I recently finished reading Bob Mould’s See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. Most of the reviews I read praised the book, but complained that it focused too little on Mould’s days as leader of the seminal hardcore band Hüsker Dü and too much on his recent activities, especially his description of growing into the identity, social and sexual, of a mature gay man.
My own response was the opposite. I appreciated the chapters on Hüsker Dü–especially since they allowed me to relive a part of my youth. I never became a huge Hüsker Dü fan, but I was a year behind Mould at Macalester College, lived in the same dorm and even had one class with him (“Introduction to Sociology,” about which I remember nothing else). I remember in particular one fiery early performance by the band at a kegger in the basement of Doty dorm. I shared many of the places Mould writes about (Cheapo’s Records, Northern Lights, Ron’s Randolph Inn, Seventh Street Entry, etc.) and I knew a number of the people that show up in his story. Reading the book was a nostalgic experience, and of course it got me digging out my copies of “Flip Your Wig” and “Warehouse.”
But it was the later chapters that really fascinated me. In part the appeal came from the sympathetic insider’s account of a scene that I don’t know: Mould helped me get a feel for what everyday life is like in a different corner of the universe. Even more than that, though, I was struck by his description of what it means to grow up, to take on and live out fully the identity that one has pieced together. The book is a real anomaly: a thoughtful, fearless account of what it means for a rocker to become a middle-aged adult. We’re not all rock stars, but we all grow old, and Mould writes well about how to do that with grace, joy, and intelligence.
I am sorry, however, that he left out my favorite Hüsker Dü story. There was a thriving underground music scene in the Twin Cities circa 1982-3, and it was starting to get mainstream media attention. Local television reporters, after getting their vaccinations updated and donning protective gear, would pay hesitant visits to the subculture and report back in half-curious, half-terrified fashion about what was happening. So the mass audience learned that something was going on in the clubs of downtown Minneapolis, but the knowledge came with real anxiety. Did we have punks in Minnesota? Would they act rude and say bad words? Were they like us?
At the time WCCO-AM radio was the most mainstream of mainstream media. One of the old clear-channel stations allowed to broadcast at 50,000 watts, it dominated the airwaves. WCCO utterly owned the local radio audience ratings–at its peak, it had twice the listeners of its nearest competitor. If you grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s, like me, you can probably still remember all of the announcers, the farm reports, the Boone and Erickson comedy routines, etc. (A nice sample of air checks is available here).
WCCO’s position had begun to slip by the early 1980s, but it was still a powerhouse. One day in 1985 a WCCO deejay risked playing the latest record from the celebrated local punk band, Hüsker Dü. It was on one of the station’s afternoon shows aimed at housewives, as I recall, and the record the deejay chose to play was the cover version of “Love is All Around,” the opening theme song from the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The station’s phone bank lit up: calls flooded in from around the state. People absolutely loved the record. Hüsker Dü might be punk, but by taking up the theme song from the beloved “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (set in Minneapolis and a source of immense pride for WCCO’s audience), the band showed they were part of “us.” The cover was an affectionate joke, and WCCO’s audience got it. The station ended up having to play the record over and over again during the following weeks. All over Minnesota, housewives and their preschool offspring got their first exposure to hardcore punk, all thanks to “The Good Neighbor” (the station’s promotional slogan), WCCO-AM.
For Christmas I gave Satoko two tickets to the January 3 opening night of Buddy Guy’s annual homestand at his club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, here in Chicago. It was as much a present for myself as for her, of course–assuming she let me use the second ticket. Which she did.
The last time I saw Guy play live was back in the early 1980s. He and Junior Wells did a gig at Macalester College when I was an undergraduate. Macalester used to regularly bring in Chicago blues acts for its weekend dances: I remember seeing James Cotton, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, and Albert Collins, among others. In addition, a number of local bars in the Twin Cities used to bring in big names–Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon…. Growing up in Minnesota in the 1970s and 80s, it was easy to get an education in blues music from the masters of the form.
Buddy Guy may be 76 years old, but he performs with the energy and speed of someone half his age. Resplendent in a bright red suit, he played some wicked, lightening-fast runs that reminded us of how much Jimi Hendrix copped from him. But he also did a nice acoustic set, and the evening provided a kind of history of R&B music, with tributes to Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, John Lee Hooker, Albert King and others. Many of Guy’s family and friends were in the house, and at various points in the evening he brought up two daughters and one son to share the stage with him.
The club was packed. Guy did all of his patented shtick, too, playing the guitar behind his back and with a drumstick, leaving the stage to walk to length of the barroom and even outside onto the street, tossing guitar picks to fans. He told stories and jokes, made funny faces, and flirted. Sometimes, his showmanship gets in the way of his performance, but last night his musical chops–both his guitar playing and his singing–were the focus. He played loud, he played quiet; he played fast, he played slow. Highlights included “74 Years Young,” “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” “Hoochie Koochie Man,” “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In (Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In)” (the latter became an audience sing-along), “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” and a moving version of “Feels Like Rain.” He closed with a lovely rendition of his recent song, “Skin Deep.”
When he left the stage at the end of the set he walked right past us on his way to the merchandise counter. Both Satoko and I shook his hand. My 51-year-old ankles and knees were sore from standing all night, but the 76-year-old legend had been on his feet all night, too, and he looked like he could keep going for a few more hours.
It was well past midnight when we hailed a taxi and headed for home. What a nice way to begin the year.