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Hart to Heart

In spite of a half-minded president, a slew of bad haircuts and a Me-centric mindset, a few memorable and artistic things managed to slip through the conservative cracks of the Reagan era. Confoundingly, much of the substantive musical activity of the '80s came out of Minnesota, a frigid and often forgotten lake-ridden state on the northern fringe of the Midwest. In an underground culture still reeling from a blow called the Sex Pistols, bands like the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Hüsker Dü gave people who were squeamish about the cultural climate -- and hungry for hard music -- a reason to believe. And for those who wanted intelligent angst mixed with melody and speed, the hauling-ass, metal-shearing swirl produced by Hüsker's Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton was perhaps the greatest blessing of the day.

Hüsker Dü stood tall as forebears of the do-it-yourself philosophy. Armed with a few exceptional recordings, the band eventually fit its staunch indie credo into a major-label deal, securing a level of artistic freedom that, at the time, the majors never granted. In some significant way, the overthrow of formulaic pop had taken place as Hüsker paved the way for similarly minded acts like Nirvana and the entire grunge movement that followed.

More than 20 years later, though, the brand of DIY that Hüsker Dü helped create doesn't look so impressive. The career trajectory of the group's former drummer and co-songwriter, Grant Hart, might offer the best proof that the coup landed on its head. Today Hart is without a record deal. He's still playing the underbelly bars of the nation as a means of survival, armed with just a guitar and a batch of songs -- some from his various solo projects, some culled from the catalogues of Hüsker Dü and Nova Mob, his later outfit.

But Hart doesn't lament his fate. He's a hard worker who's resigned -- happy, even -- to be a musician on the road. And when asked why independently spirited artists have such a tough go of it now, just years after the promise of indie success seemed attainable to so many, he points to an unlikely target.

"So many bands were signed post-Nirvana, because your labels started taking independent music more seriously," Hart says from his home in Minneapolis. "But what that triggered was that so many kids thought they were going to be the next guy. And it switched everything around to where the musicians themselves became the customers. You started seeing these guitar warehouses showing up around every town, making money off kids that think they're going to make money off of music. And not only did [those kids] take away a lot of gigs from people who had been serious about it for a lot of years, but what they helped create is a buyer's market as far as the music industry was concerned."

That industry, he says, has turned the self-reliant musician on his ear.

"The labels, the whole power, they've subverted the whole do-it-yourself ethic into, 'Oh, nobody makes money off music. Where you make your money is on your blah-blah-blah and your blah-blah-blah.' So now you see bands doing things that 15 years ago we would have said, 'What a bunch of goofballs.' The whole morality has changed.

"The labels," he adds, "can take anybody that will work for next to nothing, pick the ones that are more models than musicians, put their music all over the place and sell it to people who don't know good music from bad. The people that can tell the difference are the industry's enemy."

In their day, Hart, Mould and Norton were waist-deep in the "good" side of '80s music. After forming in the Twin Cities area in 1979, the band became hugely popular with local rock fans. Hüsker Dü released a series of recordings starting in 1981, including the 17-song, 26-minute cult favorite Land Speed Record. The group then signed to SST and released some of its finest hard-nosed music. Zen Arcade (a double disc) and Flip Your Wig were both loaded with sharp, metallic guitar work from Mould and thunderous backing by Hart and Norton. With Mould and Hart at the songwriting helm, the band buried Beatles-esque melodies into sonic storms that bowled over music critics and listeners who enjoyed a challenge.

In 1986, Hüsker Dü achieved the seemingly impossible by landing a deal with Warner Bros. that allowed it to make use of the label's muscle while maintaining its credibility. The brilliant Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories -- punk's equivalent to the Beatles' White Album -- followed. These recordings cemented the band's lofty image as punk standard-bearers -- the one act that could win in the corporate system. But its reign soon unraveled: Substance-abuse problems among the players, a growing struggle for songwriting dominance between Hart and Mould, and the suicide of the band's manager combined to dissolve Hüsker Dü in December 1987.

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Marty Jones

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