Hüsker Dü filled the same niche for me that Depeche Mode or the Cure filled for other alt-leaning Gen X teens, a vicarious vehicle for the sentimental side of adolescent angst.
I discovered them through an episode of 21 Jump Street, where a promo poster for Zen Arcade hung prominently in a safe-for-TV “punk rock” kid’s bedroom. The punk scene at the time was utterly moribund, especially in my suburban neck of the woods. The artsier and hipper crowd had moved on to more pretentious scenes, while the lowbrow aggro types embraced the mosh-friendly sounds of thrash metal. What remained of the punk scene up here was confined to small pockets of mutual mistrust, and gravitated to local knuckle-dragging hardcore acts or equally meat-headed import Oi nonsense.
When I drifted into punk in the first half of 1989, I was largely on my own. It wasn’t unmapped territory as much as a post-apocalyptic landscape, where one had to deduce the contours of a dead era though random scraps and de-contextualized artifacts — Repo Man and its soundtrack, “Nice Price” copies of Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s albums, a syndicated re-run of that WKRP episode with “The Scum of the Earth,” and whatever meager remnants remained in stock at the hipper record stores in the area.
It didn’t matter that 21 Jump Street was a pretty stupid show to begin with and grown more painfully so by the time I caught that particular episode. Every new lead was worth chasing, even if it resulted in a dead end, and every new discovery felt like a revelation from Punk Rock Heaven. Even better, the tiny punk/hardcore/metal section at Newbury Comics in Burlington was well-stocked with Hüsker Dü material.
I started at the bitter end with Warehouse: Songs and Stories, mainly because I was fascinated by its hypnotically garish sleeve art. The music was not at all what I expected, more melodic than the other stuff I was listening to at the time yet rougher-edged than more radio-friendly alt-radio acts.
There was a sad wistfulness about it all that spoke to me on a deeply personal level. Black Flag sang to the person I pretended to be. Hüsker Dü sang to the person I actually was, a confused and resentful teen plagued by hormonal angst and desperately searching for a sense of community.
I took it extremely personally when a girl I was interested in called the band “Hunka Poo,” so there was also some self-fulfilling prophecy involved.
From there I moved on to Flip Your Wig and moved backwards through New Day Rising and Zen Arcade, charting the band’s evolution from hardcore noise to slightly less noisy pop music in reverse. I loved them all but Flip Your Wig will forever be apex Dü for me, everything I loved about Warehouse presented in its purest and most potent form.
In my forty-five years on this planet, there have been handful of albums that utterly astounded me on the first spin — goose-flesh raising, shorthairs-grabbing, heart-wrenching efforts capable of paralyzing me with their perfection. They’re records capable of convincing you that they have been recorded just for your ears, evoking a powerful (and unsettling) sense of intimacy. Flip Your Wig is one of those albums. (You can try and guess the others.)
The band was a done deal by the time I discovered them. I knew nothing about the politics of their break-up, but witnessed the division into rival Bob Mould and Grant Hart camps in the retail realm, where the successor act merch and releases were racked as a subsets to their progenitor. When I ran into other Hüsker Dü fans in college, I’d get asked “Sugar or Nova Mob?” I couldn’t provide an answer because that’s not how I ever considered the band.
Hüsker Dü’s magic was similar to that of The Clash — a single sound with two distinct voices. The creative tensions between Bob Mould and Grant Hart eventually led to the band’s acrimonious dissolution, but their collaborative rivalry resulted in the whole greatly exceeding the sum of its parts. From their first release to their last, Hüsker Dü was engaged in a continuous process of becoming. There were no creative plateaus or calcification there, just reaching for something just beyond their current horizon.
The same qualities that enraptured my teenage self have since turned into reasons I’ve distanced myself from their music in the years since. The songs haven’t diminished in power, but neither have the personal associations they possess for me. The connection runs so deep that it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s doesn’t matter that almost three decades have passed since then — as soon as I hear the opening bars of “Makes No Sense at All” or “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” all the hurt and angst I felt back then comes screaming forth as fresh as ever.