In memoriam: Grant Hart of Husker Du, 1961-2017
Grant Hart, the American singer/songwriter and former drummer for Minneapolis indie rock legends Husker Du, died on Wednesday. He was.
Grant Hart, the American singer/songwriter and former drummer for Minneapolis indie rock legends Husker Du, died on Wednesday. He was 56. The news of his passing was very sad, yet as former bandmate Bob Mould wrote, not unexpected. Hart had certainly lived a hard life, battling heroin addiction, personal tragedy, and finally, kidney cancer. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic.
Harts passing came at a time when Husker Du were receiving renewed attention, with the release of the Savage Young Du box set on Numero Group (which is not officially out yet, but streaming on NPR). Husker Dus music still has a deep emotional resonance, and I certainly wasnt the only one to spend most of my teen years listening to their records devotedly, the band members becoming like surrogate family. Promoter Amy Hersenhoren of Torontos Collective Concerts told me she cried when she heard the news on Thursday morning, even though she never knew them personally.
Husker Du first played Toronto in 1985, hitting east side punk dive Larrys Hideaway on the New Day Rising tour. Local surf rock legends Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were the opening act. Drummer Don Pyle recalls: They rolled in looking like theyd been on the road for a long time, that glassy-eyed white-line fever look. Sweaty and dirty, they did their soundcheck in just gym shorts and running shoes, a really feral look. From their first song, the place totally erupted. There was a lot of rage channelled on that stage.
Formed in 1978 while still in their teens, the threesome (Hart, Mould and bassist Greg Norton) exploded out of the hardcore punk scene, easily the loudest and fastest band on the planet. On their 83 breakout Metal Circus, Hart broke up the sonic assault with the folky, minor-key anthem It’s Not Funny Anymore. Mould indulged his bubblegum side a few records later.
Long before pop-punk became a thing, Husker Du seamlessly integrated pop hooks into the fury of hardcore, anticipating everyone from chart-toppers Green Day and Nirvana to hometown heroes PUP and Fucked Up. As tuneful as they were, Husker Dus songs were also open, emotional wounds, both Mould and Hart sing-screaming in what sounded like genuine pain.
During an era when 60s influences were uncool, Husker Du took acid-drenched excursions into psychedelia on 1984s landmark, ambitious double-album Zen Arcade, after which the band began growing their hair long certainly a screw-you to the short-cropped military dogmatism of hardcore. Starting with Zen Arcade a regular entry on greatest albums of all time lists the band released an astonishing five albums over just three years, two of which were double albums.
Though Hart was a less prolific writer than Mould, his songs are among the most beloved by fans. The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill and Dont Want To Know If You Are Lonely were tales of destruction passion, while Green Eyes and Books About UFOs were sweet, straightforward love songs.
Their live shows were just as legendary as their records: non-stop, breathless tsunamis of sound, one song leading right into the next. Grant Hart especially stands out in vintage videos seeing him sing with such wild, throaty passion while playing such complicated, fast drum parts seems superhuman. The band toured tirelessly across the continent, often to remote places where punk rock did not exist. Alongside fellow travelers Black Flag, the Minutemen, D.O.A. and Sonic Youth, they helped build the DIY touring network that defined the American indie underground, as documented in Michael Azerrads 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Thanks to college radio, fanzines and UK press, Husker Du had built up a considerable underground following, attracting major label attention. In 86, they left independent SST Records for Warner Brothers. Yet unlike fellow U.S. college rock heroes R.E.M., they never had a crossover hit. Alternative rock of the time was still dominated by jangly guitars and sparkly synths, and their wall of guitar distortion was five years ahead of its time.
It cant have helped, especially in the video age, that they didnt care much for their image: defiantly Midwestern, the trio reveled in their proto-normcore look. Ironically, it was through TV that the band would make the occasional bizarre foray into the mainstream. Many Canadian fans first heard them on MuchMusic. And their appearance on The Late Show with Joan Rivers is legendary.
The band would last less than two years on Warner. The combination of Harts heroin addiction, his open feuding with Mould, and the suicide of band manager David Savoy, led to the bands bitter break-up in December 87. Hart and Mould went on to very divergent yet parallel solo careers. They both released folk-rock solo records in 1989, Hart returning to indie SST for the ethereal Intolerance, Mould moving up to Virgin for the rustic Workbook. They each then formed a new band: Mould smoothed out Husker Dus rough edges with alt-rock power trio Sugar, achieving commercial breakthrough with 1992s Copper Blue. Hart would sadly not find the same success with his new band Nova Mob, a looser, garage-pop crew. Their 1991 album The Last Days of Pompeii remains a lost classic.
As a still underage teen, I was lucky enough to see Nova Mob play Toronto when I snuck into Lees Palace in 1990. It was a sparsely attended show, but I was too shy to go over and say hi to Hart. Almost two decades later, I would have the chance to meet him properly. In June 2008, I promoted a solo show for him as part of the soundaXis new music festival. Hart was in Montreal at the time, recording what became 2009s Hot Wax, at Hotel2Tango studio with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
I picked Hart up at Union Station the day before the show. He was much more interested in admiring the buildings neo-classical architecture than asking the usual logistical questions. And he was keen to go hear music rather than crash at his hotel. So I took him to experimental music loft Somewhere There on Dufferin, to see post-rock band Kingdom Shore. Ill never forget the look on the violinists face when he realized who was sitting next to me in the tiny venue. After the show, Hart met the band and bought their record, regaling us with stories about the old days. He was just as generous with his fans at his show, taking requests from the stage and playing songs from across his career.
Though others would go on to reap more rewards from their musical innovation the Pixies famously formed with an ad looking for a bassist into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary their influential legacy is untouchable. I fear there may never be another band like Husker Du. Indie rock has maybe become too cool and detached to be so emotionally raw and live-wire again. Hopefully the next generation of fans and bands will prove me wrong.
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