Remembering Grant Hart, 1961-2017

“Grant was back in the hospital but he didn’t want me to see him sick,” says James Lindbloom, Hart’s close friend, his sometime roommate, and the owner of the local record label Roaratorio Records. “I told his wife, Brigid [McGough], ‘Overruled. I’m not taking him to prom. I don’t care what he looks like.’ So my friend Wendy and I went to bring him some books. He wanted conversation more than anything. I told him I was going to go see the Legendary Stardust Cowboy in Mankato Saturday night, and he said, ‘I want to go! Let’s do it!’ I told him, ‘Yeah, if we get you out of here in time, we’ll do it up.’

“After a while his eyelids started to get heavy and droop, so we stroked his hair and let him get some sleep. I drove home and called Brigid to let her know how the visit went, and as we were talking, she said, ‘Hold on, the hospital’s on the other line.’ Then she switched over and after a minute switched back and said, ‘He just died.’”

Grant Hart, who died at age 56 of complications from liver cancer and hepatitis C on Wednesday, September 13, will be remembered worldwide as the drummer for the punk-altering ’80s power trio Hüsker Dü. But that sentence tells you almost nothing about who he was or how he will be remembered here at home.

This is what everybody thinks they know about Grant Hart: how this teenager was hanging around the local punk scene in the late 1970s, working at Cheapo Records on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, where he’d set a PA speaker on the sidewalk and blast the Ramones. How that racket drew the attention of Bob Mould, who started coming into the store to buy records from him over the counter (and weed under it). How South St. Paul met upstate New York, added bassist Greg Norton, and formed one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.

How—after nine years, six full-length studio albums, two EPs, and one live record—addiction and ego and an obsessive rivalry between Hart and Mould killed Hüsker Dü. How they practically invented “college rock” just before it became “alternative” and a generation of musicians they inspired went on to fame and success. How Mould left Minneapolis on his own ascending musical path and Norton quit rock ’n’ roll to become a chef in Red Wing, while Hart stayed in the Twin Cities to continue with other bands and solo projects that never quite caught on the way they should have. How the Hart-Mould acrimony festered into a blood feud over the years, denying us any chance to experience their unique, tense chemistry live or on record ever again.

© Shawn Brackbill / Redux

Some of that is true. Mythology is always based in truth—we seek to explain we can’t truly know. Zeus threw lightning bolts because the Greeks didn’t get static atmospheric charge. But mythology serves another, sometimes nefarious purpose. It buttresses our biases, makes us feel included as part of something bigger than ourselves. Norse gods were axe-smashing ass-kickers because Vikings liked being axe-smashing ass-kickers.

The mythology that surrounds Hüsker Dü, and Grant Hart in particular, serves both of those purposes. We need to understand their seemingly effortless greatness. We want to know why we can’t experience it anymore. We want to confirm our feelings—positive and negative—about the people involved. But mythology doesn’t serve those it mythologizes, it serves the believers. And that’s particularly true in the case of Hart—genius, eccentric, talented, unpredictable, charming, obsessive, sometimes infuriating, always unfiltered. You can’t use mythology to explain a man who utterly refused to be mythic.

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Greg Norton was working at Melody Lane record store in West St. Paul in 1978 when he met Grant Hart. “This chubby kid walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, you got my job!’” Norton says. “I was like, who’s this guy? What are you talking about?” Hart explained he’d planned on working at the store when he turned 16. Norton immediately got him hired.

Even as a teenager, Hart talked fast and learned faster. “Grant had a razor-sharp wit. He was very quick,” Norton recalls. “He loved to read, he loved history, and when he would get into something, he’d really get into it deep.” One of those things was punk rock.

“Grant and I basically discovered punk together,” Norton recalls. “We both had a voracious appetite for it, so anything new that came out, we’d grab and listen to the same day.” The two friends went to every punk show they could, starting with Pere Ubu at the Longhorn—the 16-year-old Hart was “big and burly” enough that he never got carded.

