Bob Mould Looks Inward, Shines 'A Little Light'
by MATT MORELLO
Even as the book and music industries do battle on a field somewhere between media and reality for the title of Most Lost Cause, books by musicians have been doing very well — more specifically, books by rock stars of a certain age, with the likes of Steven Tyler, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Nikki Sixx and Sammy Hagar scoring recent bestsellers. It's testimony to fans' connection to the music they love, and also to the power of a particular kind of story: classic rags-to-riches romance pumped up with the pleasure/pain, creator/destroyer extremes of the late 20th century rock star.
The latest addition to the genre comes from a less mainstream name, though Bob Mould remains one of the great heroes of American indie rock. The driving force behind the mightily influential 1980s punk band Husker Du (and the more commercially successful Sugar in the 1990s), Mould is not particularly interested in the cliches of rock excess. There certainly are sex and drugs in See a Little Light, but Mould's major subject is his own psyche, as he attempts to make sense of the relationships he struggles with as a musician and a gay man, his compulsions (for drink, speed, a partner or, most of all, work — "I'm not one for vacations," he notes early on in the book), and his escape from a life as a self-described "miserablist." The result is a remarkably candid and thorough account of an artist's life, told in order from start to present.
The rise and fall of Husker Du was already chronicled by Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a classic book on 1980s underground music. (Azerrad is Mould's co-author.), Mould spends half of his own book exploring the band's legend in far greater detail. From a dysfunctional but supportive family in rural New York, Mould gets hooked on the Ramones and '60s pop and leaves for college in St. Paul, Minn., where he forms a band with Grant Hart and Greg Norton. Over near-constant tours and hastily recorded classic albums, Husker Du's singular style grows from amphetamine-fueled punk to a stunning amalgam of noise, emotional catharsis and pop songwriting. They become one of the first underground bands to sign with a major record label but soon fall out in spectacular fashion, having inspired a generation of musicians but failed to achieve mainstream commercial success. While Mould is justifiably proud of the band's achievements, the lingering burnout is palpable.
If the second half of the book lacks the dramatic arc of the first, it feels more urgently personal, as Mould finds himself with the time, money and maturity to remake his life. The story unfolds in a series of episodes as Mould wanders, talented and miserable, towards being at home in his body and the world. The solo albums and tours, the post-Nirvana MTV hit band, the excruciating breakups, the ecstatic embrace of dance music and gay identity, even (in one of the book's most entertaining chapters) the whirlwind stint as a writer for professional wrestling — it's the Odyssey as Behind the Music, or vice versa.
See a Little Light is a brisk and enjoyable read, but like any honest chronology it is subject to life's prosaic cadence of false starts, lulls and repetitions. And in squeezing 50 years of Bob Mould into fewer than 400 pages, Mould and Azerrad regularly sacrifice depth for breadth. They cover a lot, but at the expense of storytelling — which is tough in a music memoir, because the reader wants creation magic, and good stories offer the best (rare, slim) chance of encountering it, or at least of being entertained when it fails to appear. Ultimately, Mould captures something of his terrific will, which is a great gift. And for creation magic, there's always the album Zen Arcade by the band Husker Du.
Excerpt: 'See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody'
When I was born on October 16, 1960, Malone, New York, was a town of roughly four thousand at the very northernmost end of the state, in a thin strip of land between the vast Adirondacks and the Canadian border. That's one thing in my life that hasn't much changed. A working-class town with some light industry and a lot of potato and dairy farms surrounding it, Malone is the seat of what used to be the second-most impoverished county in the state. Main Street's eight blocks are lined with two-and three-story buildings. Winters in Malone are long, cold, and snowy — sometimes the snow would be so deep that my father would have to tunnel from the doorway, through the yard, and all the way to the street.
The rural setting was idyllic — clean air, swimming holes, and a wide-open sky that revealed tons of stars and even the northern lights. But you could say I was raised in a dysfunctional home.
My father, Willis F. Mould III — everyone called him Bill — was once regarded as the best TV repairman in town. He eventually took a job at the post office, but after he left that job he found it difficult to find work again. So it fell to my mother, Sheila Murphy, to be the breadwinner, and for years she worked as an evening switchboard operator for Bell Telephone. My mother was a religious woman, a Catholic, and she'd spent part of her childhood in a convent. She never learned to drive and had little freedom.
My sister, Susan, was seven when I was born, and my brother, Brian, came two years after her. But we weren't the only children my parents had had — their first son, Stephen, died of nephroblastoma, a tumor of the kidney, right after I was born. He was only nine years old, so my parents were under a big black cloud of grief when I came around. Then, a year or so after I was born, my mother miscarried.
