Grant Hart, the groundbreaking drummer, songwriter, and vocalist best known for his work with the legendary Minnesota post-hardcore trio Hüsker Dü, has died. He was 56. The news was first reported by Variety before being confirmed by Hart's Hüsker Dü bandmate, Bob Mould. Hart had reportedly been diagnosed with cancer.
"The tragic news of Grant's passing was not unexpected to me," Mould wrote in a note on Facebook. "My deepest condolences and thoughts to Grant's family, friends, and fans around the world. Grant Hart was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember. Godspeed, Grant. I miss you. Be with the angels."
Hart's distinctively jittery, snare-filled style underpinned the anxiety in Hüsker Dü's sound as they rose from local heroes in St Paul to nationally-acclaimed underground icons in the mid-1980s. A versatile songwriter, he was as affecting with the acoustic melancholy of "Never Talking to You Again" as he was in the breakneck power-pop of the band's biggest hit, "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely." As a singer, he was the clear, calm antidote to Mould's gruff exorcisms.
Hart was born in St Paul in 1961, the youngest of five children in what he described as a "typical American dysfunctional family." When Hart was ten years old, his older brother died in a drunk driving incident, and Hart inherited his brother's record collection and drum kit. He played in garage bands and wedding bands through high school, dealing weed on the side. He met Mould at Cheapo Records in 1979 and, soon after, the two started to play music together. Alongside bassist Greg Pine, Hüsker Dü—Swedish for "do you remember?"—played their first shows in Minneapolis later that year.
Despite not wanting to be lumped in with the hardcore bands that dominated the punk scene at the time, Hüsker Dü's debut full-length, 1982's Land Speed Record, was a thrashy, fast-paced live album that crammed 11 tracks into a 16-minute set. The band's first studio record, 1983's Everything Falls Apart, retained that hardcore spirit.
The Metal Circus EP, released later that year, was their first for the Greg Ginn's iconic hardcore label SST—home to Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Minutemen. There, the band started to experiment with the distorted melodies and borderline-pop sensibilities that would come to define them. Hart also began to distinguish himself as a songwriter and vocalist, contributing the almost peppy "It's Not Funny Anymore" and the more macabre, but no less melodic, "Diane." While the rest of the EP, written and sung by Mould, embraced on catharsis and disharmony, Hart's songs redirected Hüsker Dü's restless energies towards soaring melody.
"Hüsker Dü's reenactments of hardcore's hyperdrive ritual have always matched Minor Threat's and Black Flag's on sheer collective enthusiasm," Robert Christgau wrote in his review of the record, "and this EP translates their heart into song."
Still, the jump from those melodic flashes to 1984's Zen Arcade was remarkable. A 24-song double album, mostly recorded in one take, it was breathless noise-pop—the sound of a band with limitless ambition. "We're going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock and roll," Mould had told Steve Albini at Matter Magazine in 1983. "I don't know what it's going to be, we have to work that out, but it's going to go beyond the whole idea of 'punk rock' or whatever." Zen Arcade was it.
With Mould often embracing the pop-rock of Hart's earlier tracks, Hart kicked on with Zen Arcade. "What's Going On" was a sweaty, hoarsely-delivered romp with battered piano keys and sloppy guitars. "Standing By The Sea" alternated between a tense, discordant bassline and some of Hüsker Dü's least-restrained and most passionate vocal outbursts. "Pink Turns to Blue" was a poignant and disturbing story of addiction and death matched by a haunting melody. On Zen Arcade, Hart showed that he could write whatever he wanted.
At the behest of SST co-owner Joe Carducci, Hüsker Dü released another LP, New Day Rising, just six months later. But rather than sounding exhausted, the band seemed to be in a groove. More taught and composed than Zen Arcade, New Day Rising caught the band at the perfect mid-point between pop melodies and punk sensibility. It also included one of Hart's best songs, "Books About UFOs," an off-balance rock 'n' roll song that couldn't hide a bashful smile behind its fuzzy guitars. For a while, Hart seemed to be doing a brilliant Elvis Costello impression; on 1986's Flip Your Wig, his "Green Eyes" bordered on old-fashioned FM radio sweetness (albeit played in an old garage).
On 1986's Candy Apple Grey, the band turned directly inwards, writing a tormented ten-track record that searched for new sounds to capture new emotional lows. Hart's disconsolate piano ballad, "No Promise Have I Made," was unfamiliar territory, emotionally raw without ever finding a satisfying outlet. "Grant Hart breaks up with the love of his life, Bob Mould can't shake off a bad trip, and hand in hand they sell out to the big bad major with the most disconsolate record of their never exactly cheerful career," Robert Christgau wrote.
It was also their first real opportunity to test the mainstream. Candy Apple Grey was the band's first album for Warner Bros and they got some MTV airtime as a result. Still, it only peaked at number 140 on the Billboard charts.
That period also exposed the friction between Hart and Mould that had been developing for years. Hart became addicted to heroin during Candy Apple Grey's recording and was—incorrectly, it would later turn out—diagnosed as HIV-positive. The band's longtime manager, David Savoy, killed himself the day before the band left to tour the 1987 double album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Mould assumed the majority of the band's managerial responsibilities as a result. Between the death, the drugs, and the new dynamic, the band was pushed to the edge.
Hart quit Hüsker Dü in 1987 after an ill-fated show in Colombia, Missouri. He broke out as a solo musician soon after. The 2541 EP came out in January 1988, followed by the disorienting, patchwork LP, Intolerance. Having cleaned up, Hart formed a new band, Nova Mob, alongside drummer Michael Crego and Tom Merkl. Hart sang and played guitar on their EP, Admiral of the Sea, and album The Last Days of Pompeii, both released in 1991.
He resumed his career as a solo artist in 1995 with Ecce Homo and, four years later, Good News for Modern Man. He released a double-album in 2013, The Argument, which he described most ambitious project since Zen Arcade. Before his death, he had been working on a concept album about the Unabomber.
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