Bob Mould needed punk rock. For a big, angry, closeted math-whiz teenager in the outer reaches of upstate New York—where the record store was an hour away, in the metropolis of Plattsburgh—listening to the Ramones, studying the sleeve the record came in, showed what might be possible for him. He could do what they do, he thought. And in fact he did: After moving to Minnesota for college, he and two friends started the pioneering hard-core band Hüsker Dü (named after a board game where the kids could beat the adults). Noisy, speedy—and at least as far as the musicians themselves, high on speed—the band, with Mould as its lumpen front man, combined post-teen provocation and melodic confessionalism in a way that perfectly captured the seesawing, self-protective anxieties of being young. Mould screamed a lot, but underneath was a yearning desire to be understood.Take a song like “Everything Falls Apart”: “I got nothing to do / You got nothing to say / Everything is so fucked up / I guess we like it that way.” It’s a catchy tune that combines those early Hüsker themes. Mould calls it “despair meets resignation.”
Hüsker Dü ended in 1987, and Mould has been experimenting his way out of that balefulness ever since. Punk, as a way of organizing yourself aesthetically, can be a scorched-Earth truth, but Mould is 50 now, and that ethos hasn’t been age-appropriate for some time. So he’s doing his best to find contentment.
That’s one reason he wrote his new memoir, See a Little Light, with Michael Azerrad (Little, Brown & Co., $24.99). It shares a title with one of his not-so-hopeless solo songs. In addition to being a detailed document of punk’s rise to the middle of the culture (including Mould’s successful, though ultimately less influential, early-nineties band Sugar), the book is an unsparing accounting of things he has done wrong, as well as things done to him. It doesn’t often sound like he’s having all that much fun, but he certainly comes off as determined. “With Bob, everything has to have a reason,” says his old friend Steve Fallon, who ran the rigorously booked Hoboken rock club Maxwell’s during the punk-to-indie golden era of 1979 to 1995. “There wasn’t a lot of freewheeling Bob Mould. It was very thought-out and processed. Even his music sounds chaotic, but it really isn’t.”
Being in bands, says Mould, was “like preaching, like religion.” And since he was raised Catholic, he wasn’t preaching a feel-good faith. “There’s a lot of blood in the Catholic Church. Our leader, our icon, suffered so much. It sets the tone.” He still believes in what punk can do for you. Hüsker Dü, he writes in the book, was not alone in “our anxiousness to build a new way of life through music.” In the eighties, the band’s fans were “dissatisfied on virtually all fronts” and were looking for a “surrogate family.” He was part of a self-sustaining world of DIY clubs, crash pads, record stores, and touring without corporate support. Hüsker Dü’s label, SST, was so hardscrabble that its musicians—including Henry Rollins—would sleep in the office. Mould needed the ganglike comforts of belonging to a certain kind of music. “Finding the music”—this was before the Internet, when you had to physically seek out the art you liked—“meant finding like-minded people.”
Today’s milder Mould lives in milder San Francisco. He owns a house just off the Castro, lifts weights, and eats six meals a day. He surrounds himself with a set of amiable, robust, bushy-whiskered men in flannel who drink beer and don’t shy away from ordering dessert. When I join him at a Sunday-afternoon beer blast at a gay bar called the Lone Star, Mould, who’s six foot two, is standing at the center of the crowd, greeting his friends. “We’re just regular guys,” he says. “We’re masculine and self-identify with a certain part of the community, and we all love music and good food.” He moved here from Washington, D.C., with his pleasant and decidedly unpunk partner, Micheal Brodbeck. “Other than disco in the morning in the kitchen, we don’t share much music in common,” Mould says. “His eighties and my eighties were very different.”
Mould’s always been “hypervigilant” about how he is perceived, and he takes what he sees as his artistic responsibilities seriously. When Hüsker Dü signed to a major label, he worried endlessly over a possible backlash, even writing an explanatory essay in the underground ’zine Maximumrocknroll. Likewise, for years, out of an instinctual refusal to go along with what might be out of his control, Mould avoided publicly labeling himself as gay. When he finally broached the subject in Spin in 1994, he did it with an extended rant about how “I’m not your spokesperson, because I don’t know what you’re about” and “I am an island. And I like it that way.” He’s still unhappy about Spin’s using “I’m not going to be paraded around like a freak” as a pull quote.