When Bob Mould returned to the United States in fall 2019, he shuddered at what he saw.
The veteran musician and punk rocker, who soared to musical prominence through his work with bands like Hüsker Dü and Sugar while also cultivating a solo career, wound up settling down for the duration of the pandemic in his old haunts in San Francisco. Prior to that, he’d been splitting time between the US and Berlin, Germany, where he and his partner had an apartment. But his return to the US rattled him.
“I knew things were dire, but…when you turn a corner at the airport or anywhere in public and you see this crazy news on television all the time, on these conservative channels…It made me shudder.”
It also brought back scary memories. Mould came of age in the early 1980s, and the parallels of American life 40 years later produced an eerie sense of déjà vu. In the 1980s, being queer was still deeply stigmatized in public discourse. A poorly understood epidemic was also raging through America at the time – that of HIV/AIDS – and the rational voices that were trying to do something about it had to fight to be heard against the cacophony of religious and moral panic.
“It really made me look back specifically to 1983 when I was in Hüsker Dü and I was 22 years old. I knew I was gay, but I was not out. HIV/AIDS was a very present concern, and the state of the world in late 2019 really brought all that back — just remembering how marginalized the LGBTQ community was. It was a pretty upsetting time.
“The ‘80s were no fun. No fun at all. In the summer of 1981, I was 20 years old, spending a couple of weeks in San Francisco, hanging out in the punk scene, playing shows with Hüsker Dü, and hearing the word in the Castro about this ‘gay cancer’ on the wall of Starr Pharmacy.
“There was Reagan and the moral majority. And then as HIV/AIDS was identified, what happened then — the casualties and the marginalization. It really sucked. And to experience an updated version of it with the [Republicans], and [Donald Trump]…I was drawing direct parallels.”
Mould also sees direct parallels between the broader repression of the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, and the present wave of repressive laws targeting transgender people, especially children, in Republican-controlled states. Mould acknowledges the limits of his own experience – “Inside the LGBTQ community there’s so many new ideas and new ways that people identify, and as an old guy I have a lot of learning to do all the time, I always have plenty of room to learn stuff,” he reflects. But what he does recognize is that now, like then, fear is being used to isolate and marginalize minority communities.
“It’s a convenient scare tactic to use schools and public schools. The whole thing with bathrooms or athletic departments and stuff like that — it’s fear-based and it plays to the fear of the [Republican] constituency. It’s just so upsetting. All it does is it marginalizes the trans community and especially the younger folks. And the problems that ensue from that — it’s really disheartening. I think it’s really a present concern for the entire [LGBTQ] community.
“All the work that people did before us, and that we try to carry on…that moment in America when gay marriage — something so simple — when that finally turned the corner; it’s like yes, we did that. But these things are never permanent. And sometimes we forget that. We think it’s settled, but we’re finding out now that it can all be undone.”
Seeing the pendulum swing back so radically toward the repression of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities like he witnessed in the 1980s, Mould is determined to use his platform to fight back.
“I remember back in the ‘80s not being out and not feeling like I had been enough of a voice at the time. And in the fall of 2019, I told myself I’m not going to be shy about my thoughts this time around. So much of Blue Hearts was informed by where I laid blame on myself in the ‘80s for not being out, and not being active enough. I mean I was doing what I could with God’s Love [We Deliver] and supporting Act Up, but I had a microphone and I didn’t use it properly.”
Not so this time around, he declares.
Mould’s latest album, Blue Hearts, is one of his most political to date: an outpouring of punk rock energy and emotion about everything that’s wrong with the world today.
The album’s genesis lay in the song “American Crisis”, which he wrote in 2017 while working on the Sunshine Rock album. Mould was trying to produce a more optimistic record at the time – his previous two had also been darker in tone – and so he withheld the song from that release, recognizing that its angry analytic was out of step with the rest of the album.
Two years later, he realized times had caught up with the track – the negative vitriol of public discourse and intense political polarization in the country called for more critical intervention. He saw in this an opportunity to make up for the uncertainties of his youth when he’d still been in the closet and hadn’t used his public platform the way he now wishes he had.
Building on the track, he recorded the remainder of Blue Hearts over the course of two weeks in February 2020, right before the pandemic shut things down.“There was no shortage of toxic current events to work with,” he reflects wryly.