Somewhere along the line my father picked up some pretty monstrous behavior. He probably got it from his father. That's the way these things tend to work, so I don't blame him, but I do hold him responsible. Over the course of my childhood, weekends settled into a predictable rhythm. Friday afternoons, something would trigger my father's alter ego, and after rising from a midafternoon nap, he would leave for downtown to "run errands." One of the chief errands was an hour or more of steady drinking at Seven's Bar and Grill, a main gathering place for men in Malone.
Before leaving for the bar, my father would press "record" on a portable cassette recorder and hide it behind his living room chair. He didn't realize that everyone in the family knew he did this. How many tapes of whirring vacuum cleaners or shushed silence did he listen to? And, more importantly, when did he find the time or the privacy to listen to them? To put it mildly, my father was not a trusting man. He hammered it into us that everybody is lying to you all the time, everybody is trying to steal from you all the time. It left an impression I'm still trying to shake to this day.
My father would come home around seven in the evening, and that's when the game would begin. inevitably, something, just about anything, would set him off: it could be a pot boiling over, a chore left undone, something of little significance that happened days before. The whole family would walk on eggshells before the coming shit-storm. I'd wait in dread for the first venomous line, the first accusation, the first degrading comment. Where would it start tonight?
My mother was the usual recipient and Brian took the lion's share of the rest. Sometimes it was only verbal. When it got violent, my mother and brother typically took the brunt of that too. It was frequently just hitting with his hands. And then there were the rare weekends when the violence went beyond mere punching and slapping, and he invoked the threat of, or involved the use of, murderous weapons. My mom would get pretty banged up, sometimes a black eye, and she'd have to put on makeup to cover it. Things would typically wind down late Sunday night, just in time for us kids to get ready for another week of school.
Instead of physical abuse, my father would play psychological games with Susan. He berated her, mostly for her weight, and after reducing her to rubble, he'd build her back up by offering to make her a meal and then bully her into eating more than she wanted. It became a vicious cycle as my sister ballooned. Today, even after gastric bypass surgery, Susan battles with near-morbid obesity.
Somehow I managed to escape the abuse. But why? Because I was the golden child, the one who survived while Stephen died? Was I the constant reminder? I was the only one who could break up the violence. Even when I was as young as four or five, my brother and sister would beg me to go in and get my parents to stop fighting. So I'd go and cry and beg everyone to get along, and things would simmer down for a while.
My parents struggled not only with each other but also for my affection. My father tried hard to sway me, calling my mother all kinds of names. She always remained stoic, martyr-like, taking the blow. But these personalities, this routine, started before I was born and continued through my college years.
We didn't have a lot of money, but that didn't quite explain why Brian and Susan would often get stale week-old pastries instead of birthday cakes. Sometimes they'd get nothing for Christmas even though my father would give me a jar with silver dollars in it. I'd offer to give some to my brother and sister, but they had to refuse — if my father found out, he'd go nuts. Then he would come back to me and ask for the silver dollars. One winter, when I was nine, Christmas wasn't going to happen at all, so I dragged a tree from my school back home. At the beginning of my journey, the tree was full of paper ornaments made by my classmates and me. By the time I'd gotten the tree the half mile to home, the needles had all worn off of one side and most of the ornaments were gone.
Nonetheless, I was a bright kid. When I was three, my mother would take me to the grocery store and stand me on the counter. As the cashier called out the price of each item she rang up, I would add them in my head without paper, and every time I'd get it right. People would gather around the cash register when this happened; it was an event. There she is, she's bringing the golden kid with the curly hair who can add things up. I am drawing a crowd, I am always right, and it is causing a scene.
I was an early reader as well. One day I surprised my family by reading the headline of the paper out loud — and it was hard to forget: "President Kennedy Assassinated." So when I was four, my mother took me to the convent for an IQ test. Supposedly, I had the intellect of a seven-year-old, with an IQ of 175. In those years, I went to school only three or four days a week and still got near-perfect grades. I don't know why the school made this special dispensation, but I guess they figured, What can we do?
Perhaps this was the beginning of my creative, independent spirit, my self-possession — or maybe I was just bratty — but on my days off, I just sat around at home and listened to music. My earliest recollection of anything musical is the cover of the soundtrack album for Around the World in 80Days: a hot-air balloon soaring off to some faraway place.
I really started to get into music when I was six. It's funny: although my father had been a saxophonist in the army during World War II, stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, I don't ever remember him playing a musical instrument, and yet he was the person who brought music into my life. A local company stocked the jukeboxes of the two truck-stop restaurants in Malone, one on each end of Main Street, and when songs ran their course, they'd pull the singles out and replace them with new ones. My father somehow realized music was important to me and would buy the old singles from the vendor for a penny each. "Happy Jack" by the Who, "Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, "There's a Kind of Hush" by Herman's Hermits. In 1967, those were my toys. They were also my refuge, a way of blocking everything else out. And I studied those singles more closely than anything I was taught in school.
