Songwriter and Husker Du founder Grant Hart passes away at 56

Grant Hart performing at The Current in 2013 (Nate Ryan/MPR)

He co-founded, wrote songs for, and drummed in the influential St. Paul trio Hüsker Dü, inspiring legions of bands with his raw and poetic charm. He went on to form the alternative rock band Nova Mob, and would write and record several criminally under-appreciated and beautiful solo albums. And he was held in the softest parts of so many hearts in the punk community, beloved for his resilience, his sharp wit, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his kind, crooked smile.

To paraphrase a wise man, Grant Hart was a glowing moon rising over a distant water, and we were all content to be caught in his reflection as he glided across the night.

Born on March 18, 1961, to working-class parents in South St. Paul, Grant Hart was the youngest of three children and, from a young age, a torch-bearer for all things musical. When Grant was just 10, his oldest brother, Tom, died in an automobile accident, leaving his drum kit and pop record collection behind. “These are all things that I didn’t need to be forced to enjoy,” Grant told me just a few weeks ago. “But I think that was a kick in the right direction.”

Before long he had gained enough control of not just the drums but the guitar, and started dabbling in high school bands. At age 15 he talked himself into a job at the record store Melody Lane, where he would first meet Greg Norton, and a few years later he would start taking shifts at Cheapo Records on Grand Avenue and Snelling in St. Paul, near the Macalester campus, where he would connect with a young student named Bob Mould.

“One day this bright blue set of eyes comes in,” Grant recalled, reminiscing about that fateful day that the two first crossed paths during an interview about the forthcoming Hüsker box set. Before there was even talk of forming a band, a gig opened up at the nearby Randolph Inn, and Grant rounded up his record store buddies Greg, Bob, and Charlie Pine to play a cover songs gig branded as Buddy and the Returnables. The chemistry between Greg, Bob, and Grant was immediately noticeable during rehearsals, and by their second show they’d worked up a handful of original songs and solidified as the trio that would soon be known as Hüsker Dü.

From there it was across the Mississippi to the Longhorn Bar, then the 7th St. Entry — where they were one of the first to christen the new space during its soft opening — and the First Avenue Mainroom, then the hardcore circuit and rock ‘n’ roll stages around the world. Hüsker Dü quickly rose from underground heroes to trailblazing post-punk icons, going from self-releasing 45s to signing with Greg Ginn of Black Flag’s SST and finally, in 1986, to securing a deal with Warner Bros. Records and becoming label mates with another Minneapolis star of their era, Prince.

Although Mould was positioned on stage as the frontman of the group, Hart contributed many of the band’s best-loved songs, and would sing from behind his kit with hair flying and bare feet stomping away on cymbals and kick drums. The band quickly broke away from being labeled solo as a hardcore band, thanks in large part to Hart’s quirky and unabashedly vulnerable storytelling; he could range from playful (“Songs about UFOs”) to tragic (“Diane”) to spiteful (“Never Talking to You Again”) to wistful (“Green Eyes”), sometimes in the same song.

During the band’s Warner Bros. era they went on a full-tilt publicity tour, including an appearance on The Late Show with Joan Rivers — which now exists on YouTube as a precious time capsule of a band that would soon come apart. After Joan Rivers holds up a copy of their final album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, for the camera, Hüsker rip through “Could You Be the One” and saunter over to the interview couch, Bob and Grant proudly shaking Joan’s hand and Grant going in for a tender hug.

“[The Joan Rivers appearance] captured the band at a moment where the ones that eat you up are beginning to nibble,” Grant reflected in our interview. “It was like the last of the great days of the band.”

By the end of ’87 the band dissolved amid messy disputes, with the group’s chief songwriters, Bob and Grant, attempting to reassemble the pieces as they composed their first solo albums. (The two would never fully bury the hatchet; the only time they would share a stage after their break-up was in 2005 at the Quest during a benefit show for Karl Mueller of Soul Asylum, when Grant joined Bob during the songs “Never Talking to You Again” and “Hardly Getting Over It.”) A song of Grant’s that rose from the ashes of that era, “Twenty-Five Forty-One,” was a poetic nod to the offices the band leased in Twin/Tone’s building on Nicollet and a party pad they enjoyed at the same address a few blocks over on Garfield, and would endure through the decades as one of the finest songs of his career.

Whereas Bob Mould’s later-career songwriting would lead him toward accessible, adrenaline-fueled punk-rock, Grant was prone to explore a more winding path, weaving complex melodies through harmonic chord progressions and crafting inquisitive lyrics that could be simultaneously vivid and opaque. From the jangling early ‘90s alt-rock of Nova Mob to 2013’s ambitious, literary two-disc opus The Argument, his songs careened through time with a creative restlessness and startling emotional honesty.

Despite being critically revered and widely regarded as an influential artist and thinker — one who befriended William S. Burroughs, recorded and performed with Patti Smith, and was the sole interviewee in a documentary film about his life, Gorman Bechard’s Every Everything — Grant could often be seen performing solo at small clubs around town, using only his electric guitar and voice to punctuate the air around his audiences. His last show at the Hook and Ladder Theater on July 1, however, would be one for the history books: unbeknownst to Grant, it was turned into a star-studded lovefest, with longtime friends like Lori Barbero, Dave Pirner, Kraig Johnson, and his Hüsker bandmate Greg Norton rallying around him as he dealt with a quickly escalating illness.

“I carried my guitar in, and it was like this sea of faces turning to me with great affection,” Grant said in our interview, shaking his head. “There’s not too many big surprises that have been successfully thrown at me, but that was definitely one.”

Some of those same friends would sadly confirm that Grant Hart had passed away on Wednesday night at the age of 56. Overnight the news overtook social media, with admirers near and far left to grapple with the idea that he is gone so soon, suddenly free to explore the limits of the sky.