Pink Turns To Blue
Grant Hart: 1961 – 2017
The first few times I heard Hüsker Dü I was a little underwhelmed. Their new album was "Zen Arcade" and it seemed really noisy to me. Not a lot of hooks. The guitar sounded funny. I liked the way the guitars sounded on "Tooth and Nail" by Dokken better. A couple months later, at the tail end of a long night of teenage debauchery, I was hanging with my best friend John Burke, who has turned me on to more music than anyone I've ever known. He asked me if I wanted to hear the new Hüsker Dü record, "New Day Rising," while I waited for my dad to pick me up. He put the record on and stepped out of the room to explain to his concerned grandmother why there was a strange, unfamiliar long-haired kid in the house at that hour. The next few minutes changed the way I heard music forever. I immediately connected with the confluence of melody and energy, structure and noise, and somewhere beneath the din – the lyrics. The cover looked like a photo from a family vacation. These guys looked like my friends, my neighbors, the guy who worked at the hardware store, and they sang about "getting drunk out on the beach or playing in a band." This wasn't Dokken. This was the new soundtrack to my life.
Shortly thereafter, I revisited "Zen Arcade" with a vengeance, grasping not only to the hooks that I was now able to discern, but also to the absolute hardcore between them. I got it. It has become one of my desert island records. It seemed like the blink of an eye before we had "Flip Your Wig" (released just 8 months after "New Day Rising"), and the holy trinity was complete.
"Flip Your Wig" was Grant Hart's finest moment. Every Everything, Green Eyes, Flexible Flyer, and Keep Hanging On are snapshots of beauty. I get a pit in my gut just thinking about them today. Even though his role and output often seemed just short of equal to those of bandmate Bob Mould, everyone knows that his part was every bit as important to what made that band so great. For every Chartered Trips there was a Pink Has Turned To Blue. For every Makes No Sense At All there was a Sorry Somehow. He brought a pop-rock, 60s feel to their records that was a welcome contrast to Bob's more power-pop-punk (before there was such a thing). He was the fun, smiling, goofy hippy to Bob's brooding artist persona. Together, and with bassist Greg Norton, they were a well-balanced juggernaut.
After the split, things never really seemed great for Grant on the surface, especially against the inevitable comparisons to Bob Mould, who became one of the more respected alternative-rock guitarists and songwriters in the 90s and to this day. His band Nova Mob was supposed to play Detroit, but Grant got "sick" and openers The Magnolias played to an empty theater instead. He came through solo a couple times, and it was both incredible and heartbreaking to hear him sing and play those great songs but also see the visual evidence of his inner-battles. Still, he always had a smile and wit.
I remember walking up to the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti to see him play. He was on the sidewalk talking to some fans about "the feud" with Bob and he pointed to me and my William Mitchell School of Law tee shirt. "Hey!" he stopped mid-sentence "Where did you get that shirt? That's in Saint Paul!"
"My sister just graduated from there." I answered proudly, a little taken aback that he was talking to me, not even making the connection between the shirt and the guy who wrote If I Told You at first.
"Aah. Always a good thing to have a lawyer in the family." He chuckled before resuming his take on the corporate-rock creation and perpetuation of the faux-Mould-Hart war.
A couple years later, In March of 2010, I was beside myself to land an opening slot for him in Toledo. This was a big deal for me – recently going solo myself after being in bands for over 20 years, supporting one of my heroes. I said I'd do it for free and promote the living shit out of it, and I was a few days into that when I got an email from the promoter declaring "Grant Hart is a fuck!" after he reportedly demanded double the guarantee he had already contractually agreed to play the show a week earlier. It never happened.
The last few years of Grant's life saw some overdue redemption and respect. There was a Documentary DVD and accompanying soundtrack called "Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart" in 2013 that was an excellent and fitting tribute, and increased homage by the likes of Dave Grohl ("No Hüsker Dü, No Foo Fighters") were increasing too. His last album, "The Argument," received a plethora of praise that he hadn't experienced since the Hüsker days. He and Bob were talking again, and although a reunion (thankfully) never seemed likely, there were new projects around the old catalog in the works. It was exciting and optimistic, and really nice to finally see some harmony in that camp.
Then on July 1st of this year there was a tribute show in Minneapolis where many faces from his past came out to honor and celebrate him and his songs. By all accounts it was a special night, but it took only hours for word to get out that he wasn't doing well.
This morning hit hard right out of the gate. I remember when Johnny Cash died it seemed so expected that I was unphased, then a week later I read his obituary in Rolling Stone and it hit me like a pile of cinder blocks. When Joey Ramone died, I almost cried that night. When Joe Strummer died I was a little numb for a couple weeks, but every day since it has been harder and harder to stomach that loss. I can barely even listen to The Clash anymore. But Grant and Hüsker Dü have been with me literally almost every day since that late night in John Burke's room, listening to The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill, wondering "What the hell is this that I am hearing?".
I'll admit to being a little stunned at the outpouring of sentiments on social media this morning. I guess I know a lot of people his music touched. More than I ever imagined. The stories and effect of his songs on people's lives are great to read, and I think as time passes, his legacy will grow beyond what he ever expected. Tonight I'll pull out my moldy, water-damaged copy of "Flip Your Wig" and turn it up.
5 Stellar Grant Hart Moments:
1 - Every Everything / Green Eyes ("Flip Your Wig") – the definition of post-punk, pop-punk, whatever you want to call it. A band and a songwriter at their peak. 2 great songs on a record full of great songs.
2 - Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely ("Candy Apple Grey") – Maybe the most "rock" Husker Du ever got. We were so into this when it came out. Great video too. Grant got the 2 singles off that album, deservedly so.
3 - 2541 (single) – Grant beat Bob to the first solo-career release punch with this. The song is about the house he lived in, and also the address of the Hüsker Dü office on Nicollet across from Garage D'or records in Minneapolis. My first visit to the twin cities was in 1990, with my future wife, to visit friends and see Soul Asylum play. We were in Garage D'or and Grant walked in. 20 year old me was pretty excited to say the least. I bought a (second) copy of the 2541 single for him to sign, not losing sight for one second of the irony that we were across the street from the name-sake, and we chatted about his upcoming tour and the lack of a Detroit stop. The next morning Tommy Stinson ate breakfast at the Uptown Café in the booth next to us. I was in fan-boy heaven that weekend.
4 - Pink Turns To Blue ("Zen Arcade") – C#m > A. Falsetto chorus. Another gem of a pop song with a really sad but beautiful back-story. Grant's songs on "Zen Arcade" give the album so much depth and visualization, a great contrast to Bob's more ambiguous narrative.
5 - Admiral of The Sea ("The Last Days of Pompeii" – Nova Mob) – A great song and video by Grant's post-Husker band Nova Mob. Not necessarily where I'd send a newbie, but an important early chapter in his diverse post-Hüsker Dü catalog.
I took the liberty of adding a couple videos. - Colin G.