Hüsker Dü

The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock

by Zachary Houle

11 November 2010


A Crushingly Glorious Noise

With that in mind, this biography does shed light on a few things. While I was aware that the band formed Reflex Records early in their career as a means to get their product out after Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone Records rejected them, I didn’t know that Mould, Hart and Norton would continue releasing albums by other bands on the label until about 1985, when their own soaring popularity made it unfeasible to focus on two things at once. Earles offers up an entire chapter on the history of Reflex Records, and while it gets in the way of the Hüsker Dü narrative a bit, it is a welcome and vital addition in considering the band’s own goals and aspirations. That they wanted to foster other bands they felt worthy of inclusion in their own music scene, even if no one remembers Rifle Sport or Man Sized Action anymore, is admirable, and really adds to the level of awe to bestow on the Dü, especially considering they put out more or less at least an album’s worth of material between 1981 and 1987, sometimes more. Clearly, these were very busy guys.

Another interesting tidbit that I didn’t know was how Norton was essentially a bit of a go-between between Mould and Hart, and had to often pick sides between the two when they started arguing about the choice of material to go on a record. This biography also makes it clear that Norton was the key partner that got screwed when the band broke up, not being able to record his own material due to the nature of their contract with Warner Bros., and getting shut out of payment from the label thanks to some iffy recording equipment leasing scheme that Mould and Hart had cooked up. Finally, had I been more of a bootleg collector – unofficial live recordings being impossible to come by in my pre-Internet small town – I would have known that Hüsker Dü was a groundbreaking band in that when they played live, they often performed songs not from the album they were about to record, but from the album they planned to release after that! Earles points out that the band was one of the first to treat albums as not recorded documents of their particular sound or songs that would stand the test of time, but as merchandise that was explicitly made for the sole purpose of having something to sell while on tour.

There are a few gaping holes in this biography, though. First and foremost, while Earles was able to secure interviews with both Hart and Norton, Mould declined to participate in the making of this book. There are a few reasons for this: Mould is actually hard at work on his own autobiography with Azerrad, so it’s probably only natural that he wanted to save his stories for his own book. Plus, considering that he was reluctant to play any Hüsker Dü material at his own shows until fairly recently, and considering that he posted his resignation letter from the band on his blog on the 20th anniversary of the break-up by noting it was the best decision he ever made, it’s safe to say that his years with Hüsker Dü is something that he’d rather play down. (Earles does at least try to close the gap by using quotes Mould had given in other published interviews.)

Second, the book focuses primarily on the fledgling years of the group as a hardcore act, with the first seven of 14 chapters covering the period from roughly 1979 to 1983, which are, admittedly, the least interesting years of the band. Additionally, rather than being a fly-on-the-wall account of the songwriting process or how the albums were made, we get lengthy post-mortem “reviews” of each of the singles, EPs and albums that would form the body of Hüsker Dü’s work. Earles’ opinions and takes on the albums are sometimes interesting, but I would have rather had more about the inner-workings of the band, not some rock critic’s opinion. And speaking of his opinion, Earles has a very low one of the band’s Warner Bros.-era output, citing 1986’s Candy Apple Grey as being Hüsker Dü on “auto-pilot”. He also offers no track-by-track dissection of Warehouse, presumably because he feels that the album is really Mould and Hart solo albums pasted together. (The revisionist critical stoning of this excellent album continues, alas.) By this time in the book, Earles relies less on primary sources, and turns ink over to previously published interviews and reviews. Maybe this period was a painful one for the band members considering the break-up, and perhaps nobody wanted to talk about it, but Earles misses the boat on spotlighting what are really some terrific albums by getting exclusive material that goes into detail about the making of those records.

As for further “holes”, if you’ve come to this book expecting a gossipy tome that delves into the band member’s personal drug use, their love lives, or even the supposed rivalry with the Replacements, well, you’re going to be disappointed. “Never was this book envisioned as a lurid tell-all,” writes Earles in his introduction. While it’s admirable that Earles takes the moral high road and focuses on the music, there are a lot of questions that surround the band that have never been answered – the complete circumstances of their break-up being just one of them. It would have been nice if there were a bit more digging done to get to the bottom of what is real about the band and what can be written off as aggravating rumour. What’s more, Earles is guilty of a journalistic no-no: he admits in the introduction that he can become friends to both Hart and Norton. This cozying up to of sources doesn’t bode well for a subjective and honest account.

