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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: Bob Mould's 'See a Little Light'

Bob Mould at The Current in 2015.
Bob Mould at The Current in 2015.MPR photo/Nate Ryan

by Jay Gabler

October 08, 2020

The most paradigmatic line in Bob Mould's memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (buy now) may come when the author's describing the dissolution of his band Sugar, which came as an unwelcome surprise to drummer Malcolm Travis. "Does anybody out there," writes Mould, "have a handbook for how to do this?"

Mould is unique as an artist, and he's accordingly unique as an artist-author. Whereas most musicians only refer to the business side of their profession in the context of describing how they got screwed, Mould has never shied away from crunching the numbers and reading the contracts. When he sat down to write See a Little Light, in multiple senses of the word he had the receipts. (He even read, and cites, his old interviews.)

The book came out in 2011; we're revisiting it this week since a portion of the audiobook is excerpted in the latest episode of The Current Rewind podcast, centered on the night Mould's band Hüsker Dü shared a First Avenue stage with Bad Brains and Sweet Taste of Afrika. Unfortunately, Mould's memories of Bad Brains are not positive: he recalls them crashing at bandmate Grant Hart's house and leaving a homophobic note behind.

Since 2011, the world has had multiple occasions to reflect on the legacy of Hüsker Dü. Grant Hart died in 2017, prompting Mould to write, "Grant Hart was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember." The Current told the band's story in a podcast accompanying the release of a revelatory box set. Now, Mould is back with an urgent new album that speaks squarely to our shared moment in 2020.

Mould has spent plenty of time in the gym, so if he reads this he may appreciate that in considering his career, I'm put in mind of what my own gym coach said at the beginning of a virtual class this week: "You're not going to win this workout in the first five minutes...but if you push too hard, you can definitely lose this workout in that time." Mould didn't lose his multi-decade musical workout, although eight years in Hüsker Dü would seem like the dictionary definition of "pushing too hard."

"In Hüsker Dü," he writes in See a Little Light, "the three members were in a constant race — the tempos went faster, and the beat became a blur." As frenzied as the band were onstage, though, and as much as Mould drank in those years (he seems mildly astonished at how deeply some of his recorded material from that era connected with fans, given how much he was drinking at the sessions), Hüsker Dü never tended toward self-destruction. In a poignant passage, he remembers life on the road.

"The dynamic in the van was very respectful," he writes. "We all smoked, so that wasn't a problem for anyone. And if someone saw something on the side of the road, some goofy roadside attraction, we'd always pull over and take a look, no questions asked."

Onstage, Mould tried to take care not to let the moshers smash his microphone against his mouth. No one bashed their instruments into the monitor board or left the kind of generalized devastation Mould would encounter when an early '90s tour tracked behind Nirvana. "I understood why the whole crew at the club was upset at Nirvana," Mould writes about the monitor incident. "But I also knew what it meant in the greater scheme. Nirvana was turning things upside down. They were going to be huge, and things were going to change in a big way."

Mould describes his relationship with Paul Westerberg and the Replacements mostly in friendly-at-a-distance terms, but they were inevitably twinned as acclaimed punk bands (while we might not now call them "punk" in the classic sense, that was how the scene described itself) coming out of Minnesota in the '80s. The parallels continue through the end of that decade, when both Mould and Westerberg launched new projects that gained them a level of mainstream visibility they'd never had in the then-legendary bands that profoundly influenced the Seattle scene.

For Mould, that meant Sugar. His spirit somewhat lightened by his freedom from Hüsker Dü (poignant as that band's dissolution, clouded by conflict and Hart's heroin addiction, was) and the success of his solo debut Workbook, Mould wrote the poppiest material of his life but was in no danger of losing his indie cred — at least, not for the hundreds of thousands of new listeners he was attracting with songs like "If I Can't Change Your Mind" and "Changes."

Through artistic integrity, a business savvy that largely kept him from having to make musical choices purely for profit's sake, and sobriety (at least from alcohol, and he says quitting smoking was way harder), Mould has maintained a successful and respected musical career since he first picked up a guitar as a teenage boy in upstate New York. The end of Hüsker Dü was messy and sad, but Mould made a clean break, reuniting onstage with Hart only once. That meant he hasn't been tethered to his legacy; a clear point of contention with Hart was the fact that Mould told press he wanted to let the music do the talking, while Hart continued to do his own talking about that era and, suffice it to say, didn't always have the sunniest things to say.

