So a friend uploaded the Hüsker Dü record Flip Your Wig for me to snag and now I'm listening to it through cranked headphones. The song "Divide and Conquer" came on and I had on of those involuntary in-chair rock-gasms where something sounds so good and so perfectly essentially irreducibly RIGHT that it made my whole body shake and left a silver snake of adrenaline crackling up and down my spine. And I thought, this album came out in 1985. Almost 24 years ago. When's the last time a new piece of music has grabbed me like that? Or maybe that reaction is only possible with an old record that you've loved and set aside -- it's been YEARS since I've listened to Flip Your Wig. I long ago lost the CD through either pilferage or poor lending practices. I have it on vinyl, but who knows where that is, and me with no record player to boot. It's not even my favorite Hüsker Dü record -- that'd be New Day Rising. But I didn't need to listen to it: I could summon it up any time I wanted. Or maybe I could summon a ghost of a recollection of what I had felt like as I listened to it with new ears. So maybe hearing it blew the cobwebs out of those long-disused channels, amplifying the experience.
And I keep listening. You know, there are some bad songs on that record. And not good bad -- bad bad. Hackneyed melodies one step above a nursery rhyme coupled with trite pity-party lyrics. All awash in shiny, chiming guitar and heroin-soaked drums that lag a half step behind the beat.
Then comes "Keep Hanging On", a song that kept me alive when I wanted to die, and I can excuse all the precious little songs and feel that rope again, not the one around my neck but the one that dangles at the bottom of the well and is strong enough to grip and climb. Sometimes nursery rhymes are all we have. How's that for a pity party?
It gets better. I flip over to amazon.com and there they are. Every fucking Hüsker Dü record you could ask for. I'd never thought to look. iTunes didn't have them, so why would Amazon? They've been in court wrangling for back profits and who owns what for years, right? But there they are: from Metal Circus and New Day Rising to the Eight Miles High/Love Is All Around (Mary Tyler Moore theme) split EP.
I buy them all.
Revisiting New Day Rising is like going back to my childhood home and finding it much smaller than I remembered. What I had thought of as an uncompromising "punk" record, screamy and spiky and loud, seems so much more melodic, somehow innocent now. All that angst, and beneath the bristling skin of Bob Mould's guitar and impassioned yowls beats the heart of a house cat. An angry, spitting, house cat, but a house cat nonetheless. Yet I'm not dismayed. I'm comforted. Even "59 Times the Pain" seems regretful now, not as strident as it seemed to the angry ears who first heard it in 1985. Bob sings, "All I feel is bitter, and it doesn't make it better" and these days that's worth a rueful smile, not white half-moons of fingernails dug into reddened fists. Is that maturity or resignation? Both, perhaps.
I can't separate the music from the memories, you know? It's more than nostalgia, I hope. Maybe not. The music brings back not just memories but memories of memories: a taste of my first serious girlfriend's lips, bitter with beer and cigarettes; the view from my dorm window; the smell of the library, dust and old leather. Central Park in the snow. Standing in Monet's Water Lilies room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ripped to the tits on acid, feeling submerged in aqueous pastels.
There are surprises. "Powerline" is a really lovely song: a bass line like a bed of smooth stones over which a liquid wash of guitar burbles and chimes. And "Books About UFOs"! What a blast of pure power pop happiness!
Then we hit "Whatcha Drinkin'" and "Plans I Make": it's this perfect hardcore one-two punch. My legs twitch: I know how to dance to this. My body wants to own these songs. The galloping drums struggling to keep up with Bob's chainsaw guitar, Greg Norton's bass set to subsonic stun, the last song's desperate shouted pleading lyrics occluded by the chaos: "Make plans. Make plans. Make plans."
Such good advice, so sorely unheeded. And the last note soaring up into supersonic nothingness. Beautiful.
From there I move on to "Eight Miles High", a cover of the Birds classic, and one of the great cover songs of rock history. Hüsker Dü's manifesto. Melody via screaming. Beauty through feedback. Everything louder than everything else.
But now my ears are getting tired, and it's all beginning to sound over-familiar. Same old stuff. I'm glum: have I really ossified that severely? Am I stuck in 1985? I try not to be.