1. Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü has died from kidney cancer at the age of 56. Sad news. He was a brilliant singer, songwriter and musician in both the band that brought him fame, and in his (less famous) post-Hüsker solo career. While the band is closely associated with Minnesota’s Twin Cities, he is the only member who spent his entire life there, much of it living in his mother’s St. Paul bungalow.
When I think of monumental moments in my musical listening career, side one of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984) was among the most surprising and transformative. I was a hardcore kid and devoted SST Records follower/buyer, and there were certain rules and sound and structures that you expected from bands signed to that label, including the Hüskers. The first two songs on Zen Arcade (“Something I Learned Today” and “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” both composed by co-leader Bob Mould) complied with these expectations as fine examples of the razor thin, trebly, high speed, screaming, all electric onslaught that SST generally delivered to its listeners, platter after platter. But then came Hart’s “Never Talking To You Again” . . .
Whoa!! Acoustic guitars? Melodic vocals? Wistful sentiments? From America’s erstwhile fastest hardcore band? Can they do that?!?! Is it legal to like it?!?!? Whoa, again!! By the end of that record’s first side, Hart, Mould and bassist Greg Norton also delivered percussion heavy ragas, backtracked guitar meltdowns, chanting, Bo Diddly beats and more . . . and there were three more sides to go after that, including piano interludes, Hart’s balls-to-the-wall rocker “Turn On The News,” and a 14-minute long instrumental freakout to end the experience.
While Hart had telegraphed his softer, more introspective/narrative side on 1983’s “Diane” (a true story about a murdered Twin Cities waitress), this really was a shocking expansion of the capacity and capabilities of American hardcore and post-punk bands, and it directly led to the emergence of “Alternative Rock” and the transition of bands like Hüsker Dü and R.E.M. to the “big leagues” of major record label stardom in the years that followed. While the general narrative of the Hüskers’ subsequent demise often paints Hart as a the bad guy (drug problems, etc.), by most accounts he was also the sweetest hippie that the hardcore scene produced, and boy oh boy did he leave an amazing collection of songs behind him. A sad and unexpected loss of someone close enough to my age to feel like a peer, which always hurts a little bit more.
2. While I hate to turn my less-active blog into nothing more than an obituary site for fabulous musicians who have flown away, I do also need to note the passing of the legendary Holger Czukay last week at the age of 79. He was rightly and most notably famed for his pioneering work with the German group Can (who also lost his rhythmic partner, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, earlier this year), but his solo career and work since that time with a variety of other collaborators (e.g. Brian Eno, Jah Wobble, The Edge and others) was also always interesting, envelope-pushing and eccentric. There are three facets of his talents and persona that I consider particularly notable. First he was obviously an amazing bass player, half of one of the grooviest rhythm sections ever, as evidenced by this Can cut, “Oh Yeah!” from their Damo Suzuki era . . .
Second, Czukay was also a sonic pioneer in his use of found sounds, radios, tapes, and the radical manipulations of the same. He is often considered one of the originators of sampling, though in pre-digital days, he had to do it with razor blades and tapes and other gee-gaws and gimcracks. During his latter days with Can, Roscoe Gee joined the band on bass, freeing Holger up to work his sonic magic on stage, per this Can clip, “Don’t Say No” . . .
Finally, Holger Czukay was such a delightful character, with his distinctive mustache and hair and smile and mannerisms, coming across like the kooky uncle that every kid would just love to have in his or her life. Check out this interview where he introduces his band mates for proof and confirmation on this piece . . .
So we lost a lot when he passed away in his apartment last week . . . which just so happened to be in the converted theater that Can used as their “Inner Space Studios” all those years ago.
3. On a cheerier (to me) note, I’ve been pleased to see online references and documentation from both Paul Leary and King Coffey that Butthole Surfers are back in the studio this summer, working on their first recording of new materials since they fizzled away acrimoniously and litigiously in the early 2000s. There was a long period of time when I counted them as my all-time favorite band, and I’m thrilled to contemplate their canon expanding in the year ahead of us. Leary is one of my high-holy trinity of guitarists (along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour), so I’m hoping to hear a lot of rips and riffs from him, and also that bassist Jeff Pinkus (from their most glorious era) is back in the fold along with the core trio of Coffey, Leary and Gibby Haynes. Pinkus has been playing with them on most of their sporadic live appearances in recent years, so that’s promising, at least.