(St. Paul, Minnesota) If you’re saying to yourself “Bob who?” then you probably didn’t exist yet in the 1980s, but he’s no dinosaur act. He’s a living legend. When American hardcore was just beginning to emerge in the very late 70s, Hüsker Dü was the most original act in the Midwest and Black Flag signed them on their SST label after only a year of playing shows. Hardcore was very new, and terribly frightening to normal people, whom it was not for. To the normies it sounded (to quote Iggy Pop) “like a big load of trashy old noise” but it was, in fact (to quote him again) “the brilliant music of a genius.” Three of these geniuses were Grant Hart, Greg Norton, and Bob Mould. Hüsker Dü.
After a few early punk records they broke from the pack. Hüsker Dü was one of the most crucial bands that evolved hardcore into something more eclectic and melodic. “Diane” from 1983’s Metal Circus in particular became a college radio staple. And the following album Zen Arcade changed the creative direction of many important musicians across the country.
Zip to the present. Grant Hart passed away in 2017, dashing hopes of a reunion. But what I witnessed at the Turf Club is the next best thing (I just got home ten minutes ago). I watched Bob Mould onstage alone with a Stratocaster, making it happen to the extent it can. He didn’t stop writing after Hüsker Dü folded. He’s released eighteen records since then (counting the three Sugar albums), and right now he’s in top form.
The Turf Club show tonight was the end of a tour that started in August, and this show wasn’t even on the list of dates I found. Two Minnesota shows were added at the end. 21 gigs in all, and the last eighteen were without a backing band.
He does not need one.
The opening act for those 18 solo dates was Jason Narducy. His first punk rock band, Verboten, led Dave Grohl to pursue rock. He’s worked with Superchunk, Liz Phair, Ed Vedder, The Pretenders, and Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices (among others), but you’d never know it from his look and demeanor. He comes off as a normal family guy (which he is) who you might find standing at your door delivering for Amazon. He is deeply talented. His set was passionate and engrossing. One song in particular (I don’t know the title and he’s not yet recorded it) was especially beautiful, a simple lullaby he wrote for his daughter. It’s magical.
When he finished I found an open spot at the edge of stage right, my pockets full of lenses and camera batteries, knowing that I’d get more photos of Bob Mould’s face from that position whenever he would glance my way at his Stratocaster’s fretboard. Then someone appeared behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
“You know you’re in my spot, right?” I turned and decided that it was, indeed, his spot. He was about twice my size and was gearing up for a confrontation. I don’t do those. They’re ugly and they hang in my mind like ghouls for weeks, sometimes years.
“Let’s be friends,” I responded. “You stand in front of me and I’ll shoot over your shoulder.” He mulled this over and agreed to my pretend compromise. De-escalation successful. I was simply giving him the spot back. And, really, I don’t have a “spot.” I’m all over the place shooting from all available angles for the duration in the least obtrusive way possible. I learned long ago how to slip through a tight crowd like a snake without being bothersome.
Then Bob Mould bounded up the stage steps to cheers. He started his set with three Hüsker Dü songs right from the start: “Flip Your Wig,” “Hate Paper Doll,“ and “I Apologize” then he greeted everyone, stating that this was the last show of his tour and a woman hollered out “Your Hometown!” and Mould acknowledged that saying “Yes, my hometown. This is where I got edumacated” and launched into “Hoover Dam,” a Sugar song (the band he formed after Hüsker Dü).
Next was “Siberian Butterfly” from his most recent record Blue Hearts. The lyrics appear at a glance to be about the negative impact humans have on nature, but to me it rings truer that it is saying that if you treat yourself poorly the immeasurable value within escapes your grasp and that serves no one.
Across this land there are no nature scenes
Instead you drill and pillage everything of beauty
In your biosphere you pin these wings so dear
If you touch my chitin surely I will disappear
You can’t see me, you can’t feel me
You can’t touch me, you can’t keep me
My Siberian butterfly
When the song concluded he stabbed at his Stratocaster and asked the soundboard technician for an adjustment in the inscrutable jargon of their industry. Another stab at those six strings. I couldn’t detect any difference but I’m sure he did because he smiled and nodded. “I’m Sorry, Baby But You Can’t Stand In My Light Anymore” began and filled the room like a glow. This song isn’t open to interpretation like “Siberian Butterfly.” It’s a relationship exit song. Simple and honest and not unkind to whomever it was about (if that was the case).
This gentle goodbye song flipped into the ripping, introspective “The Descent.” Sweat was beading on his face and he said to himself “All right Bob, slow down,” guitar squeak-sqealing random feedback, and then immediately didn’t slow down, tearing into “Forecast of Rain” with its overtones of religious disillusionment which hint at apocalypse. And it struck me that the absence of a bassist and a drummer made no difference at all. Mould is a band unto himself, because that careened my spirit around and whipped it back at itself. All he needs is a Fender and an amp to punch into.