I had a little record player, and I'd put a stack of singles on its spindle. The turntable would start up, the arm would lift, the two rabbit ears on the spindle would retract and drop the first record, and then the tone arm would pull over and drop into the groove. Once the needle wound down all the way to the catch groove, the tone arm lifted, pulled back, and another single would fall — then the arm would swing back over to play the next song. I would sit for hours with stacks of records, putting them in different sequences, fascinated by the endless combinations.
I'd study everything, right down to the design of each label and how they looked when they were spinning: Capitol with the yellow and orange yin-yang design; MGM had the rainbow letters and roaring lion; Motown had the map of Detroit; Roulette had the gambling wheel pattern, the o inRoulette as the ball. I'd read the precious few notes on each label: the songwriters, the publishing companies, and the length of each song. The writers were usually faceless names like Goffin-King, Boyce-Hart, and Jimmy Webb. I had no idea what these people looked like or how they created these miniature masterpieces, but I knew some of the performers from seeing them on television or in the newspapers. Their clothes, hairstyles, and all the other visuals added to the sum total of their musical work and the impressions they left on me.
On special occasions, I would go to Newberry's department store with my mother or grandmother and buy a long-playing album by either the Beatles or the Monkees — I didn't know or care that the Monkees had started as a prefab version of the Beatles. In my young mind, the two bands were equally cool.
I knew I could make music too. Around this time, I would occasionally accompany my grandmother to her work caring for a woman who had been struck by lightning. The woman was essentially paralyzed in situ, fingers gnarled like animal claws and a facial expression that was apparently frozen at the moment she was hit. I wasn't afraid of her though. There was a piano in her house, and when I heard a song on the AM radio, I'd walk over to it and within seconds would be able to figure out the melody and even the rudimentary chord structure.
I started writing full songs when I was nine. My parents bought me a small plastic Emenee organ with two octaves of keys and six sets of chord buttons. I'd type out the lyric sheets in stanza form on a mechanical typewriter and carbon paper, Anotated with "c 1970 ABC-Easytime Music" — my first "publishing company." There were songs like "Let Me Live Today," which was about my dog, Tipper, and there were songs about flowers, songs about being a kid. I taught myself how to record these simple tunes, including overdubbing, using two small reel‑to‑reel tape machines. I got two of my friends to help me play my compositions, with me on my chord organ. One of them had a toy drum kit and the other had a toy guitar — they just sort of held the instruments and pretended to play along.
My teachers knew I had an aptitude for music since I sang in the school choir, and in fifth grade, they wanted me to play the tuba. I was a larger than normal kid, big boned and growing fast. Even so, I looked at the size of the case and said to myself, There's no way I am dragging that thing back and forth in the snow. Besides, I thought the kids in band were a little nerdy. They would do the one rock song and let the drummer have the one solo, really letting their hair down.
* * *
In 1970 my mother developed rheumatoid arthritis. Her joints swelled to dangerous proportions, and when she had to give up her job at Bell Telephone and go on disability, my parents bought a mom-and-pop grocery store at 23 Elbow Street for roughly $10,000. It was attached to a big two-story house on a large parcel of land not far from the center of town — not a desirable neighborhood, but it was right near the Glazier meat-packing plant, the Tru-Stitch moccasin factory, and the Royal Crown Cola bottling and distribution plant, which provided many of the store's regular clientele.
The grocery store was off the kitchen. In the back of the house, a small door led to a large storage structure that was on a separate heating system so the inventory (mainly beer and soda) wouldn't freeze in winter. In the front yard, there was a large illuminated sign adorned with the Royal Crown Cola logo and the name of the store: B&S Grocery, named after my parents. My father stacked cases of beer throughout the garage, which also had two large green garbage bins for returnable cans and bottles. By watching the recycling, I could tell if my father was accelerating his drinking, which would be an indicator of the level of madness that would build over the course of the week.
But I spent most of my time in the driveway, playing street hockey in winter and basketball in summer. Later, my father got a large plot of land cleared behind the house so we kids would have a larger play area. But the yard was riddled with craters, so we'd often turn an ankle or stumble face-first into the dirt. I suppose that's as good a metaphor as any for the way we lived in that house. Because of the unpredictable psychological control my father wielded over the rest of the family, we were never certain if we stood on firm, level ground.
