Enter the Zen Arcade
In spite of a half-minded president, a slew of bad haircuts and a Me-centric mindset, a few memorable and artistic things managed to slip through the conservative cracks of the Reagan era. Confoundingly, much of the substantive musical activity of the '80s came out of Minnesota, a frigid and often forgotten lake-ridden state on the northern fringe of the Midwest. In an underground culture still reeling from a blow called the Sex Pistols, bands like the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Hüsker Dü gave people who were squeamish about the cultural climate -- and hungry for hard music -- a reason to believe. And for those who wanted intelligent angst mixed with melody and speed, the hauling-ass, metal-shearing swirl produced by Hüsker's Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton was perhaps the greatest blessing of the day.
Hüsker Dü stood tall as forebears of the do-it-yourself philosophy. Armed with a few exceptional recordings, the band eventually fit its staunch indie credo into a major-label deal, securing a level of artistic freedom that, at the time, the majors never granted. In some significant way, the overthrow of pabulum pop had taken place as Hüsker paved the way for similarly minded acts like Nirvana and the entire grunge movement that followed.
More than twenty years later, though, the brand of DIY that Hüsker Dü helped create doesn't look so impressive. The career trajectory of the group's former drummer and co-songwriter, Grant Hart, might offer the best proof that the coup landed on its head. Today Hart is without a record deal. He's still playing the underbelly bars of the nation as a means of survival, armed with just a guitar and batch of songs -- some from his various solo projects, some culled from the catalogues of Hüsker Dü and Nova Mob, his later outfit.
But Hart doesn't lament his fate. He's a hard worker who's resigned -- happy, even -- to be a musician on the road. And when asked why independently spirited artists have such a tough go of it now, just years after the promise of indie success seemed attainable to so many, he points to an unlikely target.
"So many bands were signed post-Nirvana, because your labels started taking independent music more seriously," Hart says from his home in Minneapolis. "But what that triggered was that so many kids thought they were going to be the next guy. And it switched everything around to where the musicians themselves became the customers. You started seeing these guitar warehouses showing up around every town, making money off kids that think they're going to make money off of music. And not only did [those kids] take away a lot of gigs from people who had been serious about it for a lot of years, but what they helped create is a buyer's market as far as the music industry was concerned."
That industry, he says, has turned the self-reliant musician on his ear.
"The labels, the whole power, they've subverted the whole do-it-yourself ethic into 'Oh, nobody makes money off music. Where you make your money is on your blah-blah-blah and your blah-blah-blah.' So now you see bands doing things that fifteen years ago we would have said, 'What a bunch of goofballs.' The whole morality has changed.
"The labels," he adds, "can take anybody that will work for next to nothing, pick the ones that are more models than musicians, put their music all over the place and sell it to people who don't know good music from bad. The people that can tell the difference are the industry's enemy."
In their day, Hart, Mould and Norton were waist-deep in the "good" side of '80s music. After forming in the Twin Cities area in 1979, the band became hugely popular with local rock fans. Hüsker Dü released a series of recordings starting in 1981, including the seventeen-song, 26-minute cult favorite Land Speed Record. The group then signed to SST and released some of its finest hard-nosed music. Zen Arcade (a double disc) and Flip Your Wig were both loaded with sharp, metallic guitar work from Mould and thunderous backing by Hart and Norton. With Mould and Hart at the songwriting helm, the band buried Beatles-esque melodies into sonic storms that bowled over music critics and listeners who enjoyed a challenge.
In 1986, Hüsker Dü achieved the seemingly impossible by landing a deal with Warner Bros. that allowed it to make use of the label's muscle while maintaining its credibility. The brilliant Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories -- punk's equivalent of the Beatles' "White Album" -- followed. These recordings cemented the band's lofty image as punk standard-bearers -- the one act that could win in the corporate system. But its reign soon unraveled: Substance-abuse problems among the players, a growing struggle for songwriting dominance between Hart and Mould, and the suicide of the band's manager combined to dissolve Hüsker Dü in December 1987.
The band's demise actually improved Hart's artistic outlook, freeing him from a collaboration with Mould that was notoriously trying. He still bristles when asked about his ex-bandmate. "I was stretching out, but he was getting a lot more conservative as time when by," Hart says. "He started worrying about early retirement when the band signed to Warner. In my opinion, that was just the beginning of a new battle. He and I don't speak. I had nine years of some pretty dodgy ways of dealing with things. Bob -- you either agree with the plan that he's going to do or it happens anyway. He's a very powerful man in his personality. He's one of these guys that it's just not worth what it takes out of you."