That would be an understatement – the album ranges across the breadth of political and social turmoil facing both America and the world. It opens with “Heart on My Sleeve”, a visceral critique of climate change and inequality. “The Left Coast is covered in ash and flames,” the track opens. “Keep denying the winds of climate change / The Deep South sinking into the sea / But you don’t believe me… And the cities are teeming / Rolling over with tension and greed / The rising tide of a broken government / Gold boats are floating on cement…”
“I was just seeing these two boats,” Mould reflects, considering the song. “There’s this smaller, simpler sort of life raft that I like to call austerity – most of us, we sail in that boat. Then there’s that other big luxury yacht called prosperity, that only a select few get to inhabit. And I just felt like there was nothing but gold boats all-around — lots of people in life rafts hoping to get to shore safely, having to exist in the ocean and not get taken in by the wake of luxury yachts.”
Crisis of Faith
Mould is astonished at the political turn America has taken. He recalls growing up Catholic, yet despite the ubiquity of religion in his youth nobody questioned the importance of vaccines. “When I look at the world now, I don’t recognize religion,” he says. “And I fear for education. It really does defy everything that we know as people. There just seems to be such a lack of understanding or compassion or tolerance these days.
We discuss the work of the evangelical Christian movement, which has been using its immense financial resources to proselytize homophobia and transphobia not just in the US but in countries abroad. In “American Crisis” Mould refers to them as “evangelical ISIS.”
“It’s really scary. I grew up Catholic, and when I see how this new religious movement approaches everything – I don’t recognize it. I really don’t recognize it. [The Catholic Church] has its own problems, but the basic ideas of being kind and helping your neighbor and do unto others, they’re very simple concepts…the basic idea was just to try to be a good person. And I don’t see that in the modern evangelical movement. I see it as an ongoing extension of the moral majority and the influence and sway that they held over Reagan leading up to and through his two terms as president.”
It’s hard to know how to respond to the present crisis and the far-right which is driving it. Some call for confrontation, others for compassion. “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you,” asserts one article advising on how to respond to right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Mould isn’t so sure that approach always works. He depicts American society as a sort of pie-chart. “I think half of America has done the right thing, and the other half I think splits down the middle. There’s that one part, we’re never going to get through to them. We just can’t. We’ve got to get that other 25 percent of the population on board with what we’re trying to do to get everything back upright.”
As for the remaining quarter, “I don’t know how to reach those people. We’ve tried incentivizing, we’ve tried outright bribery, we’ve tried everything short of hog-tying them and jabbing them. I don’t know how to get to them.
“I’m not sure how much compassion I can have for somebody who asked for a miracle, and they were given a miracle [vaccines], and they said ‘I don’t want that miracle, because I still believe this other miracle from a long time ago.’ I can’t help them. The health care system is pretty shaky as it is, and these people were given a miracle and they said ‘No,’ and now it’s affecting the entire American health care system. Other people are trying to deal with chronic illnesses or cancer therapy or whatnot, and now they can’t get proper care. I don’t know how much compassion [is possible]. Their behavior is creating an adverse effect for innocent people.”
In a way, prior experience as the HIV/AIDS epicenter has well-positioned his present home of San Francisco to embrace medical science. “San Francisco is a very smart city, it’s very much in tune with public health given the early ’80s. San Francisco was an epicenter for HIV/AIDS in the beginning. I think people here are very aware of doing the right thing for the greater good.”
Over 85 percent of the city is vaccinated, he proudly points out. He says it’s things like this – the security and comfort he draws from his neighborhood and community, along with the support of his partner – that helps him maintain faith and hope despite the dark political turn the present moment has taken.
The public health crisis is inextricable from the political crisis facing American democracy, and they are crises that need to be taken seriously, Mould emphasizes. The past five years have illustrated in a frightening way the fragility of America’s core institutions.
“I worry so much about foundational American principles like education and medicine and democracy — these big ideas that we’re finding out are really fragile. If you don’t maintain them, they may fall, and that’s disheartening.
“There’s just been such a breakdown of civility and decorum and respect. Those things take so long to enshrine in people’s minds…Freedom is not just a word, it’s really a big idea and a big reality, and it frustrates me to see people using that word so freely in the context of ‘I don’t need to do what’s right for civilization.’ I think we’re really in a spot right now.”
Mould is channeling his punk energy into the public sphere. But will it reach an increasingly alienated and disenfranchised public? He keeps faith on that front too. “I sense there might be a change happening, where I think it’s just – get off the screen! Get off the screen and get out in the street. Be with people. I mean that’s how we all communicated and that’s how we learned and shared things back in the prior century.
“Going door-to-door trying to figure out where the indie record store was so you could sell a box of singles on consignment to get gas money to get to the next town. You had to find the markers of your community and hope that you found the right record stores or the right punk rock club. And then you share those experiences, and they’re really valuable.
“I would love to see that come back. I don’t know if it’s possible because of technology, people are so addicted. All of us are to some degree.
“But I have faith. I have faith.”