Wednesday, May 4, 2016
See a Little Light - Bob Mould (with Michael Azzerad) (2011)
I first became aware of Bob Mould and Husker Du in late 2003. I forget what spurred me to ask for Our Band Could Be Your Life for Christmas that year, but it had only been out for a couple years, and I tore through it rapidly. My memory must be off because I recall also getting Mission of Burma's Vs. and Husker Du's New Day Rising on that day. Whatever, it was basically my junior year of college that I got into them. I had also been aware of them via the Dennis Cooper novel Try, in which the main character is a real fanboy.
Soon after New Day Rising, I got a burnt copy of Zen Arcade. About a year later, after college, I picked up Flip Your Wig. Not long after that, I saw Bob Mould play at the Metro in Chicago, on the Body of Song tour. Of course during this time I was clamoring for all of the OBCBYL bands to reunite so I could see them live. Mission of Burma did, and soon after so did Dinosaur Jr. Husker Du never did, and apparently never will, even though rumors will always continue to swirl, such as last year when they decided to reissue some of their merchandising. Bob Mould just plays some Husker Du songs live, and that will be as good as it gets.
The chapter from OBCBYL on Husker Du is one of the best. Most chapters would make me want to listen to the band in question, if I hadn't heard them before. Their music fit my taste: loud, fast, angry/anguished. Perhaps more intriguing is that 2 of their 3 members were gay. They were sort of a mysterious band to me, and I was really into them from about 2003 through 2007 (though I've always listened to their albums), then my ardor sort of faded. I'd check out the last few Bob Mould albums, but a true reunion was the only thing that would have really excited me.
Enter Mould's latest album, released a little over a month ago in late March 2016. It was probably the Pitchfork review that did it, reminding me that he had actually released a memoir. I remember hearing about it when it was released, but I guess I was distracted in law school or whatever in 2011. Anyways I put a hold on it at the CPL, and voila, it arrives quickly and now continues along our path of indie rock memoirs after Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.
It's hard to compare the three. I don't want to say any single one is the best. The most obvious thing is that Mould's is the biggest. It's definitely the longest, around 380 pages, and it feels more revealing than the other two, even though one could not call either Gordon's or Brownstein's opaque. Here is the best way I can differentiate them: theirs are more poetic and impressionistic; Mould's is more intricately detailed and informative. One might say that Mould's is less edited, but the book is credited "with" Michael Azzerad, who is, of course, the author of OBCBYL. So yeah, maybe it is a little more bloated, but I found pretty much the whole thing entertaining. I guess him and Kim Gordon have been active in the music scene for roughly the same amount of time, but the kinds of songs they write are quite different, and that translates to different styles of memoir. But enough with the comparisons--most people are not going to blindly pick up See a Little Light, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, or Girl in a Band unless they're already familiar with the artists. All three are great.
If what was previously known about Husker Du was mysterious, then this book changes everything. Mould is completely open and honest throughout the entire narrative, and he provides very detailed accounts of his entire musical journey, from his early upbringing, through Husker Du, his early solo work, Sugar, his shift to electronica, and back. Perhaps sensing that he is kind of a unique figure in the larger scheme of gay rights, he writes quite eloquently on the topic. Obviously, apart from interband tensions (only a small portion of which overlap with such themes), this is the major "drama" of the memoir. Most of the passages I would like to quote, the most compelling portions of the text, are on this topic.
But also, like OBCBYL, this book made me rediscover some older material. I had never really heard "Eight Miles High," a cover song that I would probably rank in their top 5. I had never really explored Candy Apple Grey or Warehouse either--not even Metal Circus to be honest. I had Land Speed Record but I still haven't really heard Everything Falls Apart. As for Sugar, the only thing I previously heard was File Under: Easy Listening, which I bought in the summer of 2007 on my road trip through the U.S. from some random record store in the Midwest for a few bucks. Copper Blue and Beaster seem to be the more definitive releases, and Mould mentions the Beaster track "JC Auto" several times, and yes, it is a really intense and awesome song. Also interesting is that "Gift" from FU:EL, which I considered that album's best song, features a guitar pedal that Kevin Shields lent to Mould, the same one used on "You Made Me Realise." Mould was also heavily influenced by Loveless at the time of its release.
Mould also moved around the country a lot. Off the top of my head, he is born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, then moves to Minneapolis for college, and lives there until Husker Du becomes big enough that he can purchase a home in a rural suburb, where he lives through their end. After that, he moves to New York City (being something of a pioneer in Williamsburg), then Austin, then back to NYC, then Washington D.C., and finally ends in San Francisco. I feel like I'm missing a couple places in there, but whatever.