A moment later, Hart mentions that Mould is currently working in a realm that will surely surprise Hüsker Dü fans. "I believe it's the WCW, one of the wrestling companies," Hart says. "I've heard all sorts of things, but I don't believe it's a musical position. It's another branch of showbiz, not necessarily a move that I would make."
Hart's innuendo makes it sound as though he's still wrestling with baggage from his past. The group certainly had plenty of problems to tackle in its time. "We suffered from maybe too many people jumping on the bandwagon," he says. "We were a real critical favorite. A lot of time when that happens, people have heard so much about you that by the time the records are there, they're sick of it."
Hart's not suffering from too much critical attention these days, though his latest recording, Good News for Modern Man, is worthy of praise. The disc moves from Beach Boys-style pop rock and '60s-sounding Brit-rock tunes to quiet, introspective lullabies that shimmer with layers of gloss. The songs echo Hart's Hüsker compositions, without the squall of Mould's six-strings or the band's breakneck speeds. The disc was released on Pachyderm in 1999 but soon met a troubled fate when the label folded. The company's collapse left Hart in limbo, even mucking up his chances to establish a presence on the Web. "I can't use my own name because they [Pachyderm] owe the Web server money," he notes. His previous Hüsker recordings on SST are in a similar quandary, Hart says, and the inaccessibility of the recordings has hurt his ability to earn bucks off his old catalogue. His income was also bruised by the recent rash of music-sharing services.
"We were all really hurt by Napster," Hart says. "Johnny goes to the record store and can't get Flip Your Wig, so he downloads everything he can find, including that record. I never minded people trading tapes and bootleg records, but they're actually tapping in and just grabbing something and throwing it in the basket -- just taking it because it's free. I'm insulted to live in a country where intellectual property isn't valued any higher than that."
He's also bummed by diminishing ethics in the music business, where bands are shorted on money and taken advantage of along the way. Most often than not, he notes, musicians are simply not equipped to defend themselves against number crunchers and cons.
"Where I have the biggest failing is in the legal department," he says. "I don't have the desire or the wherewithal to legally go after people. I've had legal problems, without a doubt. My attitude is that you don't want to force somebody to stick to a contract, because you're going to get the least of what they can give you. You're better off gracefully leaving whenever there are problems. I'd rather own 100 percent of a small show than 49 percent of a big one."
That desire explains Hart's decision to hit the road as a solo act, since he can't guarantee a band regular pay. "There are too many money-grubbing bastards out there," he says. "If you can't trust what's written down on a piece of paper that people sign, there's not much chance of doing anything safely in this world. I'd hate to be involved in real estate, you know."
On the other hand, he's happy to be liberated from a group setting. "Any time you're working with a band, things naturally get compromised. You have so-and-so's limitations and different concepts." That doesn't happen in his solo shows, where it's simply "me with an electric guitar. It can be pretty quiet, it can get pretty noisy."
Hart says songs from the Hüsker days hold up well in the stripped-bare format. "A lot of times, the Hüsker Dü stuff is less compromised than it was with two other people having to play it. Volume and speed sometimes weren't the most appropriate things for some of the songs."
The solo show allows him to do a bit of perception-smashing, too, albeit in quieter fashion. "I can safely say that if people heard my versions of the songs first, then heard the Hüsker Dü versions, it would be just as different to them. It would be as much of a readjustment of what they already believed."
Hart's solo act takes him out about a hundred days a year, although the gig is a bit tougher since he's long past the flavor-of-the-week, media-darling status he once enjoyed. He's working on a new batch of songs, shopping for a label and enjoying the odd benefits that come with artistic independence.
"You get by," he says. "There's certainly a lot less personal strife. I'm happy with what I've brought into my life; I'm happy with what I've gotten out of my life. You can fool yourself and try and go back to that same place, but you'll never go back to that same time. I have a feeling time will be good to me. Everything that you do as an artist contributes to your entire life. Looking at it in that respect, I've been fortunate enough for one entire lifetime."
Besides, in a time when the music industry has eschewed navel-gazing bands for million-selling boy and girl toys, Hart is happy to stand at a distance.
"I'd rather make one copy of the greatest record that I can make than sell a million copies of something that I couldn't stand to put my name on."
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