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Now and Zen: The greatest album of them all, Hüsker Dü’s ‘Zen Arcade,’ turns 30

This piece was originally posted at Patrick Smith’s website AskThePilot.com and is republished with permission. His new book Cockpit Confidential is available now.

I REMEMBER THE DAY I bought it. Newbury Comics — the one on Newbury Street — on a midweek afternoon, sunny and hot. I was eighteen years-old.

We knew there was an album coming coming out, but we weren’t sure when exactly it would hit the racks. In these pre-Internet times, news of such things was always unclear and came sporadically, delivered by college radio or gleaned through your network of friends. Sometimes it was a paper flyer glued to a mailbox or tacked to a record shop bulletin board. Nobody was a bigger Hüsker Dü fan than I was, but this latest album, due in the stores at any moment — I didn’t even know the title.

Suddenly there it was, on a rack up front. It was called Zen Arcade, whatever that heck that meant. I picked it up and, hey, what’s this, it’s a double album! As a teenage punk rocker weaned on Black Flag and Minor Threat, with a rather one-dimensional appreciation for music, the very weight of the thing, together with the heady title and the washed-over, almost Impressionist cover art was intimidating. It seemed so arty and grown-up. It also made me curious. What was this strange record?

What it was, and what it remains thirty years later, is the greatest indie-rock album of all-time; if not, in my extraordinarily biased opinion, the greatest album of all time, period.

Hüsker Dü were a threesome from Minneapolis. Guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart sang and wrote the songs. Greg Norton played bass guitar and chipped in on vocals. Before its stormy demise in late 1987, the band would release six full-length albums, two EPs, and a catalog of singles and extras. But the pinnacle of all that output was Zen Arcade, first delivered to stores in July, 1984, by California-based SST records.

“The most important and relevant double album to be released since the Beatles’ White Album,” bragged SST’s own press release. There was some confidence for you, to say the least, when you consider the world of underground music in 1984. This was not only a band, but an entire domain that existed far below the mainstream waterline. Then as now, the idea of comparing a little-known indie band to the Beatles seemed at best pretentious and at worst totally absurd. But was it?

Zen Arcade is best savored not as a CD — and for heaven’s sake not as a download — but in the old, cardboard-and-vinyl package. Each of its sides is a distinct chapter with its own temperature and architecture. Twenty-three songs is a lot of music, but this is one the rare two-record sets that isn’t bogged down by its own overreaching or conceit. The scourge of most double LPs, back when there was such a thing, is they went on for too long — padded with live cuts, covers, and extras (heck even London Calling has its throw-aways. “Clampdown” anybody?). There’s no filler in Zen Arcade. Each and every song, from the shortest (44 seconds) to the longest (14 minutes), belongs exactly in its place. *

Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould. (SST promo picture)

On side one, no doubt, where it all gets going with the snap and kick of Bob Mould’s “Something I Learned Today,” eventually winding down with “Hare Krsna,” a booming, tambourine-backed instrumental. The first time I heard this song, sizzling over the stereo in a Boston area record shop not long after the album’s release, I remember the young clerk furrowing his brow, looking up toward the speakers and saying, “Somebody needs to write a dissertation about this song.” I really don’t care if Bob Mould was plagiarizing a Bo Diddley riff; “Hare Krsna” is a three-and-a-half minute cyclone that still gives me the chills.

The seven opening cuts alone are worthy of any landmark LP. But there are sixteen more to go. This is the ultimate workhorse album from the ultimate workhorse band, one so rich with sonic nooks and crannies that an in-depth listen leaves you not only battling tinnitus, but tired. So many changes from fast to slow, hard to soft, love to hate, all in perfect working sequence. Each side-break is a perfectly placed respite. Even more than, say, the Clash’s Sandinista!, Zen Arcade sets the mark for the most brilliantly arranged opus of them all.

You’ll find a gamut of effects: acoustic guitar, chairs being thrown, waves breaking, whispers and chants. There’s even the breezy piano of “Monday Will Never be the Same.” (If Ken Burns ever directs a documentary about the history of alt-rock, the tinkling of “Monday” needs to be its backing theme.) Such eclectics are brave, maybe, for what was supposedly a punk album, but they never become maudlin or self-indulgent. If you think today’s co-opted rockers are clever with the tempo card, shifting from tough to tender, check out Grant Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again,” a sing-along from side one done entirely in 12-string acoustic. “Heartfelt” is the word that jumps to mind, but it’s not the syrupy, melodramatic strum you’d hear nowadays. The song is biting and sharp — an attack. Ditto for “Standing By the Sea,” with Hart’s cathartic bellows set against bassist Greg Norton’s eerie thrum and the soothe of a crashing surf.