What’s more, while Earles side-steps around some of the thornier aspects surrounding the band, this book still proves that the band members are pretty much only speaking to each other through the press. Hart gets in numerous jabs at Mould throughout the book, which seems a bit unfair considering that the latter, by sheer declination of participation, doesn’t really get a chance to defend himself. Despite his best intentions, Earles makes Mould out to be some kind of controlling megalomaniac – which may be true, based on some of Mould’s snarky behaviour during and after the band was together – but I honestly could have done without some of Hart’s retorts, especially considering a great deal of them – such as Mould’s disdain that Hart was wearing safety pins on his clothes in a punk move – seem petty and trivial, and unimportant to the text.

What really deflates this tome from being a much needed look at a very misunderstood band is the fact that it is riddled with all sorts of factual errors. Granted, to err is to be human, and I’m not above admitting that I’ve made the odd mistake in my own work, but some of the gaffes made in this biography should have been caught by someone doing some simple fact-checking, whether that be the author or someone hired by the publisher to do it for him. (Before illustrating the extent of the erroneous text, I should point out that the copy I obtained for review is a galley, meaning that it is a penultimate version of the book released prior to official publication, and it is entirely possible that some of these mistakes might be fixed in the final copy. I’m not betting on it due to the sheer volume of eyeball-rollers that I found, but it’s a possibility worth pointing out.)

For example, in a concluding chapter about the post-Hüsker Dü legacy, Earles notes that the Sugar song “Company Book” is a Mould composition, when it is, in fact, a rare song written by that band’s bassist, David Barbe. He also gets the name of the song wrong – he calls it “Company Man”. Then, when talking about Zen Arcade being released in 1984 on the same day as crucial albums by the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, he notes that the latter’s album was Up on the Sun, which actually wasn’t released until the following year. What he meant to say was Meat Puppets II. In another section of the book, Earles quotes Norton verbatim as saying, without double-checking, that the band played a Canadian gig early in their history, circa 1981, on Victoria Day, July 1st. I’m a Canadian, and I can vouch that Victoria Day is not July 1st. That’s Canada Day, which was previously known as Dominion Day in the timeframe being discussed by Norton. Victoria Day is actually May 24th, though it is officially observed on the first Monday that falls before the 24th should that date not be a Monday.

In another instance, Earles misspells Twin/Tone Records as being Twin/Toe. This might seem like being particularly scrutinizing, but it does beg the question: If Earles can’t get some simple off-the-cuff facts straight, what else is wrong factually with this book – particularly when it might really matter? It’s sloppy journalism, and Earles, if he wants to make a name for himself as being a meticulous craftsman, should do better in the future to prevent errata that will need to be corrected in the final copy or subsequent editions (if they are, indeed, corrected). While I appreciate Earles’ candour, writing in your introduction that “[t]his book is not perfect” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse. Maybe punks who are used to missed notes in their music won’t care, but this kind of thing undermines the book’s usefulness as a reference source.

Speaking of punks, one of the things that are particularly admirable about this biography is that it certainly has a feel for the Do It Yourself era that Hüsker Dü thrived in. The book is laid out like a ‘zine, with setlists from various portions of the band’s development reprinted in full in the margins and secondary source interviews almost cut-and-pasted into the text in a different sized font. As well, the book comes with a bevy of appendices laying out the official discography of the band, right down to promo copies and compilations. (One thing that Earles neglects to include are bootlegs from the era, which is a bit hypocritical considering that he uses cover art from a well-known live set in plates set aside for pictures.) The author even includes suggestions for making Hüsker Dü mix CDs, which may be of use to the novice fan just getting their feet wet. Earles leaves no stone unturned in compiling an exhaustive selection of end notes that are useful, even if they are perhaps a little overbearing.

All in all, this biography is by no means “perfect”, and there’s certainly a lot that long-time fans of the band will pick apart, as I have. However, it’s a good discussion point for a band that has seemingly been neglected thanks to the relative lack of inactivity on the reissue and reunion front. Perhaps most importantly, for those who came of age with Hüsker Dü, as I did, the book takes you back to simpler times when you were a teenager cranking up the volume in your parent’s basement stereo, living out the dream of pretending to be a part of one of the world’s greatest rock bands.

It’s true that you can’t help but feel as though you’re getting one side of the story with this book; still, it’s a welcome addition to the world of biographical rock journalism and one that hopefully rekindles interest in a much overlooked band. It’s a valuable reference, warts and all, for the hardcore fan and for the neophyte, and should remain that way until we finally get to hear from the other heavyweight associated with Hüsker Dü. That is to say, this book can only serve to whet one’s appetite for Mould’s long overdue autobiography, in order to get his side of what is an amazing and intriguing story of a band that came out of nowhere to produce noise that was, indeed, crushingly glorious.

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