Monday, December 13, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Book Club: Andrew Earles' Hüsker Dü Biography

A biography of one of my favorite bands penned by one of the sharpest music writers around, there was probably no chance that I wouldn't enjoy Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. And indeed, I did enjoy it, consuming the entire book in two or three sittings over the course of 24 hours. Though Hüsker vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould declined to participate (he's working on his own autobiography with Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad), this is an exhaustive tome, featuring interviews and insights from vocalist/drummer/songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton plus many of the band's colleagues and contemporaries.

Author Andrew Earles makes explicit in his introduction that his book is meant to be a serious examination of Hüsker Dü's music and influence, not the more sensationalistic aspects of the band that often seem to dominate their posthumous write-ups. He succeeds admirably. Earles mostly avoids what could be considered the more exploitative elements of the Hüsker story: the band members' sexuality, their alleged drug use, the exaggerated acrimony of their messy breakup. He almost apologizes when the narrative necessitates these subjects' inclusion. This could be read as an attempt on the part of the writer to not alienate his heroes. However, it's more likely that Earles realizes that Hüsker Dü were not Mötley Crüe, and that this book is not The Dirt. Hüsker Dü's contributions to culture, in their music and as a trailblazing role model for future independent bands, are more powerful than any titillating tales of rock 'n' roll revelry.

One of the reasons Earles' book works is that he gives the band proper context. The author has a firm understanding of punk rock, post-punk, hardcore, college radio, the Twin Cities music scene, SST records, what later became "alternative" and "indie" and what each meant musically and sociologically. Hüsker Dü was part of all of these things to varying degrees while simultaneously forging their own path. Earles establishes where the Hüsker story converges with the above, often affecting them as much as they were affected by them.

Context is also part of the reason Earles spends the first six(!) chapters focusing on the band prior to the release of Metal Circus, conventionally deemed the band first "important" release. It's as though Earles wrote each early chapter as its own essay examining some part of the band's story. Usually mentioned in passing as a footnote, Hüsker Dü's label Reflex Records gets a full chapter, correctly establishing it as pioneering independent, not on the level of SST but born of the same impulse. This essay approach means the initial chapters bounce around a bit chronologically and contain some redundant information. For the most part this is fine, but a rather egregious example is a quote from Greg Norton regarding Canadian punks D.O.A. and the Subhumans that reappears in the following chapter a mere eight pages later. It's rare bit of sloppiness in what is otherwise a tightly constructed book. In addition to context, these early chapters also shed some much needed light on Hüsker Dü's hardcore days. Earles is sure to make a point that I've often made myself: Hüsker Dü were not some run of the mill hardcore act that eventually changed their sound and became "good." They were one of the best hardcore acts around, on par with anyone else in the genre.

Earles spends the remaining chapters giving a chronological account of each Hüsker release and the band's activities surrounding them, with an extra chapter thrown in focusing on the band's singing with major label Warner Brothers. This may seem like the author is rushing things in comparison to the early portion of the book, but it accurately reflects the speed at which Hüsker Dü was developing musically and gaining forward momentum. He concludes with respective chapters on the band members' ventures following their dissolution and the band's legacy as well as a lengthy appendix on Hüsker and Hüsker-related releases. In these chapters, Earles offers useful and insightful analysis of every release from the band, often dissecting them track by track. It's here that Earles demonstrates his strong grasp of why Hüsker Dü was a remarkable band, offering thoughtful appreciation of their not-infrequent musical innovations. A notable exception is the band's final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, about which Earles has seemingly little to say. While the album is certainly not Hüsker's strongest, this is disappointing. As a dense, sometimes frustrating, sometimes excellent 20-song double LP, it practically begs for thorough exegesis.

Overall, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is an essential read for fans Hüsker Dü. For those who aren't fans, I'll remind them that Hüsker Dü is an essential band. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

I'll conclude with a live clip of Hüsker Dü, because it's not like I need much of an excuse anyway.


eyenoise said...

I was hot for this book too, since Hüskers don't seem to get the credit they deserve. And I read it as quickly as you. But I think you're being a little generous with your review. The redundancies drove me crazy. And I was unsatisfied with the reportage of the writing and recording of Zen Arcade. You're right about Warehouse, an unfairly dismissed record. The post Hüskers history is dodgy and weird. Like for instance, it seems Sugar gets extensive coverage due to the author's interview with David Barbe. Earles does that throughout the book too, where he drops in an anecdote from a new figure who does not show up again in the narrative.
I'm glad I read it as it inspired another listen to Hüsker's catalog (always a fixture on my iPod), but I wish it was a better book.

PB said...

Maybe I was a bit generous but I felt I enjoyed the book enough not to nitpick too much. I didn't want it to seem like a negative review. Yes, there were some redundancies but if we read the book a chapter at a time like normal people instead of all at once, we may not have even noticed. I caught a few factual errors too. The book probably would have benefited from a diligent editor. That sort of thing would really be his or her duty more than Earles. But who even knows if a small publisher like Voyager Press has a staff of editors or fact checkers? In any case, it's no reason to throw Earles under the bus.

As far as the Sugar stuff goes, it didn't bother me at all as Sugar was the most significant (certainly in commercial terms) post-Hüsker project. If anything, I wanted to know more about Mould career at WCW. I hope that gets a whole chapter in his book.

David said...

I came across this book completely at random in a Barnes & Noble on Dec. 29, purchased it, and finished it about 30 hours later despite the usual activities of sleep, work, exercise, eating, etc in the meantime. Maybe there's something about Husker Du, or Huskers fans, that makes immersive/intensive consumption of a book like this inevitable.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. There's a ton of great information in here I hadn't previously known, from the fact that Bob's guitar was an Ibanez knockoff rather than a real Gibson Flying V to the story of Greg's post-Huskers career as a restauranteur, the basic fact of which I knew but not the full story, which I found quite moving; it's great that the guy whose contributions were always underrated, and who personally seemed by far the most relatable and flat-out likable of the three, made a fulfilling and successful life for himself away from any spotlight.

That said, I have to echo the criticisms made by the blogger here as well as those who've commented: the editing of this book was pretty sloppy in both content (I think some whole paragraphs were repeated) and theme (how many times did the band "give a final kissoff to hardcore" or the like?). Having read a couple interviews with Earles, it sounds like he was largely on his own with this project, so it's probably fair to attribute these flaws to his own DIY process as well as rookie mistakes.

I'd still strongly recommend the book, both for its own merits and because he gets at what I consider the essential truth about this amazing band: the point isn't their personal drama or excesses, but rather their music, which is among the best in the history of rock. The one issue i have with his assessment of their work is that IMO the Huskers never so much "moved past" pop-punk, hardcore, psychedelia or whatever other genre you care to name as mastered them, incorporated them into an ever-growing sonic palette, and then went off in search of new realms to conquer.

PB said...

David, thank for you thoughtful, well-reasoned comment.

I think there's definitely some legitimate gripes about the editing. However, I feel like those are minor issues compared to rewards the book yields.

As far as his assessment of "moving past" genres, on the surface I see your point. However, I think Earles point was actually fairly close to yours. It's not that they discarded any of these genres, they just decided they didn't need to be boxed in by their conventions.