‘A computer game called Search’: The cryptic narrative of Hüsker Dü‘s ‘Zen Arcade’
07:05 am


Hüsker Dü

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Hüsker Dü‘s great Zen Arcade. (Don’t count on a remastered version appearing anytime soon.) In case anyone else remains as baffled as I am by the story the concept album tells, here are a few hints singer and guitarist Bob Mould has dropped over the years.

Craig Lee, the late guitarist for The Bags and Catholic Discipline, profiled Hüsker Dü in the Los Angeles Times on the eve of a December 1984 Club Lingerie show. Lee’s article includes this contemporary summary of the Zen Arcade narrative:

The LP’s songs tell the story of a farm boy who runs away, wonders whether to join the army or a cult, becomes a musician and finally winds up at a computer company before waking up and realizing that it was all a dream. The narrative may not be that explicit, but Mould wanted the record “to leave things up to people’s imaginations instead of making concrete definitions. We didn’t want it to be a rock opera.”

A cult, sure: that must be “Hare Krsna.” The army, OK: “Newest Industry.” It was all a dream: “Dreams Reoccuring,” “Reoccuring Dreams.” Let’s see if Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Albums of the Eighties” entry (#33) adds any detail:

According to Mould, Zen Arcade is about a young computer hack from a broken home who dreams about killing himself after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose. Instead, he lands in a mental hospital where he meets the head of a computer company who hires him to design video games. “Then he wakes up and goes to school,” Mould said. “The only thing we never agreed on was the name of the video game. We thought it was Search.”

Girlfriend dies of drug overdose, check: “Pink Turns to Blue.” Mental hospital: could be “Whatever.” Video game, ah. . . Here’s what I take to be Mould’s definitive statement about the Zen Arcade concept, from his memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, co-authored by Michael Azerrad:

Zen Arcade started like all albums do: a few songs here, a few general ideas there. But at some point we realized that it could be so much more and ambition kicked in. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s write a semiautobiographical opera; let’s amalgamate the fact that Greg’s parents are divorced, Grant’s situation is this, and Bob’s conundrum is that, and weave it all together.” There wasn’t a conscious effort to construct a composite character, but that seems to be the end result of the writing for Zen Arcade.

The early ‘80s marked the beginning of video game culture, and we used that as the jumping-off point for the album’s loose plot: a bright kid leaves his broken home and heads to Silicon Valley to design a computer game called “Search.” We started writing songs and loosely creating characters: the kid who designed the video game, his girlfriend, Pinkie, his cigar-smoking boss. It built from late 1982 through most of 1983. Once we saw what was happening with the narrative, the flow of the album became clear, and it became easier to put things in order.

[...] Zen Arcade is regarded as this momentous work that requires deep explanation. The fact was, we were rehearsing and touring nonstop, not spending a lot of time thinking about it. We were doing it. We were living it. It was a visceral statement. It felt right.

It’s a very good record, but it’s the sum total of the experience, of that moment, that grabbed people. Now I hesitate to say this, but here goes: Zen Arcade means a whole lot more to others than it does to me. I began to outgrow and move beyond those feelings almost at the moment I documented them, but the fact that they resonate so deeply with my audience, the critics, and generations of fellow musicians—there is the reward.

After the jump, raw footage of the Hüskers ripping through three Mould songs from side one of ‘Zen Arcade’ at Philadelphia’s Love Hall in 1983

Posted by Oliver Hall | Leave a comment
Hüsker Dü crank out ferocious ‘Pink Turns to Blue’ and ‘Eight Miles High’ on French TV, 1985
09:59 am


Hüsker Dü

SST tour
Hüskers, UCLA, 1985, Ackerman Ballroom
Here’s a French TV news report from 1985 about this American punk band Hüsker Dü. The YouTube filename indicates October 1985, which I’m sure is correct, but the footage is from earlier in the year, I think. According to the video this was shot at “UCLA, Westwood”—research indicates that the Hüskers hit UCLA in March, as part of “The Tour,” a label showcase tour that SST put together that included The Minutemen and The Meat Puppets as well, to hit a few California locales. So despite the French voiceover, those punkers and freaks outside the venue in the footage are probably not French, they’re probably from SoCal. Can anyone identify the building looming behind them in the interview portion? UCLA campus, right?

According to reports (1, 2) that UCLA show was marred by an incident in which someone in the crowd dinged Grant Hart with a beer bottle.

Anyway, enjoy la musique punk du Midwest, complete with Bob’s 1975 Ibanez Flying V and incontrovertible evidence that without Grant Hart, there’s no Dave Grohl.

Thank you Aaron Civil War!

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Can we talk? Do you remember Hüsker Dü‘s 1987 appearance on ‘The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers’
07:35 am


Joan Rivers
Hüsker Dü

Hüsker Dü
“Joan versus Johnny” was kind of the 1980s version of the Conan-Leno battle of 2010. For several years Joan Rivers had been the “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show—her brassy style decidedly struck a chord, and her catchphrase “Can we talk?” became an ‘80s “thing,” just like breakdancing or Robin Leach. As Carson’s inevitable retirement neared, a memo circulated within NBC listing potential successors, and Rivers’ name was pointedly not on it. So she jumped to her own show on Fox in 1986, and the wounded Johnny never spoke to her again. In retrospect, Johnny doesn’t come off looking too good, and also the sexism of the late-night talk show game is particularly evident—Rivers was basically penalized for being an outspoken woman a little before her time. Although, come to think of it, Chelsea Handler notwithstanding, there still aren’t a lot of women doing late-night talk.