Back in ’84, the rock critic Robert Christgau chose Hart’s “Turn On the News,” from side four, as his “song of the year.” Christgau said many flattering things about Hüsker Dü, but that one was the gimmie pick, like saying the Concorde is your favorite airplane. It’s an easy song to like, but an even easier one to outgrow. If the album has a best song, it’s probably Bob Mould’s neo-pscychedelic “Chartered Trips,” the fourth cut off side one. (“Trips” is almost Mould’s single greatest work, up there with “Real World,” “Gravity,” and “I Apologize,” topped only by his spectacular rendition of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” released as a single just prior to Zen Arcade.)

Hart, Norton and Mould in 1985. (Boston Rock magazine)

Runner-up would be Hart’s “Pink Turns to Blue,” from side three. Officially the credits for this one list both Mould and Hart, but really this is Grant’s piece. He took all the hook and melody of his earlier masterpiece, “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” and sandblasted it into a haunting anthem of love, drugs, and death. The song is simply gorgeous — and a little bit terrifying. Score it ahead of “Chartered Trips” if you want. I’m not going to argue.

“Pink Turns to Blue” follows “One Step at a Time,” a brief piano time-out that, as much as anything else, allows the listener to catch his or her breath. The pregnant pause between the last note of “One Step” and the opening chord of “Pink” is like those one or two seconds between a lightning bolt and a thunderclap, and is one of the record’s most powerful moments. It reminds me of the similarly unforgettable transition into “Sweet Jane” on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded album.

Before going further, I’m aware how this favorite songs thing can turn tedious pretty quickly. Grant Hart himself gives us a disclaimer: “People will always embrace different songs for different reasons,” he says. “A song that might seem terrible filler, serving only to move the story along, will be someone’s favorite on the album. Bob and I were both responsible for those kind of songs.” Of my beloved “Hare Krsna” Grant claims that he was merely “furthering the story without adding much musically.” He feels similarly about some of Mould’s louder and more “hardcore” material. “By embracing likeable formats,” he says, “we avoided criticism, like a bad Mother’s Day card.”

I don’t think he’s being fair to himself, but hey there’s no accounting for taste.

Concert flyer, Boston, 1984. (Author’s Collection)

With Grant’s feelings duly noted, not all of the album is easy to like and depending on your ear and level of patience, might not reveal itself for some time. For me it was twenty years before the first four songs from side two (Mould at his most furious) finally clicked. They’d always been so noisy and formless. Suddenly they weren’t. This was partly a context thing, maybe: the album, like wine, getting better not despite its age, but because of it. It took the general sh*ttiness of music in the 21st century to underscore the greatness of cuts like “Pride” and “The Biggest Lie” — mere footnotes in 1984. They’re awesome songs, at once explosive and subtle, but buried amidst so much other fantastic music that even the band’s most devoted fans tended to skip them over.

Similarly it was decades before I learned to appreciate “Broken Home, Broken Heart” the second song on the album, for the gem that it is, tucked in anonymously between “Something I Learned Today” and Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again.” And that a supposed punk rock album could move from the fury of “Broken Home” to the acoustic “Never Talking” without so much as a flinch, pretty much says it all.

“The closest hardcore [punk] will ever get to an opera,” wrote David Fricke of Rolling Stone.

While the blending of power/pop extremes was nothing the Velvet Underground, or even the Beatles hadn’t done years earlier, the Hüskers pulled it off in a way that was never gimmicky (not until their lazy cover of “Love is All Around,” the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme, in 1986), and did so on such terrain –- the American hardcore punk scene –- where nobody expected it or even believed it possible. Mould and Hart would, in a way, finish the job Reed and the others tinkered with two decades earlier, compounding their sound with equally hefty injections of hippie love and hard rock thunder.