Separate out my father's behavior, and my childhood was like the old sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which was also set in a small-town mom-and-pop store. There was a little mechanical flipper on top of the entrance to the store that was wired to a buzzer that went off in our kitchen. Whenever the door opened, the buzzer sounded and my father would immediately let out an exasperated "God damn" or "Jesus H. Christ"; he'd say it like a hissing teapot. Then he'd rise from his battered recliner, its armrests held together with packing tape, leave the living room, and go out through the kitchen, around the stove, past the telephone on the wall, through the narrow passageway to the store, and one step down to serve the customers — the very customers he would curse because they dared to come and give us the business that kept a roof over our heads.
My father could be brutally mocking once the customers were beyond earshot, muttering things like "You no‑good son of a bitch, don't bring those fucking food stamps in here." As he grew older, my father's habit of ridiculing others became a comical flaw; he'd use the same phrases over and over, and the refrains became so familiar that I could sing along to them in my head, to the point that they became kind of hilarious. But still I felt ashamed because of his behavior. I rarely brought friends to my house — I just didn't want them to see my father on a rampage. The Thompson kids were the only neighbors with whom we were close, and they knew the whole deal. My father had alienated most everyone else on the block. Anyone who thought my father viewed them favorably was just plain mistaken.
We all worked the store when we lived there. I was ringing people up at ten years old. There was an old-fashioned cash register and an adding machine, but I simply added the items in my head, the same way I added those items at the grocery store years before. I was a numbers kid. I could look at a sheet of numbers and make something out of it.
When we weren't working at the store or getting chewed out at home, you might have found us at church. I was raised vaguely Catholic. My father's side of the family was English Protestant, but not practicing; I don't think my grandfather, who worked his entire life at the local bank in Malone, was religious at all. My mother, on the other hand, wanted me to have religion, but I always went to public school because that's what my dad wanted. Flanders Elementary School was a large three-story stone building with big, heavy doors and marble floors — utilitarian, built to last. On Wednesdays we would do an exchange program with the Catholic school Notre Dame, farther down Main Street. The Catholic school was much nicer, as if it had money, the building was newer, the desks weren't as beat up, everything smelled fresh and clean, and the students were quiet and deferential. I eventually went through confirmation to fulfill my mother's wishes, and I still remember the Catholic teachings — all the moralistic stories, the guilt-inducing Melodrama and self-flagellation.
Still, even with my religious grounding, by junior high I was starting to drift to the bad side of things. I suppose it was inevitable. After all, I watched my dad drink constantly. And I worked in a grocery store, so there was no problem walking off with a six-pack. I could drink as much as I wanted anytime. My brother had finished high school and left home, so I had the upstairs to myself, and most days after school I'd go up there and have a few beers. I'd easily camouflage the empties by drinking whichever brand my father was having at the time: Ballantine, Schaefer, Utica Club. On weekends I'd get together with friends, go into the woods with a twelve-pack of cans — I was a big kid by now and could drink a lot — and chug them down as quickly as possible. Bottles tasted better than cans, but they were more difficult to smuggle out because they rattled and pinged.
Once we'd gotten tipsy, my friends and I would go to the seedy downtown pool hall, where kids with homemade prison-style tattoos sold pot, or to the pizza parlor to play foosball. Sometimes we'd go to other friends' houses, usually the nicer homes in the hills that had finished basements with wood paneling, and sit around and listen to Foghat. I think their parents knew we were drinking but decided it was better to keep us inside under light supervision, as opposed to letting us race around in cars on unlit country roads.
I don't think my drinking was a direct manifestation of misery. Despite the turbulent home life, I wasn't a particularly unhappy kid. I wasn't the sullen kid in black. I was fairly well-adjusted, somewhat popular, a middle‑of‑the-pack type of kid. Part of the reason for my drinking was the fact that Malone was terribly dull and seemed more tolerable when I was inebriated. Part of it was peer pressure; my friends were doing it, and in order to be with them, I drank as well. And part of it was emulating my father, with the major difference being that my drinking almost never made me violent.
I started drinking beer at thirteen, and I went for many years without stopping. I can't remember a day when I didn't drink during that time. After putting away at least a couple of beers and smoking a little bit of pot every day, I'd turn it up a fair amount on the weekends. My parents expected me home on time each night, and I was able to follow that rule, even though I was coming home trashed, trying to get upstairs as quickly as I could so they wouldn't smell the booze or pot on me. The fact was, I was staying out of trouble with the law, I was making good grades, I wasn't wrecking the car, and I wasn't stealing. So, as they say, I was functional, and that gave me the latitude to do what I wanted.
Excerpted from See A Little Light by Bob Mould. Copyright 2011 by Bob Mould. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown.