they still drive themselves around. "Well," Greg, who does most of the driving, says, "you like to drive." True enough, and there have been times when I've pushed myself to do a lot of it on a day, but I don't think a six-week tour.... "Driving ourselves on the road is something we've always done," he says. I guess it would be nice to have somebody that that's all they do, is drive." "It's aprt of our way of being independent from the situation as well," Bob adds. "You're not tied to the equipment, not tied to the crew, not tied to the interstate. Like yesterday, we can trail off and do something for an hour, or goof off in the afternoon. Other bands have to be on the bus at a certain time or else fly to the next gig and pay out of your wallet to do it. We're real hands-on as far as the booking and routing of our tours is concerned. This is the schedule we've picked."
Then there's the queston of the lyrics. in the interviews I've read, the band downplays their importance, which is fine with me because I rarely listen to lyrics. But if they're not important, why are they there? "To have a title!" Grant states the obvious. "The lyrics are real important," Bob says. "But it's like, the two ground-breaking bands of the 80s people constantly refer to are us and R.E.M., and we've both got this problem. There are so many levels you can take this band on. You can say, 'They're a great live band, but I don't like their
records much' or 'I like their records but they're noisy live,' and the
lyrics are just a portion of it. People tend to focus on them as being some
kind of biblical...godsend or something. 'Here come some more words of
wisdom from God.' Those are just our thoughts, and what people want to
take them as is up to them. We're in a band that people like and look up to,
but you don't have to take this as the way you have to live your life. It's
like, this is what we are. You can take a look at it and make what you
like out of it. But don't do what we do just because of what we are. That's
what I mean by not taking it too seriously: They're serious, thought-provoking
lyrics, but to us." "It's what you're thinking about when you're
playing," adds Grant.
How about having three songwriters in the group, does that make it harder to put an album together? "Not really," says Greg. "It's because we're Hüsker Dü, not Grant Hart and two unlisted sidemen or Bob Mould and two unlisted sidemen. There are a lot of songs the three of us have written that aren't suited to the group." "When you get ready to make a record, you have to look at what everybody has," Bob amplifies. "One thing that was nice about this record was just the amount of jamming we were doing to find out what the common vocabulary of the instruments was. And from that you can whittle down what songs are going to work and which are better just left in the notebooks. Now there were real separate styles on Candy Apple Grey; it was real fragmented. It was so damned depressing, bleak. Candy Apple Grey was the result of four-and-a-half years of not stoping to take a look. We were due for a real bleak album and that was it." "Yeah," adds Grant, "we get all these dark-circled faces coming up saying, 'I really liked that album.'"
That's another nice thing about Hüsker Dü: They're accessible to
their fans, be they dark-circled or apple-cheeked. "It's hard to share with
somebody," Grant says, aware that he's framing another epigram, "if you
don't let them at the table." "We don't think of ourselves as famous," Bob
adds, " and so we don't have any right to do that. By being very public
with people, I expect them not to be very private with me. We're accessible
at one level and untouchable at another."
But the fame is growing. What about the possibility that you may find yourselves with a hit on your hands? "I think every song we wrote is a hit," Bob says, dead serious. "Maybe not compared to Bon Jovi, but I think we write a lot better songs than ninety-nine percent of the bands that are going right now. To be honest, there are a couple of songs on each album that we pay extra attention to, some songs that are just begging to sound a certain way. Like on Flip Your Wig, 'Makes No Sense At All' and 'Green Eyes' were the two songs we spent a lot of time on, to make sure they were impeccable by our standards." And they have finally reached the point where their songs are getting covered: To my utter surprise, the band says that Robert Palmer encores with a version of ZZ Top's "Legs" that segues into that masterpiece of controlled chaos "New Day Rising." I'd like to hear that, although I guess I'm not prepared to sit through an entire Robert Palmer show to do so.
"I don't know," Bob muses as soundcheck draws near. "Money hasn't changed the way we do it. We stuck through the lean years and went through the things that kill other bands." Does it get easier as you go along? "No. Your time changes. You're a little more pressed. You spend more time answering mail or administering the business end of it. We had our own label for a while, Reflex, and
had a lot of bands we worked with
and helped out financially. We don't have time to do that anymore, and it
would hurt the other bands to pretend that we could so instead we'll produce
their records or give them information about booking tours and stuff. We're
all pretty busy outside the band. Outside the band? I mean the couple of
hours each day when it's not the band. Hey, we didn't get together
to get rich and famous. Now we're" "obscure and middle-class," Grant
interjects "self-supporting and well-known," Bob picks up. "I guess one
thing I'm proud of is that we've never bounced a check and don't owe anybody
any money. That's a lot more than most people get out of life."
"And while doing that," Grant sums up, "we've maintained a great relationship with our art."
Which is just what they manage to do that night at the Uptown Theatre, a giddily rococo joint that has seen the cream of Kansas City jazz, from Andy Kirk to Jay McShann to Charlie Parker, under its roof. The older, drinking-age crowd is downstairs, while the youngsters fill the balcony, and this leads to a very weird incident at the show's end. Everybody's pooped so the post-gig socializing is held to a minimum, although fans are accommodated. Grant and I are walking around as the room empties, and I see that the T-shirts are only twelve dollars. "I'm going to get one of those," I say, but Grant dissuades me, saying he'll get me one. "You sure? I can buy one," I say. As we stand there. I fail to notice the mob that's held back by the security. For some reason the kiddies have to be kept upstairs for a while (until the liquor is put away?), and as Grant and I turn to go back inside the hall, somebody yells, "Okay!" and the mob swarms down the stairs, catching us up in the flood of bodies. They're lining up to buy T-shirts, while almost trampling one of the guys in the band that has,
presumably, excited them into this consumer frenzy. What, I wonder, is
their relationship to this art? What does Hüsker Dü mean
to them, other than an excuse to wear their Discharge T-shirts and goop up
their hair. Makes no sense at all.
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