“I can't cry, I can't apply a word to sum it up /
Under stress I can't repress the moment it erupts /
Hear the sound of paper drums and shredded paper voice /
Got to turn up 'Keep Hanging On' as if I had a choice”
- The Posies, “Grant Hart”
Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart died on Wednesday, September 13, at his home in St. Paul. The Minnesota native was 56 years old. His wife, Brigid McGough, told NPR that his death was caused by complications from liver cancer and hepatitis.
Hart left behind a staggering body of work as one of the songwriters for Midwestern alt-rock icons. It's a legacy that he doesn't get enough credit for.
Hüsker Dü formed in 1979 after meeting at St. Paul's Cheapo Records, where Hart worked as a clerk. Originally a quartet with keyboardist Charlie Pine, eventually guitarist and singer Bob Mould, drummer and singer Hart, and bassist Greg Norton became the three-headed, guitar static-breathing dragon that would make a profound impression on the '80s underground.
Though Hart had played keyboards before forming Hüsker Dü, he ended up as the drummer by default. He was the only one with a kit. It was a role that Hart wasn't thrilled with, especially on their more hardcore-influenced early albums. “I didn't enjoy playing hardcore,” Hart said about his time pounding the skins. “It was just such a damn boring job.”
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Hart was contributing songs to the band's repertoire from the beginning. Two of the strongest songs on the band's first EP, 1983's Metal Circus, are Hart compositions: the macabre, post-punky “Diane” (the story of a murder victim, told from her killer's point of view) and the propulsive power pop of “It's Not Funny Anymore.”
Mould and Hart traded off on vocals throughout the band's work. Mould had the harsher voice, a hoarse and scabrous bellow. The bitterness in Mould's voice gave the band's music a punk edge. He always sounded like he was just another howl away from losing his voice entirely.
Hart, by contrast, was the everyman voice. A sweeter, more laidback singer, Hart sounded like the kind of guy you could smoke weed with and listen to Beach Boys albums.
Much of the Hüsker Dü's work was shrouded in a blanket of guitar fuzz, thanks in part to SST house producer Spot. Listening to their early albums recalls the story of how Dave Davies produced the fuzzy guitar sound on “You Really Got Me” by slashing a speaker cone with a razor blade. Hüsker Dü albums sounded like they slashed open every mic, speaker, and amp in the studio. Despite that omnipresent crackle over every note, the band's pop hooks shone through — hooks that Hart was particularly skilled at crafting.
Hüsker Dü quickly outgrew their hardcore roots, embracing a love for '60s music by covering The Byrds' “Eight Miles High” and putting out concept albums.
While both songwriters were adept at mixing pop sensibilities with punky fervor, Hart's tracks on albums like Zen Arcade and New Day Rising stand out as highlights. There's the acoustic “Never Talking To You Again,” the pretty (and bone-chilling) OD tale “Pink Turns To Blue,” the anthemic surge of “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” and the jaunty, piano-driven “Books About UFOs.”
Hart, Mould, and Norton weren't the first band in the American '80s underground to mix hardcore noise with classic pop songwriting, but no one did it quite as well as they did. The band also stood out by not looking like a typical hardcore band: Mould looked like someone's surly dad; Norton rocked a voluminous mustache that was straight out of a barbershop quartet; and the long-haired Hart, who often drummed onstage barefoot, looked like a hippie.
As documented in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, the working relationship between Mould and Hart was tense. Part of what makes listening to Hüsker Dü records so exhilarating is hearing two songwriters at the peak of their powers trying to constantly one-up each other. It's that struggle between them that made them the Lennon and McCartney of the '80s.
After the release of Flip Your Wig (which featured Hart's “Green Eyes,” a song so lovely that if you stripped the guitar fuzz away it could have been a Roy Orbison ballad), the band moved on to a major label. Their last two records, Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs And Stories, still had moments of glory (Hart's “Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely” off of the former is one of the band's greatest sing-along anthems), but didn't quite reach the heights of their past work.
Tensions between Mould and Hart hit their peak at this point in their careers. Exacerbated by Hart's heroin abuse and Mould starting to manage the band following previous manager David Savoy's suicide, the band split acrimoniously in 1988. Hart and Mould would not perform again until 2004, when they reunited to play a benefit concert for Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller, who was then battling throat cancer. It was the last time that they would play together.
Post-Hüsker Dü, the two songwriters pursued solo careers. Mould's next band Sugar blew up, outselling his old band's work and garnering Mould even more critical acclaim. It's one of the reasons why he gets the motherload of the credit for Hüsker Dü. While Hart's contributions were every bit as essential to the band, he didn't have a solo career as distinguished as Mould. And for an alternative rock press obsessed with authenticity and punk credibility, the hoarse-shouter Mould made for a more compelling frontman figure than the hippie-ish Hart.
That isn't to say that Hart didn't do good work after his tenure in Dü. After getting clean, Hart launched a solo career with 1989's Intolerance. He later assembled a new band, the Nova Mob. They were named after William Burroughs’ Nova Express, Hart became friends with the author towards the end of Burroughs' life. Burroughs introduced Hart to Patti Smith, whom he would back up by playing piano on her 2000 song “Persuasion.”
Hart's last album, 2013's The Argument, was another tribute to Burroughs: it was a musical interpretation of the Beat poet's take on John Milton's Paradise Lost. Around the same time as The Argument's release, filmmaker Gorman Bechard released a documentary about Grant – Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart.
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News of Hart's health problems had spread over the summer. And solo gig he performed in Minneapolis in July became an impromptu tribute to his life and work. Fellow Twin Cities luminaries like Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner surprised Hart with performances of his songs. Even his Hüsker Dü bandmate Norton got in on the action, making a rare appearance to pay tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator.
The songwriter was working on a concept album about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, around the time of his death. He had also been working with Mould on supervising an upcoming reissue of the band's early work from Numero Group. After decades of bitterness about their time together, the two songwriters were finally able to talk to each other about their old work again.
Mould commented on Hart's passing by saying, “We made amazing music together. We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world. When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared. The band was our life. It was an amazing decade.”
The Numero boxset the two worked on, Savage Young Dü, is set for release on November 10.