Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bob Mould's "See a Little Light": Book Review

I saw Hüsker Dü at UCLA’s Ackerman Ballroom in 1984 and 1985: Mould notes how this was where the A & R big shots showed up. I remember one set suddenly stopping after beer bottles were thrown on stage and Mould angrily halted the band’s performance, a detail not included here in an account that shifts between exhaustive detail and discreet distance. As Mould admits in his preface, many of his memories have faded, due to the blur of chemicals and the passage of time. Given the depth of many of his recollections, if he wasn’t in an altered state during his band’s heyday, this book might have reached epic proportions.

He crafts a reflective retrospective about his half-century of growing up, not in public—with concerts that began in the hardcore era with twenty songs in forty minutes at overwhelming intensity—so much as off-stage. As he matures, his insights deepen and he reveals his inner self gradually.

Given his perhaps then-typical behavior when I saw him play at UCLA, Mould demonstrates his determination as major labels courted and wooed him and the band to call the shots, to start and stop when he demanded. His work ethic and attention to minutiae characterize his music and his control of the band or, solo, his musicians and crew. He named his first solo record Workbook, after all. The subtitle of this thoughtful autobiography, co-written with Michael Azerrad, reveals how “the trail of rage” that marked his first twenty-odd years has intersected, more and more in Mould’s life and times, with “melody”. He opens his story by musing how musically he possesses perfect pitch; he wonders why he can be so out of tune personally with those around him.

He grew up in far-upstate New York in a farm town. At nine, he was creating songs. He left for the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College, inspired to move there by a local band he admired, The Suicide Commandos. He bonded with long-haired barefoot hippie drummer Grant Hart (who was gay) and “the bass player who looked like he might be gay,” handlebar-mustached Greg Norton (who was not). In 1979, they formed an intense trio.

Mould believed in them, and his passion shows. “We created this blistering wall of sound—bright white radio static with occasional melody, with words buried deep in the storm, as if encrypted for shortwave transmission. The overall effect was blinding, bringing uncertainty and sometimes fear, not unlike emotions I had sometimes felt as a child.” He admits how his determination to succeed weighed upon Hart, who competed with Mould for songwriting and vocal balance, and Norton, who was pushed aside as the two singers contended for control of the increasingly loud and dedicated trio.

Full of testosterone, on speed, drinking daily since he was twelve, awkward, looking like “a gas station attendant”, Mould did not fit the image of a punk rocker or a young gay man. His discomfort did not lie in his shame about his sexuality, but in his inability to find relief outside of destruction. He obsessed over being faster than the Ramones, than the Dickies, than the Buzzcocks. His nihilism haunts him, and his relationships must contend with his ego, his talent, and his self-lacerating drive to overcome his own misgivings and doubts.

Much of this discomfort was rooted in his family dynamic. His father treated his family poorly, while his mother tended to withdraw. Mould compassionately shows his father’s difficulties. He notes how when he lashed out on side two of their breakthrough 1984 double-album Zen Arcade, “it sounded like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass”. Yet, he adds how as he channeled his frustrations at his relationships, his upbringing, and his anger on that and other Hüsker Dü LPs, the same father who sparked his torment had driven twelve-hundred miles from Malone, N.Y. to St. Paul. His father had delivered his second of the two vans he bought for the band, so they could tour and travel in comparative safety and comfort as they scrimped and saved while recording for the small SST punk label.

Hüsker Dü was one of the first indie bands to jump from an underground to a major label. Mould astutely recalls the feel of the tiny college rock-alternative scene, when word-of-mouth and informal networks existed to show who in a small city where a concert was booked was likely to buy records such as Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats rather than Boston II, and who might put a band up on their couch or help pass out flyers. The dissatisfied few who supported the early band represented the high-school poetry readers, the freaks, the sensitive loners, and not only the mohawked identikit leather jacketed crowd. Mould and his bandmates began to incorporate their admiration of late-1960s music into their sound, as much Monkees as Beatles, and their albums started to expand into a more sophisticated pop-punk blend of tones. 

Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig for me still hold up today as some of the best music from the mid-1980s. While Mould does not delve as deeply as I wanted into sharing his perspective on why these albums endure, he does offer a necessary balance to Andrew Earles' 2010 “story about the noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock” [see my review]. Earles chronicles the band’s evolution, but he lacked access to Mould’s testimony, which he apparently saved for his own account; Mould’s astute choice of Azerrad (whose chapter on Hüsker Dü in his Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Underground 1981-1991 [reviewed by me on Amazon a few years back] remains essential reading) helps Mould elucidate what made his best songs, and those of Hart, work so well.

I agree with Mould that Candy Apple Grey drops off in quality rapidly, but I found their studio effort, a double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a swan song that captured Hüsker Dü at its peak. Mould dismisses it, for me, too offhandedly. (He has never bothered to listen to their posthumous live record, The Living End, issued to pay off Norton in a tussle that continues to simmer between Mould against Hart and Norton, but I recommend it.) However, Mould stays very fair to his bandmates when they merit his praise; he credits many friends and colleagues. He also criticizes those who stood in his formidable way, whether bandmates, rivals, industry representatives, or accountants.

Furthermore, he evenly explains his rocky relationships with his first two longtime partners, and he accepts his share of the blame for what went wrong. Yet, he also incorporates occasions when others took advantage of his trust, financially or intimately. This deepens the texture of his engagingly told story. He finds it difficult to say goodbye, and he tends for much of his fifty years to walk away from conflict even if he has helped escalate it.

