Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP Grant Hart

Right around the beginning of my senior year in high school, in the fall of 1984, I picked up Husker Du's Zen Arcade. Prior to that, I didn't know a whole lot about them. The previous summer, I worked in a used record store and the owner told me about seeing them at the Electric Banana, probably on some weeknight. I remember him describing Grant Hart in a way like, "this drummer with really long hair that was hanging in his face while he sang. And most of the time he was screaming." Remember, in 1983, a guy in a punk band with long hair was a rarity. Henry Rollins might have been growing his out by that time, but he was one of the few.

Then I heard a song from Zen Arcade (possibly "Chartered Trips") on Concrete Window's Friday night show on WYEP. Up until then I thought Husker Du was just a hardcore band (maybe I was mixing them up with the Meat Puppets early work, which was going over my head), but there was something else going on here. It was time to check them out.

Taking the double album home and throwing it on the turntable, there was so much to investigate: Greg Norton's chugging bass under Grant's giiddyup drumming that opened the album; Bob Mould's brutal but compelling set that opened Side Two, followed by the long and equally painful (because of all that screaming) Grant opus "What's Going On"; not to mention Side 4, which had a Grant song that - forgive me, man - reminded me of a band climbing up the charts at that time: Twisted Sister. It was followed by a 13-minute instrumental that seemed to drag on and on but was still compelling enough to make me come back and investigate it even further.

Punk rock was evolving in ways that I wouldn't fully grasp for a few years. I'm pretty sure that, on the same day I bought Zen Arcade at Jim's Records, I picked up a copy of the zine Matter which featured several people opining on the album and whether or not it made sense. Clearly, this was a big deal.

Looking back now, it's obvious that Grant, Bob and Greg couldn't care less about aligning themselves with any particular style. They were simply following their muses. (Grant would probably make fun of that assessment, but at the moment, it works.) Years later, Grant would talk in an interview about how punk rock was becoming limiting around that time and how he hated seeing the "uniforms" associated with it (anyone seen a black t-shirt with a band name on it and black jeans lately?). Say what you want about those guys, but they were brash enough to do what they wanted and let everyone catch up to them later. And we did.

While I was making this morning's coffee at 6:30, I heard the text alert go off on my phone. I figured it was something from Twitter or a reminder about how many texts I've sent in the last 30 days. Instead it was message from my pal/bandmate John Young, commenting on a previous text that I hadn't seen yet. "No no no," was John's message, which I figured was some joke about a show we're playing tomorrow.

But the inspiration for his message came from Kip Ruefle,  also a bandmate, who told us that Grant had died. I reacted the same way as John. It can't be. It's a rumor. It was all too close to home because the three of us are doing a gig tomorrow as Husker Don't - a tribute band to our Minneapolis heroes.

Of course these things are rarely wrong, thanks to the information superhighway. Although there were no details, other than the fact that Grant had been suffering from cancer, it was true. He was a mere 56. Damn.

There are plenty of Grant stories I could add to this: meeting them at Jim's Records a few months after buying Zen Arcade and having them autograph it with a ballpoint pen; only getting to see them once, on the Warehouse tour, at the point when they were playing that album all the way through (which they stopped doing a little later in the tour); and of course there's Grant's return to Pittsburgh when he played Howler's in 2009, but you can read about here.

And this is enough for now. He touched a lot of us, and because of the time that music came out and where I was, it still hits me the same way. "New Day Rising" still sounds like a song of optimism mixed with fury. "Keep Hanging On" is a simple message with a basic structure, but - goddam- with the passion that Grant has as he screams it at you, HOW COULD YOU NOT FIND THE POWER TO KEEP HANGING ON?

Thanks, Grant.

PS - "The Baby Song"? Hilarious, man. Loved that!

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