Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review (sort of): See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould

It’s hard to know where to start writing about See a Little Light because I cannot review this book objectively. I am a Bob Mould fanatic and unapologetic about that. I think most people have one artist in their life that they love more than any other. You buy every record, you read every interview you can get your hands on, you study the artwork and liner notes and the music is the soundtrack to your life. Through the highs and lows their music is there. For me, that is Bob Mould. If you have any doubts about this, here’s an example of my fandom: I used to take 24-hour bus trips across Queensland to visit my parents in uni break. My walkman was equipped with a 90-minute tape with Copper Blue copied on both sides and I would play it continuously. Each time it finished, I flipped the tape and started again – 24 hours, no sleep, just pure Bob. I guess this isn't really a review, just my initial response after finishing the book.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book now and all of them say something along the lines of ‘this will definitely appeal to hardcore fans’ (cue the slow clap – all those years at journalism school have finally paid off). That’s a given Captain Obvious but I think that the book has further reach than that not just because it is a rock memoir but also the tale of a flawed human being trying to make sense of his world.

Of course, there is a giddy rush of hearing about the creation of some of my favourite songs but the book is most compelling when Mould retraces his steps through the personal and public decisions he has made. Some of it is shocking but he is nothing less than candid about his drug use, depression and faults – the whole, messy human experience. Many times through Mould’s story, you catch yourself thinking “why Bob why?” as he makes another bad decision but he bares all this before the reader, admits his mistakes and takes the blame. But that’s the catch, when I start to think that (“Oh my God, why Bob!”), I quickly get transported back to all the bad decisions I’ve made which are inexplicable in hindsight but made in good faith at the time– we all have those moments, they’re just not played out so publicly I guess.

I think this is the main reason the story is so compelling because Mould is introspective and relatable, a stark difference to the Keith Richards book I reviewed a little while back. Richards was all lear jets, drugs and Jamaican recording sessions – fun but all surface, I had no sense of who that guy was. One thing I’ve admired about Mould is that he is always forward looking, rarely re-tracing his steps and it seems that this is the same of his personal life so as the book goes along, it seems that the events he is recollecting are as much a surprise to him as they are to the reader.

Mould was a sensitive and intelligent child being raised in an abusive and dysfunctional family situation. He retreated into music and later, substance abuse, to cope with his familial disconnect and feelings of anger and depression. He was further isolated by knowing he was gay in a virulently homophobic community. Mould is candid about his emerging sexuality and his family problems and like many kids, seeking solace in music was an obvious lifeline. Mould escapes the straitjacket of his small town for college falling in with Grant Hart and Greg Norton to form seminal punk band Hüsker Dü.

This is the start of an emergent theme in the book – community. Being outsiders, both from their parents, peers, whoever it is, Mould and the arts/music scene he was part of created their own communities and urban families (families of choice as opposed to families of origin as Mould puts it). Throughout the book, Mould recounts the details of three distinct communities – the 80’s music scene in which Hüsker Dü were pioneers; delighting in the camaraderie and success of the alt rock explosion of the early 90’s and his search for identity and self acceptance in the gay scene in his later life. It is this section that is most lively and Mould obviously relishes detailing the learning process of being an out and proud gay man with all the experimentation, sex and fun that provides. Keith Richards may have more money but it seems like Mould was having infinitely more fun.

It’s unsurprising that Mould’s outing was held back for so long because he feared a backlash from his regular fans. He was essentially outed by Spin magazine that said they would reveal this fact with or without his cooperation (although I have a vague recollection it was alluded in the British magazine Select at least a year earlier). Mould was worried that it would change the meaning of the songs for his fans because he was singing about men. As a fan, this was no problem and I distinctly remember being blown away by it because I never noticed that the majority of his songs up until that time did not refer to gender at all and how clever that was because it made them so universal. Mould recounts more reasons to be apprehensive of the scrutiny of his sexuality (his alienation from the larger gay community, his concerns for his family etc…) but I think most fans would follow Bob no matter what.

As for Hüsker Dü, it is illuminating to hear Mould recount his side of the saga. As a Mould fan, I discovered his music through his solo albums and as this was my level of entry, the solo and Sugar years have more resonance for me personally. That’s not to say I don’t love Hüsker Dü, but I wasn’t conscious of them during their existence so I’m not some misty-eyed nostalgic hoping for a reunion (which if this book is anything to go by, will never ever happen but I’d probably prefer a Sugar reunion anyhow). But as I wasn’t there, it’s great to hear the stories from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Mould, repressing his demons through a variety of drugs, is driven and ambitious to make the band work and succeed. Both he and Grant Hart are on a solid song writing roll producing several strong records in a row largely pushed by the momentum they have created through sheer force of will. Through this, Mould created these poignant emotive songs that expressed the things he couldn’t express in his daily life. The band disintegrated in haze of bad feeling, drugs and death and the acrimony between the band members lives on. The slow deterioration of the band is a cautionary tale of how a group can implode spectacularly.

The post Hüsker period is of most interest to me personally as at that time I was voraciously reading everything I could find about Mould at the time. Matching the records, my recollection of interviews from the time and events that I’d read about was fantastic as a long time fan as well as putting Mould’s personal descriptions to the names I’d read many times in the liner notes. While a huge Sugar fan (Copper Blue is my all time favourite album no question), I always thought the second record (File Under Easy Listening) was weaker and Mould admits as much here recounting his brush with mainstream success. Certainly his interviews around the time of the Hubcap record hinted at but didn’t fully reveal the personal turmoil that he was going through during the making of the record. I remember him saying that the track Thumbtack was about something that happened to friend of his but in the context of the relationship breakdown he was going through at the time, it seems infinitely more personal. More amazing is that the version on the record is the first take - phenomenal song.

The Modulate period is also interesting as it is obvious that the critical pasting he received for it as well the cool reception from fans (myself included although I warmed to it after seeing the songs live) bruised Mould who had until that time never really had bad reviews before. However, it appears to be one of the most important records Mould made in terms of rejuvenating himself creatively and while he admits it is rudimentary and unpolished, the songs are good (a while back, Matt wrote a passionate defence of that record in the comments section of my last post about Bob and is well worth reading). The subsequent solo albums that I rate quite highly (although sorry Bob, Body of Song is way better than Life and Times) reveal a man growing more comfortable with himself and his legacy.

Again, the book is compelling in the human drama of Mould personal and professional relationships. Sometimes distant, sometimes uncompromising, sometimes totally clueless – Mould’s recollections show a decent man trying to make sense of a life born of turmoil and the eventual acceptance and peace he has achieved. It is revealing that his biggest regret is the friendships he lost through carelessness, neglect or misunderstandings – something I think we can all understand. For many years, Mould was an uncompromising soldier of the punk revolution and anyone not on board with the mission was dismissed – that drive led to both success and failure professionally and personally. That being said, it is nice to hear Mould talk warmly about his current life and happiness.

There are a few things I was interested in which weren’t touched on. At one point around the Modulate time, Mould was talking about producing songs to accompany a kid’s book but I wonder if that was some blind whimsy. Given his reluctance to be a father but his partner‘s (at the time) desire to start a family might have something to do with it (and its subsequent absence from the book). I also recall at the dissolution of Sugar, Bob said he had an expectation that bass player David Barbe would contribute more songs for the second album but from the autobiography it doesn’t come off like that at all – maybe that was press speculation. Also, when I saw him play he play in Brisbane, he played this awesome song called Weak with desire – when the hell is that song going to be released? (Yeah, I have a bootleg of the show but it’s not the same). Why did the blog end? Questions, questions, questions…

Sorry, I lost myself for a second there. Again, I am an unapologetic fan. I would safely recommend this book to anyone who is vaguely interested in music or the alternative music scene. However, if you are a long-term fan, I’d recommend listening to the audiobook. Here’s why: I am currently in Borneo (seriously) and the only way I could get my hands (ears) on the book was to download it from itunes. So over the last few days I have been in hiking through Borneo rainforest during the day and for a few hours each day when I wake and just before I go to sleep, I’d listen to Bob recount his life. This is probably the strangest circumstances I can imagine hearing this story but I’m glad it happened this way for two reasons. The first reason is that I’m a voracious reader and would probably have knocked the book over in a couple of hours. Listening to it over twelve hours has made me really savour the details on offer here and really think deeply about the story being told. Secondly (and more importantly) hearing Bob’s voice, you can subtly hear through his sighs, breaths and tone what excites and exhausts the man. And there is a lot in both categories – the sighs get heavier every time Grant Hart comes up that’s for sure.

So, go and buy this book and then buy a bunch of his records. To be honest, I have tried to convert many people to Bob over the years – with some successes and some failures. The thing that I think I love about Bob’s music is that there is an integrity, purity and emotive base that shines through the music and speaks directly to me. There is very little I don’t like but it always seems legitimately coming from a place of passion regardless of my opinion of a song – Bob never phones it in. It is these things that underlie this memoir and make it a great book.


Postscript: In the acknowledgements, Bob thanks his fans who have stuck with him and says “the nights you spend with me, the stories you share of your first exposure to my work, the meaning it holds for you in troubled times, I am always humbled and honoured to be a small part of you lives.” I have to say it got a little tear from me because I was one of those intimidated fans inarticulately blurting out how much Bob’s music meant to me when I met him. He was really lovely and kind and I’ll always be grateful how gracious he was making me feel less stupid and validating everything I felt about the man and his music.

Oh and I really need to go back and listen to Flip You Wig – I haven’t listened to that in years, I'm more a New Day Rising kind of guy. Oh yeah, if anyone can hook me up with the limited edition of Copper Blue (I last saw it on sale for $500, I’d be eternally grateful.) Also great to hear Bob giving props to Jon Wurster from Superchunk – great drummer. I could go on and on…


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