See a Little Light The Trail of Rage and Melody
By Mould, Bob
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2011 Mould, Bob
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316045087
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 80 Days: 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 in Roulette 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, notated with “© 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.
By the beginning of high school, I knew I needed to get out of Malone as soon as possible. There are some college towns relatively close to Malone, like Potsdam, Plattsburgh, and Burlington, but otherwise it’s a very isolated place. And I really wanted to get away from my family.
And there was the other big reason I had to get out of Malone: I knew I was different. The actual word for it—homosexuality—I didn’t know, but there was never any question as to my sexual orientation. I knew by the age of five. I’d experimented with other boys my age—nothing serious, and probably nothing out of the ordinary. But at the edge of puberty, eleven or twelve, I started doing things of a certain… weight. There are boys who grow out of it, and there are those of us who know, the second we start doing it, that that’s what we’re going to do. It’s our sexual preference. I never questioned it.
All my other friends were starting to get girlfriends and I wasn’t. I tried to have physical relationships with girls, once at an end-of-year high school dance and another time during a group camping trip. Nothing happened. Nothing clicked. I just wasn’t interested in girls. So I accepted the fact that I would be attracted to the male form for the rest of my life and began to make the adjustments and provisions to my behavior that would both facilitate those desires and disguise my orientation.
There are archetypes that emerged with my initial feelings: Batman, athletes, even my childhood barber. I can look back and say, “Yeah, the barber was sexy, his crotch used to touch my forearm while he was cutting my hair,” and I still remember the smell of the shop. That’s something a twelve-year-old boy doesn’t forget. I know where a lot of my preferences got stuck in. To this day, moments like this still dictate a fair amount of my desires as a sexual being. I think most gay men, like just about everyone else, remember those markers, and those early experiences inform our fetishes and desires, how we lead our lives, sometimes even our professions.
I certainly don’t hold the barber responsible for my homosexuality; I’d been engaging in and acting on my sexual feelings for some time. But that kind of experience did, however, heighten and validate those feelings. I’ve learned the ritual of trying to complete yourself, the events that get you there—events from your childhood that you keep re-creating over and over. We all reenact and try to find completion. Whether it was intentional or accidental, what I thought was happening was occurring with an adult, a figure I was entrusted to. And as a teen, every time I went to get my hair cut, those feelings came back. Every time.
Maybe my blossoming sexuality was why I dropped away from music for a few years. From 1972 to 1975, I was more into wrestling and hockey and playing basketball in the Catholic Youth Organization league. I didn’t play high school ball, but instead used my gift for numbers to work as the team statistician. I’d travel with the team to all the games, run drills, and play scrimmage games. This was an interesting time for me, being in the constant company of other boys who were also going through puberty and all the emotional confusion that comes with that physical rite of passage.
If the smell of the barbershop had been my primary olfactory association with male sexuality, it was quickly replaced by the smell of locker rooms filled with young men. Most boys were in the gym once or twice a week, but being part of the team, even if not an active player, I was always around the gym. The team would run drills in the mornings, do “shootarounds” during lunch, and play full scrimmages after class.
With all this physical activity came the need for showers throughout the day. I mentioned the adjustments and provisions, and here I had to come up with an elaborate set. There’s a lot of confusion in a boys’ high school locker room, and for a homosexual kid such as myself, the stakes were raised. Walking into a group shower with ten or more boys, I was bound to find one of them attractive. At thirteen, it’s awfully difficult to suppress the natural reactions. All boys that age have problems keeping their hard-ons to themselves, and the environment opens one up to all kinds of mixed signals. How to handle it? There’s no place to hide in a group shower. You can turn your back to the center of the group, face the wall, and think about dead kittens, but chances are, the hard-on is not going to go away by itself.
The smell of the locker room: a heady mix of chlorine from the swimming pool, cleaning agents, and dozens of boys ripening into men—it’s an odor you never forget. The visual stimulation is a lot to contend with as well. We’re all passing through puberty, all wondering why we’re going through these changes, and it’s human nature to observe those changes in others. I was an early bloomer and grew a decent amount of hair across my chest. Younger boys would look. And some boys are better endowed than others, and they become the focus of attention in certain settings.
Having already experienced the touch of other boys, I found it all a lot to handle. I was a cool hand, for the most part, but sometimes I would be drawn to certain boys, and then the complications would begin. I was compelled to befriend them, in whatever ways I could devise. They like tennis? I like tennis. They like turkey? I like turkey. I imagine it is the same for boys who are attracted to girls; kids will shape-shift in an attempt to get closer to the objects of their affection. For a gay kid, the dialogue of courtship was tightly yet invisibly twined around the normal camaraderie that young boys need.
It was a confusing time. I often had trouble parsing my feelings for other males. Am I drawn to this boy because we have a shared interest in hockey or because I’m drawn to his smell, his physical being, and his features? This distinction can still be stormy for me; as with all dynamic forces of nature, that cloudiness usually rolls in when I least expect it.
I concocted ways to be close without being overt, disguised my desires for fear of being ostracized or rejected, and built the ability to store vast amounts of personal data and unnecessary knowledge in my young head. Those types of maneuvers began to create mental loops, which manifested into a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder—not the hand-washing kind, but one based around routine, ritual, and numbers. To this day, I still count my steps in sets of ten. Once I establish a pattern, even for the simplest tasks, I have to constantly repeat the pattern in the exact order I did it the first time or else I tend to come unraveled. It’s as if I count my steps so I can retrace them and become accountable for a sliver of time in history.
Even while I was immersing myself in the wide world of sports, I was listening to music, but not with passion. Maybe that’s because I was listening to mainstream stuff: Elton John, the Bay City Rollers, and especially Kiss. I was a card-carrying member of the Kiss Army. One winter, a bunch of my friends and I dressed up in homemade Kiss costumes, with full makeup and seven-inch platform boots made from work boots and chunks of plywood. On a large flatbed trailer, we built our winter carnival float, which resembled the stage from the Destroyer tour. We lip-synced to the blaring music in a fog of dry ice, dragged down Main Street by a pickup truck. I was Gene Simmons. I didn’t have a bass, so I used my first guitar, which was a burgundy Gibson SG copy that my father bought me for eighty dollars from the Sears catalog. My friend Steve Bessette, occasionally his brother Chris, and my friend Tom Browning, one of the star athletes in town—we were “the band.” (Tom went on to become a top pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.) We were into it, but basically, we were just killing time.
I got that SG copy guitar as much for lip-syncing on the Kiss float as I did for actually playing it. But I picked it up pretty quickly, just like I had with the piano. I mostly learned by ear—I checked out the famous Mel Bay chord book for a little bit, but soon discovered how to move my fingers around and make chords on my own. It happened fast. I taught myself some Kiss and Ted Nugent songs, but I hadn’t figured out how to play leads yet so I stuck with rhythm guitar. Steve Bessette and I eventually wrote songs, mostly rudimentary copies of heavy-metal anthems, nothing of any great note. By now I had graduated to recording and overdubbing those song ideas with two eight-track tape machines.
