It seemed that Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart existed to dispel the moronic clichés informing most drummer jokes. The dude could seemingly do it all. Killer drummer. Great singer. Amazing songwriter. He was also a supremely talented visual artist who designed all of Hüsker Dü’s album covers, along with cover art for bands like the Replacements.
Hart, who died of cancer last September 13 at the age of fifty-six, first came to prominence as a member of the pioneering Minneapolis hardcore punk trio in the 1980s, sharing songwriting and vocal duties with Bob Mould. Immediately Hart established himself as a hard-hitting hyphenate with skills so equally impressive you didn’t know which one to lead with. Was he a drummer-singer-songwriter or a singer-songwriter-drummer? According to fans like Superchunk and Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster, you could sequence those skills in any order and not be wrong.
“I have just as much of an appreciation for Grant’s songwriting and singing [as I do] his drumming,” says Wurster, who plays Hüsker Dü songs regularly in Mould’s solo band. “He was a rare triple threat.”
Hart’s hurricane-force beats and lightning-fast rolls—where he articulated each stroke with remarkable clarity—powered Hüsker Dü with the might of a hundred drummers playing for their lives. “He was the master of that fast around-the-toms maneuver, and I’ve yet to come close to that,” Wurster says.
It wasn’t all power and speed, though. There was a subtle swing to Hart’s drumming, a byproduct of his days in high school jazz bands, which gave Hüsker Dü a feel that set the group apart from its contemporaries. Being a songwriter seemed to inform Hart’s drumming. He knew how to inject a lot of personality into a song without crowding the band’s tried-and-true verse/chorus/solo structure. Every lick Hart played, from his trademark frantic rolls to simple flams, served a purpose in the song.
“Bob has always said, ‘Play the old songs however you want,’” Wurster explains. “You want to put your own spin on things, but as a fan there are certain things you want to recreate because they’re so integral to the song: the snare rolls in the breaks on ‘Makes No Sense at All’ and the ‘thwacka, thwacka’ kick/snare/floor tom flams in ‘New Day Rising.’ There are some things Grant played that I will just never be able to nail, but I always try to channel him the best I can when playing those songs he made famous.”
Hart wrote and sang some of Hüsker Dü’s most beloved songs before moving on to form his own band, Nova Mob, and then releasing a handful of solo albums. Alternately clever, feisty, and vulnerable, Hart’s songwriting contributions to Hüsker Dü had little in common with all the red-in-the-face shouting about anger and alienation that dominated the American punk and hardcore scene in the early to mid ’80s. His songs could even at times seem at odds with Mould’s compositions.
Mould specialized in strident blasts of angst seemingly designed to rattle the windows and push dodgy PA systems to the limit at the all-ages venues Hüsker Dü usually played. Hart countered with messy shuffles about stargazing female bookworms (“Books About UFOs”), drum-less folk-rock kiss-offs (“Never Talking to You Again”), and throttling garage pop (“Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely”) that were punk rock in their ragged spirit, though they proudly bore classic pop and rock influences. Those influences would play a more significant role on Hart’s solo records, all of them filled with soulful psych-tinged rock.
Dave Grohl was once quoted as saying, “No Hüsker Dü, no Foo Fighters.” It’s fair to drill down a little further and say, “No Hüsker Dü, no Nirvana”—no multifaceted force like Grant Hart to light the spark, no Dave Grohl ruling the universe.
Just about the time Grohl began making his post-Nirvana ascent, the Bellingham, Washington, power pop band the Posies summed up Hart’s influence on the ’90s alt-rock explosion quite nicely in the lyrics to their 1996 song “Grant Hart”:
Nervous children making millions
You owe it all to them
Power trios with big-ass deals
You opened for it then
I can see, I can see, I can see it all with my one good eye
For a start take two Grant Harts and call me when you die