Lighting M-80s with Big Black, feeding camembert to cats: Friends share favorite Grant Hart stories

In the mid-90s I was a filthy, socially awkward, chronically depressed punk rock kid working at First Avenue and living in a shitty St. Paul apartment with no functioning shower. I was leaning against the railing upstairs in the Mainroom (you know the one) with one of my co-workers when Grant walked up to me, looked me in the eye, said, “I smell boy,” then walked away.

I honestly don’t know if he was complaining or paying me a compliment.

Over the next few years, I’d occasionally drive Grant home to South St. Paul. I hung out with him enough to call him a friend, not enough to call him a dear friend. We saw each other at shows or in my car, not dinner parties. Still, I had great conversations with him, strong differences of opinion, and occasional arguments about bits of trivia in which I’d inevitably be proven wrong.

I saw him play a bunch of shows: here, elsewhere (when I lived elsewhere), and here again. Now I regret the ones I missed because I was too busy experiencing that slow decay of enthusiasm and wonder that is adulting instead of pursuing every crazy idea that popped in my head the way Grant would have.

In writing about Grant, I sought out as many people as possible. Some were his best friends, some had only met him a couple times. Some were too raw with grief to talk, some were impossible to reach on short notice. Those who did talk helped me know him so much better than I already did. Here’s a small, incomplete handful of the stories I didn’t have room to share.

John Justen (owner, Eclipse Music, West St. Paul)

At the store, my father and I had endless conversations with Grant about vintage Studebaker repair, architectural restoration, art, the garbage pile that the music industry often is, and so much more.
We would work together on his mercilessly worn and battered favorite Gibson ES-25 long past the point where it was logical or prudent to do so. To Grant, that didn’t matter. It was simply his guitar, in a connected-at-the-soul way that went far beyond the feelings I’ve ever had for my favorite instruments.

After his house burned, someone asked about losing that guitar in an interview. He said:

“[That was] the guitar I thought I was going to play for the rest of my life. I came home from tour and it was the first tour I left this guitar home… It was really prophetic; it’s almost like I betrayed the guitar by disappearing and leaving home with a different guitar.”

The “different guitar” was the guitar I sold him when we couldn’t make the ES-25 work. After the fire, I asked him about it and he changed the subject. The next time someone tries to sell you on crazy/insensitive/out of control/tragic figure Grant, feel free to throw that story back in their face. He never considered himself tragic, and he never was. In a moment of crisis, he chose to spare me from the sadness of knowing he lost that guitar, and that in some very honest metaphysical Grant way, the new guitar I sold him was to blame.

Mark Daley (local musician)

Grant and I had some really great conversations about music that really affected the way I saw a lot of music and culture. Once, I was complaining to Grant about some band being “rock stars,” in a derisive way. Grant thought a long moment on my slight and said, “The minute you put your guitar in the case and walk out of your bedroom, you’ve already crossed the greatest Rubicon you’re going to cross.” Complaining about the degree and the manner in which someone has decided to share their creation was just splitting hairs.

Randy Hawkins (local tour manager and sound engineer)

I was on tour with Atmosphere and we ran into Grant in the airport in Amsterdam. His phone was dead, so he couldn’t show his e-ticket to get on the plane. We loaned him the only charger we had that wasn’t being used, and got him on the plane. He somehow switched seats to sit next to Sean [Daley, aka Slug] the whole flight. It was amazing to watch those two interact. Then he and I went through customs together, and they went through all his bags while I was doing paperwork. He had the greatest shit I’ve ever seen in his bags. Like, wood? Pieces of wood! And some bottles of stuff I’d never seen before. I was like “Grant, where the fuck do you get this stuff?”

Christy Costello (musician, Butchers Union)

I got into Hüsker Dü and Grant Hart in my high school days. The Nova Mob album Last Days of Pompeii was always on in my car as delivered pizza to all the lakes around my small Iron Range city. Long before I met him, when I was 16 and in the National Honors Society, we did a talent show for my high school’s fall pep rally. I played an acoustic guitar and sang Grant’s song “The Main.” It read to me as someone poetically and beautifully distraught. I didn’t realize that I’d just played a song to my entire high school about heavy drug use.

Molly Penny (Music Director, KOWZ and KRUE)

When Grant opened for Patti Smith in 2004, he got some friends and me in on the guest list. After the show, he came to our table and offered for us to come backstage and meet Patti. I was 7 months pregnant and starving for a cheeseburger, so I declined. He looked at me like I was crazy. In retrospect, I was. I was a dumb, young kid, who did not realize how cool it was that I could call Grant a friend.

James Lindbloom (Hart’s roommate and owner of Roaratorio Records)

Grant loved cats. He’d never had full time access to a computer or the internet before moving in with me, so the world of LOLcats was new to him. Catsthatlooklikehitler.com particularly tickled him.