Instead of dwelling on that era, Mould uses See a Little Light to write about his personal journey as a gay man who's spent half a century simply trying to understand himself and forge meaningful connections. Much of the book is about his personal relationships, including three long-term relationships and a range of shorter-lived ones. The fascination of the book is in the way that Mould brings his highly analytical mind to bear on art and love, two inherently subjective pursuits.

In that respect it's not unlike the superb recent memoir by Jeff Tweedy, who's equally self-aware and conscious that while you can't make inspiration strike, you can at least try not to sabotage it. "My business philosophy boils down to three basic points," he writes. "Don't promise what you can't deliver, know what you're worth, and show up on time."

As a musician, this gives him a particularly clear-eyed view on his own catalog. Regarding one of Hüsker Dü’s cult classics, he writes, "Zen Arcade means a whole lot more to others than it does to me. I began to outgrow and move beyond those feelings almost at the moment I documented them." At the other end of the continuum is Modulate, his 2002 electronic album that received stinging reviews; in retrospect, he allows that a collaborator more experienced in the genre might have yielded better results than the D.I.Y. approach.

Mould writes openly, if relatively briefly (as memoirs go), about his family background, including an abusive father and adult revelations of sexual abuse by a babysitter. While he didn't stick around the Twin Cities after the 1980s (the end of a relationship precipitated a move to Hoboken, later followed by time spent in various cities across the country), Mould has certainly always known he never wanted to move back home. In See a Little Light, he describes Minneapolis as "my city of musical birth" and describes a warm 2009 return that included a triumphant Varsity Theater show, a master class at McNally Smith (where his early musical hero Chris Osgood of Suicide Commandos was then teaching), and a session at The Current with "my friend Mary Lucia."

He's equally candid with his falling-out with Hart and Norton, leaving little ambiguity as to why there was never a Hüsker Dü reunion. His account of his musical journey in the succeeding decades makes clear that his musical career has never been by-the-numbers; he crystallized his current band with bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster in 2008, after years of musical experimentation that included everything from solo acoustic shows (including, in one case, immediately following Nirvana at a German festival) to DJ gigs with dance music artist Richard Morel as Blowoff.

"At many music festivals," Mould writes, "there's usually a legacy act that shows up and plays the hits but doesn't know anything about current music. Had it not been for Blowoff, I might have become that guy."

The book is bursting with almost too much to take in with just a single reading, but other highlights include:

  • Hüsker Dü’s coffee recipe: a basket full of grounds plus a gram of crystal meth "for a little extra kick."

  • Mould's beef with the 'Mats. "They weren't really a part of the community...they didn't give back the way Hüsker Dü gave back."

  • The downside of cocaine. "It really causes creepy behavior." Mould kicked the habit after a brief stint as a dealer/user, during which he supplied the Jets' session guitarist with an eight-ball while the family band were recording their hit debut album on Nicollet Avenue next to Hüsker Dü’s band office.

  • How Hüsker Dü justified their major-label signing to their indie-minded fans. "They singed Hüsker Dü because they liked Hüsker Dü," Mould wrote in a fanzine, "and not because they think we will be the next Rick Springfield."

  • Hüsker Dü’s first choice for a producer on Warner Bros. "We started at the top: George Martin." They ended up self-producing Candy Apple Grey.

  • Why Mould didn't last long at Paisley Park. "Outside of Sheila E.’s drums and Prince's scarves on the wall, Paisley had an antiseptic vibe, a blend of airport terminal and hospital waiting room," Mould writes about his short-lived 1988 sessions there.

  • What Mould ate while recording Black Sheets of Rain at the Power Station in Manhattan: Whitney Houston's catering leftovers. "We dined like royalty on the scraps of the then reigning queen of pop.

  • How Mould ended up writing the theme to The Daily Show: his old Minneapolis friend Lizz Winstead, the show's co-creator, asked him if he had any tracks to share. The winner was an outtake from Mould's self-titled 1996 album, originally called "Dog on Fire." Later rerecorded, it's "probably my most heard song ever."

  • Mould's stint writing for World Championship Wrestling: a longtime fan, Mould was hired after unsuccessfully, but plausibly, pitching a storyline to none other than Hulk Hogan. What he calls his "dream job" ended in 2000, when management cleared out the creative room.

"Notoriety, or recognition, is like a diamond," Mould writes. "You start to turn it, and when the light hits it, you see there are all these wild little facets inside." In See a Little Light, Mould reveals many of his own facets to his many, amply gratified, fans.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 15: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (buy now)

October 22: Mirror Sound: A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad (buy now)

October 29: 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die: A Guide to the Monsters of Rock and Metal by Bruno MacDonald (buy now)

November 5: Violet Bent Backward Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey