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Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü's co-founder and drummer who rewired fans' brains, dies at 56

For a certain kind of punk rocker at a particular time in the American underground rock movement of the 1980s, Grant Hart, the drummer, singer and songwriter for Minneapolis three-piece Hüsker Dü, was a godhead.

Along with co-founder Bob Mould, Hart, who died on Wednesday at 56, helped bridge the divide between loud, fast hardcore punk and more jangly, down-to-earth pop melodies.

Hart-penned songs such as "Diane," "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Books About UFOs" inspired the so-called grunge movement, and the band's trio of classic records — "Zen Arcade," "New Day Rising" and "Candy Apple Grey" — influenced bands including Nirvana, the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Green Day and No Age. 

Hart's death, after a long battle with cancer, was confirmed by Mould on his Facebook page. Hart, wrote Mould, "was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember."

It's impossible to forget the rush of cracking open "Zen Arcade" in 1984 for the first time. Word of the gatefold double album, released by Southern California label SST, had reverberated across the underground scene one fanzine review at a time, so much so that the first pressing quickly sold out.

A punk band had released an epic concept record with a connected narrative about suburban alienation, adolescent angst, drugs and depression. A punk opera? One that's not totally stupid? 

It was a world to get lost in, and its impact changed the way I thought about hardcore. I examined that album cover like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Like a great Beatles record, you could sing along. Like a great Black Flag song, you could thrash. The band underscored this truth by issuing a wildly aggressive version of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." 

"New Day Rising" was a more concise statement and further confirmed Hart's ability to write pop songs. "Books About UFOs," for example, is a love song about a space-obsessed girl.

As seen in a 1985 publicity photo, Husker Du included: Bob Mould, left, Grant Hart and Greg Norton. (Handout)
As seen in a 1985 publicity photo, Husker Du included: Bob Mould, left, Grant Hart and Greg Norton. (Handout)

Sings Hart: 

Her life revolves around all of the planets
And she is constantly aware of all the changes that occur
I'm going to turn into a lens and focus all my attention
On finding a new planet and naming it right after her

In addition to inspiring a generation of punks, Hüsker Dü helped establish SST Records as an independent powerhouse. Founded by Black Flag's Greg Ginn to issue his band's records, SST was a mostly local concern until its success with Hüsker Dü.

The "Metal Circus" EP, "Zen Arcade" and "New Day Rising" helped persuade East Coasters including Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Bad Brains to release records through SST. 

For its part, Hüsker Dü signed to Warner Bros. Records after issuing its poppy 1985 album, "Flip Your Wig," and released "Candy Apple Grey," which featured a lot of — horror of horrors! — acoustic guitar. The double-album 1987 follow-up, "Warehouse: Songs and Stories," further refined the band's sound — but tense relations between Mould and Hart caused a split.

Live, the band was ferocious and drew a mix of hardcore punks and pop fans. I saw them at the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo., at what ended up being the band's final show. Hart, who long struggled with substance abuse, had become hooked on heroin, but I don't remember anything except screaming along to the lyrics within sheets of noise. 

It's hard to overstate Hüsker Dü's influence. Like the Velvet Underground before them, echoes of their distorted melodies continue to resonate.

Unlike Mould, who has successfully established himself as a career artist, Hart had difficulty adapting his knack for melodic punk for mass consumption, a challenge for anyone, let alone someone working through addiction. 

Still, even if Hart were hardly a household name, his music rewired a lot of brains. 

Grant Hart is seen in 2009. (Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via Associated Press)
Grant Hart is seen in 2009. (Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via Associated Press)

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