Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart: hardcore punk's inspired soul

The musician, whose death at 56 of cancer has been announced, played drums in the band that sparked the grunge explosion, but commercial success always seemed to elude him

Luck was barely on speaking terms with Grant Hart. When, in 1986, his group Hüsker Dü became the first from America’s teeming hardcore-punk scene to sign to a major label, Hart could scarcely celebrate – he’d been misdiagnosed HIV-positive, and believed his days were numbered.

A year later, Hüsker Dü toured what would be their final album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories – a tour overshadowed by the suicide of the group’s manager, David Savoy, the night before they set off on the road. Hart began taking methadone in an attempt to kick the heroin addiction that was souring his already tempestuous relationship with his bandmates, guitarist/singer Bob Mould and bassist Greg Norton. But as their tour van reached Columbia, Missouri, Hart discovered that his bottle of methadone had broken, and he wouldn’t have enough to see out the rest of the tour. Hart swore that, even despite his withdrawal symptoms, he’d be able to play the rest of the dates; nevertheless, Mould cancelled the rest of the tour, and Hüsker Dü never recorded or played together again.

On 14 September, Hart lost his battle with cancer at the age of 56.

Formed in Minneapolis in 1978, Hüsker Dü expertly fused the velocity of punk rock with the melody of purest pop, and a powerful streak of angst that would differentiate them from all the other thrash-punk acts touring the states during the Reagan years. As a forthcoming long-awaited box set, Savage Young Dü, proves, even in their earliest days the group’s competing singers, Mould (guitars) and Hart (drums), possessed stronger songwriting chops than their angry adolescent contemporaries; their debut album, a 1981 live set aptly titled Land Speed Record, proved they could thrash faster and harder than anyone.

Grant Hart
Grant Hart in 2009. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

But it was when Hüsker Dü slowed their velocity and allowed their pop sensibility to come to the surface that their genius shone brightest. Their 1984 release Zen Arcade – a double album recorded on a shoestring in a single weekend – was a furious masterpiece, a concept album of sorts following the misadventures of an abused punk kid who leaves his broken home but finds himself preyed upon by the denizens of the street. It contained some of the group’s most violent, painful music – the second side is a sustained blast of punk catharsis, and titles such as The Biggest Lie and Masochism World spelled out the grim subject matter – but also their sweetest, most poignant pop yet.

The competition between Mould and Hart had begun, pushing each songwriter to best his partner: Mould served up the anthemic confusion of Something I Learned Today, Hart responded with the acoustic confessional Never Talking To You Again; Hart penned Pink Turns To Blue, a tale of a junkie prostitute’s fatal overdose that was among the best he’d ever write, and Mould replied with Whatever, a heart-rendingly vulnerable confession that found the gay singer-songwriter howling: “Mum and dad, I’m sorry …/ I’m not the son you wanted / but what did you expect? / I made my world of happiness to combat your neglect.”

And so Hüsker Dü continued, for four more years and four more albums (and the last one was another double), a blistering production rate that saw their gift for melody mature alongside their lyricism, from the buzz saw bubblegum of 1985’s New Day Rising, to the dark, sugary pop of the same year’s Flip Your Wig. And after the group left hardcore punk label SST Records for Warner Bros, for 1986’s Candy Apple Grey and the epic end-of-adolescence crises of 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, many tipped the group for actual, proper commercial success, to match their growing critical acclaim.

It never came – but their metallicised pop would lay the groundwork for Nirvana’s breakthrough with Nevermind, in 1991.

By then, neither of Hüsker Dü’s songwriters seemed in a position to savour the reflected glory. Mould followed Hüsker Dü with two powerful solo albums, the acoustic reveries of 1988’s Workbook, and 1990’s pulverisingly dark Black Sheets of Rain. The latter album sold barely 7,000 copies on release, and he was dumped by his new label, Virgin. Mould’s fortunes improved as the rising grunge tide carried many of the scene’s primary influences to newfound success, however; a new trio, Sugar, made good on Hüsker Dü’s unfulfilled commercial promise, their two-and-a-half albums finding him on the finest melodic form of his career, and winning him a whole new audience, many of whom would follow him through his subsequent post-Sugar solo excursions.

Hart, meanwhile, cut a solo album, Intolerance, containing two of his very best songs – The Main, a heartbreaking shanty chronicling his struggles with heroin, and 2541, a break-up song that was widely read as a metaphor for Hüsker Dü’s demise – before forming a new group, Nova Mob. But Nova Mob’s 1991 debut album, an ambitious time-travel concept album involving former Nazi scientists and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius titled The Last Days of Pompeii, was barely released before the collapse of the Rough Trade label stole it from the shelves. After cutting an excellent second, self-titled album for a new label, fate intervened again, a car accident while gigging in Germany scuppering the tour, and ultimately ending the group.

Hart kept a low profile for the rest of the decade, surfacing again in 1999 with a second solo album, Good News for the Modern Man, an album of haunting, bewitched pop, from the Spector-ish Think It Over Now, to the wracked but dignified balladry of You Don’t Have To Tell Me Now, and followed it up a decade later with Hot Wax, recorded in part with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He cut a fourth solo album, The Argument, in 2013, another ambitious conceptual piece, this time inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and scoring some of the best reviews of his career.

The success balanced out more misfortune in his private life, not least a house fire in 2011 that left him homeless and destroyed many of his possessions, including the beloved Gibson guitar he’d been playing since Hüsker Dü’s demise. Hart and Mould had remained on bad terms for many of the years that followed the split, reuniting only once, and fleetingly, at a benefit concert for Karl Mueller of fellow Minneapolis rockers Soul Asylum in 2004, playing two Hüsker Dü songs and warning attendees not to expect any further collaborations. But in recent years, relations between the Dü bandmates warmed up to the point where they joined forces to begin legal proceedings to win back their back catalogue from SST Records, so they could reissue it for the 21st century. The first fruits of the project, Savage Young Dü, collects material recorded before they signed to SST; it is unclear if they have yet succeeded in regaining possession of the tapes for their 1980s masterpieces.

In July this year, Hart was the subject of an emotional tribute show at Minneapolis’s Hook and Ladder Theater and Lounge, featuring members of Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland, and even old Hüsker bassist Greg Norton. Hart himself closed the night, with a performance of some of his most beloved songs, though his gaunt appearance let those in the audience know he was struggling with his health. “Emotions ran close to the surface,” wrote Youa Vang, a blogger from local radio station The Current, covering the show, “and many tears were shed.”

It’s fitting, somehow, that Hart’s final public appearance was in the company of musicians who he’d inspired, playing the songs that continue to move audiences, and will continue to inspire and move in the years that will follow. Luck might’ve been a stranger to Grant Hart, but his talent, and the humanity that informed his great, great music, were in abundance.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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