Open letter to a young rock fan: How a Bob Mould show is like church

How a Bob Mould show is like church

By Steve Graham

There was a time when the entire musical universe was not available at the click of a phone icon.

We had to rely on “120 Minutes” VJs (look it up), your friend’s hip brother or, heaven forbid, actual print magazines to discover new music. Back in those dark ages, I found an album called “Zen Arcade” on the best albums of the ’80s list in Rolling Stone magazine, and was intrigued.

That cryptic title. By a Minnesota band with an equally cryptic name, Hüsker Dü. I knew they were making something more interesting than an also-umlauted hair metal band making headlines and ruling the charts with their debauchery and strip-club anthems.

And the album cover depicted a Technicolor junkyard — which turned out to be a perfect metaphor for the music: A colorful pastiche of styles piled together with noise, grime and messiness.

Without a cool record store nearby (a good local record store clerk was the ultimate dealer for a musical junkie back in the day), it took me a while to find the album, which was then already about six years old. Once I bought a copy, I was hooked.

An angry and hard-drinking young Bob Mould was fascinated and inspired by the Ramones. He took those two-minute punk anthems, blended them with the Beatles, and somehow added equal parts of mayhem and melody. The Rolling Stone list aptly described the result as “Tommy by way of CBGB.”

They were still two-minute anthems, but there was so much more going on than three-chord punk. The 23 tracks on “Zen Arcade” incorporate folk, psych rock and jangling, if discordant, pop — and so much rebellion.

The defiance first spoke to my impotent teenage rage. Mould’s lyrics wrestled with his sexuality, an abusive father and Reagan’s grim Cold War world. It was not yet morning in Bob Mould’s America. All that darkness fueled songs such as “Broken Home, Broken Heart” and the relatively epic four-minute “Turn on the News.”

Like the Velvet Underground before them, it seems that every Hüsker Dü fan might have started a band. Some of those fans, including members of the Foo Fighters, The Hold Steady, Spoon and No Age played a legendary Bob Mould tribute concert in 2011, but Mould remains a cult hero more than a rock star.

Mould’s autobiography opens at the Coachella festival, where he played a 45-minute set at 2 p.m. that including 13 songs and a few stories.

A few stories? After nearly four decades of touring, he could surely write the Canterbury Tales of the Econoline van, and he has does plenty of soul-baring in his autobiography. But he’s never been an especially talkative performer.

He lets the songs talk for him. Through Hüsker Dü, his subsequent group Sugar and his solo career, Mould has remained the master of the melodic punk anthem with a hook that buries itself in your brain, so of course he can squeeze 13 of them into a festival set.

But it’s the timestamp that really tells the story. His band was a primary influence on half the other bands sweating it out at the polo grounds, but he was not worthy of more than a mid-afternoon, second stage set in the 10th edition of the festival.

Well, he’s more than worthy of a Washington’s headlining gig. That balding 58-year-old guy who looks older and nerdier than some of your professors is actually a rock god in an amazing disguise. Go worship on the altar of pre-Internet college rock on Feb. 25.

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