Norton and Hart also started picking up shifts at another store their boss owned, Cheapo, and jamming together. (Grant named the band “the Electrocutes.”) When Cheapo manager and keyboard player Charlie Pine booked a show at a bar without having a band, he enlisted Hart and Norton. All they needed now was a guitarist. Hart suggested some kid from Macalester named Bob Mould, because he had a Flying V. After a few shows of mostly cover songs, Pine was out; Hart, Mould, and Norton wrote some original songs and called themselves Hüsker Dü.

“I got a tip from Chris Osgood [of Suicide Commandos] to go see Hüsker Dü at the Longhorn in the summer of 1979,” says Terry Katzman, who was the band’s original sound engineer and ran Reflex Records, the label they all started to put out Land Speed Record. “I was there when no one liked them—most people don’t understand, I had to keep telling people they were really good. They were like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

The band soon distinguished themselves locally with an intense work ethic. “We hung out and practiced all the time,” says Norton. That intensity translated into frenzied live shows at the Longhorn, Goofy’s Upper Deck, Duffy’s, and the 7th St. Entry that showcased both Hart and Mould’s songwriting and their utter inability to do anything half-assed.

“The Replacements, they didn’t care if they occasionally played shitty,” says Katzman. “That would never happen with Hüsker Dü. Never. There was never a below-the-bar standard for any of their performances.”

When he wasn’t performing or practicing, Hart was making artwork for Hüsker Dü and other bands, or hanging out at shows. Minneapolis at the time was at its most creative and vibrant, overstuffed with bands of all genres in relatively close quarters. “You’d have Hüsker Dü in the Entry and Prince in the Mainroom and it made perfect sense,” says Steve McClellan, former general manager of First Avenue. “Grant was part of the fabric, like Rifle Sport, or Prince, or the Outpatients.”

Nationally, however, Hüsker Dü’s impact was singular. On tour they redefined what punk rock could be to audiences. Here was a band that slouched in and then proceeded to peel the paint off the walls of any venue that would have them. And Hart, with his long hair, often barefoot in bellbottoms, shocked the punks who thought hardcore was a look, not a mentality.

“My favorite thing about Grant was the ways in which he totally embodied not giving a fuck about all of that trifling scene shit—shoes, hair, whatever,” says Eugene Robinson, who played shows with Hüsker Dü with his punk band Whipping Boy. “Said what he felt and seemed to feel what he said.”

Eric Davidson, the singer for the Ohio punk band New Bomb Turks, saw Hüsker Dü as a 17-year-old in Cleveland in 1985. “I doubt I have seen that manic of drumming since, and I’ve seen a crapload of manic drumming,” he recalls. “And Grant Hart was singing half the time too, just wailing with that quintessential mid-’80s Minneapolis, post-core, severely pissed/simultaneously crying trait that is found just about nowhere else. Their simple thrift-store look was, at the time, a refreshing affront to the prevailing overdone studs and mohawk of hardcore, and another relatable broke Rust Belt guy thing about them.”

“It was hard to keep up with the Hüskers—by the time an album would come, when you saw them live, they were already on to the next, newer batch of songs,” says Al Quint, publisher of Suburban Voice fanzine, the first person on the East Coast to profile the band. “They were already playing Zen Arcade stuff when touring behind Metal Circus, playing New Day Rising during the Zen Arcade tour. They were always expanding and widening their musical parameters, challenging the audience and inviting everyone along for the ride.”

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Hart, flanked by Greg Norton and Bob Mould, flaunts the Hüskers’ “simple thrift-store look.” (Press photo.)

Touring also built relationships with bands in other punk scenes. Chicago bands like Articles of Faith and Naked Raygun started swapping shows with Hüsker Dü between the two cities. Grant was living in an old church and often put bands up for the night, including Chicago’s Big Black. “His hospitality was exceptional,” says Big Black singer/guitarist and recording engineer Steve Albini.

