Hüsker Dü was always my favorite band. Still is, maybe always will be. It’s beyond clichéd to say that at the time they were the most shamelessly, genuinely emotive band since The Who, that they were never afraid to superimpose infectious pop enthusiasm over a ferocious hardcore ethic, that even as their songwriting improved, they never strayed from the course of loud, bracing rock, blah blah blah. Leave that sanctimonious claptrap to Rolling Stone/Spin ass-kissers like David Fricke, whose liner notes to Hüsker Dü’s double-live last will and testament, The Living End, rank as some of the sycophantic worst in the history of rock journalism. I can smell them from here! Here’s a secret for you: You can safely discount the opinion of any music writer who describes anything as “seminal.” When a rock journalist says “seminal” in reference to a band, what he actually means is: “I’m pretending I’ve known about these guys all along, when really I had no idea because I was too busy listening to the Eagles/Poison/Stone Temple Pilots at the time.”
There’s more than a glimmer of truth to each of those clichés, though. Hüsker Dü had hooks galore and they slammed them home with wild abandon. With a few minor exceptions, they also gave a wide berth to the political subject matter favored by so many of their punk contemporaries; where other hardcore bands froze themselves in time with topical songs that now sound almost quaintly dated, guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart actually wrote fast, loud and startlingly honest songs about feelings, and with a gruff kind of tenderness that found a perfect voice in the sinusy yowl of frontman Mould. Less so in the clarion tones of Hart, whose songwriting was a dogged match for Mould’s, but whose voice has never enjoyed Mould’s anguished range of expression. Put the two together, though, and yowsa—the prosciutto and melon of punk rock, and a jealously competitive creative partnership whose partners drove each other to exhilarating new heights. And what an odd bunch of ducks: two gay guys, one straight guy (bassist Greg Norton, often overlooked as the proverbial lukewarm water in the fire-and-ice collision of Mould and Hart) whose fabulous swashbuckling handlebar moustache made him look gayer than the other two put together; three fashion-impaired schlumpfs who made some of the best damned exciting music ever.
When they disbanded in early 1988, I tried gamely to get into the post-Hüsker Dü output of both Mould and Hart, and with next to no success. You know how that is. You don’t really want them to move on, and you tend to get proprietary about what members should and shouldn’t be allowed to salvage from the ruins to bring to their new bands and solo projects. Mostly you just buy the new records out of dumb allegiance, trying vainly to hang on to a shred of past glory. I hung with Mould’s Workbook for a few months and gave up around the time its follow-up, Black Sheets of Rain came out in 1990. Mould’s subsequent trio, Sugar, didn’t even make a dent on me. Hart had less focus or direction following the break-up, releasing a self-absorbed single or two before thumbing a ride to nowheresville with the eminently forgettable Nova Mob.
If you’ve ever read Growing Up Brady, you also know that it’s never a good idea to do too much probing and sniffing around if you want to maintain the appropriately narcotic level of deluded nostalgia for a certain thing. The Barry Williams tell-all has hardly diminished my enjoyment for “The Brady Bunch”—I’m seeing the show in a whole new light since I learned that mom Florence Henderson could cuss a buzzard off a crapwagon, that Greg was visibly stoned in a number of episodes, and that his intentions toward Maureen McCormick as Marcia went rather past the bounds of brotherly love—but reading Mould and Hart interviews has always been depressing. When the breakup question comes up, and it always does, Mould is still peevish but heroically flippant, and Hart outstrips himself in touchy-feeliness. It makes me feel sheepish for both of them, and it cheapens the memory of what they had together.
It’s the same thing with buying a new Grant Hart album, yet here I am doing exactly that. Good News for Modern Man finds Hart with nothing particularly profound on his mind, and still apparently flourishing to no particular end in the complete absence of creative checks and balances that being his own man affords him. How else to explain tracks like “Run Run Run to the Centre Pompidou,” a breathless diary entry about spending a morning in Paris, or similarly fluffy tracks like “Teeny’s Hair” or “A Letter from Anne Marie”? Gone completely is the sweet melancholy Hart’s best work was once borne in on; here to stay, it seems, is a mildly air-headed new Grant Hart with the same old knack for killer hooks and, lyricwise, nothing much to hang on them.
Mostly what I wonder, though, is who else is buying Good News for Modern Man? To properly appreciate what an interesting (and it is, ultimately, a very interesting album) songwriting anomaly Hart is, you almost have to be a recovering Hüsker Dü fan. But, as mentioned earlier, only the truly masochistic among us are splashing out for Hüsker Dü-related recordings. Figuratively if not literally, I guess it’s true what they sang back in 1985: “One thing I know for sure/The heroes always die.” That’s a lot to lay on one little solo album, but that’s how I feel.