Saturday, March 1, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock



When I reviewed Bob Mould's autobiography a short while back, I mentioned that it contained what has to be considered as the definitive account of Husker Du's career, albeit solely from his perspective. Thankfully, around the same time that Bob's book was released, this new book about Husker Du by Andrew Earles, with a quite long and perhaps slightly overstated subtitle, was also published. What makes this book so interesting is not only the fact that it's sole focus is Husker Du, but that it was written with input from many who were there during the band's career, most importantly Grant Hart and Greg Norton. The author mentions in the introduction that Mould declined to participate since he was working on his own book, but with the inclusion of Norton and Hart's input, the two books together should give the definitive account on this seminal and legendary band.

***special thanks to Steve at Voyageur Press for sending me a copy of this book to review!***

The book is laid out in somewhat typical fashion, beginning with the early lives of the three band members and the eventual formation of Husker Du in 1979. I felt that this part of the book was done rather hastily and didn't go into as much detail as I would've liked on their backgrounds and the formation of the band. Having read Bob's book, I now know a lot about his childhood, what led him to Minneapolis and how he met Greg and Grant, but the same detail with respect to Greg and Grant was sorely lacking in this book. While the author does discuss how the three of them met, formed the band, and began writing and performing, it feels as thought the discussion of these important years (fans of the band will see what I just did there) was written in such a way so as to get through it as quickly as possible in order to get right on with the beginning of Husker Du's career. Earles states in the introduction that the intent of the book is to focus mainly on the music and not on any gossip or salacious stories about the band members, and while that's admirable, some of the non-gossipy detail that would've fleshed out the story a bit more is lacking in spots. There is a lot of an underlying "I'm not going to write about it here because you can read about it elsewhere" subtext throughout the book that, in my opinion, is inexcusable in what purports to be the definitive biography of the band. I can understand eschewing the more sordid details and accusations, but many important events that just also happened to be unsavory to varying degrees absolutely warranted inclusion in a book that is supposed to tell the whole story on Husker Du.

In any event, when detailing the early history of Husker Du, the author also takes us on a guided tour of the underground/hardcore scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s and tries to put the Huskers in the proper context of their time and surroundings. It makes for interesting reading, although I felt the longer it went on that it got into too much detail on a lot of the lesser known bands and labels that I really didn't have as much interest in as the author did. There are a few chapters that interrupt the flow of the narrative to detour into more detailed discussions on matters such as the underground/hardcore scene in the US, Husker Du's Reflex Records imprint, their experience on SST Records prior to their jump to Warner Brothers, and so on. While informative and interesting in their own right, it got to be a bit jarring when the story of their career progress was interrupted for an entire chapter in order to have these discussions. A minor complaint of mine but a significant one nonetheless.

Where this book really makes its mark is in the actual telling of Husker Du's story from their inception and their incredible, completely DIY (do-it-yourself) work ethic that showed them developing their style and sound at an incredibly rapid pace throughout the band's brief lifespan. The stories of how long and how often they practiced and wrote songs, how they undertook relentlessly grueling tours heading off in their van and sleeping on floors and couches, and how they, along with other legends of the scene (The Replacements, The Minutemen, Black Flag, etc) built up a network of venues across the country, first in the Midwest, then the West Coast, and eventually the East Coast, is remarkable and a testament to hard work and dedication. It also throws into sharp relief the realization that such a thing, for a variety of reasons, could never happen in 2014.  Interspersed with new interviews from Hart and Norton and several of their associates as well as archival sources from all three (which is the only place Mould's voice is heard in this book), a portrait of the band emerges that is similar to the one painted by Mould in his book. There is a striking difference, however: while Mould acknowledges in his book that he could be abrasive, moody, and bossy, he never really apologized for it (nor did he feel the need to). In contrast, Norton and (mainly) Hart accuse Bob of the same thing but with more bitterness and negativity. Something I learned while reading through this book is that the cracks in Mould and Hart's partnership and the band's relationship as a whole started showing as early as 1985's New Day Rising, although they kept the troubles close to the vest and mainly just amongst the three of them. What is apparent, however, is that Mould became very competitive about the songwriting split and for no real apparent reason, declared that beginning with 1984's Zen Arcade, every song was to have individual writing credits and that Hart would never have more songs than him on an album. This calls to mind a similar problem that befell the Smiths (whose new biography I recently reviewed) and the opposite of what R.E.M., who managed to avoid this pitfall altogether, did (whose new biography I also recently reviewed).

What is apparent from reading this book, musically speaking, is that Husker Du were a remarkable band who never fit comfortably into any genre in which they were labeled throughout their career. They were too melodic and inventive to be a true punk or hardcore band, and later on they were too fast and noisy to be a pure rock band. They certainly fit into the same college rock/indie mold as R.E.M. and the Smiths, but along with those bands also were the first of what would later be called "alternative" bands. To read about their rapid progression from their early singles "Statues" and "In a Free Land" to the Everything Falls Apart and Land Speed Record albums and Metal Circus EP, and then the ridiculous run of albums from 1984-87 that were Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, Flip Your Wig, Candy Apple Grey, and Warehouse: Songs and Stories is almost as incredible as listening to them in order (especially consider than New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig were both written, recorded, and released in 1985!).

