Admiral of The Sea: A Grant Hart Retrospective

grant hart

I have a Grant Hart story and I have a Bob Mould story. They’re almost the same story, but not quite. However, one thing is certain: Hüsker Dü is that one band for me. That one band for me that’s bigger than its music and it’s mostly Hart’s fault.

Today would be his 60th birthday if he were alive. A month before he died someone gave me his email address. “But what would I tell him?” was my reaction to the gesture. We laughed in understanding and none of us ever wrote to him. We didn’t get a chance.

Almost three years later I thought of something to say. Without further ado, let me use this opportunity to present to you all the reasons why I’ll never travel far without a little Grant Hart.

First of all, I’d like to say this article isn’t about Grant Vs. Bob rivalry. But it could be about why I’d choose the first over the latter if I had to. Everybody likes a good rivalry but… I was born in the ‘90s. My experience of the band’s music is far different than that of those who lived through this decade, especially if they did the ‘80s as well.

I’ve experienced their music out of its original context. The prolific solo career of Bob Mould came into my attention years after I got into Hüsker Dü. The sparse solo career of Grant Hart got there much sooner. Probably because he visited my town a few times. In Europe he was a well-known troubadour in the early 2010s.

However, I believe my imaginary friendship with Grant started the moment Hüsker Dü entered my life and that didn’t happen at a concert venue.

HÜSKER DÜ THE EARLY YEARS?

My obsession with musicians started in a library. Although music and pop culture were always important in my house, it’s the habit of going to the library every week that made me obsessed with them. A music reference found in a book was far more precious than the one I would get from TV or movies. But reading biographies and encyclopedias about the topic got me into this mess.

The Secret History of Rock by Roni Sarig turned me to bands like Hüsker Dü. For the purpose of this article, I reread the parts about Hart and the band. Something Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses said caught my attention:

“They were stomping around, yelling and screaming, and still sounded like wind. I thought pop songs were evil, but they taught me that pop songs were okay. I don’t know if other people would call Hüsker Dü a pop band but I’m pretty sure they were.”

Whenever I talk about Hüsker Dü, I end up summoning the (super)natural forces as well. Other than that I can’t really guess what was it that made me take a note to download their music. At this point, we need to travel back to 2006 when I was introduced to an extremely flawed file-sharing software. I didn’t download albums, I downloaded songs. The first album I completed was Candy Apple Gray. My first favourites were ‘Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely’ and ‘Sorry Somehow’. Hart wrote and performed both.

At the time it was released in 1986, Candy Apple Gray was the first hardcore album on a major label and for the first generation of hardcore fans, it was considered a betrayal. The second album I got into was Warehouse: Songs & Stories, their final studio release and a great disappointment for most critics. As you can see, I got in backwards! The best of Hüsker Dü was yet to reveal itself and I was already in love.

My favourite song to this day remains ‘She Floated Away’ from Warehouse. The soundtrack to an autobiography I did in college was ‘You Can Live at Home’ from the same album and ‘Flexible Flyer’ from Flip Your Wig. According to Last.fm, my most listened tracks from Zen Arcade are ‘Never Talking to You Again’, ‘Standing by the Sea’ and ‘Pink Turns to Blue’. All of these songs are Hart’s.

Finally, among my all-time top ten by Hüsker Dü there are three songs by Mould and seven by Hart. Except for the songs already mentioned, these are ‘Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill’ and ‘Books About UFOs’. I didn’t run the stats, but I’m glad someone did. The stats make it clear that, for me, the essence of the band was always its drummer.

THE GRANT INNOVATOR

Grant Hart

In the broader context of ‘80s hardcore Grant Hart will be remembered as an innovator, someone who added new layers to this confrontational genre-focused mostly on social and political topics. As a great example of his approach to songwriting critics often give ‘Diane’. It’s one of the two songs Hart wrote for the EP Metal Circus released the same year as Hüsker Dü’s debut Everything Falls Apart. ‘Diane’ is a punk murder ballad. The story behind it is true and Hart’s delivery painfully so as well.

The critics’ consensus is that Hüsker Dü’s biggest contribution to alternative rock was a reconciliation of the old with the new sound. They resisted the tendency to uniform or limit themselves. Therefore, they were free to do as they felt right and that’s the best way to enter the canon. Hart’s solo career underlines the fact that this was particularly true for him. I hope we can agree that Mould eventually found a uniform for himself. Hart didn’t.

Mould turned into a movie, Hart remained a film. Even decades later he was still inspired by the great tradition of rock music, the arch-enemy of the punks, as well as the raw noise of the D.I.Y. aesthetic. He remained affected by literature, folklore and myths, the chimerical and hyperreal. For this, I believe his legacy is something fans of classic literature can appreciate more than the people hard in the core.

Among the ten above-mentioned songs we have a sailor shanty, a ballad of unwanted pregnancy, an arousing tribute to whiskey, meditations on innocence and intimacy, depictions of seemingly incurable loneliness and estrangement. All of these are moving, yet deeply unsettling. Even years after they sound thrilling. But some of them still give me the heebie-jeebies, the kind I get when I listen to unearthly folk music.

Having said that, I will not undermine the fact that the themes he introduced influenced others. Though I would stress that it is the way the band arranged and performed the songs that made them withstand the test of time. Hüsker Dü was an emphatic band without a doubt. Mould’s nervousness, Hart’s passion and Norton’s cool were the elements that made this trio powerful.