He appears as outwardly confident, yet he harbors doubt. This may stem from his start. “As a gay kid, the dialogue of courtship was tightly yet invisibly twined around the sexual camaraderie that young boys need.” He feared intimacy. He shunned tenderness. New Day Rising by its title and lighter atmosphere may signal his recognition that “bookish musical aficionados” like myself listened to his music as much as the hardcore crowd dominating the mosh pits nearest the stage.

New Days Rising

He stopped drinking at twenty-five, fearing he would follow his father’s fate. He does not preach about sobriety or sexuality, but he steadily shows how his solo work, after eight relentless years with his increasingly weary band, shifted as his moods did. He quit. He moved to a farm outside St. Paul.

Workbook featured delicacy as well as energy, and his stellar supporting musicians enriched its presentation. His then-partner designed the cover. He included a figure of Jesus, taken off the cross. Black Sheets of Rain, as the title shows, came with Mould’s breakup with that same lover. Mould left for Hoboken and then Brooklyn. Recorded at Manhattan’s Power Station studio, its angry, overpowering production, with a lavish budget, plunged these songs in pain as if, Mould says, one drowned in a factory, submerged in motor oil.

So, the step back to lead his power-trio Sugar to a more tuneful, punchy style proved a wise move. Copper Blue still sounds fantastic, and his longtime co-producer Lou Giordano gains credit for its impact. With a new partner, Mould restored his sanity. He moved to Austin, then back to Manhattan before 9/11. Typically, he devotes as much space to the life and death of his beloved dog, Domino, as to the tragedy that enveloped his adopted city. He balances the personal and the promotional nimbly, but for stretches over four-hundred dutifully told pages, this account feels as if expanded from decades of Day Runner notes. He appears to list everyone he met and every place he flew to and stayed, and while those included here may cringe or grin at their shout-outs, fans may wonder as I did why this near-total recall remains so necessary.

Nonetheless, this offers a more in-depth look at Mould than a music-based survey such as Earles was limited in providing. Mould’s enthusiasm for his debut solo LP and Sugar’s best work (even if the spectacular song “Gee Angel” escapes mention) captures his romance with playing and producing catchy, punchy songs. He addresses relationships in often a non-gendered form of address, so everyone feels included in his audience.

Still, his demons haunted him, for his new lover proved as straying as his first. His second Sugar record failed to live up to his first, just as his second solo LP had. “Maybe someone can adopt this book for Broadway: CATHARSIS! starring Bob Mould. The hit play with no ending.”

He evades responsibility for leading his second power trio; he had walked away from his first. Lessons do not stick with him without repetition and a slow awareness of his shortcomings. He learns to seek happiness.

It takes him until his late-thirties to come to terms with his sexuality in public. I remained somewhat unclear about his claim that Dennis Cooper in a way outed him in his Spin magazine 1994 “Bob is gay” feature; when Hüsker Dü was interviewed a dozen-odd years earlier, Mould’s preferences to a reader such as myself in the alternative press appeared the “open secret” he writes they were in his memoir. But, Mould gets over what proves a muted reaction to his admission as he does the demise of Sugar. After the revealingly titled The Last Dog and Pony Show, 1998’s temporary farewell to what had once been “college rock”, he makes a surprising career move.

Seven months of exhausting work as a “creative consultant” inventing story lines, timing routines to be filmed, and ensuring quality control for World Championship Wrestling gain a fascinating and grueling chapter. Mould’s lifelong love of wrestling led him to this job, and he did it with the same intensity, and command of numbers and minutes, that he brought to his exactingly created music. Luckily for him in the long run, he was let go after a series of tragedies at WCW. Storylines became too real, and the physical and emotional damages to his colleagues piled up during his manic stint. As he says of his lyrics, used to work his way through tension and torment, so with these doomed wrestling narratives: “Write it and it shall be so.”

The millennium finds him in Manhattan embracing his gay identity. He evokes (a few) secrets of club life and mating behavior on Christopher Street and Fire Island as deftly as he does the action behind the scenes at WCW. He learns to accept his parents with all their flaws, and he understands how the rituals of the Catholic Mass he long abandoned from his childhood remain a necessary anchor for community and belonging for some seekers now and then, same as the dance floor and the concert may for others. And, sometimes, those punks grow into the gay “bears and cubs” he embraces. He wryly tells of his forty-fifth birthday celebrated with a call-in masseuse at the Ramada Inn on Santa Monica Boulevard, and his well-timed fifty-two minute session.

First in Washington D.C., and now in San Francisco with a third steady partner, Mould makes records mixing the pop-punk of the past with massed electronics, his interest for more than dozen years. He stays as much of a fan, whether of Pete Townshend or No Age, as a performer. If he wants to play an old song, he will, but often, one senses, he does not. He continues his stubborn direction ahead, no matter what crowds expect.

This expansive story ends as a gentle but firm lesson in starting over, even if it takes a half a century. Finally, Mould can enjoy life. Thirty years making music, he pays as much attention now to his health as his career. He works out, produces, d.j.‘s, performs. He lives a happy life. So, don’t expect a Hüsker Dü reunion. (Review in shorter form: Amazon US)
(Featured as above at PopMatters 8-19-11)

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