Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü has died of 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.