Female-fronted mainstream ’70s rock albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Heart’s Dreamboat Annie were big with my friends around this time, but they didn’t speak to me. Being into a band was like being in a gang, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a gang with women. Stuff like that was the soundtrack to my high school social life, but only by default. Nothing had the same impact as my treasured ’60s singles collection. Kiss and all that stuff was just spectacle, not an epiphany.
My musical transformation came from Rock Scene magazine. It was out of New York City, published by now legendary downtown New York rock scene insiders Richard and Lisa Robinson, Danny Fields, and photographer Bob Gruen. Looking back on it, I think they conspired to make that scene look bigger and better than it really was. Originally, I bought that magazine to follow the star bands they featured on the cover each month: big-time hard rockers like Aerosmith, Kiss, and Ted Nugent. But Rock Scene would also do photo features on arty underground bands like Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, New York Dolls, and Suicide, and they started catching my eye.
Each issue of Rock Scene would also focus on local scenes such as Cleveland, which had bands like Rocket from the Tombs and outrageous characters like Crocus Behemoth, Peter Laughner, and Stiv Bators. One issue of Rock Scene featured photographs of a handful of acts from Minneapolis–St. Paul, another frigid place 1,200 miles from Malone, and a world removed from my perception of bohemian New York City. I recall a picture of a band called the Suicide Commandos. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the photo, but the band’s name stuck with me.
The Ramones, however, really snared my attention—they looked street-smart but innocent. Finally, a gang I’d want to join. Something about them resonated. Was it that they all looked like they had something to prove? They weren’t flamboyant and theatrical like Kiss. With their leather jackets and ripped blue jeans, the Ramones were the complete opposite. I had no idea what they sounded like, but they piqued my curiosity and I got their first album for my sixteenth birthday. My father and I did the hour-plus drive out to Record Town in Plattsburgh just to buy it. On the ride back, I studied that twelve-inch-square album jacket with intensity, as if searching for DNA at a crime scene. As soon as we got home, I raced out of the car, past my mother, and upstairs to my bedroom, where I laid the needle down on the record. That was what did it. That was when the light went on.
The cover of the Ramones’ first album showed these four thugs in leather motorcycle jackets and jeans standing against a brick wall, looking like nothing I had ever seen before in music. And while everyone else’s album covers were colorful and flamboyant—Boston had its spaceships, Aerosmith had its wings, Kiss had its lightning bolts—the cover of the Ramones’ album was in black and white, simple and stark.
And the second I put the needle on the record, the sound came so quick and distorted; it was really electric, this fast, frantic energy. It gave me a rush. Everything before was now slow and plodding. Metal bands might have had a quick song here and there, but this was an album where every single song was so intensely fast—the speed and the simplicity were just a complete shock. It was clearly melodic music, and yet Joey’s nasal, almost deadpan delivery was so unlike the typical rock singer’s. The subject matter was almost completely foreign—I was sixteen and I didn’t know about sniffing glue or hustlers on the corner of Fifty-Third and Third. It was a completely new language. The first side opened up new worlds as it went by in a fourteen-minute blur.
My brother and sister had moved out by then and I had the whole upstairs of the house to myself, spending most of my time in the partially divided double attic room. I put a speaker in each room, so when “Blitzkrieg Bop” kicked at the beginning of side one, I was stunned: the bass was on one side of the mix, the guitar on the other, and the drums and vocals were down the middle, just like so many of my ’60s singles. And because the guitar was on one side, it was easier to learn how to play their songs.
The usual way of strumming is up and down, but Johnny Ramone’s guitar style was almost all downstrokes, which gave his playing an aggressive energy, like he was punching the strings. There were virtually no guitar solos, which made it easier to concentrate on the rhythm and learn how to accent and anticipate certain beats. I started playing along with that album, and with as much new music as I could get my hands on.
Around this time, NBC ran an exposé of the UK punk scene that featured excerpts from the Sex Pistols’ scandalous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show. I taped the audio off the TV so I could capture their controversial first single, “Anarchy in the UK.” I became even more fascinated with this new style of music, and I listened to that cassette over and over and over.
Punk rock was so unlike anything else I’d heard. Metal and hard rock bands were all about excess: groupies, jet planes, and vast arenas. By contrast, the Ramones were just trying to buy a PA at Manny’s Music and stuff it into a van. My friends and I could build a float and pretend to be Kiss, but mimicking those larger-than-life cartoon characters wasn’t punk rock. Punk rock was actually doable. I thought to myself, I could do this. And, after a few weeks, I could play those fourteen songs on their first album. I could stand on the side of the room where the bass guitar was loudest and play along.
Of course, the New York Dolls were from New York, like the Ramones, so I was instantly interested. They were the bridge band between Kiss and the Ramones. They started before the Ramones and had a punk spirit about them, yet their ramshackle androgyny, as I later learned, influenced Kiss’s makeup-wearing ways.
So I’m sixteen, I’m in this remote farm town, and I’m up to my eyeballs in this new music. A few of my friends give the Ramones a listen, but most of them aren’t interested, or are dismissive of “that noise.” I’m trying to convert them. To me, it’s the sound of New York City, four hundred miles away. I’m envisioning the streets of brick and dirt, and musicians and artists mingling at shows and parties. All of this reinforces a simple fact: I need to get out of this place.
Music kept building my resolve. In December 1976, during my junior year in high school, a teacher named Jim Denesha helped a group of us organize a bus trip to Montreal—a cultural visit, a way to use our years of French class. In actuality, the main purpose of the trip was to attend a rock concert at the Montreal Forum.
The headliner was Aerosmith, then at the height of their drug-fueled debauchery. Rush opened; I barely remember them, having found my seat just after vomiting on one of the Forum’s escalators. My friends and I were trashed beyond belief, but I still managed to fire up a joint as Rush wrapped up their set. My only real recollection of Aerosmith was that they sounded terrible and that there was safety netting above the stage, which prevented the band from being hit by flying objects. For some reason, people threw lots of fireworks onto the stage during their set. This was what big-time rock and roll was like in 1976.
In the spring of 1977, I noticed the Ramones were playing at the University of Quebec in Montreal. They were billed as the special support act for Iggy Pop and were promoting their second album, Leave Home. My friend Kevin Heath and I went to the concert, and it reaffirmed everything I suspected. The Ramones took the stage with clear focus: Joey quickly introduced the band, Dee Dee counted off the first song, and away they went. They played the songs even faster than the album versions, in unbroken packs of three and four, without speaking to the audience. I made a mental note of this. Iggy, in sharp contrast, appeared to me to be a total disaster. Iggy was supporting The Idiot, an album I got for ten cents as a promotional incentive for joining the Columbia House record club. After the surgical efficiency of the Ramones, Iggy appeared to be completely lost. That night, the Ramones showed me what a rock concert could be.
