Grant Hart never left the underground – or Minnesota

Grant Hart wasn't just the poppy Hüsker -- he was the arty, proggy, restless one as well.

Grant Hart wasn't just the poppy Hüsker -- he was the arty, proggy, restless one as well. Photo by Shawn Brackbill.

It feels almost tragically appropriate that Grant Hart would die of cancer just days after the official announcement of Numero Group's major archival Hüsker Dü project.

Though Hart was one of the most beloved figures to emerge from the '80s American underground, he never quite capitalized on this widespread admiration. Hüsker Dü was the first group of their peers to leap from the indies to the majors, and unlike the Replacements, they were willing to play ball. Can you imagine Paul and Tommy waking up early enough to make an appearance on The Today Show, as the Hüskers did when plugging Warehouse: Songs And Stories in 1987?

The trio broke up less than a year after that, and their legacy has only grown since. Numero has treated its box set of the band's early years, Savage Young Dü, as a holy grail, as well it should: It's great music and its audience is starved for reissues. Yet most of the mainstream attention over the last three decades focused on Bob Mould.

There's a reason for that. Mould was disciplined and had his eye on a world outside of the indie subculture, and outside of Minnesota. He signed with a major label as a solo act, and when that didn't work out he polished the Hüskers signature roar for Sugar. Hart never bothered with reviving the past, but he also never saw a reason to leave the underground – or the Twin Cities, for that matter. He took his shot at the big leagues when he formed the power trio Nova Mob at the dawn of the '90s, a venture that was sabotaged by his label Rough Trade International going belly up not long after the release of the Mob’s 1991 debut, The Last Days Of Pompeii.

Hart’s choice to remain independent after his flirtation with Warner speaks to his artistic restlessness, the same quality he brought to Hüsker Dü. He became the Dü's drummer out on the spur of the moment, choosing to sit behind the kit because he knew how to play and the band was in need. But he quickly tired of the hardcore’s rigid rhythms, so he introduced other beats, and then brought hyper-charged pop songs to the group today. Hart’s natural gift for melody—in place from the beginning, as Numero's Savage Young Dü makes plain—makes it easy to think of him as the sweet tonic to Mould’s gnarled rage, but he also had the conceptual vision to push the group to record their landmark 1984 concept album Zen Arcade.

Hart could never resist a concept album – his final release, 2013's The Argument, was a musical adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost. Such a predilection for prog was mirrored in Hart's accomplishments as visual artist—his work graced most of Hüsker Dü's album covers, and those of his solo records—but the emotional power of his music could mask this artistic bent. As a drummer, he played with the constraint of an erupting volcano yet as a singer, he was sensitive and soulful. His voice seemed to carry the bruises of his emotionally naked songs, songs that could feel direct even when they flirted with the obtuse.

Any one of these qualities is a rare gift, but Hart combined them all in music that was visceral, invigorating, challenging, and cathartic. And not just with Hüsker Dü. While Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig are monumental, the records Hart cut after the Hüskers disbanded throw his artistry into sharp relief. His excellent 1989 solo debut Intolerance may be his finest collection of solo songs, but Nova Mob bustles with energy and imagination, and his 21st century LPs highlight his thirst for adventure. Maybe he didn’t always hit the mark on Hot Wax and The Argument, but he was still exploring up to the end, his life and his music suggesting that restless creativity may be best pursued by remaining underground, and by sticking close to home.