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In 1989, Bob Mould took a left turban. Already legendary before his 30th birthday for his noise-and-nuance work in Hüsker Dü, Mould had recently walked away from his old band. He re-emerged with his debut solo album: Workbook. Filled with chiming acoustic guitars, multitracked vocals, pristine production, and even a cello, Workbook was both admired and questioned for Mould's perceived departure from his post-punk roots.
Three decades later, the album has emerged as a key for understanding the nascent alternative rock genre and the concerns Mould would explore for the duration of his career. Fusing post-punk sound and confessional lyrics with a richer emotional and musical range, Mould's Workbook merged worlds that seemed unbridgeable at the time. Alternative rock emerged from the wreckage of the 1980s, and Workbook was a model for the genre's maturation.
Workbook serves its title in two ways-as a map for musicians to follow into a new mode, and as a jourbanal of Mould's struggle toward adulthood. It opens conversations about rock, identity, spirituality, authenticity, and the perils and promises of mainstream culture. Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch, two critics who grew up with Workbook, extend these conversations-through letters and emails to each other, and through correspondence with Mould and Workbook's musicians and producers. That crosstalk leads to, through this seminal album, a deeper understanding of “alternative rock” at the moment of its inception, just before it took over the radio.
About the Author
Walter Biggins is an executive editor at the University of Georgia Press, USA, as well as a freelance writer, based in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared in Glide Magazine, Bookslut, RogerEbert.com, The Comics Jourbanal, Pop Matters, and The Baseball Chronicle, among other periodicals.
Daniel Couch is a professor of English literature and composition at Chemeketa Community College, USA and the editor of What, Where, How: The Practical Handbook for College Writers. His work has appeared in Tape Op Magazine, One Week // One Band, and the Quietus, among others.
Read an Excerpt
Do you remember? It was the end of lunch, and we were getting ready to head back to class. You passed me a mixtape with Hüsker Dü's live album The Living End on one side and Sugar's Copper Blue on the other. Your measured nonchalance is something I've learned to account for in the decades since, but at the time, the gesture left me hugely unprepared for what I was about to hear.
The Hüsker Dü live show starts with "New Day Rising," and it certainly was one for me. Up to that point, I paid attention to music in only the most cursory ways, and to the degree that I did, it belonged to a more juvenile world I was eager to leave behind. From your tape, I charted two paths of departure and traveled both at once. The first headed to the past and into the Hüsker Dü back catalogue. The second led me to the present to finally listen to the music of my generation. Sugar, sure, but I also sought out anyone who claimed Hüsker Dü as an influence. Band led on to band, and soon I was on a road that had less to do with Bob Mould and more to do my own journey of discovery.
You may not realize this, but I credit that day — you, the tape, our resulting friendship — as one of the most influential of my life. Part of why I moved to Austin after high school was because Bob Mould, this paragon of cool in my mind, lived there when he could be living anywhere. I took a job at a record store because after all of my listening, I felt more qualified to do that than anything else. More importantly though, music helped me sort and solidify my relationships. Making mixtapes, playing in bands, going to shows: all of these things became the ways I connected with the people in my life.
As formative as Bob's music was for me, I realized the other day that my review of his newest album, Beauty & Ruin, was the first time I've found occasion to write about him. I confess that while I followed his second solo career for a while, I eventually lost track. It wasn't until Silver Age and its laudatory reviews promising a return to form1 that I began to pay attention again. Still, the album's context initially made me as wary as I was hopeful. It came out the same year as the Copper Blue reissue. Bob had also recently released his autobiography and was funding a DVD concert tribute to his legacy through Kickstarter. Silver Age felt like part of a sudden spate of nostalgia, and I held back despite my desire to give in and swoon. After such a prolonged absence from my life, I wasn't sure how I felt about Bob's return, either for me or for him.
I recently joined the Popular Culture Association and started receiving their quarterly journal. In one of the back issues they sent, Melissa Ames writes about the role of absent fathers on the TV series Lost. She invokes several scholars to make the case that an absent father figure propels narratives (not just in Lost) and character development. Essentially, for the protagonist to assume the role of the hero, children have to step into the role of father, an assumption which only works if that role is conspicuously vacant. I'd argue the restlessness of Bob's career has been the result of his shuffling into and out of his role as the father of alternative rock, stepping out when the influence he held started to create expectations and restrictions, stepping back in after he successfully transgressed them.
The first such step away came when Bob left Hüsker Dü at the height of its popularity, when the American underground that Michael Azerrad chronicles in Our Band Could Be Your Life was on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. In Bob's absence, the bands that grew up admiring Hüsker Dü or playing alongside them (or both) stepped forward to fill the void and introduced the larger world to the music he helped pioneer. It's the debt the Posies acknowledge on their 1996 song "Grant Hart" when they sing, "Nervous children making millions, you owe it all to them."
After two solo albums that saw him working in new modes and with new colors, Bob formed Sugar and returned with another power trio to a musical landscape where alternative rock was no longer, as the cliché goes, an alternative. Copper Blue is a triumph, but Ames's assertion helps illustrate why Sugar, for all its success, chafed against the expectations that accompanied Bob's return. He wasn't returning in the role of father; he was returning in the role of protagonist. He wasn't ready to be the Neil Young to alternative's Pearl Jam, a fashionable influence whose best music was behind him. Remember, he was just thirty-two, more of a contemporary than the popular narrative around his former band allowed. On Sugar's next full-length, he resisted the cultural marginalization that can come from being a legend with a parry rather than a thrust. The album, File Under: Easy Listening, begins with a track that's undeniably "hard," but Bob mostly withheld the tightly-wound punk songs his fans expected and instead offered bland pop songs and acoustic sprawl.
By the time Sugar disbanded, Bob was all but done with the alternative genre he helped create. His first solo album post-Sugar featured a track called, subtly, "I Hate Alternative Rock." On "Egøveride" and "Art Crisis," reportedly about his public outing by SPIN magazine, he sounds similarly wrung out by the attendant demands of being held up as an icon. Listening to the album all these years later reminds me of John Cheever's description of Ned Merrill in "The Swimmer." Ned was a man who had a "vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure," but he "had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water." To put it in Bob's terms at the time, "This is genius, this is genuine, this is bullshit." It's no wonder that he was out of music completely only a couple of years later.
I was genuinely curious, then, how Beauty & Ruin might respond to the praise for Silver Age and the new generation of critics wooing him to take the place at the table they'd set for him in the pantheon of rock history. To put it in the context of the Ames again, I wanted to know if he would allow himself to be read as an influence to others or continue his own story as an artist, and in doing so, continue to challenge his fans. The answer, as it turns out, was both.
Make no mistake, Beauty & Ruin extends the familiarity of Silver Age, but it sounds more purposeful and expansive this time around. Bob has always had a recognizable sound, but thanks to his restlessness, the different eras are still pretty distinct manifestations of it. Some songs on Beauty & Ruin sound lifted directly from Sugar (as does much of Silver Age), others recall Hüsker Dü, and still others his earlier solo work. I suspect Bob could always replicate the sounds of these eras. It's that he only gave himself permission to do so on this album because he was no longer at war with his legacy.
Which brings us to one of the album's singles, "The War." I know. It's not explicitly about music but, rather, moving on with his life after the death of his father, who passed away during the making of the album. Bob has said in interviews that the song tumbled out of him in the studio, and he makes it clear in his autobiography that war was an apt metaphor for their relationship. Still, I maintain there's more he's letting go of with this record, and the overall sequencing helps to tell that story.
You'll notice there's a clear narrative arc that Bob traces in a series of three-song "packets." To a certain extent he's done this his whole career in live settings ("Terms of Psychic Warfare," "Powerline," and "Books about UFOs" were one such packet in the Hüsker days, the first three songs of Copper Blue another), but after honing his sequencing skills as a DJ for the Blowoff parties, he fully realized the practice on an album. Each packet on Beauty & Ruin conveys a specific mood, and he takes the listener from despondency to hopefulness over a set of four. The final track on the album is "Fix It," an ebullient call to "fill your heart with love" and "find out who you are." On one level, this can be read as a desire to move on from his grief and find out who he is without his father. However, the lyrics return again and again to images of music (small vibrations, amplified; paper cones; wood and wire) as elements that "can build you up and tear you down." I contend it's not only his father Bob's been at war with all these years — it's his legacy, too, and Beauty & Ruin marks an end to both battles.
In the review, I note the transition from "The War," which ends side one of the vinyl, to "Forgiveness." Lyrically, it's the turning point of the album, but musically it's even more important because "Forgiveness" is the one song that sounds unlike anything he's ever done. Pitchfork panned it as "disposable," and I couldn't disagree more. I consider it the most important (not best — most important) song on the record. It's been a few weeks now since I finished the review, and I still can't place what song "Forgiveness" reminds me of — only that it feels modern and fresh, as if he is drawing on newer influences rather than remaining content to be an influence to others.
With Beauty & Ruin, Bob has, for maybe the first time in his career, reconciled his continued creativity with his musical legacy. He vacated his role as a father of alternative rock longer this time. His dalliances with new sounds were more dramatic. Yet his extended absence has allowed him to step forward once again into a late career renaissance that rivals his work in Hüsker Dü or Sugar. Frankly, it's a development as improbable as his own willingness to finally serve as a figurehead for a genre he once claimed to hate. It's as improbable as you passing me that tape, as improbable as our friendship enduring for the last twenty-something years. Yet here we are, once again talking about a new Bob Mould album.
Let's keep talking, shall we?
Until then, Daniel
Fathers and Sons
It's weird. We can never know, exactly, what our influences are, or how we influence others. In the various roles we play in life, we try to exert influence, but we never control what sticks, or in what way. For instance, I never knew that my giving you a copy of The Living End had such a big effect on you. To be honest, I thought that you introduced me to Hüsker Dü, because I frankly can't recall why I — a black kid raised on Michael Jackson and De La Soul — would have otherwise sought out a noisy, poorly produced band with two singers who didn't sound like what I'd been led to think was good singing.
Maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was some animating spirit, some holy ghost roaring through our weird, small high school full of misfit students and even weirder teachers. After all, school, church, friends, and all our homemade peer groups become our parents — shapers of our identities, the builders of our social networks — as much as our actual mothers and fathers. In your letter, you mentioned how music solidified relationships for you during adolescence and beyond; the same is true of me. Those mixtapes and homemade t-shirts marked who we thought we were, what we wanted to project to the world, and who we wanted to hang out with us. When we're teenagers, we're in a nebulous space, in that we're establishing our moral and aesthetic independence while still being almost entirely dependent on our parents for basic sustenance and instruction. When I was younger, I believed that every person had a basic core personality, established as soon as they were born, and it was one that would last no matter how much outside influence there was. Now, though, I believe that this core — okay, call it a "soul" — is much more fluid in our childhood and adolescence, much more malleable and capable of being molded by others, and that the soul only hardens as we gain true basic and philosophical independence from our parents. That's why, I think, the cultural loves (and hates) that we have as teenagers tend to stick with us emotionally so much more than almost anything we come to love after that — because that band, that book, that movie has shaped us so much. You said it yourself: You moved to Austin because Bob Mould was there. Indie rock — as music, as discipline, as ethos — has played a formative role in your life.
My life, too. For me, though, I think it was a more complicated form of love. Maybe it's because I'm black but it seems to me that the lines of pop-cultural demarcation were much more clearly drawn in the 1980s and 1990s than they are now. I'm glad this has changed. Kids today have an easier time with varied tastes, and with having tastes that don't necessarily conform with what they're "supposed" to be into based on race or ethnicity. But, back in the 1990s and even into the early 2000s, I got funny looks from other black kids for even listening to rock. I also got odd glances from white folks for listening to rock, and I got used to being the only black person at a Pavement show at Trees, one of three nonwhite people at a Bedhead gig up in Denton, TX, having amped-up white guys mosh at me just a little bit harder at $5 punk-rock shows than they did the white boys around them.
But how did I get there? Throughout elementary school at home and in my parents' car, I listened to what my mom and dad listened to, which was 1960s oldies radio. I'm not slighting that — this is how I got introduced to the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Parliament-Funkadelic. Sly and the Family Stone, The Jackson 5, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. That ain't a bad bunch of artists. At family gatherings, I got to hear more contemporary stuff: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, maybe Mary J. Blige (if my Uncle Gary had control of the boombox — Dad thought her voice was too rough and "thug-like"), Prince, early Mariah Carey. Again, not bad. But also not rock, though Prince blurred the line a lot.
But, as you know, I have a white stepfather who loves the Beatles, Mose Allison, and Randy Newman; I got used to listening to this at home a lot. My stepdad is an accomplished electric guitarist. To top it off, I spent my first eight years of school at a private Montessori academy where I was the only black student. So, I knew whiteness. I could parody how white people actually spoke better than most black standup comedians. I knew what white kids thought was cool, what jeans to wear, which hairstyles were cool (even if I couldn't emulate them), what bands were the "best." So, I lived in two worlds.
Ironically, my elementary-school friends, mostly white, exposed me to hip-hop, as rap wasn't tolerated at home. Being white guys, the hip-hop that these boys (and they were mostly boys) loved most was the stuff with the closest connection to rock: Run DMC, Beastie Boys, and, more important, Public Enemy. Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, and the Bomb Squad allowed pure raucous noise and political fury to enter my ears as a seventh-grader new to public schools and especially new to being in an educational environment in which people who looked like me weren't in the minority. My parents hated that racket, which only made me pump Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse '91 even louder. Public Enemy was essentially my introduction to rock.
That fascination — with rock, with hip-hop — has held strong, though jazz is now stronger than either of those for me. When I heard Sugar at a friend's house party in late 1992, the pummeling yet somehow catchy abrasiveness felt right at home. I understood it viscerally, even though intellectually and culturally Mould and I were worlds apart. He seemed to occupy a liminal space — between pop accessibility and sheer noise, between elation and melancholy — that I was feeling then. Dancing to him at that party, to "Helpless," I felt okay living in both worlds, in fusing all of my cultural influences into one being — me — for maybe the first time in my life. Hip-hop did that for me kinda, though I remember being laughed at by black girls in high school whenever I wore my Public Enemy shirt, because they couldn't imagine that a "white" black boy would like that group, But I can't deny that Bob Mould was just as crucial for my identity formation as Chuck D.
Excerpted from "Workbook 33 1/3"
Copyright © 2017 Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. Fathers and Sons
3. “It's All Coming Back in a Way”
4. Necessary Evils
5. Workbook as Notebook
6. Try it On, See How it Fits
7. Salinger and Bob's (Workbook)
8. Wall of Sound, Wall of Words
9. Zebra Cocktail
10. Skateboards and Suits
11. Independence and Interdependence
13. The Road Not Taken
Thanks and Acknowledgments