He flirted with rock stardom as the co-leader of the ’80s punk band Hüsker Dü, became friends with deep thinkers like William S. Burroughs and Patti Smith and continued traveling the world to perform. But Grant Hart never left the Twin Cities and remained a figurehead and fixture in his hometown music scene for nearly four decades.
Hart, 56, died Wednesday night at University of Minnesota Medical Center. He had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in recent months and was also afflicted with hepatitis C.
“He was really positive; we had a list of things that we wanted to accomplish,” said Hart’s wife, Brigid McGough Hart, whom he married in July.
As the drummer and one of two main singers and songwriters in Hüsker Dü, Hart influenced a generation of loud and noisy but melodic and lyrical rock bands that exploded into the mainstream after the Twin Cities trio acrimoniously broke up in 1988, including Nirvana, Green Day, the Pixies and Foo Fighters.
“No Hüsker Dü, no Nirvana,” Nirvana drummer and lead Foo Fighter Dave Grohl once said in an interview.
Despite their often calamitous relationship, Hüsker Dü singer/guitarist Bob Mould wasted no time paying tribute to his former bandmate in a Facebook post early Thursday morning.
“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,” Mould wrote. “Grant Hart was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember.”
Hüsker Dü’s third member, bassist Greg Norton, said he heard Hart “didn’t have to suffer a lot of pain, which is good,” and he praised his ex-bandmate for “writing a lot of great music that is going to live on for years.”
“Grant was a force of nature,” Norton added. “He lived life on his own terms and could not be dictated to.”
Born Grantzberg Vernon Hart in 1961 and raised in South St. Paul — where he lived until a fire ravaged his parents’ house in 2011 — Hart was a store clerk at St. Paul’s Cheapo Records in 1979 when he and Norton met Macalester College student Mould to form Hüsker Dü.
The trio started out playing fast and furious hardcore punk but evolved into a more complex, melodic, song-driven sound when it signed with Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s legendary SST label in 1982. SST would put out the group’s seminal double-album “Zen Arcade” in 1984, featuring songs about alienation and young angst as Hart and Mould both dealt with homosexuality and the politics around it during the Reagan administration.
Hüsker Dü became one of the first bands of the early ’80s underground to sign with a major record label, Warner Bros., and made a somewhat clumsy push into the mainstream, including a memorable appearance on Joan Rivers’ late-night TV show in 1987. The comedian famously said to Hart, “I can tell you’re the wild one.”
Hart indeed lived an untamed lifestyle in those days. He would battle with heroin in the ensuing years, an addiction that permanently impacted his health and partly led to the breakup of Hüsker Dü after only two albums with the big leagues. Hart and Mould developed a contentious relationship toward the end, which would carry on for decades and stymied the handling of Hüsker Dü’s catalog and chances for a reunion.
In recent years, however, the ice between Hart and Mould melted, leading to a new three-disc boxed set of the band’s unreleased early recordings, “Savage Young Dü,” announced to much fanfare last week with a Nov. 10 release date.
Sources say Mould even flew to Chicago recently to have dinner with Hart after hearing about his failing health.
Hart and Norton also reunited in early July at the Hook & Ladder Theater in Minneapolis, where Hart thought he was playing a solo gig but was surprised with an all-star cast of musicians that included members of Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland and Run Westy Run.
While his diagnosis was known by most of the attendees that night in July, Hart wished to keep it quiet and maintained an upbeat mood through the show. He performed some of his best-known numbers including the solo tune “2541” and “All of My Senses” and the Hüskers numbers “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” “Dead Set on Destruction” and “What’s Going On.”
At the end of his set, Hart said simply, “We’ll see you a bit further down the trail.”
As much as he was a revered figure within the Twin Cities music scene, Hart was also well-liked as an approachable, personal guy that other musicians and fans could walk up to whenever he made one of his frequent visits to clubs both on and off stage.
He had new CD coming out
“He was a hero to so many people, but I think a lot of us also considered him a friend and just a great guy,” said Nate Kranz, general manager at First Avenue, where Hüsker Dü recorded its hyper-paced “Land Speed Record” in the adjoining 7th Street Entry in 1981, and where Hart memorably performed with pal Patti Smith in 1998.
“Any time someone like Patti or the Foo Fighters played here, we knew we’d see Grant because they would call him up and ask him to come down,” Kranz recalled.
Hart was making music up until the end, capping off a post-Hüskers career that started in 1989 with the album “Intolerance” and included two LPs with his ’90s rock trio Nova Mob. He even had a record near completion at the time of his death called “Pop Manifestos,” a concept album based on the life of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.
“I know his Hüsker Dü songs will always be the ones people remember most, because they’re just so good, but I think a lot of his recent output should be given a better chance,” said Albatross Studio owner Mike Wisti, who engineered all of Hart’s recent albums, including the unfinished record.
“He told me he wanted to get that one done, and then he had another record in mind,” Wisti somberly reported.
Alongside his new material, Hüsker Dü’s longtime sound engineer and archivist Terry Katzman said Hart was also excited to see the new boxed set from his old trio finally come to light.
“It’s such a bittersweet thing, because he was so close to getting to actually hold [the collection] in his hand,” said Katzman, who called Hart “a good friend and an artist that had a deep impact on mine and many other people’s life.”
Many of those people paid tribute to Hart via social media on Thursday, after Hart’s death was being widely reported online from Rolling Stone to the New York Times. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said on Instagram, “Grant, wherever you are, I don’t have to put on your records to listen to them. They are memorized in my head.”
In a 2009 interview with the Star Tribune, Hart offered something of an epitaph for himself.
“A long time ago, I started looking at my permanent record — the history of me after I’m gone,” he said. “Even to speak of it reeks of egotism run wild. But I think when all is said and done, the work that I produced in this lifetime will more than repay the world for any inconvenience I’ve caused it.”
In addition to his wife, Hart is survived by adult son Karl Turbenson, granddaughter Grace Turbenson and siblings Nett, Roxanne and Craig Hart. No memorial service is in place yet, but Brigid McGough Hart said she hopes to set up a foundation in his honor to benefit women artists, per his wishes.