After months of serious self-application, studying the Mel Bay instructional books and playing along with my new punk rock albums, I realized that I was going to be a guitarist. But the eighty dollar Sears SG copy with the burrs in the saddle, the high action, and the shoddy tuning pegs was holding me back. I asked my father if I could upgrade; he could tell I was serious about the guitar and agreed to let me pick out a new one.
We wound up at Bronan’s Music in Potsdam, where there were some decent music stores. I would have preferred a Les Paul, but that was out of our price range, so I settled on an Ibanez Rocket Roll Flying V, the same guitar Syl Sylvain played with the New York Dolls. The guitar and its V-shaped case cost $250.
When we got home, I plugged it into my Electro-Harmonix Mike Matthews Dirt Road Special, a relatively simple amplifier: one channel, solid state, one twelve-inch Celestion speaker, and a built-in Small Stone Phaser. The sound was close to what I was hearing in my head, but it needed a more overdriven feel. The last step: the MXR Distortion +, a small yellow pedal with two knobs (output and distortion), originally designed in the ’70s. Turning up the distortion knob cuts some bass from the signal, exaggerating the graininess of the high-frequency harmonics. Imagine the sound of someone starting up a chain saw in preparation for clearing a parcel of overgrown land.
In July of 1977, I took another concert trip to Montreal, this time to see Cheap Trick open for Kiss—and completely blow them off the stage. Cheap Trick’s sound, heavily influenced by ’60s Britpop, was familiar to me from my early childhood singles collection, and it would play a big part in informing my own songwriting many years later. For me, Cheap Trick’s set was one of the final nails in the hard rock/heavy metal coffin.
Visits to A&A Records in Montreal opened my ears to great Canadian punk bands like the Viletones and the Diodes. There was Record Town in Plattsburgh, but they had little beyond the major label releases. But in the spring of 1978, it was in Burlington where I found the Suicide Commandos’ Make a Record. In their Rock Scene photo, the Commandos had been this unassuming-looking three-piece: singer-guitarist Chris Osgood with his bookish glasses, singer-bassist Steve Almaas with his Kewpie doll look, and drummer Dave Ahl—this tall, Nordic-looking fellow with a big grin on his face. These guys looked different from the New York street punks and the nihilistic Cleveland bands; they exuded an endearing Midwestern wholesomeness, but who knew what they’d sound like?
Turns out I liked the Commandos’ music—it had elements of first-wave American punk and ’70s hard rock. There were melodic vocal harmonies, modest guitar solos, and tinges of ’60s garage rock. I grew up listening to all those things, and could relate to their sound.
Getting out of town, for me, was attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with the intention of earning a master’s in engineering. Macalester had a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost hotbeds of liberalism, but I didn’t go there for its politics. I went because I qualified for an underprivileged scholarship package. My parents would pay only $300 a year for a school that cost well over $5,000. In 1978, $5,000 was a lot of money for most families. But even $300 was a lot for my parents.
It was the typical scene: a parent driving his teenage kid to college. My dad and I did the two-day, 1,200-mile drive in a car filled with oversize stereo speakers, my Ibanez Flying V guitar, my amplifier, and a bag of clothes. For me, it signaled the end of a turbulent and sometimes confusing childhood. But as the two-day journey rolled by, my feeling of liberation gave way to concern over whether my mom would be OK during those spells when the darker side of my dad’s personality made its appearance.
One of the first things I do once I move into my dorm room is get the free weekly paper. I see an ad for the Longhorn Bar—and the Suicide Commandos are playing. I find out the drinking age in Minnesota is nineteen, and when I pick up my student ID, I give the wrong birth date so I can go see them.
The first time I walked into the Longhorn, the Commandos were onstage, and it felt just like what I’d read about in Rock Scene. There were probably five hundred people there. We all knew the words to every song, and after a few minutes of surveying the situation, I threw myself into the excitement. All of us, standing on the battered floor of this ramshackle steak house, gathered up and unified in the moment unfolding before us.
I was the new kid in the room, so I was looking around the club, trying to see who was doing what, who I needed to meet, who I needed to know, and how to get close to those people. I did a little asking around and learned that a guy named Peter Jesperson was the DJ, Chris Osgood’s then girlfriend Linda Hultquist was doing lights, and a fellow named Terry Katzman was running around, looking after the band.
I figured out a way to belong at college too. Physical proximity is the mother of all acquaintances, and my initial friendships at Macalester weren’t formed around music, but on the sheer randomness of dorm room assignments. My first roommate was a Japanese-American fellow named Phil Sudo. Phil was a quiet, soft-spoken guy, which was in sharp contrast to my wilder, punkier demeanor, but we became great friends and wound up rooming together for two years. Next door, there was Ken McGrew, a buttoned-down kid from the Chicago suburbs. Ken’s roommate was Geoff Klaverkamp, a tall, lanky, cheerful fellow who’d lived in Japan. I’d grown up in an all-white farm town, and as one might expect, I was raised on racial slurs. All this cultural diversity required a lot of adjusting on my part. But the four of us got along well and started to run in a small pack.
One night my freshman year, a whole bunch of us piled into a car and went to a multiplex to see Quadrophenia, the film based on the Who’s 1973 rock opera. We were drunk, crazy, and pilled up, just like the guys in the movie, which centers around a gigantic riot between two rival youth gangs in mid-’60s Britain, the Mods and the Rockers. On the drive back, another car cuts us off—and we’re pissed. We chase their car up a narrow hill and finally force them to pull over. We all pile out and start this huge fistfight in the middle of the road. We’re living it.
Some guy took a swing and whacked me upside the head, a really good shot. I reeled back for a second, then started laughing at him, then lunged at him. I’m shit-faced, and I don’t feel a thing. Geoff is throwing martial arts kicks, clocking people left and right. Ken is getting pounded, so we run over and pull a guy off and backhand him. Finally, the other guys tucked tail, got in their car, and left. We got back into our car, a little beat-up and bloody, and went back to the dorm.
Still jacked sky-high on adrenaline, we cracked another case of beer and listened to punk rock, then went into the hallway and smashed all the bottles. It was nuts. It was like Animal House but with punk rock as the sound track. I remember people looking at me as if I were John Belushi, like I had that kind of craziness. No one was stopping me; they may have been scared shitless. We ended up playing hockey in the hallway with a case of empty beer bottles. The broken glass slid under the doors, so the next morning, some of the guys in the dorm were walking around with bloody feet. So then you have a hallway full of blood. It was fucked up.
