In his introduction to Hüsker Dü: The Story of The Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock author Andrew Earles tells us upfront that he never saw the band live. For some, that’d be a deal breaker but for me it wasn’t because I only barely got to see them myself (exactly once on February 28, 1987) and I’ve been plenty passionate about plenty of bands I never got to see live. And Earles is clearly passionate about the band. But is that enough to make a decent book?
Well, yeah, mostly.
Earles quickly establishes the members’ biographies and the founding of Hüsker Dü and really does a good job of explaining the founding and operation of the band’s own label, Reflex Records. He also does a fine job explaining and exploring the early Minneapolis hardcore/club scene. The supposed rivalry between The Replacements and Hüsker Dü is put to bed as fairly false pretty immediately, however Earles continues to make this point throughout the book. His careful attention to the contextualization of the bands catalog throughout is a wonderful change from the way most authors treat this material.
There are, however, a few things that disappoint and I’m not sure that they were avoidable. That is, there are areas that remain unexplored but if Earles had pushed (or opened up) these points perhaps he wouldn’t have gained/retained the entrée he needed to complete the book. (Bob Mould didn’t participate, in any case.)
Although Earles is completely correct in saying that way too much ink has been wasted chit-chatting about the bands drug use and sexuality, I’d say it’s always been a case of too much pointless chatter. If one believes, as I do, that these things most likely influenced the actual songs (and Earles spends a bit of time describing how drug use alone influenced the dynamic of the band’s interpersonal relationship) then a proper exploration of them isn’t undue nor would be necessarily exploitative. If we believe the songs are important then trying to untangle their origin might serve a good purpose. Some exploration of lyrics would have been good. If we’re to believe these songs have meaning, especially to Earles, then it would be nice to know where, in particular, he finds this meaning.
Structurally, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the book. Earles revisits information already covered in previous chapters many times (and it often seems the only purpose is to use up a storehouse of quotes from different characters) but never provides additional information. The effect is like that of a television news-magazine program that does a quick recap after commercial breaks. Additionally, I would have liked more exploration (any, really) into the financial aspects of Hüsker Dü’s relationship with SST. Again, not for the purpose of exploitation but contextualization.
One aspect that was totally refreshing and needed is Earles’ challenging of Michael Azerrad’s writing on Hüsker Dü in Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s not that Azerrad’s book is bad (it’s actually excellent) but it’s nice to see someone take a stab at the book that has, for better or worse, become the go-to bible of the 1980’s underground. Criticism is a good thing.
It was always going to be difficult for me to review a book on Husker Du objectively. If I’m being totally honest, no other band has had so much influence over the music I’ve played in my life and lifelong Dü fans tend to be a possessive bunch. Earles clearly falls into this obsessive category and has created the first sizable document on the band he rightly characterizes as having been the invisible hand that moved college rock from the left-of-the-dial ghetto into people’s living rooms.
Any misgivings I might have about the execution of this book seem particularly unique for me. For once, I don’t feel like I’m frustrated with an author for getting something wrong. It’s more a case where I feel like Earles is a fellow traveler and we just disagree on what should have been covered.
Am I glad I read it? Definitely. But I’m much happier that someone wrote it. Earles deserves commendation for tackling this task. Any future books or writing on Hüsker Dü will owe him a huge debt. For my part, I agree with Earles’ own assessment from his introduction, “This book is not perfect. ..[it] does, however, come from the right place.”