This is the album Nirvana and Pearl Jam only wish they could have made: intelligent, clamorous, and hashing out more torment and passion in four sides than all the grungers and headbangers since. All without a hint of heavy metal pretension: to think anyone could concoct a fourteen-minute bombast of guitar leads and layered feedback — “Reoccurring Dreams,” side four — and have it not come out self-consciously. And when the 40 second whine at the end of “Dreams” is at last pinched off, the album trembling to a close in a congealed, numbing squeal, the silence that follows is palpable. Only then, as your senses regain their composure, is it apparent that your notions of “punk rock” are changed forever.

Maybe we saw this coming? Even at breakneck velocity there always was something ineffably refined and just, well, different about Hüsker Dü. If pressed to explain, one might break out 1982′s Everything Falls Apart EP. Amidst side one’s hypsersonic avalanche is Hart’s cover of Donovan’s 1966 hit, “Sunshine Superman.” Trite, perhaps, on the face of it, until you hear how un-ironic is the remake, without a note’s worth of smirk or parody. This wasn’t a joke. They were serious. Meanwhile, run even the fastest, thrashiest Hüsker song through a centrifuge and something elegant reveals itself. On his solo tours, Bob Mould would often play acoustic versions of vintage cuts like “In a Free Land” or “Celebrated Summer,” and the results were usually beautiful. That’s just not going to work if you’re Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys or Bad Brains. Or Nirvana or Pearl Jam. In early ’84 Hüsker Dü toured as the opening act for REM On the one hand such a pairing couldn’t have been more ridiculous. On the other hand, it was perfect. (I have an enduring memory of a long-haired Michael Stipe on stage in a Harvard University gym wearing a Metal Circus t-shirt.)

Zen Arcade takes this sensibility, this talent and depth and fearlessness, and hones it to perfection. “A strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy,” as Michael Azerrad puts it in his book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.Zen Arcade was the final word on the genre, a scorching of musical earth. The album wasn’t only about Hüsker Dü coming of age — it was about an entire musical movement coming of age.”

Not everybody however — not even Grant Hart — openly embraces that notion. Hart once said that Zen is the album that fans “tend to wear on their sleeves.” Does he mean people like me? Have I been too sentimentally fond of it for some reason?

“The impact of Zen Arcade on the Zeitgeist is hilarious to me,” Grant responds. “Hilarious in the almost alchemical-mechanical way it has been embraced by true
music fans and hipster flipsters alike. When somebody states that Zen is their favorite LP, I get the notion to ask why. As we move further from the time it was released it seems I get more honest answers.”

My honest answer is that I like it the best because it sounds the best, and by the sum of its parts it is the best. And for the record, Zen Arcade is not my “favorite” LP. Hüsker Dü’sNew Day Rising is my “favorite” LP. But that’s getting personal. When you look at it objectively, Zen is clearly the better and more profound of the two.

Norton, Hart, Mould. (Daniel Corrigan)

Hüsker Dü were nothing if not prolific. Zen Arcade was impressive enough on its own merits, but a mere six months later came New Day Rising, which woke the country from its winter freeze in January, 1985. Eight month’s after that came “Flip Your Wig.” The latter suffered from poor production but is nonetheless memorable, highlighted by Hart’s pièce de résistance, “Keep Hanging On.” Zen Arcade and New Day Rising are the two best albums of the 1980s, and they appeared within six months of each other! Bookended by Flip Your Wig and Metal Circus, a brilliant seven-song EP from 1983, these four records represent, easily, the most potent 1-2-3-4 punch in the annals of indie music. All in the astonishing space of less than two years. That’s simply incredible.

In 1986 and 1987, having moved from SST to Warner Brothers, Hüsker Dü released two final albums,”Candy Apple Gray” and a double LP called “Warehouse: Songs and Stories.” I’m unsure which of these two records annoys me more, but neither, really, has much place in this conversation. “Candy Apple Grey” does well with at the start and finish — I’ve always loved the gothic guitar squall of the opener, “Crystal,” as well as the closer, “All This I’ve Done For You” — but the rest is flyover country, including Bob Mould’s abominable “Too Far Down,” which has to be the ugliest song he ever recorded.

With Warehouse, it’s as if they took Zen Arcade placed it on a table in front of them and said, Okay how can we ruin this? I will always love “Back From Somewhere” and “She’s a Woman (and Now He Is a Man),” but the plodding, uninspired likes of “Ice Cold Ice,” “You’re a Soldier,” and too many others, secure this one at the bottom of the Hüsker canon. Bob and Grant had their power struggles, but as a songwriting tandem their talents were wonderfully complementary — think Strummer and Jones, or McCartney and Lennon. This was much of what made the band so great. By the time “Warehouse” warbles to a close at the end of side four, clearly this synchronicity is unraveling. Hart, at least, holds his own on this record, while Mould’s songs are overextended and lazy. Depressing as it was, you could say that Hüsker Dü broke up exactly when it needed to.

