‘Time heals, time goes on and time really flied. Time hurts and time can cut you, cut you down to size.’
Yesterday, news emerged that Grant Hart had passed away, aged 56, following a battle with liver cancer. Hart was, of course, the drummer in legendary American band Husker Du. More than just the drummer, Hart was, along with Bob Mould, songwriter and vocalist in the band that practically built the template for what would eventually become known as ‘alternative rock’. Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media will know the extent of my obsession with Husker Du. They are far and away my favourite band, and have been since I discovered them, aged 14 via Mould’s subsequent band Sugar. Their impact on music can’t be overstated; it’s hard to imagine a guitar band since the early 80’s who haven’t been influenced, consciously or otherwise, by their unique blending of extreme guitar noise, frenetic energy and pop melody. But their impact on me is more important on a personal level.
‘There was life on the corners and death all around
You know hell is the worst place that I’ve ever been to
The hell that I went through when I stuck it into
Some people say their teen years are the best of their lives. Some struggle with them. For those that struggle, the one solace that never lets them down, is music, and that was certainly the case for me. Integral to that was Husker Du. And integral to that was Grant Hart. Though by no means the most technically gifted drummer, his loose, jazz-influenced style was at odds with other punk and hardcore drummers. Hardly the powerhouse usually associated with aggressive guitar music, Hart’s unique drumming style was as important to the distinctive Husker sound as Mould’s trademark ‘swarm of bees’ guitar sound, creating open spaces for the celebrated guitarist to exploit, much the way Bill Berry did with contemporaries and eventual label-mates R.E.M. Hart’s songwriting was also sublime. Though the songwriting share through their career is roughly 60/40 in Bob’s favour (and Hart has spoken since the split of Mould’s determination to control the output this way) Hart’s work represents 50% of the band’s brilliance. Often referred to as the McCartney to Mould’s Lennon, not least by me, the romanticism of his work often provided the perfect counterbalance to his band-mate’s emotional rawness. For example, on final double album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Mould’s searing Bed Of Nails is followed by the Hart’s almost shanty-like She Floated Away. On New Day Rising, Mould’s 59 Times The Pain is preceded by the lilting pop of Hart’s Terms Of Psychic Warfare, while Green Eyes is surely the purest, most unashamed love song you’ll ever hear from any band loosely labelled as ‘hardcore’. More than just a hippy romantic though, Hart also penned some of the bands most visceral tracks. Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill, Data Control and Turn On The News being just a few cases in point.
‘You put our names on the mailbox
And I put everything else in the past
It was the first place we had to ourselves
I didn’t know it would be the last
Big windows to let in the sun’
What set Husker Du apart from other underground bands of the era, as well as their early embracing of melody and texture, was their breadth of their emotional repertoire. While most of their contemporaries were still screaming about how much they hated the government, Husker Du had begun to focus more on personal politics and relationships, and that was as much down to Grant as it was Bob.
‘If I could change my mind what changes would it bring
If I could change you, well it wouldn’t change a thing
Well now you know and now you shouldn’t be afraid’
No Promise Have I Made
Another defining characteristic of the band was the intensity of their inner turmoil. The power struggle between the two principal songwriters, as well as ensuring a prolific and consistently brilliant recorded output, led to some ferocious live shows. “You can almost hear me and Bob trying to outdo each other,” Hart is quoted on the sleeve notes to 1994 live album The Living End, “not holding back on the other guy, just putting more into it.” This constant one-upmanship meant attendees of their gigs benefited from incendiary performances, even as the band was falling apart.
‘I’m curious to know exactly how you are
I keep my distance but that distance is too far’
Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely
By the time of the final tour that The Living End was taken from, relationships within the band had broken down irreparably following the suicide of manager David Savoy, Grant being diagnosed as HIV+ (a diagnosis which he would later learn was incorrect) and Hart’s ongoing battle agaisnt heroin addiction. Suffering from withdrawal, Hart’s bottle of methadone smashed in a sink, and, though Hart insisted he could finish the tour, Mould cancelled the remaining shows, an act which seemed to have hammered the final nail into the coffin of the bands relations.
‘And I don’t know what to do
Now that pink has turned to blue’
Pink Turns To Blue
Following Husker Du’s demise, the band members went their separate ways. Bassist Greg Norton became a restaurateur, while Mould and Hart pursued solo careers. With seminal works like Workbook, Copper Blue and the recent Patch The Sky, Bob Mould has clearly had the more prolific and celebrated solo career, but Hart’s post-Husker Du output contains plenty of moments of genuine genius. 1989’s Intolerance, two albums with Nova Mob, particularly their self-titled 1994 album and Good News For The Modern Man are notable high points. His last recorded work was 2013’s The Argument, a concept album inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and Burroughs’ Lost Paradise. Typically of his unique approach to art and songwriting, Hart is said to have been working on another concept album about the Una Bomber.
‘Only angels have wings girl
And poets have all the words
The earth belongs to the two of us
And the sky belongs to the birds’
Keep Hanging On
Despite the seemingly irreconcilable nature of the falling out, there have been some attempts in recent years to bridge the schism between the members of the band. Mould and Hart performed together for the first time since the band split at a benefit gig for Karl Mueller of Soul Asylum in 2004, though the choice of songs; Hart’s Never Talking To You Again, and Mould’s Hardly Getting Over It, seems telling. More recently, an agreement was reached between the three to allow official merchandise to be sold online. A reunion was never in the offing, and rightly so, but it seemed there was at least some hope of Bob and Grant at least mending their personal relationship, and it’s sad to think they will now never get the chance to fully do so.
‘There’s a vacancy between them everyday
And a sense of guilt that’s not going away
When they get older perhaps they’ll understand’
She’s A Woman (And Now He Is A Man)
In a career that spanned four decades, Grant Hart’s output was vital and unique, and music has lost one of its most pioneering figures.
‘Times, places and situations
Lead to an early grave
When we get there we see
Just what did we save?’