Twilight of the Punk

Photo: Ryan Pfluger

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.

Mould fronting Hüsker Dü in 1987. Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He was well into his thirties and living in New York before he decided to embrace his sexuality. Once he did, he pursued it with his customary systematic and analytical focus: hanging out at the Factory Café on Christopher Street (where he met Brodbeck); joining the nearby Crunch, where he became friendly with porn star Michael Lucas; and using the gay-listings magazines as a kind of map to his new identity—including what he frequently refers to in the book as the city’s “fabulous” gay nightlife. He became attracted to the sophisticated production of electronica music and released the album Modulate. The record’s poor reception irked Mould, who saw it as a document of the personal changes he was going through. (To let the reader know how far he’s come with that, the book opens with him and Brodbeck being kicked out of a clothing-optional gay resort in Palm Springs; there’s also a section on his appreciation for “military porn.” Provocation is still one of Mould’s carefully curated traits.) And though he’s released solo albums and continued to play festivals, he seems to have found a new following from D.J.-ing. He now takes his periodic party, Blowoff (a sort of itinerant bear Woodstock), from city to city, and it seems to be a new flock for him to minister to musically. “It’s a dance party for sane adults,” says Andrew Sullivan, the political writer (and bear) who says he “kinda worships” Mould for being “relentlessly normal, low-key, kind, and self-effacing.”

Others have found Mould less easy. In the book, his relationships—both in music and in his romantic life—tend to end bluntly. At some point, Mould just has enough and walks away. That happened with Hüsker Dü. He and drummer Grant Hart, who is also gay, split songwriting duties. As time went on, they became increasingly competitive. As Mould willed himself sober and became intensely focused on the band’s business, he found Hart less dependable; it somehow didn’t register with Mould that Hart had ­become a heroin addict. The two have never gotten over the breakup, and Hart has occasionally complained about him in the press, to which Mould responds: “If someone’s going to call me a prick, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that’s the person you want, that’s the person you’re going to get.” In other words, a reunion is unlikely. “There’s too much volatility with it,” he says. “There are people who always want bloodletting. It’s easier for me to just not deal with it.”

Mould can be a black-and-white guy, and he struggles in the book to understand those whose morality is muddier, whose needs are different from his own. Then again, he’s always been obsessed with professional wrestling. And for a while, after Sugar, he even worked for World Champion­ship Wrestling, where he helped concoct the pumped-up allegories of good versus evil that played out in the ring. If his combative, and somewhat bloodless, judgmentalism can occasionally seem shocking, it’s clear that it hasn’t been easy on Mould either. Yet he’s also not nostalgic for the past. When this guy moves on, he really moves on. “I had, and still have, no interest in the name Hüsker Dü or in creating or revisiting that part of my life,” he writes.

“It’s funny because I have a reputation for being a dour guy and a depressive,” Mould says shortly before we part. “My work has that dark, cathartic side. But I can’t be that person anymore. You gotta believe that I finally found a little bit of happiness, that I’m happy in my own skin. And I trust people will be happy for me.”

See Also
Mould’s Full Interview

Twilight of the Punk