Tuesday, January 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody


The 1980s were a golden age for indie bands, both American and British, who started off in the underground and worked their way from the bottom, touring relentlessly out of van and building up a loyal fanbase town by town. Eventually through sheer hard work and incredible talent, these bands would explode into the mainstream and on to major success. In Britain, it was mainly The Smiths, while in the US the two biggest bands who followed this trajectory were R.E.M. and Husker Du. Bob Mould was, of course, the guitarist/vocalist/co-songwriter of Husker Du and it is his biography, "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody," that is the subject of this review. (I intend, at a later date, to get into more depth on all three of the above-mentioned bands, all of whom are personal favorites of mine).

***special thanks to Kimberly at Cleis Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book!***

Bob Mould is a giant among the alternative rock scene in America, first for his work in Husker Du and then as a solo artist (with a brief detour as leader of another band, Sugar, in between). An elder statesman of alternative rock as both a songwriter and producer, he's led a very chameleon-like existence as an artist, from the loud and raging young man of early Husker Du to the more melodic, reflective, and introspective power pop of later Husker Du and Sugar, to his eclectic and emotionally powerful solo work. What sets this book apart from a typical musician memoir is the fact that Bob also has led a very chameleon-like personal life off the stage and out of the public eye, centered mainly around his troubled upbringing and his homosexuality. In the lead up to this book, he had promised that he wouldn't hold anything back and that's certainly the case. He's very candid and honest about his feelings on certain matters for better or worse and it makes for riveting reading, oftentimes to his detriment.

The book runs chronologically through Mould's life and thus begins with his birth in 1960 and his upbringing in rural Malone, New York. In a manner that seems simultaneously painful yet also cathartic (which is a device he returns to numerous times throughout the book), Bob describes the strange dysfunctional family dynamic he grew up in. While he grew up in a two-parent household, he was the youngest son born to parents who had already tragically lost two other sons. Growing up, Bob's father was emotionally and physically abusive to his mother, his older sister, and his brother. However, as the youngest child and a "survivor" in the sense that he didn't die like his two other brothers, he was also accorded a protected status in the house. Apart from being emotionally distant and occasionally verbally cruel, Bob's father seemed to spare him from the brunt of what his older siblings and mother had to endure. Mould also comes out and tells us that he knew from an early age that he was gay but felt like he had to be cautious about suppressing his sexual urges, especially in the less tolerant environs of his hometown. Because of this, by the time he arrived in Minneapolis to start college in the late 1970s, he had little to no experience in romantic relationships, nor in expressing his emotions. This was all let out in the aggressive and anarchistic music he began writing and performing with two young men he met there, Grant Hart and Greg Norton. Together, they formed Husker Du and began their long and hard slog to the top of the indie rock heap in the 1980s. Throughout all of this, Bob embarks upon his first romantic relationship, while also feeling never ending confusion over the fact that, as a grown man who plays this loud, fast, aggressive, and angry music, he doesn't fit the typical effeminate homosexual male stereotype at all. It's clear from the detail and pride with which he writes about these years that he's extremely proud of the Husker Du legacy, as well he should be. As a longtime massive Husker Du fan, this was the section of the book I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. We finally get to learn his perspective on his personal and working relationship with Grant Hart and how the three of them all brought something very different but equally vital to the band. It also detailed, once and for all, how the band dynamic became strained enough that it reached the breaking point in early 1988 and blew the band apart as they were scaling their greatest heights. Mould makes it clear that Hart's heroin addiction was not the sole reason for the split, although it was certainly a contributing factor. Unlike the Smiths, who broke up on the cusp of major label success, and R.E.M. who broke through to major label success and global stardom, Husker Du ended up in the space between, recording and releasing two albums on a major label before breaking up.

One thing I want to mention about the Husker Du section, since this was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book, is that while he writes with obvious pride about everything they accomplished and the nearly flawless body of work they left behind, his kind words for Norton and Hart in this section give way to scathing and most-likely not wholly accurate portrayals of them when discussing them post-split. While none of us were there and thus we cannot claim to know what really happened, I find it hard to believe it was really reduced to "Bob Mould and his two sidekicks" as he tends to portray the band dynamic in the post-Husker Du part of the book. Given that all three members of the band were integral to their sound and image and they obviously created something magical that was greater than the sum of its parts, his treatment of them from 1988 onward left me cold. As Greg Norton recently said in 2013 when asked about this book, "it's a work of historical fiction...Bob got a lot of the facts right but a lot of the shit wrong." Still, this is probably the closest we'll ever get to an authorized biography on Husker Du and for that alone, it's worth it.

Concurrent with the demise of Husker Du is Mould's decision to finally quit drinking after having had a beer "every day since I was 13." He also is in the midst of his body image troubles, having been chubby in Husker Du's heyday, slimmed down by the time the band ends, and continuing to struggle with his weight off and on throughout his solo career until he begins to get into bodybuilding later on. The beginning of Mould's solo career coincides with the demise of his first relationship. From here on out, the book details his interesting and sometimes bizarre career path, giving up on his music in the late 1990s, fulfilling a lifelong dream by becoming a scriptwriter for professional wrestling, and dabbling in another passion of his, electronica. Eventually, he returns to his rock music career, which continues to the present day.

While there are many fascinating passages in the latter part of the book, the further I got into it, I became bored with Bob explaining in minute detail all of the nuances of gay culture, which he finally threw himself headlong into in his late 30s. As a straight man, I realize that I won't understand much of what he's talking about, and I am fine with that. I consider myself an open-minded and tolerant person. But when he got into the minutiae about "bear/cub relationships," he various clubs and magazines in each city that he frequents, and the social cues for gay men, I grew bored mainly because I have no need to know about these things given my own orientation. However, I realize that it was important for Bob to discuss this and that it's important for many of his gay fans to have him as a role model, so I was ultimately fine with it. The overarching complaint I have with it is that he took up most of the rest of the book with this stuff at the expense of discussing his music. He also only dedicated one short chapter to his experiences as a scriptwriter for WCW wrestling. While I'm not a fan of pro wrestling, it's such a unique left turn for his career to have taken that I wouldn't have minded to read a little bit more about it at the expense of his sexual conquests when he was single between his second and third long-term relationships.

Finally, while Mould's philosophy of simply walking away and never looking back on his past seems to have served him well in some aspects, his treatment of people that he's fallen out with or who have in some way crossed him often comes off as petty and cold-hearted. Whether that's purposeful or an unfortunate effect of his behavior, it's sad to read about how he's completely cut certain people out of his life, people who've had a big impact on his life (and vice versa) with no chance of any reconciliation. In particular, the way he's treated Hart and Norton when they've made overtures at reconciliation is downright mean. Some of it seems down to his own self-confessed inability to communicate and cope, but a lot of it comes across as the actions of a very self-important and egotistical person, which in a way takes him down a peg (slightly) in my book.

Overall, the subtitle of this books is a subtle but accurate descriptor of Bob Mould's life: a lot of rage and a lot of melody. However, he seems to have been able to overcome a lot of mental and emotional baggage and seems to be in a good place at the present. It is hard to not be inspired or at least admiring of what he's overcome over the course of his life, and at his core he seems to be a decent person. As far as rock star memoirs go, this is one of the better ones and well worth a read if you're a fan of Husker Du or any of his post-Husker Du work.

MY RATING: 8/10

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