In a better world where the band wasn’t beset by tragedy, substance abuse, lackluster production and promotion, Hüsker Dü would be recalled today in a similar esteem to a band like R.E.M. They were as important, as influential, as irreplaceable — and not only were their songs just as good, but they put out way more of ’em in their lifetime.
But the band never had a breakout hit on radio or MTV, their catalog was poorly protected by the labels they once served, and internal band drama ensured they would never reunite to profit on the legacy that only ballooned since their dissolution. The band’s name literally asks “Do You Remember?,” but circumstances ensured the answer would never be what it should have been.
Grant Hart, who died Thursday (Sept. 14) at age 56, was one of the best rock singer/songwriters of the ’80s, but he was only the second-most important in his band, with the lion’s share of frontman responsibilities falling to guitarist Bob Mould and his throaty howl. Hart was no one’s sideman, though — the more straightforward tunefulness of his thinner, distant vocal tremble provided needed contrast to Mould’s chest-emptying, and the trebly crash of Hart’s drumming was as essential to the band’s sonic thumbprint as Mould’s shimmering electric monsoons and bassist Greg Norton’s queasy sway. (Not to mention that his contributions allowed the Hüskers to overwhelm in sheer volume: Five classic albums in the space of 30 (!!) months, two of which were double LPs.)
Here are Grant Hart’s 10 best contributions to the Hüsker Dü catalog — none of which are “The Baby Song,” though even that one might feel strangely poignant today. Together, these 10 songs tell only a fraction of the band’s total story, but enough to ensure they’d still be worth recalling 30 years after their breakup.
10. “Turn on the News” (Zen Arcade, 1984)
No points for subtlety on this broad Reagan-era protest jam from the climax of double-LP rock opera Zen Arcade — “If there’s one thing that I can’t explain/ Is why the world has to have so much pain,” yikes. But the anti-ignorance plea is forever timely, and considering the Hüskers were far better known for personal statements than social ones, you have to respect this one for rocking in the free world nearly as much as Neil Young would five years later.
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9. “She’s a Woman [And Now He Is a Man]” (Warehouse: Songs and Stories, 1987)
Though swan song Warehouse: Songs and Stories featured about the most even split between Mould and Hart’s contributions as would be found on a Hüsker Dü record — an ongoing real-estate battle that would play its part in the band’s hasty demise — it actually plays far more as Mould’s record, responsible for the clear majority of the album’s highlights. But Hart did get one of the two singles, the gender-bending “She’s a Woman [And Now He Is a Man],” one of the more delectably subversive songs in the band’s catalogue, with a shimmying power-pop sheen that would’ve gotten it snuck into alt-rock heavy rotation were it released a couple years later.
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8. “No Promise Have I Made” (Candy Apple Grey, 1986)
If one album proved Hart to be Mould’s equal in Hüsker Dü, it was the band’s penultimate, for which he fronted both of the singles — more on those to come — and the record’s devastating climax, “No Promise Have I Made.” An unplugged piano ballad that would’ve been thoroughly unimaginable in the band’s Land Speed Record days, “No Promise” features a bleary-eyed Hart warbling his version of a torch song: “Well now I’ve faced up to you, facing me betrayed/ Oh, no promise have I made.” Too emotional to stay in tune, but that’s sort of the point.
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7. “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” (New Day Rising, 1985)
You can count the number of Hüsker Dü songs since 1983 that couldn’t be described as “shimmering” on one hand, but a handful coruscate with such force that you can see them from outer space. “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” was surely one of those, a bright and bloody heart-puncher with a towering singalong refrain. In fact, kudos if you know more than seven words to this entire song, as a blinded-by-the-light Hart raves unintelligibly for most of the verses — establishing, at least, that he could shriek with the best of ’em as well.