At one point, I was listening to the Kinks really obsessively. Finally Grant got sick of it. He said to me, “You gotta cool it. I am really trying to write songs and all I can hear is Ray Davies in my head.”

About a week later, he was sitting on the couch with Bozo and Snowball [his cats] on either side of them, scratching their bellies, and he started singing, to the tune of “Village Green Preservation Society”: “We are the Daddy Please Scratch My Belly Society/ God save tuna steak in all its tasty varieties!”

Taylor Randolph (local musician)

In 2005 or so my first job out of college was as a cashier at the St Paul Whole Foods. One of the best parts of that job was getting to talk to Grant Hart, who would come in regularly to get special cheeses for his cat. He’d never buy anything else, just four or five fancy cheeses. Every time he came to my line, we’d gab on about cats and cheese and occasionally music while the other, fancier customers would get all in a tiff waiting for this weird looking dude that half the staff seemed to idolize.

After about a year working there, I got fired for accidentally losing a customer’s check. My coworkers took me out to blow off steam. We ran into Grant in the Clown Lounge and I told him what happened. He was the only one angrier than I was. He told me he was going to get me my job back.

The next day he went in to the store demanding to speak with the manager about how they wrongfully fired that kid at the customer service desk. One of my coworkers who had been at the Turf with us redirected him to the customer complaint box. I wish I had that comment card, I bet it was gold.

This story is totally worth losing that stupid job. Grant, I hope you are somewhere feeding Camembert to a cat right now.

Steve Albini (Shellac, Big Black, recording engineer)

In the spring of 1983, Big Black was traveling from Chicago to play the 7th St Entry. Grant was living in a giant fucking church with a loose cohort of friends, bandmates, bandmates’ friends, friends’ bandmates, friends’ friends, and even more tenuous hangers-on, and he offered Big Black a spot for the night.

After dropping our luggage at the church, everybody piled into a couple of cars and headed to the Entry. Grant came with us in Jeff’s [Pezzati, Big Black bassist] mom’s station wagon. In those days Big Black liked to begin its sets with a string of firecrackers to get the audience’s attention, and tucked under the front seat we had a paper bag full of both regular firecrackers and a couple of the big illicit M-80s we sometimes used for variety. “What’s this?” asked Grant, holding the bag he had just discovered up over his head. “The opening act,” I said. Grant poked around in the bag, found an M-80, lit it off his cigarette and tossed it into traffic behind the car. The explosion delighted him, and he quickly discharged another. Then another. Then another.

In short order, a sedan roared up alongside the station wagon, a mustachioed guy in his 30s, red and shaking with rage inside. Through his open window, the angry guy shouted at Grant, “One more of those and you’re dead, motherfucker!”

Grant’s reaction was priceless. “Just ran out!” He shouted, smiling, and made a palms-up gesture like, “Nothing I can do about it.”

So that’s Grant to me. In the moment, every moment, wrapped in the warmth of human company, out for experiences and utterly unconcerned with propriety, pretense, or expectation. He was just rolling on, being himself, and you could deal with it or not, no matter to him.

Matt Helgeson (former bassist, Maps Of Norway and Unbelievable Jolly Machine)

My first real band, Unbelievable Jolly Machine, was asked to play this benefit Al Grande from Busiest Bankruptcy Lawyers put on called “Love Stinks.” I believe it was a benefit for his own alimony. You had to play three anti-love songs. One of the songs we picked was “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely.” There were a ridiculous number of bands on the bill and we had no idea that Grant was going to be playing too.

I saw him at the bar and I said to the other guys, “Man, it feels weird to do this song in front of him. I’m going to ask him if he wants to do it with us.” I don’t think I’d ever met him, but I walked up to him, really sheepish, and said, “Hey, man, we’re doing this song, and I wondered, would you maybe possibly agree to come up and sing it with us?”

He said, “Yeah, that’s cool man, no problem, let’s do it!” Then he hopped up there. He had long hair at the time, and was wearing sort of bell bottoms jeans, and barefoot, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is the Grant Hart I’ve always imagined” – you know, that sort of punk/hippie child.

There’s a bridge in the song that’s kind of sluggish, so we just cut it out, and we were standing there like, “Oh shit, we messed up Grant Hart’s song.” The first thing he said was, “Hey guys, I don’t do the bridge anymore, so just cut that out.”

There I was, probably 22, looking at the back of Grant Hart playing a Husker Du song in front of a packed club. I can’t even imagine any other guy of that importance doing something like that.

Chris Besinger (former STNNNG vocalist)

Grant was around, he was a fixture, he took part, he was one of us, whatever the fuck that was.