“The thing that was different about Hüsker Dü that Grant brought to the band was an emotional clarity,” Albini says. “A lot of bands at the time were kind of opaque, like they didn’t want to be caught feeling anything. From the very beginning you could tell Hüsker Dü’s music wasn’t just railing against things, there was an element of affection, and feelings of longing, and sadness, emotions that were absent from all other punk and hardcore music of the time. And almost all of that you can attribute to Grant.”

Touring also brought Hüsker Dü to California, and to the attention of Black Flag’s Greg Ginn. “That L.A. trip changed everything,” says Katzman.

The band released three records on Ginn’s label, SST, starting with the classic Zen Arcade. (“I couldn’t even open the Reflex Records PO Box after that came out,” says Katzman.) They put out two records on Warner Brothers, making them among the first underground ’80s bands to graduate to a major label. And then, in 1987, mid-tour, Hüsker Dü disintegrated.

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Yes, the breakup was bad. “I was pissed at Grant for a long time,” says Norton. “I was pissed at Bob, too.” Norton soon put down his bass and picked up a chef’s knife. Mould left town, physically and mentally, getting clean and choosing to work with non-Minneapolis musicians. Only Hart remained, ever the mercurial artist, still joyful, still acerbic, still inspiring love in some and pissing off others—and still an addict.

Unlike booze or many other drugs, Hart’s wife Brigid observed to me, heroin comes with a lifetime brand on your forehead. In Hart’s case, junk—like his legendary band, his classic songs, his open bisexuality, and his unfiltered, unapologetic sense of self—became yet another part of a mythos he never had much interest in in the first place.

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(Photo by Daniel Corrigan, Warner Bros. Records.)

Soon after Hüsker Dü ended, Hart drummed on a project with longtime friends and fellow artists Mary Jane Mansfield and Timothy G. Piotrowski called Yanomamos, a noisy, art-damaged release recorded on a boom box. Over the next three years, he would release the solo records 2451, Intolerance, and All of My Senses, as well as forming a new band, Nova Mob, which released Admiral of the Sea and The Last Days of Pompeii.

The Grant Hart on those recordings pushed forward into the traditional pop forms that marked the last days of the Dü, but his melodic sensibility didn’t jibe with the demands of the music industry at the time. The consensus among Hart’s friends and peers is that he was a pure artist, lacking the business sensibility that Mould brought to Hüsker Dü, and that held him back. Those inventing “alternative” were looking for a combination of raw honesty and pop marketability. Hart only delivered half that equation.

Those carefully crafted recordings are more wonderfully realized than 95 percent of what Hart inspired. As Mike Wisti, the producer of Hart’s later recordings, puts it, “There are no throwaway Grant Hart songs.” It’s pop with the depth of an art film. Yet, at the same time, the music—and maybe the musician—was too unpredictable to sell.

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By the mid-’90s, Hart was by most accounts junk-free, though his reputation for heroin use still lingered. Meanwhile, the “alternative revolution” in rock was crumbling from the foundation up. Record labels were snatching up anyone with a guitar who’d heard the term “grunge” and got themselves an appropriate makeover, while those who’d established themselves before (Mould included) were hanging in there. The period shortsightedly described by rock critic Gina Arnold as a “win” for the punk underground was definitely over.

If Hart noticed any of this, his creative output didn’t reflect it. He disbanded Nova Mob after a 1994 tour and invested himself heavily in visual art and literature, spending time with Beat writer Charles Plymell. In 1998 he traveled to the Cherry Valley Arts Festival, a gathering of artists and writers in New York.

“Cherry Valley has a long literary tradition,” says Ben Schafer, an executive editor at Da Capo Press. “Allen Ginsberg most famously had his farm there, his away-from-NYC retreat. Allen had died the year before and I was staying on the farm and Grant was there for the festival. We talked a lot and hit it off. Late in the weekend, he got on stage and played, and I thought, ‘He’s playing a lot of Hüsker Dü songs.’ He hadn’t even told me he was Grant Hart.”