This was followed by “Next Generation” which is clearly about how the next one is going to be screwed by us all. (And he’s right.) It’s from 2020’s Blue Hearts and leans into the zeitgeist of that awful year.
Come and see hypocrisy 20/20 now
Come and see hypocrisy
Parts are breaking now
Parts are breaking now
World is breaking down
(Calm down, calm down, calm down)
All this breaking down
(Calm down, calm down, calm down)
His voice soars and dives those lines with a compelling urgency amid these sense of futility, almost as if some part of him deep inside that does not deal in rationality believes that if he attacks the song just a little harder, the complex collapse happening globally will end, or at least slow down enough to give us all a fighting chance. I realize that sounds like a stretch, but that’s what I sensed. There was a desperation in there. In him.
And then he shuts the song off like a light switch and allows a few moments of applause and hooting before asking “Oh man, so I guess a new song’s just happened. Can I play something?” Lots of clapping and approval. Someone shouted “Always!”
“This new song is called Breathing Room.” It is downbeat and sturdy. He explores his voice widely through a dirge of guitar. Rumbling it along with the Fender and singing it in unexpected perfect directions that only seem random because no one’s heard this one yet.
During this, people started being nice to me. In that they saw me at work with my camera and offered me their vantage point. I would accept, shoot for maybe five or ten seconds and then slip behind them, giving them their place back. Someone else would notice and do likewise. This happened four times during Breathing Room as I worked my way around the stage. People weren’t getting out of my way – I wasn’t trying to go places. They were offering. I think the sense of community Mould’s performance engendered was behind this. There was a feeling of unity in the room that I felt very much a part of.
Since I was concentrating visually, the song was passing through me ungrasped for, until his voice rose high, each repeated line coming from slightly different sonic angles, with almost auto-tuned perfect pitch:
Safe inside my breathing room
Safe inside my breathing room
Safe inside my breathing room
And, again, off like a switch.
That was followed by “Hard To Get” and after that everything changed.
“Hardly Getting Over It” began and the anatomy just under my chin but above my neck tightened and the viewfinder blurred with tears so I let my camera fall to my chest and closed my eyes and allowed myself to just feel comforted in the arms of this song. Halfway through, I reopened my eyes and noticed that everyone was swaying in unison and that I was not the only person experiencing strong emotions.
Amid the roar of applause someone nearby against the stage called out “Thank you for THAT one!”
(And sitting here at home writing this, I decided to put that record on and discovered that Candy Apple Grey is the only Hüsker Dü album I haven’t bought (or it suffered a sudden massive existence failure). Bah! So I just got back from Discogs’ tiny little store on my phone. So strange, millions of record available from a micro-dot. Anyhow, back to our regularly scheduled program…)
As the audience recovered, Mould said “So last night I talked a whole bunch about politics…” (The previous night he played at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis and many in this audience were also in that one.)
“Tell us again!” shouted someone, drowning out another person yelling something about Macalester College (which Mould once attended).
“Macalester!” he replied. “I loved Macalester. I wish I’d gone in the 60s when if you protested all day you got a 4.0! I would’ve maybe finished.”
“It’s never too late.” encouraged another person.
“Yes, I know. It’s never too late. I should go back.” Then dropping his voice to mock-humble: “I should quit my day job and go back to college. In my advanced stage my brain doesn’t work so well so maybe some extra schooling would help me.” Any further vocational discussion was cut off by growling random chord changes from his Fender, as if it was getting impatient.
“Oh Hey, More new Stuff! It’s either politics and religion or more new stuff. I wannna play more new stuff.”
“New Stuff!!” yelled everyone.
“This one’s called “When Your Heart Is Broken.” It’s a strident song with a repetitive hook and a sweet bridge. The title phrase starts many of the lines, all which describe different aspects of how heartbreak feels or what loss of love entails. A very strait-forward song.
“Celebrated Summer” from New Day Rising was next, and the packed room jammed with it hard. The song is all about making the most of Summer while it lasts, and not squandering it:
Love and hate was in the air like pollen from a flower
Somewhere in April time, they add another hour
I guess I better think up a way to spend my time
Just when I’m ready to sit inside, it’s summertime
Should I go swimming or get a friend to hang around
It’s a happy, bouncy song. But what I love most about it is the ending. It drops to a soft quiet, very Minnesotan outro:
Do you remember when the first snowfall fell?
Was that your celebrated summer?
