Hart On His Sleeve
A few months ago, Grant Hart heard the rumor. He had spent nearly three years recording his new solo album, Good News for Modern Man, under the jokey but descriptive working title Sgt. Jesus's Lonely Pets Club Sounds. Hart's open-ended agreement with his label, Pachyderm Records, stipulated nothing more than that he keep cooking until he was finished. Engineer Brent Sigmeth was busy remixing Hart's remixes into re-re-remixes. Meanwhile, news was spreading across the Internet that Hart had died.
"I got a lot of messages like 'I was afraid to call,'" says Hart, recalling how he learned of his own demise. He chuckles and taps the steering wheel of his '89 Oldsmobile. "I said to Jim Nickel, my A&R man, 'Hey, death is a tough act to follow; let's get this album out.'"
Local fans who are used to seeing Hart sip coffee at First Avenue might puzzle over the rumor, but the musician's national profile has been low-riding for years. Sitting in the purple vinyl interior of his "get-around" car a block from the Ave., he wears his typical uniform: a black, double-breasted blazer; a well-worn paisley-patterned shirt (untucked over a paunch); blue jeans; black leather boots; and a chopped, shoulder-length Hanson 'do. In other words, he's the spitting image of himself 15 years ago in Hüsker Dü, the profoundly influential Eighties trio with which he may forever be identified.
Hart penned some of the band's most memorable songs, wailing his voice hoarse and playing a breakneck blur of cymbals and snare behind bassist Greg Norton and singer-guitarist Bob Mould, the band's other songwriting force. In what became something of an Ivana-and-Donald Trump divorce in indie-rock lore, Mould effectively placed the blame for the group's 1987 split on Hart's addiction to heroin, one reason a death rumor might still find kindling years later.
Holding the steering wheel, Hart's drummer's hands are still thick, but his thumbnails are grown out long, perhaps the better for strumming his acoustic guitar alone onstage. This is what he does these days, making sporadic live appearances around town in support of local acts, rendering formerly feedback-drenched love-hate numbers in more naked arrangements. Hart starts the car and lowers the power window before lighting a cigarette and turning the beast off again. He stares into space as he speaks, remembering aloud old songs and old bands.
It is here, in this rusting boat of American steel, that Hart wrote most of the tunes for Good News. They came to him gradually, over the three-year period since he released 1996's live acoustic Ecce Homo, his last album, which culled material from his nine years in Hüsker Dü and five years in his second band, Nova Mob. On the routine drive between his native South St. Paul to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Hart listened mostly to oldies radio and work tapes for months, rarely tuning in modern rock. "That was my most productive half-hour of the day," he says.
This regimen of avoidance is a deliberate part of Hart's routine. Although his songs have often had a familiar yet maddeningly unplaceable quality to them--as they do on Good News--the songwriter remains unusually diligent about eschewing any trace of musical plagiarism. "There are mornings when I wake up and the same melody has been going through my head the entire night," he says. "When that happens I worry, God, is this that Sheryl Crow hook? I'll hear a recording that's 20 percent like some idea I had and have to abandon it because I've lost faith in its originality."
Hart's cultivated obsessiveness works well for Good News, an album that might be taken as a declarative indication of life for dejected Hart fans. It's a sprawling jukebox of nostalgic pop songs, filled with deceptively simple choruses that follow the listener to sleep. Overdubbing himself on every instrument, and inviting only labelmate and blues-guitar wunderkind Mato Nanji of Indigenous to join him (on "Seka Knows"), Hart could have backed himself into a corner of overindulgence and overproduction. Instead, he has made the best album of his post-Hüsker career, his distinct vocal quaver wrapped warmly, but not too tightly, in a crazy quilt of guitar and synthesizer textures.
The album's tone is nearly celebratory--no less so, perhaps, because the years preceding its genesis were so bleak. Hart still keeps a cardboard box in the back seat of his Olds with gloves, clothes, and candy bars in case of a breakdown. He remembers well how the bitter Minnesota cold immobilized his bandmates' wheels outside Pachyderm during the agonizing weeks spent recording Nova Mob's final, self-titled opus in 1994, a work Hart refers to as "terrible." He says cabin fever, along with recurring label frustrations, effectively finished off the band.
"With Nova Mob I was trying to keep a democratic unit with people who didn't know how," he says. "I could have made a better album by drumming myself."