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Photo by Shawn Brackbill / REDUX

Musically, Hart released Ecce Homo, a live album, in 1995, and Good News for Modern Man in 1999, on the sort of labels (World Service and Pachyderm, respectively) that weren’t going to position him for stardom. 

When Davidson saw him solo, years after that Cleveland Hüsker Dü show, “he was on this rent tour, for Good News for Modern Man, which no one seemed to know about and was absolutely amazing—17-year old me was freaking out inside, and 32-year old me was fucking lucky to see him that night, ’cause I never saw him again.”

To those on the outside looking in, Hart was still the former drummer of Hüsker Dü and a current eccentric with a lot of things to say, many of which people didn’t want to hear. This was of course as inaccurate as any aspect of the myth, which is to say that it missed the point completely.

Was Hart “weird”? Sure. Biting and snarky? Of course. Occasionally bitter? Hell yes. But friends will tell you that any edge to him was not the hallmark of a fragile ego, not a rock star’s desperate cry for validation of his past success. His creative process was always committed to moving forward, never backward. Hart sought out new and interesting things, and new and interesting people. When those new things and those new people weren’t so interesting, he couldn’t pretend they didn’t bore him.

“I’ll miss Grant Hart for all the same reasons I thought he was an absolute cock the first time I met him,” says Patrick Costello, bassist for Dillinger Four and the Arrivals. “Dude was blunt and hyper-critical, but smart, insightful, and armed with grade-A dark, dry humor.”

He was also kind and engaging and never forgot anyone he liked talking to: He once walked up to my wife at Kinko’s and started talking to her as if they’d spoken the day before, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. Unfortunately, the myth that had developed around him had an unforgiving escape trajectory.

“This is a dumb and provincial town, so we loved Grant,” says Chris Besinger, the singer for recently disbanded local art-rockers STNNNG. “But because this is a dumb and provincial town we never let him forget we only remembered Hüsker Dü.”

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Always enigmatic, never unapproachable: Hart onstage in Brussels, 2011. (Photo by Bjorn Weynants.)

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Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hart remained a presence around the cities he loved, always looking for new projects. Between 2000 and his death, he played tons of shows. He partnered on installations with artist and filmmaker Chris Larson; they met when Hart was teaching Larson’s 5-year-old kid skateboard tricks in front of the Foxfire Coffee Lounge in downtown Minneapolis. He even reunited with Mould at a benefit concert for Soul Asylum’s Karl Mueller.

He was frequently spotted at shows, from the newest local bands to his oldest friends on tour. “I don’t think he missed one gig I played in his town if he wasn’t on tour—he was always there for me,” says Mike Watt, who was Hart’s SST labelmate. And because he kept going to shows, Hart was able to connect with much younger musicians, giving them an opportunity to know him outside of his role in Hüsker Dü.

“Grant presented this masculine sensitivity—he found a way to make aggressively masculine music that is utterly fragile as well,” says Kyle Werstein, singer and guitarist for Fury Things. “The last two times I saw him, he played material from across his catalog, and he played it all with such immediacy, he painted a picture of a vulnerable person just navigating the world with the cards he’s been dealt.”

Maybe it was Hart’s ubiquity that prevented his shows from becoming the crowded “must see” events that many of his contemporaries’ rare public appearances turn into. But his live performances were just as engaging and mercurial as the man himself, and he delivered, no matter what size the crowd. Then the next day, he’d be back to recording or going to another show, talking to people, seeking inspiration, always enigmatic, never unapproachable. As Gerard Boissy, the guitarist for Rifle Sport, puts it, “Prince was from here, but Grant was of here.”