A healthier (and more civilized) way of finding community was by immersing myself in new music. Oar Folkjokeopus (Oar Folk) was the Twin Cities’ preeminent record store. They had all the latest import singles, the UK music magazines and weeklies like NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds, as well as free local papers and flyers for shows. I’d pick up a copy of each paper, park myself on one of the seats over the radiator next to the window, and go through the papers cover to cover. Then I’d return the papers to the rack and riffle through the import singles bins to find a couple to buy, based on what I’d just read in the weeklies. Then I’d get back on the bus and do the hour-long ride back to school, excited to gather up my friends, buy a case of cheap beer, and listen to the new purchases. Rain or shine, it didn’t matter—that was my ritual. I was constantly reading about music: the Oi stuff, the Manchester scene, Irish bands like the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. Every week there was the chance to discover a new band that might end up being the best new band in the world.
At the time, punk came in a lot of flavors. There was a fashion component to it. There was the studious bohemian look of Television and Talking Heads, with their white polo shirts and khakis. There was the New York street punk look of the Ramones and the Dictators, with their leather jackets, jeans, and high-tops. There was the high-fashion Malcolm McLaren look, with bondage gear, safety pins, and stenciled letters on clothing—the way the Clash or Siouxsie Sioux looked. There was Oi, there was ska, all the various subfactions. These distinctions were very important to me as a seventeen-year-old looking for an identity. Being into a certain type of music was like belonging to a gang. And I eventually found my gang in St. Paul.
One day in late 1978, I stopped by Cheapo Records in St. Paul. A PA set up on the street outside was blaring stuff like X-Ray Spex and Pere Ubu. I was like, wow, this is cool, and I started talking to the guy behind the counter. He was a pudgy, hippie-ish guy, barefoot. He might have been wearing something tie-dyed. And I’m thinking, Who is this frumpy guy? Not being a Greek god myself, I wasn’t making a judgment—it was more like a feeling of solidarity. He told me his name was Grant Hart, and we started talking about music. Somehow the conversation gets around to the subject of marijuana. He says, “I got some Thai stick.” So he closes up the store for a bit, and we go down to the basement and get stoned. I can’t remember if it was that day or a subsequent meeting, but I eventually mentioned to him that I played guitar. He looks at me and says, “Sure you do,” challenging me.
“I play guitar,” I say again.
“What kind of stuff?”
“You know, like this kind of music that we’re listening to. Good stuff.”
“I wanna see you play,” he says, challenging me again. “I’m gonna close the store right now and I wanna go see you play right now.”
So Grant closes the store, and we walk up to my dorm, just a couple of blocks away. We get to my room, I take out my guitar, plug in, and start playing, probably a bunch of Johnny Thunders riffs or something. And he’s like, “Yeah… we gotta play together… I play drums… we gotta play.”
And I say, “Well, cool, whatever.”
Then Grant says, “I know someone who’s got a bass. He works at another record store called Northern Lights down on University Avenue.”
I hadn’t even contemplated the notion of being in a band so soon upon arriving in Minnesota. The Twin Cities were gigantic compared to Malone, and I’d gone from having an entire floor of a house to myself to living in a multistory dormitory. On my dorm floor alone, there was my Japanese-American roommate, there were inner-city African-Americans, as well as privileged suburbanites. I was fresh from the sticks, learning to adjust to this melting pot while trying to create my own identity amid all the other activity at Macalester. A band would be great, but at that particular moment it wasn’t a top priority.
But I met Grant’s friend—his name was Greg Norton—and sure enough, he had a bass. I think he even had a strap for it too. Greg wasn’t the same type of outsider as Grant or me; he had the air of a connoisseur—a hep cat, a skiddly-bop-bo kind of deal. He was into Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, outside stuff. I thought, What is this jazz bullshit? Greg was also a big fan of new-wave cult favorite Gary Wilson and his album You Think You Really Know Me. We all enjoyed that album, but I think it eventually had a big influence on Greg’s singing style.
Grant lived with his parents in the stockyards suburb of South St. Paul; his dad was a shop teacher, and his mom worked at a credit union. Greg’s parents were separated, and he lived with his mom in a small ’60S-style tract home in the nondescript middle-class suburb Mendota Heights. The house had a semifinished basement. That basement would soon prove to be key.
But I needed a push. Shortly after I arrived at Macalester, the Suicide Commandos broke up and I’d heard that Chris Osgood was giving guitar lessons. I thought the world of the Commandos and I wanted to hang out with Chris, so I figured I’d take a couple of guitar lessons from him. It didn’t matter that I already knew how to play. Chris says he still remembers seeing me step off the bus with that Flying V in front of the house—this big historic mansion where he lived on the top floor with his girlfriend. (I found out much later that his girlfriend would hide in the closet and read a book while I was getting lessons, so as to not disturb us.)
After the second lesson, Chris just looked at me and said it: “You know, you need to go start a band.”
We weren’t a band yet. But the chemistry among the three of us was built around our love of music, and Grant, Greg, and I started going to shows together, hanging out, drinking and smoking weed, bonding, and generally just getting to know each other.
Personally, I felt more of a kinship with Grant. Both of us were the youngest in our family, and both of our families had tragically lost an elder son; Grant’s brother Tom had been killed in a car accident. We both viewed music from a melodic perspective, whereas Greg was more a fan of dissonance. Equally important, Grant and I were both attracted to other men. Grant and I never spent any time dwelling on the subject—and he wasn’t exclusively interested in men—but at the time I sensed that was his preference.
I may have been dealing with my own self-loathing, but there was never any doubt as to my homosexuality, no matter how much I repressed it at the time. I was coping with the confusion that began with puberty—discerning between love, sex, and friendship. The differences and overlaps were unclear to me then, and I am not sure if they are clear to me now. But as far as I was concerned, there was never a doubt as to the nature of the relationship between Grant and me. We could be friends, but we would never be in love, nor would we have sex.
I don’t remember explicitly telling Grant I had no interest in him, but I’m certain my behavior made it very clear. Establishing that boundary was important to me. Grant could be very persuasive: I’d seen him in action, and I wanted to draw the line as clearly and as early as possible. Neither of us expressed any of this verbally, but I felt there was no doubt as to the parameters of our relationship, so there was no need for deep discussion.
But we were all close, and of course, Grant, Greg, and I had these instruments. It made sense for the three of us to play music together. Enter Charlie Pine, a chatty fellow of medium build, medium-length hair, and medium personality. I think Charlie worked part-time at an investment firm. His aspiration was to be a broker, while the three of us had little to no financial hope. But Grant had a Farfisa organ and Charlie could play keyboards, so he was in.
Charlie got us our first gig at Ron’s Randolph Inn, a bar one mile from Macalester. We had to come up with two sets of music, so we learned all kinds of stuff, including the old rockabilly tune “Sea Cruise,” Pere Ubu’s “Non-Alignment Pact,” the Buzzcocks’ “Fast Cars,” and the ’60s surf standard “Wipe Out.”
Charlie was up there with these mirrored sunglasses, looking like Lou Reed on the cover of Live, but with a crack in one of the lenses. He starts to lay a rap on the crowd: “I’m Buddy, these are the Returnables. We’re Buddy and the Returnables.” And I’m thinking to myself, isn’t that nice—we’re returnable. We were Buddy and the Returnables, and Charlie was Buddy.
We’re all up there playing like pigs in shit, having a blast. And yet I’m thinking, are the other guys noticing how out of sync Charlie is with the rest of us? Turns out the answer to that question was yes. Sometime during the second set, a friend of the band named Balls Mikutowski yanked the cord out of Charlie’s organ, pointed at Charlie, and gave him the thumbs-down. He then pointed at the rest of us with the thumbs-up. We finished the evening as a trio, blazing through some original songs that likely included “Do the Bee,” “Uncle Ron,” and “Don’t Try to Call.”
The truth was, Grant, Greg, and I had been rehearsing without Charlie, writing songs in the basement of the Northern Lights record store. The songs were fast and quick, but lighthearted. Grant was a big surf music fan so the songs had that uplifted surf beat, and I’m throwing my Johnny Thunders–meets–Johnny Ramone style on it. I wasn’t really sure what Greg was doing, but I know he was plugged in.
Buddy and the Returnables were history, so the three of us had to come up with a new (and better) name for our little band. One afternoon, while joking around with fake foreign language lyrics for a Talking Heads song, someone posed the couplet: “Psycho killer, Hüsker Dü, fa fa fa fa fa…” Hüsker Dü was the name of a board game (“in which the child can outwit the adult”) that was advertised on TV nonstop when we were kids. And there you have it. The beauty of the name was that it shared very little with the typical punk monikers of the day. Most other bands were named [insert adjective] [insert noun]. The name Hüsker Dü was an identifier, not a description. Despite the superficial inanity, the name had a certain timelessness, and that avoidance of conformity (now there’s a band name) served us well.
One morning in May 1979, we put all of our gear in a car and arrived at Jay’s Longhorn right before the lunch buffet. Besides being a punk rock club at night, the Longhorn was a steakhouse by day, replete with cattle-print carpet, longhorns mounted on the walls, and wagon wheel chandeliers. For lunch they served a businessman’s buffet so the fat cats who worked downtown could get their steak on. We sneaked in, set up all our gear, and started playing our set right as people started coming in to eat. Hartley Frank, the portly, sweaty man who booked the club, came rolling out of the back, squawking, “Whaaat the fuck is going on out here? Who the fuck are you?” We stopped and said, “We’re Hüsker Dü and we want to play your club.” Hartley offered us an opening spot for Curtiss A that weekend if we’d just stop playing. We stopped and accepted the gig. Then we started playing again.
That was the start of a tradition with us—if you want to win someone over, do something obnoxious and leave an impression. Provocation was very punk rock; we had nothing to lose by doing these things. And if we’d gotten eighty-sixed from the Longhorn, no big deal, we would have found our way back in again somehow.
That weekend, on May 13, 1979, we played our first real gig as Hüsker Dü. It was a dream come true for me—everyone played the Longhorn. That’s where I saw local bands like the Commandos, NNB, the Suburbs, and that was my punk rock. The Police, Blondie, all the big acts played there as well. This was to be.
The actual set went by in a flash. We tore through our entire repertoire in about thirty minutes to a warm but not overly enthusiastic response. Mission accomplished: the first show went without any major hitches. Hüsker Dü was now an actual band, and we’d played a show at the Longhorn.
In the beginning, our shows had the up-surf and elemental punk rock feel: simple, stupid lyrics that rhymed and maybe didn’t mean a lot, but were funny and punk. Then, as the months went on, another side to the band’s sound emerged, a slower, darker droning feel. A lot of that was my doing, and one huge inspiration was Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures. You come across only a handful of records in a lifetime that have that immediate impact, where you never forget the sound. It gets embedded in your cellular structure, and it seeps into the work you create. Joy Division’s music was sad and poetic, and I felt we needed to add those elements to the mix. I also played chiming guitar parts that were influenced by early Cure, and a warped and warbling sound inspired by Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd (PiL).
Another band that inspired us was Pere Ubu. The three of us went to see them play twice in one evening at the Walker Art Center in 1979. We sat in the front row for both shows, and after the second, we walked onstage and chatted with the band. We didn’t want to sound like Pere Ubu, but they showed us how a band could have a unique sound and an unusual, less than glamorous look, and still succeed in every way that was important to us.
Tim Carr was a major influence on the Minneapolis scene; he organized shows with many of the happening acts from America and Europe (and later went on to become a big-time A&R guy at major labels). Tim booked the Monochrome Set, Devo, Cabaret Voltaire, Judy Nylon, the Fleshtones, and many other legendary, very influential bands for the M-80 Festival, at the University of Minnesota Field House on September 22–23, 1979. It was a rickety venue, but with all the assembled talent and the excitement that surrounded each band’s performance, it felt like something historic was happening. In my mind, it was equal to Woodstock or Altamont or the Beatles at Shea Stadium. There was a great scene building in the Twin Cities, and Tim Carr was a big part of it.
For me, so was trucker speed. By now I had acquired a smoking habit, but this drug was a revelation of sorts. With trucker speed I was able to drink more than normal. It also made me feel invincible. The stockyards in South St. Paul were a good place to find the ephedrine pills, since there were so many truckers around. Smoking and speed changed the way I looked. When I arrived in St. Paul, I was still carrying baby fat and weighed 210 pounds; by the end of the school year, I had lost 45 pounds. I appeared thin and severe; my cheekbones were pronounced, and my body snapped around like a disconnected live wire. This would be the first of many times my weight and appearance would go through drastic changes.
The band was playing, and I was living this scene, but I was still in college. At the end of my first year at Macalester, June 1979, I could either go back home or stay in St. Paul. I had no interest in returning to Malone, especially after hearing a horrific story about something that happened there. There was this friend of mine, a quiet kid with blond hair and glasses who was a year ahead of me in high school. He had allegedly made an unwanted sexual advance toward another young man, and sometime later he was found in the woods, hung up like a deer. After that, I wanted nothing more to do with Malone.
Besides, the weekly phone calls with my family were difficult enough, especially the ones where my father threatened to sever my financial support or escalate his violence toward my mother. It was a constant offer/reward/punishment cycle, and now that I was 1,200 miles away, I never wanted to return. Grant suggested I stay with him at his parents’ house for the summer—that way, we’d be able to continue with the band. I accepted.
Living with the Harts was what most people would think of as normal. I joined the family for most dinners, which were eaten at the kitchen table—unlike with my family, who ate in the living room off of TV trays. I offered to pay a monthly amount to help cover the day-to-day living costs, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Grant’s room was in the attic, actually two small adjoining rooms not dissimilar to the one in which I spent my high school years back home. There was a stereo, a bong, and enough space for two sleeping areas. There was only one bathroom in the whole house, and it was downstairs on the main level, attached to Grant’s parents’ bedroom, which could make things awkward.
I occupied myself with mindless temp jobs, mostly in offices: filing insurance claims, doing microfilm work for medical firms, soliciting subscriptions to the local daily paper. The trucker speed was suppressing my appetite, so I rarely ate full meals. Another unhealthy side effect of taking the pills was that it softened my upper palate, which made eating solid foods next to impossible. So after work, I’d usually head to McDonald’s for a thirty-nine-cent hamburger because they didn’t hurt like potato chips did. Once I realized that the steamed White Castle burgers were even softer, I switched to those.
It’s hard to forget my Quality Park Products job from that summer—or what I did there. The office was located in a light industrial park on Highway 280. I got a weeklong temp job working eight hours a day, filling in for a vacationing employee. My role was simple: invoices came in and I would time-stamp each one, separate the carbon copy, and place them facedown in two separate piles. I was hopped up on pills, and on the first day, I was done with my work by lunchtime. I asked the supervisor if there was anything else to do. There wasn’t, and even better, I could go home early with full pay. I picked up the pace a little more on Tuesday, and so on throughout the week. By Friday afternoon, I really felt great about myself. Forty hours’ pay for twenty hours’ work.
When I came in the following Monday to pick up my paycheck, the supervisor asked me if I wanted to meet the person whose job I had performed the previous week. I thought, sure, why not. The supervisor approached a middle-aged gentleman, slight of build, working with his back to us. The supervisor called his name and said, “I’d like you to meet the young man who filled in for you while you were on leave.” The man turned around in the chair and reached out to shake my hand. The man had lost both his hands and was living with two prosthetic metal hooks. No wonder it took me half the time. I didn’t feel so great about myself after that.
That summer, I was listening to the British art-noise collective Throbbing Gristle, whose albums depicted an apocalyptic world of suburban industrial parks and supermarkets. They mingled that imagery with grisly photographs of World War II atrocities, medical procedures, and barbarism to create a disturbing and psychotic visual landscape. They also eroticized their work, giving it an additional emotional charge, then manipulated layers of sound to the point of unrecognizability, and the result was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard. It fit well with my reading of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, done in one sitting. It was dangerous, erotic, emotional art. I became obsessed.
I wasn’t the only one. I befriended a fellow named Stefan Hammond who wrote for the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota campus newspaper. Stefan was a big Throbbing Gristle fan and even went so far as to travel to the UK to visit them in their “factory.” We published a fanzine dedicated to their work and mimicked their aesthetic.
With all this in my head, some evenings, I’d drive myself to the Minneapolis–St. Paul international airport to drink White Russians at one of the terminal bars. I think it was actually called “Terminal Bar.” I would listen to the Muzak and slowly stir my drink with a straw, watching the solitary macadamia nut spin around in the milky liquid, and sometimes a traveler would catch my eye. I never actively sought out sex at the airport, but the transitory nature of airports brought with it the prospect of a random, anonymous, and somewhat detached sexual encounter. I fetishized impersonal spaces. I can remember one awkward sexual encounter when I tuned the radio to KEEY-FM, “the music of your life.” It was strange to be having sex while listening to Muzak. It was as if I was creating a performance piece, living out the imagery of the industrial music I listened to, to a kind of sound that was totally divorced from it.
The bleakness of the literature and the heaviness of the music were steering me toward the darker side of life—notions of uselessness and death added up to thoughts of suicide. I was becoming nihilistic, and on top of it all, I was suppressing my emotions with nicotine and alcohol and the speed was curbing my libido. I was fucking with my metabolism and my mind.
Starvation was happening on all levels. I was concerned about being “found out” by my dorm mates, and I was finding no healthy outlet for my sexual urges. I didn’t hate myself for being gay, but I hated myself for not dealing with what I now know to be natural and beautiful: the act of opening up to another person, and finding comfort in physical contact. Instead I found comfort in the ugliness of life. I found relief in destruction.
One afternoon back at school, in a fit of blind rage, I pitched an old Royal manual typewriter out the fourth-floor window of a dormitory, almost hitting a passerby. It crashed on the sidewalk, keys exploding in all directions. On another night, I was hanging out with some friends. I said something about suicide and someone questioned me, so I pulled a knife from my desk drawer and dragged it across the top of my left wrist. I clenched my fist, lifted my bleeding arm in the air, and proclaimed, “You know, it’s really easy to do it on the other side too.” My friends freaked out. I ripped some fabric off my white button-down shirt and wrapped it around my wrist. I got on the bus and went to see a band, blood running down my hand.
In those moments I didn’t think I was behaving strangely. It was just another act in my existential play. The thought that I could so casually end my own life? I chalk that up to a blend of youthful immortality and indifference. I was living in a place where nothing would ever be right, nothing would ever do, and nothing held pure value. I only listened to my dark side. I had learned to identify with suffering. It held an attraction, a fascination. It was what I was born into, and I was finding solace in darkness and detachment.
Returning to campus in September 1979, I was no longer the pudgy farm kid, but a lean, angular, intense young man. I had my band, my nihilism, and endless amounts of energy.
I became the late-night Saturday DJ at WMCN-FM, the low-wattage campus radio station. Since the program directors wanted to keep getting free records, they required all DJs to play new major label releases, which cut down my options. But I’d bring lots of my own music, whether British Oi, American punk, or ’60s Motown singles, and mix it in with the major label “new-wave” stuff. On occasion, I experimented with sound collage by mixing and overlaying disparate records together at different speeds. Imagine Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich with an overlay of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Eventually I gave up trying to follow the rules, played what I wanted, and falsified my playlist logs.
During the day, my work-study job was at the library. I would move quietly through the aisles, restocking the returned books and observing people studying quietly—or discreetly pleasuring themselves in an obscure alcove. It happened all the time. I also lifted the library’s lone copy of Naked Lunch for my personal collection.
Macalester was the perennial liberal haven, but even there things were changing. Around this time, the Republican Party began building a platform for Ronald Reagan, who was then well on his way to winning the 1980 presidential election. There were other students, “Young Republicans,” who were completely getting under my skin, pseudoaristocratic sheep talking about this guy who’s going to lift us from the Carter “malaise.” I had an innate dislike for them: they didn’t like the same kind of music I liked, they didn’t drink the beer I drank, they didn’t dress the way I dressed. They had this sense of entitlement. No one knew exactly what it portended at the time, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
I befriended a fellow student named Duncan Stewart. He was a short, wiry kid from Ireland with cropped blond hair, a Popeye chin, and wire-rimmed glasses. We shared a love of punk music, especially Irish bands like the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. I also had a romantic interest in him, and I suspect he knew it, though we never directly addressed it. We acted like little terrorists. The high point of our naive activism was directed at, of all unlikely people, Ted Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In my head, all politicians were suspect. Kennedy was scheduled to make a speech on campus, and we decided to make a collage of all the embarrassing moments of his life, add some questionable taglines in hostage-note-style punk rock lettering, and post hundreds of copies of the finished manifesto around campus on the morning of his visit. Hours before his arrival, we went out in the freezing, snowing dawn and covered the area with our creation. Turns out the Secret Service took everything down well before Kennedy was anywhere near the campus. So much for our art/activism project. (Little did I know how influential Kennedy would become in shaping the social progress of America in the thirty years to follow. Chalk this one up to the folly of youth.)
Early in my sophomore year, two concerts had a major impact on me. The first was at the Longhorn, where Gang of Four opened for the Buzzcocks. I was a huge fan of the Buzzcocks’ approach to pop songwriting, and also appreciated the slashing guitar of Gang of Four. I was front and center for the entire Buzzcocks set, studying singer-guitarist Pete Shelley, watching his every motion. Legend has it that the entire band was tripping on LSD that evening—I don’t know, but many times during the set, Pete did lean down, off-mic, and shout the chord changes at me. It left a deep impression, and I became an even more intent student of their work.
Minneapolis scenester Jody Kurilla’s house was where all these out-of-town bands went after their shows. Since I was not yet a fully accepted member of “the club,” I would get turned away from the more exclusive parties. After suffering this indignity a handful of times, this night, I decided to stay out in the driveway in hopes of intercepting the big bands. I managed to corner Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham for a brief moment, but he soon opted to join the party.
That same week, Hüsker Dü met the Clash. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were milling about the Longhorn and we introduced ourselves. They were nice chaps, but very intense, as if they were very aware of their importance. They humored our “we’re in a band too” routine, and even went so far as to suggest we organize an impromptu gig for the following day at an African-American laundromat of our choosing. We mentioned one, but suggested it might not be the best idea—St. Paul was not quite as progressive as London. After that, they moved on to the next conversation. They played two nights later, and all I remember from the evening is how abrasive and political they sounded, that and my rushing toward the front of the theater and bowling over my boss from the library.
Bands were everything. My buddy Geoff came back to Malone with me for the holidays, and on New Year’s Eve we went to Manhattan to see a show by a late-era version of the Heartbreakers. It was a great day and night—running around downtown, drinking and smoking pot, slumming in the club, being as punk as I had envisioned from reading Rock Scene. We went back to the Port Authority bus terminal at 4 AM and waited for the 6 AM bus to Plattsburgh, where my father would meet us. In the terminal, we ended up sitting next to a fellow who was wearing filthy ripped clothes; he was passed out and bleeding from a cut on his temple. In later years, I found out this was simply the way things were at the Port Authority terminal at 4 AM. But at the time: This, I thought, was punk rock.
Minneapolis had a bit of an infatuation with New York. Some folks even liked to refer to the city as the “Mini-Apple.” Maybe it just wanted to be like New York—sophisticated, arty, cosmopolitan. There was a clothing store in Minneapolis called March 4th, a direct clone of New York’s infamous Trash and Vaudeville stores. Twin Cities bands such as NNB were very informed by Television, and the Suburbs adroitly straddled the line between punk rock and art rock in a very New York way. Some elements of the Suburbs might have brought David Bowie to mind, but at their core, they were a hard-drinking rock band that wrote clever Midwestern story songs played at medium to high speed. Once the Commandos ceased to exist, I found myself in the front row of almost every Suburbs show in the area. I became an acquaintance of the band, and the Suburbs and Hüsker Dü eventually played shows together.
Johnny Thunders’s new band Gang War came to Minneapolis on July 29–30, 1980, and Hüsker Dü was slated as the opening act. Johnny was one of my guitar heroes, and I wanted to get close to him. I ended up becoming his de facto babysitter while he was in town. I’m nineteen, and he’s a grown man with years of experiences. Do you think I learned a lot in those two days?
Johnny was incorrigible. “Get me some fuckin’ Dilaudid or something, I’m sick,” he said to me in that drawling Brooklyn sandpaper voice. He claimed his bandmate Wayne Kramer stole his junk. John was jonesing, and I’m like, Where do I get heroin? I don’t know this shit. I knew there was a methadone clinic, but he wasn’t about to go down there and register. Someone brought him painkiller pills, but he just scoffed. “Look at ’em. They’re fuckin’ synthetic, they’re not gonna boil down.” So we finally bargained it down to “Get me a fuckin’ eight ball and I’ll be OK.” One-eighth of an ounce of cocaine seemed to stabilize him enough to play a classic (or at the least typical) Thunders performance, complete with him berating our sound man between every song.
Later that night, he tried to talk my guitar and amp off me. I got him back to his horrible shit-hole hotel room a few blocks away. He had been going into the bathroom to do his drug business, but by now I guess he liked me enough to let down his guard. So I’m in the room with John, and he’s tying off, burning more coke down, the works, the water, flick-flick-flick, getting it ready. I’d been around other people in Minneapolis who were shooting coke at the time, so I’d seen all this before. But this is Johnny Thunders, one of my guitar heroes. Flick-flick-flick, gets the air out, slap-slap-slap, on the bottom of the bicep, and shoot. Pulls the works out of his arm, looks at me, says, “much better,” and throws the syringe ten feet across the room. It lands point-down perfect in a stubby drinking glass.
I wanted to be around these people. I knew there was something to learn. I always showed deference to my elders, but it wasn’t strictly an ambition thing—I was a fan. I worshipped the Heartbreakers, the Dolls. How could I turn down the opportunity to take care of Johnny Thunders? Or when Nico performed at local rock club Duffy’s and the promoter asked me if I could help take care of her, how could I say no? Once a celebrated model and Warhol superstar, she was now broken down and jonesing, and saddled with an inappropriate side player, but she was still Nico. It was an honor, even if it was a touch depressing. It was part of my education, observing how people of status carry themselves. Maybe it wasn’t their shining moments, but there was still something to be learned, even if it was what not to do.
Through persistence, stubbornness, and a better-than-average knowledge of the touring acts of the moment, Hüsker Dü became the willing and able opening band for many of the punk rock/new wave acts that toured through Minnesota, from DNA to Discharge to the Ramones. It probably helped that we were more than happy to play for little or no money. Hüsker Dü was scheduled to open for Joy Division at Duffy’s on May 29, 1980—a great thing, and we were ready. But the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself the night before the band was to fly to the United States. It was upsetting news, but not a complete shock, given the dark tone of their words and music.