Meanwhile, unless I’ve missed something, none of the big music magazines or websites have given Zen Arcade so much as a mention on its 30th birthday. Some years ago Spin awarded it the number four spot on its ranking of the hundred best-ever “alternative” records, and Rolling Stone, in a manic best-of-the-80s list, once gave it lip service at number 33. But what since then? Instead we have bands like Green Day winning Grammys.

And do younger music fans have any sense of what the 1980s truly were like? This was the richest and most innovative period in the whole history of independent music, but rarely is it acknowledged as such. As popular culture has it, serious rock music skipped the 80s entirely.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Grant Hart. “The music business was forced to deal with the underground. They held out the cash and the phonies lapped it up.”

When pundits do take the 80s seriously, we tend to see the same names over and over. It’s both frustrating and unjustified that Hüsker Dü never developed the same posthumous cachet that others of their era did. Like the Replacements, for example, or Sonic Youth. Hüsker Dü could run circles around either of those two, but never became “cool” in quite the same way.

I suppose it’s due to a total absence of what you might call sex appeal? To say that Hüsker Dü never cultivated any sort of image, in the usual manner of rock bands, is putting it mildly. For one, they never looked the part. These were big, sweaty, chain-smoking guys who obviously hadn’t shaved or showered in a while. Norton, trimmest and most dapper of the threesome, wore a handlebar mustache many years before such things were trendy among hipsters. It wasn’t until their eighth and final album that they included a photo of themselves on the cover (the scratched-out images on Zen Arcade notwithstanding). This modesty, for lack of a better description, was for some of us a part of what made Hüsker Dü so special. But it has hurt them, I think, in the long run. (As has the fact that only the band’s final two albums — their weakest by far — are available on iTunes. But that’s another story.)

The idea that the Replacements (much as I loved their debut album, which I consider the best garage-rock record of all time, and which includes a shout-out called “Somethin’to Dü”) were in any way a better or more influential band than Hüsker Dü is too absurd to entertain. Meanwhile the beatification of Sonic Youth goes on and on and on. A year or so ago Kim Gordon got a profile in the New Yorker. I’m still waiting for Sasha Frere-Jones to devote a story to Bob Mould.

Quintessential Mould (photo by Robert Francos)

Or better yet, to Grant Hart. Twenty-five years, more or less, that’s how long it took me, to realize that it was Grant, not Bob, who was the more indispensable songwriter and who leaves the richer legacy. In the old days it was trendy to claim that Grant was the real genius behind Hüsker Dü. You’d be at a party and some asshole would say, “Those guys would be nothing without that drummer.” I’d always scoff that off. The mechanics of the band, for one, made it difficult to accept: Grant was the drummer, after all, and drummers are never the stars. Meanwhile there was Bob, right at the front of the stage with that iconic Flying-V. But I think those assholes were on to something.

That shouldn’t be an insult to Mould. Not any more than saying John Lennon was a better songwriter than Paul McCartney. Both were brilliant. But when I flip through the Hüsker canon, I can’t help giving Hart the edge. On New Day Rising, for instance, Mould gave us “I Apologize” and “Celebrated Summer.” But Hart gave us “Terms of Psychic Warfare” and “Books About UFOs,” two of the most electrifying songs of the 80s. “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Diane,” “Pink Turns to Blue,” the list goes on. Hart’s “She’s a Woman (And Now He is a Man”) from the often intolerable Warehouse album is, to me, a classic sleeper and the most under-appreciated Hüsker song of them all.

His solo work too has been at least as robust as that of Mould. But while Mould has achieved substantial notoriety and commercial success in his long post-Hüsker career, Hart has labored in comparative obscurity. This is irritating and unfair. Songs like “The Main” and “The Last Days of Pompeii” are as good or better than anything Mould has given us, either solo or with his band Sugar.

“I might have reservations about complaining about lack of attention,” counters Grant. “I have always based my movements on those of fugitives or criminals. The less attention you attract, the freer you remain! I wish to be an artist, not a celebrity. I do not need to own something to know it intimately.”

I’m not the only one, though, who feel that Grant deserves more. Filmmaker Gorman Bechard went so far as to make a movie about Grant. “Every Everything” is 93 minutes of Grant Hart — and only Grant Hart — proving himself to be one of the more oddly captivating storytellers you’ll ever have the pleasure of listening to.

Bechard had previously interviewed Grant for “Color Me Obsessed,” his film about The Replacements, and was taken with him. I asked him why, of all the films he could have made, he chose one about an obscure (to most of today’s music fans) musician. My other concern was how such a movie could prove appealing to a viewer who is not already a fan of Grant or Hüsker Dü?

“I guess I don’t find Grant that obscure,” says Bechard “I truly believe that all of rock & roll post-1987 owes pretty much everything to Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. Ultimately it all goes back to those two bands from Minneapolis. So, in my book Grant is one of the most influential musicians ever, even to people who might not know who he is. And he’s lived a very full rock & roll life. The good, the bad, the ugly. He’s tasted it all, and is still around to talk about it. Beyond that that he’s as smart and funny as anyone on the planet.”

You may not be familiar with him, but Grant Hart is among the most important songwriters of our time, and “Every Everything” is a brave and absolutely necessary tribute to one of the unsung heroes of modern music.


NOTES & MISCELLANY:

– Visit the author’s Hüsker Dü photo group on Flickr by clicking here.

– Paul Hilcoff’s amazingly thorough Hüsker Dü fan page is here. (Unfortunately the huskerdu.com domain is owned by Hasbro. I say we get a Kickstarter campaign going to buy it away.)

– If you’re wondering about the other members of my songwriting hall of fame, they are: the unfathomably talented and criminally ignored Pat Fish of the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy; Bob Mould, of course; John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, David Gedge of the Wedding Present, and anything by Billy Bragg pre-1990.

– I used to own one of these.

– In the post above I cite Mould’s song “Gravity,” from the 1982 Everything Falls Apart record, as one his best. The final 30 seconds of that song — all music, no words — are remarkable.

– Nothing can touch “Eight Miles High,” though. It’s Bob’s best song, as well as the best Hüsker Dü song overall.

Everything Falls Apart record was the first Hüsker Dü album I ever listened to, and the first song I ever liked is the second one on that record, “Blah Blah Blah.” I think it’s Greg Norton who does the vocals on that one.

– I once played Frisbee with Bob Mould. June 21, 1984, it was, prior to a show in Easthampton Massachusetts. There were four of us playing: me, Bob, a local Boston fanzine writer named Al Quint, and my former best friend, Mark McKay, who later became the drummer for the hardcore band Slapshot.

– I’m also pretty certain that I’m one of very few fans to meet and shake hands with Bob Mould’s parents. It was that same summer of ’84. Mom and dad were touring the country, stopping in on the band’s performances. Bob himself introduced me to them.

– Greg Norton once sat patiently backstage while I peppered him with inane questions for a fanzine article I was writing.

– It was Grant, though, who was always the friendliest and most approachable of the three. I remember a night, between sets down at The Living Room in Providence, Rhode Island, chatting with him in the parking lot. He was snacking on slices of cheese, when a stray dog came ambling over. Grant shared his cheese with the dog, holding up small bits of it, ever higher, making the dog jump for them.

– That was the same show in which Mould, rushing toward the stage for an encore, smashed his head against a ceiling rafter so hard that you could hear it from outside. I have a feeling he remembers that.

Patrick Smith is an active airline pilot, music enthusiast, air travel blogger and author. You can find much more on his website AskThePilot.com, where this article was first published. His new book, Cockpit Confidential is awesome, and available now.

  • Brent

    Can’t believe the author thinks “Clampdown” is a throw-away song. Blasphemy!

  • Gary Hall

    I must agree Mr Fish, Gedge, Mould, Hart, Bragg & many others wrote the soundtrack to some of the best years of my life.
    The emotions (especially after a few too many wines) these guys can conjure up still bring tears to my eyes. Call me soft but all great art does this to me. Oh and lest not forget Stephen Jones (once Babybird) another under rated genius.

  • Jon Copeland

    Husker Du’s version of EIght Miles High is fantastic, however it is not a Bob Mould or Husker Du song. It is the Byrds, covered by Husker Du!