Jon Wurster has been the longtime drummer for Superchunk and the Mountain Goats, but in his work with the Bob Mould band, he had a chance to fill the throne of one of his heroes: Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, who died Thursday at 56. Here, Wurster remembers Hart as a force of nature on the skins, as well as an utterly original personality.
“Well, damn. Those songs are going to be way harder to pull off than I thought.”
It was March 24th, 2008 and I’d just played my first show with the Bob Mould Band. Things hadn’t worked out with their regular drummer and I’d been asked to fly directly from the final date of a Mountain Goats tour in Philadelphia and join Bob’s band mid-tour in Solana Beach, CA.
I’d been a big fan of Bob’s music for decades and, for a guy like me, this was like getting to play with John Lennon. On the flight to California I studied the list of songs bassist Jason Narducy sent me. Bob was playing a career-spanning set that touched on his solo work as well as songs from his two influential bands Sugar and Hüsker Dü. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to get to play Hüsker Dü songs with Bob Mould.
The show went surprisingly well considering we had only that day’s soundcheck for rehearsal. The Hüsker Dü songs, however, were much tougher to play than I expected. Though the Twin Cities rage-pop trio provided the soundtrack to my late-teens, I’d never actually PLAYED any of those songs on the drums before that day. I thought I was a pretty good drummer but I realized I was going to have to work extra hard if I was going to come even close to replicating drummer Grant Hart’s swing, feel and…DAMN him…those lightning-fast rolls.
“His voice was … sweet and angelic one minute, menacing the next.”
Here we are almost 10 years later and I still feel like a bit of a fraud when trying to replicate Grant’s drumming when we play classics like “In a Free Land,” “Chartered Trips” and “Celebrated Summer.” I would say Grant’s were big shoes to fill but he didn’t actually wear shoes, at least not when he drummed with Hüsker Dü. He played barefoot. And that tells you something right there: the guy was different.
I first laid eyes on Grant in December of 1983. Hüsker Dü were sharing a bill with SST Records labelmates the Minutemen at Love Hall, a rundown punk dive on South Broad Street in Philadelphia. Grant was being shown around the freezing venue by the promoter before the show and I remember thinking how “un-punk” he looked in his trench coat, paisley shirt and long hair. He looked like a hippie who was on his way to see Hot Tuna but walked into the wrong club.
Any doubts I harbored were obliterated when Hüsker Dü launched into “Something I Learned Today,” the lead-off track from their upcoming double album Zen Arcade. I can only liken seeing Hüsker Dü that night to the daze of disorientation you feel after accidentally banging your head on something very hard. It was punk, it was pop, it was jazz, it was psychedelic; it was an ear-splitting swirl of sound. And at the center of the sonic hurricane was Grant Hart, arms flailing, feet flying, laying waste to every drum and cymbal in his path.
His drumming alone is enough to secure Grant Hart a place in the alt-rock history books, but that’s only part of his story. Grant was a top-shelf songwriter, penning and handling lead vocals on Hüsker Dü classics like “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” “Diane,” “Green Eyes” and “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.”
And what a voice. His was arguably the best to come out of the post-punk/hardcore/alternative scene: sweet and angelic one minute, menacing the next. Grant also handled much of the band’s visual side, designing Hüsker Dü’s album covers and helping other bands with theirs, most notably the Replacements’ 1983 LP, Hootenanny.
It’s no secret that Hüsker Dü didn’t end on the best of terms in late-1987. It’s also no secret that Grant struggled with personal demons and engaged in self-sabotaging behavior that often kept him from realizing his full post-Huskers potential. But he continued writing songs and making records, many of them outstanding. “The Main,” a haunting, piano-driven waltz from his 1989 album Intolerance is one of the most powerful songs ever written about the nightmare of drug addiction.
I only met Grant a few times: brief hellos in the mid-Eighties and an awkward phone conversation in the early Nineties. Superchunk was playing at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club and I had a faulty snare drum hoop that needed replacing. One of the club’s employees put me on the phone with “Greg” – a local drummer who might be of help. “What kind of drum is it?” Greg asked. “The company’s name is Darwin,” I replied. “Darwin?!” Greg laughed, “Doesn’t sound like the evolution of drums to me.” Turns out I misheard the name. It was Grant, and his response could not have been more tell-it-like-it-is Grantastic.
About six years ago I went to see Grant play at the Cave, a tiny, stage-less beer joint in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I spotted Grant in a corner booth and asked him to sign my weathered copies of Zen Arcade and Flip Your Wig. He placed the albums on the table and studied them intensely until he found just the right places to sign.
When I mentioned I played with Bob Mould he perked up and asked me to sit down. I would say we talked for an hour but that would be inaccurate. I listened to Grant talk for an hour on a variety of subjects: travel, record-making, relationships and, of course, Hüsker Dü. I loved it. For a guy like me, it was like getting an audience with Paul McCartney.
The show that night at the Cave was an intimate affair. A popular garage band was playing just up the block so only a handful of people came out, but Grant was in good form. He may have looked frail but the voice was still there, belting out “Flexible Flyer,” “2541” and “California Zephyr.” He even took my request for “Now That You Know Me,” one of the last new songs Hüsker Dü worked up before imploding.
After the show, I felt a little sad as I watched the club owner hand Grant a small wad of twenties. Grant knew he was worth more. Everyone in that room knew he was worth more.