Since I was a genuine, raging fan of Grant Hart in addition to being someone who frequently reported his goings-on, I knew to expect the unexpected with him. He never truly caught me off guard until a summer ago, though.
The Twin Cities punk pioneer and scenemaker — who died Wednesday of cancer at age 56 — returned to 7th Street Entry on Aug. 15, 2016, to host a discussion panel and play a gig commemorating the 35th anniversary of the night he and his two Hüsker Dü bandmates came home from a long West Coast tour with blood and trucker speed coursing through their veins to record their blunt object of a live album, “Land Speed Record,” their first LP to get noticed outside of Minnesota.
“Dang, did I miss the panel?” I asked Hart as I saw him and longtime First Avenue G.M. Steve McClellan standing outside the Entry an hour after the event was supposed to start.
“Nope, we’re just about to get going,” Hart told me, then looked at me with those sparkling brown ex-vandal eyes that could dare a nun into a wrestling ring. Those eyes kept the Twin Cities music scene on its toes for nearly four decades.
“Say, do you wanna moderate the panel?” he suddenly asked.
Climbing onto the Entry stage not five minutes later, I got my own small taste of the why-not/can-do/try-me attitude that made Hart probably not the greatest bandmate to work with, but one of the creative geniuses in one of the greatest bands to ever come out of Minnesota.
Like a lot of ’80s teens whose musical taste fell somewhere between Cheap Trick and the Circle Jerks, and whose life was nowhere near as dramatic as in my head, I regarded Hüsker Dü as more important from the ages of 13 to 17 than just about everything except air, food and pimple cream. I still heavily rely on it, too.
The songs that Hart and his bandmate Bob Mould crafted in Hüsker Dü were filled with angst and fury and gnarly, monstrous guitar work, but also with beautiful things such as melodic hooks and poetic words. That the songwriters lived in the same city as me seemed to enhance that ugliness and that beauty.
“Don’t think you’re the only one who harbors a self-hate/I’m just as guilty of selling what my sweet soul creates,” Hart sang in “Terms of Psychic Warfare” — words I knew well, because in those days kids didn’t have much else to do than study lyrics inside album sleeves.
A decade and a half after first devouring his songs, I found myself talking to Hart on a semiregular basis upon returning to my native Twin Cities to become a music critic at the Star Tribune.
Hart was always approachable and likable, polite and funny, but also always a little intimidating and cocky. Unlike many other interview subjects I also happen to be big fans of, getting to know him didn’t demystify him for me, but rather the opposite.
I came to the music beat in Minneapolis via Austin, Texas, another talent-rich city where Hüsker Dü had huge cachet.
In one of my earliest columns for the Strib, I wrote about how disheartened I was to see Hart and another bedrock player in the Twin Cities music scene, Slim Dunlap, performing to puny hometown crowds. It reminded me of seeing world-renowned song men such as Alejandro Escovedo and Doug Sahm in Austin, where, like Grant, they had been taken for granted.
While his struggles with addiction and some bad record deals didn’t help, Hart himself was at least partly to blame for the fact that he did not maintain a prosperous music career like his ex-bandmate Mould did.
He could be troublesome to work with, and erratic. His artistic vision sometimes blinded him to the realities of the business. And sometimes it seemed like he simply, weirdly didn’t know how to work his guitar right.
In our conversations over the years, Hart would often take swipes at Mould, underlining his own determination but also his own shortcomings as a result. Like when he told me this: “[Mould] has a business acumen that I don’t bother exercising because it’s not a motivation to me. Putting things in that focus is pollutive. We’re talking about something that is spiritual sustenance to me.”
Thankfully, hometown appreciation for Hart rose again in more recent years. One thing that helped is that he simply floated away for a while, going a decade between albums until we missed him, and then finally dropping a coolly experimental record called “Hot Wax” in 2009, recorded with help from then-hip Canadian band Godspeed You Black Emperor.
The bad breaks kept coming, though, like when Hart lost his mom, Annette (an early Hüskers booster), just weeks after losing the South St. Paul house they shared to a fire in 2011. Hart just kept rolling with the punches, going on to create his most complex and challenging album yet, 2013’s “The Argument.”
The last time many local fans saw Hart, me included, he was the one taken by surprise for a change. Longtime friend Lori Barbero knew his health was failing, so she organized an unannounced all-star tribute to him at Hook & Ladder Theater in Minneapolis on July 1.
In a break between acts, one of my greatest music heroes walked up and said a polite hello. I wanted to fish some comments out of him about his tragic predicament, knowing/hating that I would soon have to write an obit on him. As smart as he was, though, I knew he would know that’s what I was doing. And anyway, he’d already talked to me enough over the years, for which I am now more grateful than ever.