Anyways, I've finally returned from a weekend away in which I neglected to bring the book and reflected upon it in absentia. I went to see my sister graduate from college and I brought way too much stuff for a two night stay as it was. Here is one of the aforementioned promised quotes.
First, I would quote the whole opening of Chapter 17, but its not necessarily poetic. It just tells the story of how Dennis Cooper interviewed him for Spin:
"The writer Dennis Cooper was a huge Husker Du fan. He'd even touched on the band in one or two of his novels. Now he was trying to build a name for himself as a journalist. Dennis Cooper is gay. So in the summer of 1994, Spin magazine asked Ryko, How about we send Dennis Cooper down to Austin to spend some time with Bob?
I knew what was about to happen. This was to be the "Bob is gay" story, and I could do this the easy way or the hard way. I wasn't thrilled about it for a number of reasons, beyond personal ones. My first concerns were that this news would make it tough for my family, and that my fans and peers would recontextualize everything I had done with my work. I also knew that the press was always going to write whatever they were going to write. I could try to steer the story the way I wanted it to read, but ultimately, editorial always wins out. It's the business." (221)
Okay, I'm having trouble locating the one really poetic passage about how people might start interpreting the meaning of the songs differently after they found out he was gay. He writes about how the themes of his music are universal and apply regardless of gender and sexuality. Except for one instance, which comes amidst the description of side two of Zen Arcade:
"A lot of side two is my blind rage and self-hatred, my failed relationships, and my confusing sex with love. That whole side was a blur while recording. It sounds like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass. Some of the words and ideas seem misguided now, but history has proven they're made of a lasting substance. Gay people have always pegged "The Biggest Lie" as a gay song, and it is, seeing as it was informed by a sexual misadventure with a straight friend. It was about me hoping an awkward physical tumble would turn into something more, and it not happening." (90)
Later, Mould mentions that the only part of his oeuvre that he will not revisit is this part of Zen Arcade and it is upsetting to think that we will never get to hear "I'll Never Forget You" performed live again.
Mould also tells the surprising story of how he briefly worked for the WCW in the late 90's. He also fairly casually mentions how he started taking steroids after four weeks on the job. He doesn't seem to mention stopping them, though one presumes that was the case. He also tells the fairly insane story of the wrestler Chris Benoit from his perspective.
But it is the stories of his relationships with Michael and Kevin that are ultimately some of the most painful:
"I had been faithful to Mike, faithful to Kevin, and now I was single. Everything was open and new. I'd been unhitched for one month in the last twenty-one years. Now I was learning the ropes of dating and casual sex in D,C. I had my freedom, but I knew I had to be somewhat cautious. I said to Rich, keep an eye on me and tell me if I start acting stupid. I don't think I ever got too crazy." (333)
The ending of the book pretty much tells the story of how he never really embraced the gay community or the gay lifestyle until this period in his life. The story of how he meets up with another gay blogger is "both comical and sad" and quite endearing, such as his disappointment with the dude being heavier than his pictures looked, but still being intimate despite a few other sketchy details.
Along the way there are some pretty good stories about other indie rock luminaries, and reflections on what it means to be "out" and his life's work (up to age 50). He ends the book by saying that it has been a pretty good first 50 years and he is excited for what is to come.
Are you jealous?
Sure. After reading this book, try and tell me that you could have a more interesting and entertaining life. Not necessarily everyone wants and interesting and entertaining life, and I'm sure many would not want to have the experiences Mould has had. The book is brimming with trauma, but I suppose that's the sort of material that makes for the best writing.
Take, for example, people who would never smoke:
"I started smoking a pack a day at the beginning of college, and by the end, I was up to three packs a day. Smoking had become both the centerpiece and timepiece of my life. Every cigarette was six minutes long, and I could practically mark out the whole day with smoking, like a sundial. Six minutes on, nine minutes off. Repeat sixty times a day. It was like playing Scrabble: when it's your turn, you turn over the egg timer and start thinking. I have an innate sense of time, but smoking was this additional timekeeper, like a wristwatch." (258)
You see, some people smoke and are just lazy, and other people that smoke are like super successful and amazing. In short, while I could never say there is any "right" way to smoke, using it as a timekeeper through sporadic bursts of energy sounds nice in theory, but I don't think that's normally the way it is in practice. Mould quits when he is 37, and also starts to make other changes in his life. It's the focus on these kind of personal details that make this memoir so well-rounded.
There is not much more to say except that Mould is playing the Metro again, two days from now! I just found this out a day or two ago. Though it is sold out, I may try to go. His newest album is very good, as have been his last few. I'd imagine he can build a pretty strong setlist with his entire discography. So, I guess this book came around at the perfect time for me, just in time to remind me that I should go.