Words: Scott Creney
Everyone knows the Husker Du stuff—and if you don’t then just immediately go right now and listen to ‘Green Eyes.’
But I want to just talk about his first solo album. Back in 1994 I found a sealed copy of Intolerance in the dollar bin of one of the many record stores along the stretch of El Cajon Blvd. near San Diego State University. I’d never heard of the record, but knew enough about Husker Du to think this was probably the drummer’s solo album.
It turned out to be worth a hell of a lot more than a dollar—but then pretty much everything Grant Hart did during his life was undervalued. Even by me. I probably listened to Intolerance daily for about a year, and then I set it aside. I don’t think I’ve listened to it in its entirety in nearly…jesus…20 years? The things I got from it in 1994—a time in my life when I was just out of high school, getting over a 6mo stint of homelessness, working the graveyard shift at a 7-11 in a place called Jamul and basically about as neurotic as a traumatized cat—weren’t things I needed anymore.
Or maybe the memories made me uncomfortable. Anyway, the news of Grant Hart’s death sent me scurrying back to the album, or in this case a YouTube playlist (this fucking world, right?).
Intolerance has some of the greatest songs the man ever wrote. ‘Now That You Know Me’ is the #1 hit single that Dylan kept failing to pull off circa Blonde On Blonde. ‘2541’ is the greatest band break-up song ever written (the line This probably won’t be the last time I have to be out by the first nearly broke me when I heard it today). The backwards cymbals of ‘She Can See the Angels Coming’ are elegiac. And because Grant Hart is now dead, I now imagine myself at his funeral as it plays. I just went back and listened to ‘The Main’ again for the 4th time today, and my heart still jumps into my throat when I hear that goddamned third verse. My eyes sting with sadness & sympathy for people I’ve never met.
‘The Main’ is, melody-wise at least, not much more than a stop/start version of The Pogues ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ (released a few years earlier). But nobody, not even Shane McGowan, ever sang a folk song with the rage & pain Hart puts into the song’s last verse. The middle has a long instrumental section that goes through several false starts before he finally tears into it, eventually even deciding to do one more chorus, as if Hart needs time to work up the courage. And nobody as far as I know ever wrote a line about how both Christ and De Quincey (Thomas, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater) died ‘with [their] arms full of holes.’
Like most songs on Intolerance, it’s a song about drugs, heroin specifically—write what you know, and all that. Though listening to it now, I hear parallels w/Elliott Smith’s writing about pharmaceuticals: unapologetic, obsessed w/wordplay & double entendres, e.g. the album title, the line I’m using…all of my senses, etc. etc. Drugs as a metaphor. Like another notorious 1990’s drug addict, writer David Foster Wallace, Hart (& Smith) saw addiction everywhere—everyone’s addicted to something; television is a drug; sex is a drug; success is a drug. Writing from the inside out, taking your internal and finding the universal. Intolerance drips with empathy, with the kind of hard-earned poetic wisdom people associate with a songwriter like Leonard Cohen, or Dylan.
And even if it feels like he ran out of steam halfway through the album, as if Hart was so accustomed to coming up with 5-6 great songs each year that he hadn’t yet learned how to write 10-12, the handful of half-finished songs & instrumentals carry their own emotional weight. Grant Hart turned out to be more compelling, more multi-dimensional, as a solo artist than he’d been in Husker Du. For all its greatness, Intolerance is a fucking mess at times—just like its creator.
The man was no saint. Last year I watched a documentary about Grant Hart called Every Everything where he came off as a mass of unresolved contradictions, both fascinating & boring, brilliant & kinda dumb. You wouldn’t want to be his best friend or anything, but you couldn’t help liking the guy—he at least tried to tell you what he was thinking, he at least made you laugh once in awhile. And even when he was wrong about stuff, you could tell he was trying to get at some kind of truth.
You could also tell that he was the best kind of artist: one that takes his work more seriously than he takes himself, one that loves to create. No matter how full of shit he might have been at times, as an artist Grant Hart was the real deal.
And I know the idea of ‘authenticity’ in music got co-opted a couple of decades ago and was used to sell so much turgid, uninspired oatmeal that people rebelled and started insisting that maybe the fake stuff was actually better—that the empty was more honest b/c it didn’t pretend to be honest. But we live in dishonest times, where nearly every human interaction—first-hand, second-hand, third-hand, whatever—fucking reeks of insincerity. After a while it can all start to make a person feel empty & groundless & lost. For better and worse, Grant Hart wore his heart (Hart?) on his sleeve, even when his sleeve had just been hastily rolled up to inject some sweet drugs into his veins. Intolerance is honest & direct, at times almost to a fault, in a way few of today’s records, mainstream or otherwise, dare to be. And while Intolerance may contain the best lyrics Hart ever wrote. He definitely wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself. Just check out this stanza from ‘Fanfare in D Major (Come Come): Well I refrain from speaking about pain / I won’t use such a word / And I won’t guard the thoughts that you’ve started / Because it seems so absurd. And yet it’s the clumsiness that makes it endearing. In his effort to say exactly how he felt, he was willing to look ridiculous; he was willing to take the risk.
In these dark days of rampant dishonesty, both political & cultural, when every tastemaker has a price and nearly every politician has already been bought, a song from Grant Hart can feel like it’s worth everything. I’ve never heard anything Grant Hart did after Intolerance—because I spent the rest of my 20’s & 30’s being a know-it-all snobby dickface and I had better stuff to do, but tonight I intend to correct my mistake.
(listens to ‘The Main’ one more time)
Jesus, the guy deserved so much better. From all of us.