See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
(Little, Brown & Company; US: Jun 2011)
I saw Hüsker Dü at UCLA’s Ackerman Ballroom in 1984 and 1985: Bob Mould notes how this was where the A & R big shots showed up. I remember one set suddenly stopping after beer bottles were thrown on stage and Mould angrily halted the band’s performance, a detail not included here in an account that shifts between exhaustive detail and discreet distance.
As Mould admits in his preface, many of his memories have faded, due to the blur of chemicals and the passage of time. Given the depth of many of his recollections, if he wasn’t in an altered state during his band’s heyday, this book might have reached epic proportions.
He crafts a reflective retrospective about his half-century of growing up, not in public—with concerts that began in the hardcore era with 20 songs in 40 minutes at overwhelming intensity—so much as off-stage. As he matures, his insights deepen and he reveals his inner self gradually.
Given his perhaps then-typical behavior when I saw him play at UCLA, Mould demonstrates his determination as major labels courted and wooed him and the band to call the shots, to start and stop when he demanded. His work ethic and attention to minutiae characterize his music and his control of the band or, solo, his musicians and crew. He named his first solo record Workbook, after all.
The subtitle of this thoughtful autobiography, co-written with Michael Azerrad, reveals how “the trail of rage” that marked his first 20-odd years has intersected, more and more in Mould’s life and times, with “melody”. He opens his story by musing how musically he possesses perfect pitch; he wonders why he can be so out of tune personally with those around him.
He grew up in far-upstate New York in a farm town. At nine, he was creating songs. He left for the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College, inspired to move there by a local band he admired, The Suicide Commandos. He bonded with long-haired barefoot hippie drummer Grant Hart (who was gay) and “the bass player who looked like he might be gay,” handlebar-mustached Greg Norton (who was not). In 1979, they formed an intense trio.
Mould believed in them, and his passion shows. “We created this blistering wall of sound—bright white radio static with occasional melody, with words buried deep in the storm, as if encrypted for shortwave transmission. The overall effect was blinding, bringing uncertainty and sometimes fear, not unlike emotions I had sometimes felt as a child.” He admits how his determination to succeed weighed upon Hart, who competed with Mould for songwriting and vocal balance, and Norton, who was pushed aside as the two singers contended for control of the increasingly loud and dedicated trio.
Full of testosterone, on speed, drinking daily since he was 12, awkward, looking like “a gas station attendant”, Mould did not fit the image of a punk rocker or a young gay man. His discomfort did not lie in his shame about his sexuality, but in his inability to find relief outside of self-destruction. He obsessed over being faster than the Ramones, than the Dickies, than the Buzzcocks. His nihilism haunts him, and his relationships must contend with his ego, his talent, and his self-lacerating drive to overcome his own misgivings and doubts.
Much of this discomfort was rooted in his family dynamic. His father treated his family poorly, while his mother tended to withdraw. Mould compassionately shows his father’s difficulties. He notes how, when he lashed out on side two of their breakthrough 1984 double-album Zen Arcade, “it sounded like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass”. Yet, he adds how as he channeled his frustrations at his relationships, his upbringing, and his anger on that and other Hüsker Dü LPs, the same father who sparked his torment had driven 1,200 miles from Malone, New York to St. Paul, Minnesota. His father had delivered his second of the two vans he bought for the band, so they could tour and travel in comparative safety and comfort as they scrimped and saved while recording for the small SST punk label.
Hüsker Dü was one of the first indie bands to jump from an underground to a major label. Mould astutely recalls the feel of the tiny college rock-alternative scene, when word-of-mouth and informal networks existed to show who in a small city where a concert was booked was likely to buy records such as Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats rather than Boston II, and who might put a band up on their couch or help pass out flyers. The dissatisfied few who supported the early band represented the high-school poetry readers, the freaks, the sensitive loners, and not only the mohawked identikit leather jacketed crowd. Mould and his bandmates began to incorporate their admiration of late-1960s music into their sound, as much Monkees as Beatles, and their albums started to expand into a more sophisticated pop-punk blend of tones.
Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig for me still hold up today as some of the best music from the mid-1980s. While Mould does not delve as deeply as I wanted into sharing his perspective on why these albums endure, he does offer a necessary balance to Andrew Earles’s 2010 “story about the noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock”. Earles chronicles the band’s evolution, but he lacked access to Mould’s testimony, which he apparently saved for his own account; Mould’s astute choice of Azerrad (whose chapter on Hüsker Dü in his Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Underground 1981-1991 remains essential reading) helps Mould elucidate what made his best songs, and those of Hart, work so well.
I agree with Mould that Candy Apple Grey drops off in quality rapidly, but I found their studio effort, a double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a swan song that captured Hüsker Dü at its peak. Mould dismisses it, for me, too offhandedly. (He has never bothered to listen to their posthumous live record, The Living End, issued to pay off Norton in a tussle that continues to simmer between Mould against Hart and Norton, but I recommend it.) However, Mould stays very fair to his bandmates when they merit his praise; he credits many friends and colleagues. He also criticizes those who stood in his formidable way, whether bandmates, rivals, industry representatives, or accountants.
Furthermore, he evenly explains his rocky relationships with his first two longtime partners, and he accepts his share of the blame for what went wrong. Yet, he also incorporates occasions when others took advantage of his trust, financially or intimately. This deepens the texture of his engagingly told story. He finds it difficult to say goodbye, and he tends for much of his 50 years to walk away from conflict even if he has helped escalate it.