BY AARON BLOCK
Author: Bob Mould
2011 Little, Brown
Filed under: Memoir
If you aren’t familiar with Bob Mould, listen to Hüsker Dü’s cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”—the breathtaking speed, anger, and emotional muscularity of that performance will give you a good idea of the cultural shorthand that’s been attached to Mould’s name since the mid 80s. Not that he didn’t earn his reputation for peevishness and volatility honestly—he admits as much in this autobiography (note the subtitle: The Trail of Rage and Melody).
Mould and co-writer Michael Azerrad clearly haven’t set out to dispel the image of Mould as a temperamental rocker, but they do argue that the black-and-white image—a 21-year-old wailing his anger and frustration, throttling his guitar as he fronts a legendary post-punk band—that’s just one slide in the carousel. The Bob Mould of See A Little Light is candid and self-effacing, and eager to come to terms with his every incarnation. In fact, Light has more in common with Mould’s songwriting, which is often aggressive but just as likely to be tender and vulnerable.
The book’s principle arc concerns Mould’s sexuality, particularly his transition from a closeted gay man in the sometimes socially non-progressive indie music scene to a very public and very active member of the gay community who also happens to be a musician. And while sexuality isn’t the lens through which every chapter of Mould’s life is addressed, he does continually return to the question of whether being a bit closed off and sometimes militantly private affected the way he behaved as a member of Hüsker Dü, or his reaction to friend and manager David Savoy’s suicide, or even the success of his second band, Sugar. So it makes sense that the reading becomes far breezier about three quarters of the way through, when, following his public outing in a Spin Magazine interview and the dissolution of a long-term relationship, Mould chooses to enter fully into the gay community and begins leading a happier, more productive life. His narrative voice becomes lighter, and he tells more stories but with less detail, as if the years since that transition are pleasant enough that extra scrutiny or investigation doesn’t feel as necessary. That isn’t to say that the last few chapters aren’t still interesting, but just that the stakes feel lower, more like a genial conversation than a drive toward the end of a story.
But Mould hasn’t sanded off all of his corners and become just another elder of the indie world, and his cutting intellect is nowhere more evident than in his matter-of-fact assessment of the discord within and dissolution of Hüsker Dü. The acrimony that ended that band is well documented by music writers and historians elsewhere (including co-author Michael Azerrad’s excellent Our Band Could Be Your Life) so the details of the break-up aren’t new. Still, it’s exciting in a voyeuristic way to read Mould’s take on the conversation in drummer Grant Hart’s kitchen that ended the band, to find that twenty-three years later his contempt and disappointment haven’t abated, even if he’s matured beyond active participation in a feud.
Maybe it reflects poorly on me as a reader and a fan that I responded better to the sections where Mould revisits those beds of emotional quicksand than the pleasant denoument, but I think it also speaks to the nature of autobiography and memoir. We know that Bob Mould turns out okay in the end, not only because his foreward says so, but because he’s written the book in the first place, so any dramatic tension is replaced by a desire to see just how low the lows got.
That said, I do think Mould succeeds in creating a multifaceted narrative voice in See A Little Light, moving between introspection and exposition with ease, never straying too far into the twin pitfalls of overly frothy humor and melodrama. I particularly enjoyed the chapter detailing his brief stint with the creative team behind World Championship Wrestling, a career detour that only seems odd if you don’t also know that Mould’s wrestling fandom dates back to his childhood. He doesn’t narrate those sections any differently than he does, say, the passages on recording Copper Blue or touring with Hüsker Dü; the light bits get a touch of humor, and the serious bits are analyzed and plumbed for meaning.
It’s that evenness of approach that sells Mould’s thesis—if disproportionate space were given over to the Hüsker Dü years, or his solo work, it would be harder to buy the idea that all of his various identities are important—but it also leaves the reading a little flat, particularly when delving into the creative process. Mould does discuss his songwriting and reveals some of the stories and experiences that inform specific songs, but much of the discussion of writing feels too vague. Maybe preserving some of the mystery of the creative process is good, but it feels like an oversight, particularly juxtaposed with the dozens of pages dedicated to various tours that start to feel a bit redundant.
My favorite chapter of Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life deals with Hüsker Dü, but it always felt unfinished—Azerrad ends the chapter just after the band signed to Warner Brothers and then imploded, but abandons narratives about the individual band members, particularly Mould and his sexuality, that made the chapter more interesting and relatable than those covering other bands. See A Little Light takes that thread and follows it backwards and forwards, showing where it frays, becomes knotted, loops back around on itself, and eventually binds with others.
Similar reads: Our Band Could Be Your Life, by Michael Azerrad; Deflowered, by Jon Ginoli; Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds
[A review copy was provided.]