(Just now looked out my window and noticed our first snowfall here as I wrote that sentence. A splendid coincidence.)
As the applause fell away, Mould thanked us for “coming out on a school night,” and asked “So what’s going on in Minnesota? There’s this new Democratic Presidential hopeful?” There were jeers and cheers, but mostly jeers. Then he told us about how when he lived in Germany for almost four years that “they have, like, six parties which makes it really interesting,” adding that it’s a good way to do it. “I don’t know about 2 and a half or three. But I like six because the winning party usually gets like 29 or 34 percent or something like that but then they have to go and make a coalition with two other parties and it’s pretty crazy because they have far left and then there’s super far right crazy attack dog neo-nazi weirdos who don’t seem to be getting a whole lot of traction, which is nice because over here it seems like they are.”
He paused and made some cranky noise, fidgeting with his guitar and mulling how to approach what he wanted to say next. “But I like that system, but what I don’t like is people coming after the LGBTQ+, especially the Trans community right now. What the fuck? Can we just stop with the hate nonsense? Where in the Bible does it say ‘marginalize people who don’t worship the way we do?’ I thought that the whole idea of separating church and state was intentional. And the last time I checked the churches get a really nice tax break that I don’t get because MY imaginary friend doesn’t get me that tax break. Nor does my accountant.
“This month I wasn’t doing a lot of politic talk but I said something in Cleveland, and after the show two couples with Trans kids came up to me afterward and were just like ‘Thank you so much for saying that, we’re really freaking out because this is so weird. And then Kalamazoo, same thing. Indianapolis, Trans folk coming up and saying thank you. The world is hard enough even when it’s going well. I wish everybody would lay back and stay out of my bedroom and stay out of everybody else’s gender and family medical issues.” He opened his arm to everyone as if pleading the obvious. It seemed there was ubiquitous agreement throughout the audience. It was encouraging, and it put a smile on his face.
“Anyway, this is called Voices In My Head.” And, just like that, we were rocking out again. The lyrics more clear than usual (perhaps because he had just spoke at length). His voice leaping with words over the grinding guitar rhythm.
Next was “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” a classic example of his love for (and emphasis on) melody. Then the instantly recocnizable classic “See A Little Light” began along with the euphoric boost the song creates in the heart.
I see a little light
I know you will
I can see it in your eyes
I know you still care
But if you want me to go
You should just say so
The peak notes near the end did not seem to be a reach for him, and I sensed that he gets great joy from the intensity of the endings of many of his songs. The chaotic “Something I Learned Today” from Zen Arcade was next, and again I was struck by how he manages to drill the song into everyone without the rest of Hüsker Dü. His voice simply has that much power and he has complete command of it, and can dial the volume and emotion up to eleven when it’s time to, with brilliant clarity.
This was followed by “In A Free Land, one of Hüsker Dü’s earliest songs from 1982. You could call it a ‘deep cut’ if not for the fact that it was commonly played throughout the band’s years of touring.
Then a fun surprise, at least for me, and I had to smile and roll my eyes a bit for my town. The Twin Cities has this strange sort of sad tendency to get clingy with any claim to fame, no matter how minor, that happens to come its way. The opening sequence of the 1970’s sit-com The Mary Tyler-Moore Show is one such example. The house pictured during the opening song “Love Is All Around” by Sonny Curtis (“You’re gonna make it after all!”) is a local landmark and in 2002 a bronze statue of Mary tossing her hat in the air was erected on Nicollet Mall downtown in the spot where that iconic shot was filmed.
Mould really nailed that show’s theme song. He wasn’t trying to be silly about it. He was sincerely gifting us with how it would’ve sounded were it a Bob Mould song. A breath later we were hit with “Makes No Sense At All.” We all knew his performance (and his tour) were only a scant few minutes from overwith, and we were making the most of it. I had tucked my camera away and was dancing with everyone around me. We all were wearing the same joyful smile with our arms in the air and singing with Bob.
“Goodnight St. Paul!” he called out as he made his exit.
Then the house lights came on and I was suddenly standing in a bar. It had for a span, been so much more.
Article/Images: Joe Cunningham
1. Flip Your Wig
2. Hate Paper Doll
3. I Apologize
4. Hoover Dam
5. Siberian Butterfly
6. I’m Sorry, Baby But You Can’t Stand In My Light Anymore
7. The Descent
8. Forecast of Rain
9. Next Generation
10. Breathing Room
11. Hard To Get
12. Hardly Getting Over it
13. When Your Heart Is Broken
14. Celebrated Summer
15. Voices In My Head
16. I Can’t Change Your Mind
17. See A light
18. Something I Learned Today
19. In A Free Land
20. Love Is All Around
21. Makes No Sense At All