Hart released only two albums in his last 18 years—Hot Wax (2009) and The Argument (2013)—because he was committed to getting the recordings exactly the way he wanted them. “After the whirlwind process of Hüsker Dü, where everything was first or second take, he wasn’t going to be rushed,” says producer Mike Wisti. “His process with me was very relaxed, sometimes with a lot of digressions. Recording Grant was like My Dinner With Andre, except they didn’t go to the basement to lay down tracks.”

The past decade was tumultuous for Hart. Both of his parents died, and in 2011 a fire consumed his childhood home and his beloved Gibson ES-25 guitar. Lindbloom took him in, and they were roommates for several years. “Once while we did dishes together he said, ‘You can be Felix and I’ll be Oscar.’”

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Hart and artist Chris Larson, a frequent collaborator, outside the Entry in 2016. (Photo courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society.)

Hart also began a relationship with McGough, who he’d been friends with since she was Promotions and Marketing Director at REV105 in the early 1990s. The two married this July, after he asked her mother for her hand. “He was old-fashioned in that way,” McGough says.

When Hart was diagnosed with liver cancer in the late summer of 2016, he put off sharing the news with friends and family. As Lori Barbero, Hart’s friend and drummer for Babes in Toyland, puts it, “He was the kind of guy who would bitch about a hangnail but he’d never, ever admit to you that he was sick.” But once he was ready to talk about it, his characteristic black humor kicked in. “One night, he said to me, ‘Well, my record sales are going to go up,’” Wisti recalls.

After this news, Hart continued moving forward in the face of finality. He and his former bandmates finally agreed on a deal with the Chicago reissue label Numero Group to release Savage Young Dü, a box set of material from Hüsker Dü’s pre-SST days. And Hart continued recording music. He, Mansfield, and Piotrowski completed the first Yanomamos album since that boom box recording back in 1989, and he’d been working with Wisti on Pop Manifestos, a concept album based on Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. (In accordance with Hart’s wishes, both projects will be released posthumously.)

“He said, ‘I’ve gotta finish the record, and I want to do another record because I don’t want my last record to be about the Unabomber,’” McGough recalls.

On July 1, Barbero arranged a surprise tribute at the Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge. Hart expected to play a show with Wisti’s band the Rank Strangers; instead he was joined onstage by a horde of friends that included Barbero, Dave Pirner, and Norton’s band, Porcupine.

“It was a great celebration of his music,” says Norton. “I think everyone at that point was hoping that we still had another year or two years or who knows how long with Grant.”

It was Barbero who stepped up to break the news publicly after Hart’s death. “I said to Brigid, ‘What can I do? Do you want me to contact people?’ I wanted to make sure I contacted [those closest to him] so they didn’t have to read it on social media. There’s no grace period anymore, no respect for people who might be really close to a person, and I can’t stand it.”

“As an only child, I get to pick my brother,” says Lindbloom. “And in Grant, I had him.”

“He would do anything for me, and that’s how I felt about him,” McGough says. “He was the best man I’ve ever known.”

Hart was a father, a grandfather, a husband, a partner to cats named Bozo and Snowball. A gearhead, an artist, a walking encyclopedia. He had explored the universe and been through hell, yet he remained that kid Norton met in 1978, obsessed with whatever struck his sense of wonder, with a quick wit and a wicked sense of humor.

“Grant and I used to have one-liner offs, it’s what we did,” Barbero says. “I was laying in bed after he died when Tim [Piotrowski] texted me, telling me that they were playing Grant songs on the Current. I thought about making a joke like, ‘Sure, Tim, I’ll “Turn On the News”’ but didn’t. Then I went into the kitchen and turned on the radio. The very first words I heard, literally the first words out of the radio, were Grant singing, ‘Turn On the News.’ I was bawling, then I was laughing, then I was snot bubbles. I said out loud, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? That’s really funny, Grant.’”

Photo credits
1. Shawn Brackbill/REDUX
2. Press Photo
3. Daniel Corrigan, Warner Bros. Records
4. Shawn Brackbill/REDUX
5. Bjorn Weynants
6. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
7. Shawn Brackbill/REDUX