Earles does a good job throughout the book not taking sides, which was a fear I had since he spoke extensively to Norton and Hart and not Mould. I don't say this because I'm more of a Mould fan, but just because the book could have very easily ended up that way. In the introduction, Earles states that he's a massive Mould fan, but I found the bulk of the text to be balanced toward all three, and where Norton and Hart reflected on matters in the recent interviews, the author did a nice job balancing it with sourced quotes from Mould on the same topic. Where I do take a bit of issue is, while his passion for the earlier, noisy hardcore Husker Du is evident, as is his love for their classic mid-period albums on SST Records, he give short shrift to the two Warner Brothers albums that wrapped up Husker Du's career. While he does a nice job explaining how the band drew interest from major labels as early as 1984, how it intensified after Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, and how the various negotiations went before the band ended up on a major label, the discussion of those last two albums (Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories) is far too short and the tone comes across as almost dismissive of the albums. This is a particular shame for me since Warehouse is, along with Flip Your Wig and Zen Arcade, my absolute favorite Husker Du album! Not only that, but the band avoided the "sell-out" pitfall that befell other underground bands who signed to major labels and were still on the ascent when everything fell apart.

The remainder of the book wraps up the story in very short shrift, with nary a mention of the break-up apart from basically saying "the band broke up, it happens all the time." Mould's book shed much more light on what ended up happening, and this book it only alludes vaguely to certain events that precipitated the split. Basically, if one didn't know the real story behind it, they would have no idea what these allusions meant. A brief snapshot of each of their post-Du careers ends the book in a rather hurried and unsatisfying manner. The remainder of the text is an Epilogue that begins as a discussion on Husker Du's influence on 1990s alternative and indie rock and ends up being a tedious cataloging of various covers of Husker Du songs released since their split. Finally, some appendices documenting their discography, a hardcore punk discography, and a bibliography bring the book to a close.

My main gripes with the book are more stylistic in nature than anything else. First and foremost, the editing of the book is pretty bad in spots, with words that don't fit into sentences that were obviously left in there as an artifact of the editing process, and punctuation errors all over the place. Perhaps the most inexcusable error was in mistyping "Norton" as "Horton!" Additionally, while it is obvious the author is using quotes from various sources throughout, which is perfectly acceptable, he has a habit of reusing the exact same quote in different sections of the book; it got a bit repetitive after a while. As I mentioned above, the side chapters interspersed throughout the Husker Du story, while interesting, get to be quite jarring and disrupt the flow and build-up of their career. In my opinion, these would have been better served as perhaps an appendix for those who wanted more detail into these matters. While this doesn't in any way impact the content of the book negatively, it was enough of a hindrance that I feel it bears mention here; by the end of the book I was skimming over the endless paragraphs listing obscure bands and albums I'd never heard of. A final gripe of mine, and I don't say this just because I'm a big R.E.M. fan, but there were repeated subtle swipes at R.E.M. by the author, which struck me as curious since R.E.M. were big fans of Husker Du, and they befriended the Du and invited them to tour with them in '83 and '84. Especially after reading the praise and admiration Mould heaped on R.E.M. in his book, as well as the historical fact that the two bands had much in common and were on friendly terms, I wish the author could have kept his personal bias out of the book a bit more.

It is nice to finally have a dedicated biography if Husker Du, who richly deserve it for not only their great music, but their influence on subsequent musical trends. This is the incredible story of a band who built themselves from the ground up out of nothing to become one of the most important bands of the 1980s. With its direct involvement from Greg Norton and Grant Hart, it serves as a nice counterpoint to Bob Mould's book. While this book doesn't unearth too much new information, there's enough to make it valuable and in my opinion, in tandem with Bob Mould's book, this book is essential in order to get the complete story of Husker Du.

MY RATING: 7/10

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. I just picked up a copy off Amazon. I haven't read the Bob Mould book yet either, but based on your recommendation, I'll put that in my queue.

    To all Twin Cities Husker Du fans. I want to let you know that Grant Hart is performing Sunday, March 16th at New Hope Cinema Grill alongside a screening of Every Everything. See the facebook event to get details /tickets https://www.facebook.com/events/231113907077969/

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I think you'll enjoy both books and I really do think both are necessary to get the whole story on Husker Du, especially since with the two books combined you get all three of their opinions. Bob's book goes into more of the details, especially the final year and the break-up of the band, whereas the band bio is more detailed in terms of the development of the band and the business side of it.

      Wish I was nearby in MN to go see that show and movie, the film is something I've been excited about for a while now since I first heard about it several months ago. Will there be a release outside of MN?

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