2541, BIG WINDOWS TO LET IN THE SUN

Hüsker Dü disbanded in 1988. Next year both Bob Mould and Grant Hart had a solo album. Hart made Intolerance and Mould Workbook. The latter was a much bigger success and paved the way for Mould’s persistent career in rock music. Hart remained underground. Although Intolerance stayed under the radar, it’s still an enjoyable album made in good spirit. It portraits its author as an eclectic and amazingly talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Hart wrote the songs and recorded all of the instruments.

The opener ‘All of My Senses’ and the instrumental ‘Roller-Rink’ reel you in a hypnotic organ-led séance, but no two songs on the record sound the same. ‘The Main’ evokes the traditional Irish folk song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. In it, Hart returns to the motif of water. He often uses the sea, floating and sinking to depict his personal experiences.

The evangelical ‘She Can See the Angels Coming’ brings a completely different mood than the previously mentioned ones. Likewise, more than one song on the album deals with the break-up and the memory of the band. Best examples are ‘You’re the Victim’ and ‘2541’. My favourites are the letter and the Dylanesque ‘Now That You Know Me’.

The same year he released Intolerance, Hart formed a new band: Nova Mob. The name refers to the novel Nova Express of a beat author William Burroughs, Hart’s good friend. The band released two LPs and disbanded in 1994.

THE DAYS OF NOVA MOB

Nova Mob’s debut, The Last Days of Pompeii, is an absolute treasure. It is a concept album following the story of a rocket scientist Wernher von Braun escaping the end of World War II by time-travelling back to Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s not Zen Arcade, but it’s as close as it gets.

My obsession with Grant Hart started in a library and that’s where it keeps on keeping on. The Last Days of Pompeii is as geeky as punk rock records get. The amalgam of history, mythology, science-fiction and psychedelia bring forth Hart the bookworm. If he ever met Richard O’Brien, we’d have a spectacular musical about Nazis and Ancient Rome. Yes, it could’ve been as good as Rocky Horror Picture Show and Shock Treatment.

Since it’s a concept album, you should listen to it as a whole. But if you’re just glancing, the numbers that stand out are ‘Gateway in Time’, ‘Admiral of the Sea’ and ‘Over My Head’. Finally, Nova Mob’s self-titled album, their second and last, is a rarity rediscovered by Internet. Hart spoke negatively of it, but many fans liked it as it reminds them of late Hüsker Dü. I never really got through the entire album, so I have nothing to add.

GOOD NEWS FROM THE HART

Five years after Nova Mob’s last album Grant Hart returned with Good News for Modern Man. Once more he recorded most of the instruments and made all the arrangements. From the auspicious ‘Think It Over Now’ to the more dismal ‘You Don’t Have to Tell Me No’ this colourful record is a monument to his creative range.

‘Run Run Run to the Centre Pompidou’ is a surf rock tribute to a Parisian architectural wonderland, National Art and Cultural Centre named after the early ‘70s president of France, Georges Pompidou. With ‘A Letter From Anne Marie’ Hart continues the sequence of songs named after women started with ‘Diane’. Except for this time it’s about his pen pal.

Other notable songs from this record are ominous ‘Seka Knows’ with Mato Nanji on lead guitar, my personal favourite, and ‘Teeny’s Hair’, one of the surprises, the song that proves Grant Hart can always take us somewhere we would never go alone. ‘Little Nemo’ closes the album as another personal song with a nautical theme.

His third solo album, Hot Wax, is known for the banger ‘You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water’. Besides that, the Canadians from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion helped with the album, but Hart finished it alone. On this album, he revisits some of his signature themes.

We have a dedication to art (‘Charles Hollis Jones’), a song with a name in its title (‘Barbara’), a new take on classical myth (‘Narcissus, Narcissus’) and a sea shanty (‘Sailor Jack’). What is somewhat new are the songs about travelling and vehicles (‘California Zephyr’ and ‘Schoolbuses are for Children’). Nevertheless, it all seems a bit spent. Who would have thought the best is yet to come?

THE FINAL ARGUMENT

The Argument, his final album was released in 2013 and is undoubtedly the crown of his career. This masterpiece will always have an honorary place among my all-time favourite albums. Finally, it bears repeating that this story started in a library. Now you’ll see it kind of ends in one as well. The Argument is a 20-song concept album based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and William S. Burroughs’ unpublished sci-fi story of the same name.

The first time I heard this album, I didn’t get the Paradise Lost references and couldn’t even grasp the depth of it all, but I loved it. This song cycle is not only a well of poetry and meaning, it’s also an abundant source of various musical styles from the last century. From military marches to vaudeville and garage, on The Argument Hart takes whatever is out there and puts it to use. As one might expect, it has theatrical, but also comical moments.

Seeing that, let’s make a left turn and talk about the literary aspect of Hart’s magnum opus. We see it in the movies all the time: Hollywood makes the devil fashionable, charming and funny. Mainstream musicians have had their share of attempts and surely got some sympathy for the old bastard, but pop culture rarely goes where Milton went. It takes a master to deal with such epic content. Fortunately, Hart is the admiral of his trade.

The depiction of Satan we see in The Argument revolves around human experiences of pride and shame, submissiveness and obedience, rejection and alienation. Something we’ve seen in Hart’s music before and know he went through in real life. Even if we remove all of the details that give away the original inspiration, we still have so much to hear. It’s a remarkable confessional record, a classic I might say.

Also, this is another album he built by himself. John Milton is credited as a co-writer only on the opener ‘Out of Chaos’. Davin Odegaard played bass on the album and Peter Susag and Aron Woods made their contribution on ‘So Far From Heaven’.

Lastly, I’ll repeat what I said for The Last Days of Pompeii. Since it’s a concept album, you should listen to it as a whole. With The Argument, I don’t recommend glancing. Take your time and pay your tribute to this unsung poet often referred to as a drummer of that ’80s band.

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