Friday, September 23, 2011

Andrew Earles' "Hüsker Dü": Book Review

Earles faced a tough challenge when he wrote this enthusiastic account of these "noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock," as Bob Mould, guitarist and singer-songwriter, declined to participate in interviews. His own memoir, "See a Little Light" (see my review) appeared a year after Earles' study, but he integrates as many secondary sources as he can to supplement what he finds from Greg Norton, bassist, and Grant Hart, drummer and singer-songwriter. The tensions between Hart and Mould, often mythologized, remain here as understated as they are explicated (if in part) in Mould's own story; reading the two books together makes for instructive comparisons. Earles' chapter on Mould's post-band career plays nicely off Mould's own uneven but engaging memoir. Earles shows respect and class in how he handles the situation with Hart and Norton post-band as well.

To his credit, Earles prefers to concentrate on the standard, if less confrontational, direction of a rock-band biography. He may bury himself in details such as every record the band's small label, Reflex, released, but he takes the time to do this to show the underground of the early 80s that spawned not only the best proponents of hardcore punk, Hüsker Dü, but lots of other bands, many now forgotten if for (as we see later with a similar look at SST Records  ("open-minded, elitist outsiders" is a great phrase Earles concocts) after the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü enriched them in the mid-80s to sign whomever Greg Ginn liked) good reasons or not. The exploration of hardcore punk here, therefore, expands the contexts necessary too to understand why Hüsker Dü signing to Warner Brothers mattered more, at least to fans, than the Replacements a bit earlier--even if Earles downplays the significance too much, in my opinion.

As a fan who saw Hüsker Dü in 1984-5, I can attest that the impact of a major-label signing a band at the peak of its punk-pop powers meant that music that mattered caused ripples across what had before been a cult following, the few "intelligent losers" (as Earles praises we who were there). For, before the Net, in the post-punk, hardcore or pre-college rock era, it was not easy to seek out new sounds; those in bands and we who listened to them appeared to rely on word-of-mouth or fanzines to find what was worth hearing. And, as Earles quotes Hart, the band had early on distanced themselves from hardcore's corrosion of conformity by their own "shroud of invisibility." They preferred "massive volume, massive hooks."

These insights for me mattered most in this book. Despite the glaring mistake on page one of Mould's birth year being a year later than Mould gives it near the start of his memoir, and the garbling of two similarly titled tracks on "Zen Arcade" in his off-kilter (if accurate otherwise as a more hit-and-miss LP than the fanatics make it out to be after the fact) run-through, Earles has his heart in the right place. He's on target as considering "Warehouse" as half of each singer's solo album, but he skims past what for me is a much better double-LP than many fans or critics judge it in the light of their classic earlier work. He skimps on coverage, in fact, of many of the better moments from later albums; he does not cover their posthumous live album in any detail. He also leaves a reader clueless unless a Beatles fan also what the "Makes No Sense At All" single cover alluded to, for while he adds a photo of the cover he leaves out in the text what withdrawn Beatles cover this parodied.

All the same, this volume contains much of value. It's certainly for fans, and as you can see, we may have our gripes. But, there's a welcome wry wit that Earles sneaks in. He appends a fine set of playlists, he investigates briefly the wide range of bands influenced by Hüsker Dü, and even if they themselves appear to be often twenty-odd years before in influence, the legacy of this St. Paul punk-pop trio seems to be assured.
(Amazon US 8-31-11)

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