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6. “Diane” (Metal Circus, 1983)
A chilling first-person predatory tale of abduction, rape and murder, performed with conversational dispassion by Hart: “I heard there’s a party down at Lake Cove/ It would be so much easier if I drove.” Fascinating both as one of the band’s darkest songs, and as a transition point for them sonically: The loping bass, insistent rhythm and jagged sheets of guitar put the song in near-goth rock (or at least Siouxsie and the Banshees) territory, a necessary moment of waters-testing as the Hüskers tried to figure out what came after losing interest in breaking stopwatches.
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5. “Pink Turns to Blue” (Zen Arcade, 1984)
Another unnerving Hart story — this time about a less role-played tale of a friend’s O.D. — overcoming some awkward wordplay (“Going out each day to score, she was no whore but for me”) with the chilling, falsetto’d refrain: “Don’t know what to do/ Now that pink has turned to blue.” In an album of harrowing moments, “Pink Turns to Blue” hits the hardest, its riff racing like a panicked heartbeat and Hart’s final “I don’t know what to do!” echo reverberating far longer than his voice lasts.
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4. “Sorry Somehow” (Candy Apple Grey, 1986)
The great lost Hüskers single, its organ- and bass-led groove one of the band’s most infectious, propelling one of the band’s strongest melodies and brain-sticking refrains. And the vocal performance is undoubtedly one of Hart’s finest, spitting sass and venom at every corner (“Who ever cares for your affairs will sort it out for you/ Send me a subpoena baby tell me what to do”), and escalating through each verse and chorus until you can practically feel the saliva he’s drenching the mic with on the final run-through. In the universe where Hüsker Dü were big enough to get the VH1 made-for-TV movie treatment, Sorry Somehow would be the perfect title.
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3. “Never Talking to You Again” (Zen Arcade, 1984)
Maybe the angriest song in the Hüsker Dü catalog — and, of course, their first totally acoustic moment on record, all the more of a gut-punch for the clarity of the vocals and the razor-sharpness of the six-strings. “There are things I’d like to say/ But I’m never talking to you again” can’t help but taken on added resonance given the cold war between Hart and Mould that transpired in the band’s end days and lasted on and off in the decades to follow, and at a wire-taut 100 seconds, the song proved that punk fury was hardly the sole province of the fastest and loudest.
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2. “Green Eyes” (Flip Your Wig, 1985)
The enduring legacy of Hüsker Dü’s songwriting may be one primarily of longing, regret and bitterness, but goddamn they wrote some killer love songs. “Green Eyes” was maybe the band’s most straightforward and most effective, with an opening couplet so expressive and considered that Smokey Robinson could’ve written it: “It’s a great big world, there’s a million other guys/ I feel so lucky when I look in those green eyes.” The chorus doesn’t need do anything but echo that two-word title in gorgeous, sighing harmony, with the piercing riffage preventing the moment from becoming too saccharine. The unguarded moment feels all the more daring due to the band’s long on-record history of romantic devastation, proving that heartbreak anthems are only as worthwhile as the stakes being placed on them.
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1. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” (Candy Apple Grey, 1986)
One of the critical songs not just of the Hüsker Dü discography, but of all college rock — the kind of song that can soundtrack an emotionally loaded period film scene between two characters and tell you just about everything you need to know about both of them. It’s not the most fraught of lyrical conceits for Hart & Co. — for once, they don’t seem as shellshocked as they are just desperate to move on — but the frustration of being unable to do so explodes with every measure, Hart’s frantic drum work never better as he seems to be personally fist-punching the cymbals on the chorus.
And if the singer/songwriter has a defining moment on record, it’s at the final verse, when he gets a call he can only presume to be from his ex, and a lifetime’s romantic exasperation culminates in a climactic couplet that one-ups even Paul Westerberg: “Please leave your number and a message at the tone/ Or you can just go on and LEAVE ME ALONE!” He sounds pinched, he sounds flustered, he sounds far too distraught to take any sort of satisfaction from the kiss-off. Like the generations of emo kids who’d follow in his example, he knows survival is as good as it gets in such a situation, and he’s just hoping to escape with that much.
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