Hart's assessment seems ungracious: Even his friends testify that he can be a difficult, arrogant son of a bitch to work with. (My first memorable concert experience as a local-music writer for City Pages was getting yelled at by Hart for bumping into a friend of his: "Watch where you're going, asshole!" he said.) Besides, as drummer Marc Retish told Britt Robson in these pages back in 1994, Hart was still using in the Nova Mob years. Hart makes no bones about his addiction, but says the group's dissolution had as much to do with an experience gap within the band. Hart had recorded his first Hüsker Dü vocal, "Statues," the day after his 19th birthday. By the time he was fronting Nova Mob a decade later, he'd spent a third of his life on the road. He says he plans to tour with a new group behind Good News, but a permanent combo seems unlikely.
"When you're in your early twenties," he says, "you can leave home a lot easier without worrying about it. You can get robbed and cleaned out without losing much." In fact, Hart's apartment was completely cleaned out twice during his get-in-the-van years, when a well-publicized tour schedule made him an easy target.
Hart's friends tell me he's been sober for years, and Hart himself says he spends most of his time reading history when not in the studio, living primarily off Hüsker royalties. "I've supported myself off of music for 21 years," he says, with a hint of braggadocio. "But mind you, that's the road education of learning to get by on $3 a day. And there's a lot to be said for casting off an expensive addiction."
He still haunts tiny punk venues, and tells me about being blown away by a recent punk show headlined by the Pansies at the queer-friendly Minneapolis District 202. Though Hart is open about his bisexuality, he remains derisive of bands that fly the identity flag to gain niche points--and score with groupies. "That's just another kind of rock-star thing," he says, though he does concede to having had his Hüsker affairs. "I had sex on the road, and, of course, I met the people because I was in a band. Bob met a lover of five years on the road. Greg met the woman he ended up marrying the very first night we played. But there was never the cattle call outside the dressing room."
These days Hart's main vice is living out a high school gearhead obsession--he compares the 12/8 time signature to a four-cylinder engine--and says he owns two Studebakers. Automobile and travel imagery pop up frequently on Good News, where they are oddly intermingled with religious symbolism. On the likely single "Nobody Rides for Free," the chorus of the title came to Hart as an in-studio joke about the old "Ass, gas, or grass: Nobody rides for free" bumper sticker. Here the phrase hits the pavement alongside lines such as "We tore into the heart of a big teeth beast eating at the motor-mart."
"That could be demon or a '53 Buick at a gas station," Hart says of the apocalyptic imagery. "I think it's hilarious that very few people change their oil every 5,000 miles but they're willing to accept that 2000 is some new age just because the odometer has switched over to all zeros."
Even today the demon that haunts Hart most is Bob Mould, a figure apparently absent in the subject matter of Good News (which is good news) but very much present in Hart's conversations. On the afternoon before Labor Day, Mould played a solo acoustic set on the main stage at the Mill City Music Festival, where he threw in a few Hüsker staples. I happened to look behind me that day, and there was Hart in the audience, watching diffidently from across a sea of Mould fans.
"I've seen him maybe 15 times since the breakup," Hart says of that day. "And he has yet to see me perform. Why do I bring that up?" He seems to be asking himself the question, but I answer it with another: Does it hurt? "Well it kind of proves something about Bob," he says, deflecting the question. "I feel a certain kind of redemption in the last ten years, not so much that I've lived down any kind of reputation. Outside of protecting my health, I've shied away from 'the new clean Grant' because that's just another rock-star thing. My reputation was fairly ruined with the public opening-up of my most private shit. But the way Bob has handled business in the last ten years, people work with him, then come back to me and say, 'How did you do that for nine years?'"
There's unfinished business between the two, of course, professional as well as personal. None of Hüsker Dü's albums on the legendary indie label SST transferred well to compact disc--they were dumped clumsily off masters when the technology was young--and a revamped studio retrospective of any kind has been stalled by unproductive negotiations with the imprint's owner, Greg Ginn.
"Up to the time we signed to Warners, our deal with SST was a handshake," Hart says bitterly. "We let them bankroll all our earnings into the company after that because we wanted our records to stay in print. Now Greg won't return my calls."
Hart seems to enjoy unloading business frustrations, but he does so without overdue rancor. Still, an hour and a half pass as we sit in his beat-up old car, and he doesn't seem to tire of discussing the still-festering wound left by his longest, best songwriting partner. "That band lasted as long as the average marriage," Hart says, still defensive about a period that at the time of Hüsker Dü's split represented a full third of his life. "Bob is just another person in a group of people that have not succeeded in continuing to use me."
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