Counterbalance: Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade

Something I learned today: Black and white is always grey. And this week's Counterbalance takes a look at a 1984 turning point in punk. Turn on the news for the 219th most acclaimed album of all time.
Hüsker Dü
Zen Arcade

Klinger: In 1984 I was this close. I had discovered R.E.M. and Elvis Costello, and I was aware enough to know that there was a whole world out there beyond my heartland classic rock. Theoretically, with one quick turn to the left, I could have immersed myself in this whole underground scene, typified in my mind by albums like the Replacements’ Let It Be and the album I’ve chosen for this week’s Counterbalance, Hüsker Dü’s double-LP conceptual magnum opus Zen Arcade. That’s not without regret.

I can only imagine how differently I might have turned out if I had spent more time cracking the code of Zen Arcade instead of trying to figure out the Who’s Quadrophenia. There’s certainly enough going on with this album to have kept my adolescent brain occupied, and I’m pretty sure that if this had been the expression of my teen angst I might have gone into my adulthood with a much different outlook. As it stands, I’m left to ponder this massive monolith of an album from a decidedly more analytical point of view. There’s of course so much to take in, and much of it is buried under that low-fi wall of noise. Lyrics are buried, guitars are muddled, and yet the whole thing still feels to me like a portal into some place that I very much want to be. Is this making sense, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Yes, it is. Perfect sense. Mostly because I’m in the same boat. Had I taken a different path on my rock and roll odyssey, took to heart an off-hand recommendation, or spent a little more time exploring the punk roots of the music I enjoyed in my youth, I might be coming at this album from the perspective of the well-acquainted listener. And like you, part of me wishes I was well-acquainted with the messy double-disc opus of Zen Arcade. I’m not. Hüsker Dü has always been just out of my reach, a known unknown. They were a couple years before my time and had been broken up for several years before I bought my first LP. Without someone to guide me through their music, or at the very least, put their records in my hands, I wasn’t going to get there on my own. Besides, as a teenager in the 1990s my view was that the previous decade had little to offer. I had another chance once I got to college and discovered the Pixies, but alas, it was not to be. And so, here I am with you, trying to figure out this sprawling mess of record.

Why now, Klinger? Why Hüsker Dü today? Is it just the nagging regret of what could have been or is there more to your choice of this record?

Klinger: Well, it’s also No. 219 on the Great List, so if we were still doing albums there in order we would probably be hitting Zen Arcade right about now. (Is that right? I don’t know from math. Also should we go back to doing these in order again? This terrifying freedom is, as it turns out, terrifying.) And Zen Arcade is, I agree, a deservedly acclaimed record. Consider that this was only the band’s second full-length album — that they picked this time to make their Grand Artistic Statement is beyond audacious. Not only that, I think they did it both for their own ambition and for the cause of punk itself. By making a double concept album, they forced people to reconsider the potential of the genre. I’d argue that the roots of the next decade’s Alternative Nation start growing in earnest right here.

Zen Arcade also serves as a pivot point in the sense that songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart never stray too far from their roots, both in their ability to adapt mainstream pop formalism and fly the flag for the sounds that set them apart from that mainstream. “Hare Krsna” is in many ways the kid brother to the Stooges’ “We Will Fall” (which, by the way, reminds me of how often we saw the Krishna chanting and dancing at street festivals back in the ’80s and how you never see that anymore. I have to say I kind of miss that). “Turn on the News” is one a handful of tracks here that put me in the mind of the MC5. So, yes, hearing it in 1984 would have both prepped me for the future and spurred me to dig into stuff much earlier than I did, but I still think it’s an essential record to at least process. I know you’ve had a complicated relationship with punk, Mendelsohn, but have you been able to listen to Zen Arcade from something beyond an academic perspective?

Mendelsohn: I understand just how critical Zen Arcade is to the evolving nature of music. It stands as a milestone within the punk pantheon, probably no. Three behind the Clash’s London Calling and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. Zen Arcade may not be as canonical as those two records but, as you mentioned it does lay a lot of the ground work for the Alternative Nation that took over in the 1990s and provides a though-line to the Pixies and Nirvana. The problem is, I think this record is more important than it is enjoyable. That stance stems mainly from my strained relationship with punk. Because of that, I have a hard time not skipping around this record.

I like this record because there is something to be said about a hard core punk band setting out to make an ambitious, audacious, emotional statement with a double-platter concept album like Zen Arcade. Mould and Hart were able to take punk, DIY ethos and force it on to a grander stage even as they started to expand upon their song-writing abilities and explore different genres within the context of fast and loud. I like the folk of “Never Talking to You Again,” and the psychedelica of “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” that hints at the future coming of Sonic Youth. The power pop of “Turn on the News”, “Somewhere”, “Pink Turns to Blue”, and “Newest Industry”, is not as sharp as Elvis Costello but watching a hard core punk band find their footing while exploiting traditional pop constructs is exciting. I find myself most drawn to the experimental noise rock of “Dreams Reoccuring” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, with the latter sounding like something Rush might have laid down in the ’70s if they weren’t such well behaved Canadian rock stars. I even love the piano-driven interstitials of “Monday Will Never Be the Same” and “One Step at a Time”, with their nods to synth pop (a movement that itself had grown out of post-punk landscape of the late 1970s) and as a welcome respite from the unrelenting blasts of punk. Unfortunately, it’s the unrelenting blasts of punk that I find so taxing. I want to be able to enjoy this record from start to finish and appreciate it as a complete work but that is hard to do when I find myself waiting impatiently for most of the songs to end.

Klinger: I see where you’re coming from, and it’s probably some sign of maturity on our part that we are drawn to the more challenging tracks here. I’m sure 15-year-old Klinger would have let Side 4 of the album more or less alone since all it had on it was a 14-minute instrumental jam (which meant I would have only a passing acquaintance with “Turn on the News” and that would be my fault). Now I find “Reoccuring Dreams” hypnotic and, yes, check out a little bit during some of the more nondescript bashers.

Hüsker Dü would end up making even greater inroads into the mainstream (they eventually left SST for Warner Bros.), and their more concise follow-ups, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig are decidedly more immediate in their appeal—I know I get them out a good bit more often. But there’s something about the mystique of Zen Arcade that explains its all-time acclaim. A scrappy young band throwing together a massive album like this, with no money and little experience, going for it just because there’s no reason not to, is a romantic ideal that lies deep in the marrow of rock and roll itself. Making a giant noise because you have something to say. Caring more about reaching out for something than catching it. You feel that all through Zen Arcade, and it’s nothing short of bracing. And to think I was this close.