Meanwhile, after several groundbreaking and powerful albums, the great Minnesota band Hüsker Dü (Danish for “do you remember?”) dominated the indie rock world, and then they made a similarly calculated jump of their own—to Warner Bros., a “major label.” Hüsker Dü‘s decision to leave SST sent shockwaves among indie diehards, many of whom had themselves toiled for years in the ranks of the hardcore/punk underground. The idea of an independent band moving to a major label was, to many, unthinkable before that point—this was a precursor to the Geffen/DGC signings of bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana just a few years later. Hüsker Dü‘s decision didn’t really work out that well—they put out Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories, fine albums both, for Warner until longstanding tensions led to the band’s breakup in 1987.
Could You Be the One?
So even if nobody knew it, in this video, dated April 27, 1987, we have two things that were about to come to an end: Hüsker Dü and The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.

It’s kind of cool that the stage set is done up in the style of the Warehouse: Songs and Stories album cover, which Hüsker Dü was supporting at the time. The two songs they played are “Could You Be the One?” and “She’s a Woman (And Now He is a Man).” As they approach the desk for the interview, cheeky Grant Hart indulges in an extended embrace of Rivers. The interview is as stiff as can be, but Rivers, in her awkward, matronly way, actually raises some points a hell of a lot of indie rock fans were wondering about: What’s with the major label signing? Are you watering down your sound? The Hüskers’ answers have the whiff of politics to them, which under the circumstances is only understandable.

It’s striking to witness the promotional clout of Warner—there wasn’t any way in hell Hüsker Dü was nabbing such a big national late-night talk show before that—as well as the oddity of Hüsker Dü‘s stately, jarring harmonics in such a corporate setting.

I’m glad that both Grant and Bob Mould each got a crack at singing lead vocal.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Truly Post-Punk: Suzanne Somers meets Wire on ‘The Late Show,’ 1987

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
WTF? Robert Palmer covers Hüsker Dü then Sonic Youth covers Robert Palmer
02:08 pm


Sonic Youth
Hüsker Dü
Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer, two-time Grammy Award-winning love addict caller-outer, can be heard briefly and inexplicably covering Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising” in the odd piece of Internet ephemera below. It goes by kind of quickly, and by midway through the clip Palmer’s band has morphed the tune into something else entirely, but it’s worth a listen if only because it’s so weird.

After giving myself a quick refresher course on Palmer’s career, because, frankly, I never really paid much attention to it, I could find no mention of any connection whatsoever between the two seemingly polar opposite musical endeavors.

If the guy who posted this thing is to be believed, it’s from a Palmer performance at San Diego State University in the spring of 1987.  Keep in mind that Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising” shows up brutally and gloriously kicking ass as the first track on the absolutely indispensable post-punk album of the same name released in January of 1985, the exact year that Palmer would release Riptide featuring the unfortunate classic, “Addicted to Love.” 

So I got to thinking.  Maybe Palmer’s next record, you know, the one he released after Riptide (whatever that was called)? Maybe that record would show a little change in Robert’s musical trajectory.  I knew it was unlikely, but, hell, if he was listening to Hüsker Dü, perhaps Palmer went a little punk? There was only one way to find out.

I was even willing to overlook the fact that “Simply Irresistible” showed up on the next release, Heavy Nova, in 1988.  Hey, everybody’s gotta sell records, right?  But, alas, any thought I might have entertained about Palmer veering even ever-so-slightly towards a more raw recorded sound quickly vanished. Heavy Nova is more terrible than I could have possibly imagined.  It’s just a bunch of islandy-sounding tunes with awful, smooth-jazz influenced bass lines flatulently slappity-slapping all over the place.  Shudder. 

There is proof, however, that at least one legendary noise band was listening to Robert Palmer at the time, as my wife reminded me while I was writing this piece.  Do yourself a favor and check out Kim Gordon performing a karaoke version of “Addicted to Love,” a track that appears on 1988’s The Whitey Album. The record was the result of a Material Girl-themed side project in which Sonic Youth became Ciccone Youth (referencing Madonna’s maiden name), threw in punk bass pioneer Mike Watt for a tune and then became Sonic Youth again. In the video, Gordon dances with a guitar in front of war footage while moaning off-key, droning snarls giving Palmer’s hit a sinister twist.

Posted by Jason Schafer | Leave a comment
Punky Bear: Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould was a part of DC’s bear scene
07:08 am


Hüsker Dü
Bob Mould

While I had known for a while that the Hüsker Dü front-man was gay, I didn’t know Bob Mould was actually so open about being in the bear (as in hairy, and/or big gay dude) scene.

From Washington City Paper:

For others, like the well-known post-punk singer Bob Mould, who was a mainstay of D.C.’s bear scene in the mid-2000s, the subculture is an entrée for misfits into mainstream gay life. In his 2011 memoir See a Little Light, Mould describes discovering Dupont’s DIK Bar: “It reminded me of my punk rock days: guys in flannel shirts, T-shirts, and jeans. There wasn’t a lot of pretense, sarcasm, or campy behavior…I enjoyed the company of guys who were comfortable with their masculinity. At DIK Bar I didn’t feel like I had to do anything to fit in except be myself. I didn’t have to try to look or act like a bear because I already was one.”

What’s more surprising to me about the article is that the general taxonomy of bear subculture is so diverse (chubs, cubs, chasers, twinks, leather daddies, otters… otters?). Well, that, and the fact that there’s any culture at all in boring Washington, DC (Buuuuuuurrrrrnnn!)

Below, Hüsker Dü take a fantastic rip through The Byrd’s “Eight Miles High” at the Pink Pop Festival, Netherlands, 1987:

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment