Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad - See a Little Light [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad

See a Little Light [Book] (2013)

Cleis Press

Bob Mould’s autobiography with assistance from the unparalleled Michael Azerrad is an illuminating glimpse into one of the most interesting career trajectories to come from the American underground of the ‘80s. Mould has a reputation for being cantankerous and aloof regarding his relations with his Husker Du bandmates and others from the early Minneapolis scene, but See a Little Light reflects his perspective as pragmatic if occasionally curt. The book traces Mould’s life from his childhood in New York state to the latter stages of his solo career.

Mould recalls a dysfunctional childhood (what musician doesn’t?) from a nevertheless stubbornly stable, if unhappy family unit. His parents owned a grocery store that was attached to their house, which served as a never-ending source of annoyance for his irritable father. Mould would often serve as peacekeeper between his parents and siblings when his father’s ire would turn outward to the rest of the family. Despite the tension at home, Mould’s father was supportive of his musical endeavors and funded the band’s first tour van, even driving it all the way from New York state to Minnesota.

I was surprised with the brevity with which the work blazes through the legacy of Husker Du. However, relatively speaking, the band was a brief experience over Mould’s many years as an apotheosis of alternative rock. Mould recognizes the band worked at a frenetic pace, creating two classic albums (Zen Arcade and New Day Rising) within the span of a year. Mould also admits that Zen specifically was a product of its surroundings and a particular time in his life and did not feel that it could be continued to be replicated ad nauseum. In listening to Mould’s discography in chronological order, it’s easy to see the leaps and bounds of not only his musicianship but how his breadth of influences began to grow and morph his artistic presentations.

Regarding the unceremonious end of Husker Du, Mould gives a succinct account of his motivations and where he saw the future of the band. By the time of Warehouse, Mould felt Greg Norton’s contributions were lackluster and depicts him as fitting the band in between time at the golf course. Grant Hart’s behavior was becoming increasingly erratic due to substance abuse (heroin, specifically) and he was becoming an unreliable partner in the band. After a particularly tense set of encounters, the band convened at Hart’s parents’ house to discuss their future. Mould recollects that Hart’s mother interjected to ask if the band could only play on weekends to take stress off Hart and allow time for him to rehabilitate. Mould felt this was unacceptable and decided to end the band after the meeting. He comes across as harsh but at least realistic. If the band was too stressful for Hart and a hindrance to his sobriety, the logical thing to do was eliminate the problem. The specter of addiction would continue to haunt Hart the rest of his life, despite the occasional strong solo effort. Again, Mould is very clear that this is his personal perspective on the end of the band. For a more balanced version of the tale, see Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.

Another controversial aspect of Husker Du’s past that gets Mould’s version here is the division of publishing rights. A few years after the demise of the band, Norton approaches Mould after a show with legal papers. The Husker Du royalties were initially 60-40 Mould-Hart. Prior to Warehouse, Mould was the primary songwriter, and he felt entitled to a larger share of the publishing rights of the group. After the band ended and Hart and Norton finally realized how the rights had been established, they eventually renegotiated to have it distributed equally 3 ways with Norton receiving back royalties until everyone was balanced. Mould seems to continue to disagree with this arrangement since he feels he contributed the most artistically to the group. The whole fiasco highlights the background problems in the economics of rock and roll that can lead to the demise of excellent bands who disagree on how compensation is distributed and reinforces the necessity of all members being in concordance over financial issues. Other bands avoided these pratfalls by splitting all royalties and rights equally between members from the beginning (R.E.M., specifically) to avoid internal sniping and discord.

Speaking of sniping and discord, Mould does take aim at SST and Greg Ginn (who has his share of adversaries among many other musicians and artists associated with the label). Basically, the problems with SST are fairly easy to unravel. SST would use proceeds from profitable bands like Husker Du and Black Flag to fund projects for lesser known or less popular bands. The problems arose when successful bands failed to see the proceeds from their hard work and popularity. It doesn’t appear that Ginn was embezzling money but simply not adept at balancing the finances of the label and fairly compensating bands who performed well. It’s unfortunate that a label with such a stellar roster seems to be universally despised by bands who spent time on it secondary to bad financial decisions. However, it does serve as a cautionary tale and foreshadows some of the problems Touch and Go would weather secondary to its propensity for cursory band contracts (occasionally written on napkins or cardboard – for an example of Touch and Go’s problems, look into the debacle with the Butthole Surfers).

The latter chapter on Mould’s brief sojourn in Sugar with David Barbe and Malcolm Travis sheds light on an excellent band that despite some impressive commercial success seems to have a pale critical appraisal compared to the immortal Husker Du. Mould admits that after the somber, depressive solo album Black Sheets of Rain he was thirsty for something infectious and accessible. Despite its pop leanings, Copper Blue has some of the most intoxicating guitar distortion sounds on any album from the grunge era. Mould details his process of layers upon layers of guitar with varying effects from his sturdy, versatile Fender Stratocaster. The Copper Blue sessions were so fortuitous that the band also gathered the scraps into the bruising, more confrontational Beaster EP. These two monoliths of alternative rock fulfilled the promise of the ‘80s underground scenes of what rock and roll could sound like with prodigious musicians with earnest artistic intentions, proving that alternative could be both substantial and commercial. (FYI, David Barbe also has an interesting career arc, starting out in the excellent indie band Mercyland before going on to serve as a music business professor at the University of Georgia and serving as long-time producer and occasional side-man to the Drive-By Truckers).

However, Sugar’s tenure was brief as domestic tensions and a frenzied ascension and pace led to the band’s implosion. Regarding the breakup of the band, Mould’s account in the book seems more mature and empathetic than the snarky liner notes of the reissue of Sugar’s last album FU:EL. Mould recounts how David Barbe approached him on the eve of the band heading to Japan and admitted that the physical and domestic toll of the band’s touring schedule was too much on his family, forcing him to step away. Mould concedes to his own exhaustion, and agrees to end the project after Barbe commits to finishing the rest of their previously booked obligations. Unfortunately, neither party informed Travis until the tour was over, and Mould regrets his decision to leave the drummer in the dark while also admitting that he has never found a successful way to terminate a band without feelings being hurt and trust violated.

Mould’s difficulty with effective communication professionally also reflect struggles in his private, domestic life. The autobiography is about Mould’s experiences as a gay man as much it is about his life as a musician, and the two identities are certainly intertwined. Mould’s sexuality was pretty much an open secret in the underground music scene, but he did not feel comfortable with publicizing his sexual identity until the early ‘90s with a feature in Spin magazine. Unfortunately, even at the time of his revelation, Mould feels he wasted the opportunity and was quoted as saying, “I’m not a freak.” Mould feels the statement was hurtful to the gay community and demonized people who were more flamboyant and recognizes his dismissive attitude was secondary to his fear of being misunderstood by the mainstream. However, Mould reveals he gained a new community of followers after his announcement and became more accessible to the LGBT crowd. Mould acknowledges that it took well into his adult life for him to become comfortable and accepting of his identity and learn his place within the larger gay community.

Mould spends a significant portion of the book dissecting the ups and downs of his most significant romantic relationships as they intersect with his musical life. Initially starting out as a serial monogamist, his first relationship of note with Mike Covington is notable for Mike’s contribution of the diorama that adorns the cover of Workbook and being the subject matter for a portion of the material on the album. Over time due to various stressors, the relationship dissolves, and Mould is fairly candid about his inability to read the warning signs of a doomed partnership or respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. His second relationship of significance is with Kevin O’Neill of Athens, GA who also becomes inextricably embedded in Mould’s professional career, serving in managerial and advocate type roles. After a rough period with Kevin, Mould commits to therapy while in Texas. The counseling experience will allow him to come to terms with his sexuality and his identity as an “angry rock guitar guy.”

After the collapse of his domestic life, Mould begins to forge an identity as a singular individual outside the trappings of a relationship. He explores electronic music, DJs the “Blowoff” events that start in DC and then expand nationwide, and begins dating more casually. Interestingly, he returns to the religion of his youth and resumes attendances at Catholic mass. With the full admission that he does not believe in all the tenets of the Church, he recognizes the beneficial aspects of repentance, love, and grace and begins to incorporate the best components back into his own life and interactions with others. After his electronic music explorations, he participates in solo tours with Rich Morel, Jason Narducy, and Brendan Canty and then Jon Wurster that revitalize his touring career and allow him to explore his back catalog, including Sugar and Husker Du material.

Throughout the book, Mould does not shy away from acknowledging his failures, sharing his personal epiphanies, and appreciating the role his music has served as a reflector and therapeutic agent of the challenges in his life. He recounts struggles with substance abuse and ultimately a hard-won sobriety. He does still hold grudges and comes across as dismissive toward his Husker Du bandmates at times. However, after Grant Hart’s passing in 2017, he issued this response of Facebook:

“We made amazing music together. We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world. When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared. The band was our life. It was an amazing decade.

We stopped working together in January 1988. We went on to solo careers, fronting our own bands, finding different ways to tell our individual stories. We stayed in contact over the next 29 years — sometimes peaceful, sometimes difficult, sometimes through go-betweens. For better or worse, that’s how it was, and occasionally that’s what it is when two people care deeply about everything they built together.

The tragic news of Grant’s passing was not unexpected to me. My deepest condolences and thoughts to Grant’s family, friends, and fans around the world.

Grant Hart was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember.

Godspeed, Grant. I miss you. Be with the angels.”

Overall, Mould has endured an amazing journey, made immortal music, and learned to live in proud acceptance of who he is as an individual. His resiliency and legacy should certainly be celebrated.