Sources on social media are reporting that Grant Hart, a singer, drummer, and songwriter who helped define the sound of alternative rock with his work in legendary post-hardcore band Hüsker Dü, has died. Hart was 56; Variety reports that he had been suffering from cancer.
Outspoken, intense, and sublimely gifted, Hart’s time in Hüsker Dü was characterized by the constant push and pull between himself and frontman Bob Mould, who he met at a record store when they were both teenagers in the late ’70s. Joined by bassist Greg Norton, the trio embarked on a career in the Midwestern punk scene, before their more melodic instincts pushed them out of the world of hardcore punk and into more mainstream success. Hart’s songwriting was an integral part of that shift; “Diane,” one of the first songs he wrote for the band, lured listeners in with its compelling hook, despite the ugly violence of its lyrics.
The band transcended hardcore in 1983, when they released Zen Arcade, a sprawling, melodic concept album that’s frequently cited as one of the birthplaces of alt-rock. Although the album was a financial non-starter—at least in part due to hesitancy on the part of punk label SST Records—it laid out a blueprint not just for Hüsker Dü, but for any number of college rock bands to follow. The next year, the band signed with Warner Bros., becoming one of the first groups to emerge from the ’80s indie scene and into the hands of a major label. Hüsker Dü released two albums for Warner—1986's Candy Apple Grey and 1987's Warehouse: Songs And Stories—before tensions between Hart and Mould finally reached a breaking point.
The break-up of Hüsker Dü is one the formative legends of the alt-scene, full of stories of leaking methadone bottles and “He said, he said” accounts from everyone involved. For his part, Hart contends that it was Mould’s refusal to fully share songwriting duties that led to the dissolution, far more than the stories of drugs and debauchery that he was frequently tarred with as the band’s “barefoot drummer.” “Now, if you look at the way things worked, on the first couple of albums there’s a song of mine here and there,” he told The A.V. Club in a 2000 interview. “That just kind of grows until the final album. Then there’s a showdown with Bob telling me, ‘You’re not going to have half an album, ever, in this band.’ That was the end. Apparently, I had growing to do. Of course, when the band broke up I had a whole new set of classifications thrown at me.”
In the aftermath of the breakup, Mould and Hart set out in pursuit of new musical projects. (Norton, meanwhile, became a respected restaurateur.) Performing first with his new band, Nova Mob, and later under his own name, Hart continued to explore the musical ideas that interested him, often letting whole decades go by between new releases. “That is one place that I don’t want to make compromises,” he said in 2010, shortly after the release of his penultimate album, Hot Wax. “I want my little silly jokes to be told with the correct punch line, and I’m satisfied trading off the immediacy to fulfill the detailed work of the artistic end of things.”
Grant Hart lived a weird life: he was friends with William S. Burroughs; he played organ for Patti Smith; he lived in the shadow of a thousand stories of the “wild man” mythology he could never quite escape. But none of that would have mattered if not for his music, which anticipated and drove a seismic shift in the American underground scene, a realization that letting yourself fall in love with melodies and harmonies (and, yes, the benefits of signing with a major label) wasn’t the same thing as “selling out.” Working with Mould and Norton—pushing each other in a kind of competitive frenzy—Hüsker Dü found a way to take the snarling rage of hardcore and noise pop and keep it from lunging uncontrollably for the listener’s throat, instead channeling its energy into a powerful hybrid that helped a new generation of rockers find their sound.