We kept opening for bands, once playing two nights at downtown music club 7th Street Entry in November 1980 with an up-and-coming Boston band called Mission of Burma. At sound check, bassist Clint Conley plugged his electric razor into the back of his bass amp and gave himself a fresh shave on the spot. I thought that was one of the most un–punk rock, and simultaneously coolest, things I had ever seen. After the first night of performing together, I felt an immediate kinship with them: another three-piece playing loud, fast, angular music.
One of my own trademarks was to touch the tuning pegs of my guitar to my vocal microphone before we started playing. That all began at an early 7th Street Entry show. I was sweating profusely, as usual, and when my sweat-covered face touched the microphone, I got shocked and blown backward into my amp. From then on, I would always touch my guitar to the microphone and see if there were any clicks or sparks, which would mean the polarity was wrong and I’d get shocked again. Once that was out of the way, we’d typically launch into our set, barely breaking between songs for extraneous banter.
The band always played with purpose—there wasn’t a lot of goofing around in the live shows. On the faster material, Greg would start jumping in the air or do scissor kicks. I typically wore a grave, glowering expression, digging deep into my guitar when not singing. Grant was behind the kit, looking much like Animal from the Muppet Show band, except with longer hair and bare feet. When the tempos were high, we generated white heat in two places: my right hand strumming furiously across the guitar strings, and Grant’s right hand alternately pounding and gliding across the ride cymbal. We were young and inexperienced, but we had tons of energy and were able to create a solid wall of sound without relying on effects and gimmickry.
As 1980 went on, we started building our own following, commonly referred to as “the Veggies.” There was a core group of guys who came to every show: Kelly Linehan, Tippy Roth, Pat Woods, Tony Pucci, Dick and Mike Madden. Most of the guys wore leather jackets, and once the music fired up, the good-natured pogo dancing/mock wrestling would begin. It was a bonding experience for all of us. The Veggies eventually morphed into a fine band themselves, called Man Sized Action.
One afternoon in November 1980, we brought ourselves to Blackberry Way Studios and recorded three songs, with assistance from Colin Mansfield and Steve Fjelstad, two early supporters of the band. “Statues” was a midtempo droning guitar piece, clearly influenced by PiL. “Writer’s Cramp” was a brisker, simplistic punk-pop song, with a rudimentary sexual pun as the hook. “Let’s Go Die” was a faster-paced song, politically naive in tone, set to a Ramones-influenced musical bed.
I was fascinated with all the studio technology: the large Trident mixing board, the multitrack recorder, all the outboard gear and microphones. I watched everything as closely as possible, trying to figure out how it was done. I was making mental notes, hoping that I would be able to produce records someday.
Our songs were recorded as demos in an attempt to get signed by Twin/Tone Records. At the time, Twin/Tone was the obvious choice for Hüsker Dü. They released the music of prominent local bands like the Suburbs, Fingerprintz, and Curtiss A. The label was run by three partners: recording engineer Paul Stark, Oar Folk employee and tastemaker Peter Jesperson, and local sportswriter Charley Hallman. Unfortunately, each of those guys claimed to like a different song and therefore could not reach consensus about releasing a single.
So we decided to release the single by ourselves. We shelved the two faster songs and replaced them with a live version of another slower, chiming song titled “Amusement.” We named our label Reflex Records, as a reaction to our being passed over by Twin/Tone, and bankrolled it with a loan from Grant’s mother’s credit union. We printed the black-and-white covers—“Amusement” artwork by me, “Statues” artwork by Grant—at a local copy shop, bought 2,500 clear plastic sleeves, and when the vinyl arrived from the pressing plant in Arizona, we folded the sleeves and stuffed each one by hand. The single was officially released in January 1981 to a smattering of familial applause and a two-line mention in the national magazine Trouser Press.
Pretty cool stuff, but it was also my third year at Macalester and time for me to pick a major. I found a strong supporter in one of my sociology teachers, Professor McCall, and was thrilled when she offered to be my academic advisor, working with me to design a major in urban studies. Her mentor was an oft-published sociologist from Chicago named Howard Becker who studied subculture and language, and I was to write my honors thesis on punk rock as a subculture, based on Becker’s writings on jazz musicians. His work influenced how I viewed the punk movement. I was to keep a journal on the road and base my thesis on the experience. (Sadly, I later loaned my marked-up first draft to Kelly Linehan and haven’t seen it since.)
My project would have been a natural fit with the band’s touring, but the only place of note Hüsker Dü had played outside of Minnesota was Chicago. It was home of the pivotal Wax Trax industrial scene, as well as great bands like Naked Raygun and Strike Under. Punk rock, fashion, and queer culture commingled and informed the vibrant music scene. Chicago was where we caught our first big break. With only our single as a calling card, we convinced a club called Oz to hire us for a two-night stand, March 22–23, 1981.
Grant persuaded a car dealer in South St. Paul to let him “test drive” a vehicle that weekend. I don’t think he told the dealer that it would be one thousand miles of test drive. We got to Chicago and stayed in one of the trashiest motels I can remember, in a derelict area of downtown. There were bullet holes in the sliding doors. We didn’t feel particularly safe. Greg befriended a woman our first night there, and she helped move us into a nicer hotel nearby.
Black Flag, the ruling and notorious kings of Southern California hardcore, had played earlier that evening at COD’s. Our gig at Oz was booked as the after-show party. During the set, I was out of my skull on cheap speed and beer, swinging at the air with a hammer, breaking bottles, and throwing myself into walls. I was trying to upstage anything Black Flag might have done at their show, but turns out I wasn’t the only one contributing. There was a little utility closet behind the drum kit that we used as a dressing room, and after the set, someone threw a bucket of blue paint from behind the stage. The paint bucket exploded on the floor in front of the stage area, and then a woman in a head-to-toe leather suit started scooping up paint with one of Grant’s downed cymbals, intending to pour it over his drum kit—the kit he’d inherited from his beloved late brother Tom. Grant ran out, tackled her into the paint, picked her up off the floor, and started bouncing her off the walls, leaving a series of blue butt prints around the club.
Greg Ginn, the guitarist for Black Flag and the head of Southern California punk label SST, was blown away by this performance turned spectacle. Afterward, we talked for a while and he told us to get in touch with Mike Watt, who was the bassist for the San Pedro, California, punk trio the Minutemen, as well as the main force behind yet another new label called New Alliance Records.
It was something else, having this kind of interest, especially since Twin/Tone had rejected us. Black Flag was already a major force on the national punk scene, so this was a very big deal. We promptly called Watt and began to set the wheels in motion. A long journey was about to begin. Continues...
Excerpted from See a Little Light by Mould, Bob Copyright © 2011 by Mould, Bob. Excerpted by permission.
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