Grant Hart, a drummer and songwriter best-known as a member of Minneapolis' widely influential punk trio, Hüsker Dü, died Wednesday night at the University of Minnesota Medical Center of complications from liver cancer and hepatitis, his wife, Brigid McGough, confirmed to NPR. He was 56 years old.
The seed of Hüsker Dü — named after a phonetic game its members played with the Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" — germinated in 1978, when the band's eventual guitarist and singer Bob Mould met Hart while the latter was working at a record store called Cheapo near Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where Mould was in school. As Mould described in his memoir, See A Little Light, Hart closed the store after Mould mentioned he played guitar: "I'm gonna close the store and I wanna go see you play right now."
That pairing, with the addition of bassist Greg Norton, began 10 years of collaboration that saw Hüsker Dü transition from speed-obsessed hardcore punks to the architects of the melodic, high-concept double album Zen Arcade. The trio's final album, Warehouse: Songs & Stories, was a relatively bright and melodic piece that would help define the sound of alternative and college rock for nearly a decade after.
The health of Hart and Mould's relationship as co-songwriters was inversely proportional to Hüsker Dü's success. Healthy competition was a principal driving force of the band, but as Mould became the group's manager following the suicide of David Savoy, the acrimony between them increased. Hart slipped into heavier drug use around 1986, particularly heroin (amphetamines were openly shared among the group's members, according to Mould in his book). In 1988, the group split following an attempted intervention at the house of Hart's parents. "We're lucky we got out of it with our lives," Hart told the filmmaker Gorman Bechard for Every Everything, a documentary on Hart's life.
In contrast to the fierce salt of Mould, Hart's songwriting often looked skyward, melodic and heady, typified in "Turn on the News." His solo work would showcase the same reflective, tender sensibilities.
"We stayed in contact over the next 29 years — sometimes peaceful, sometimes difficult, sometimes through go-betweens," wrote Mould in a remembrance posted on Facebook Thursday morning. "For better or worse, that's how it was, and occasionally that's what it is when two people care deeply about everything they built together."
Hart's final show, held this past July 1 at the Hook and Ladder Theater in Minneapolis, was actually a surprise tribute to him that featured Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Babes In Toyland's Lori Barbero and others.
"I carried my guitar in, and it was like this sea of faces turning to me with great affection. There's not too many big surprises that have been successfully thrown at me, but that was definitely one," he told Andrea Swensson of member station The Current in what would be his final interview.
Hart was born in St. Paul in 1961, the youngest of three children. After his elder brother was killed by a drunken driver, Hart began playing his drum set, going on to play in various bands before founding Hüsker Dü with Mould and Norton.
Following the world tours and the frenetic Hüsker years, Hart continued to release music under his given name and with Nova Mob, which shared a chuggy, pristine, punk-rooted sensibility with contemporaries like Lungfish. He was a constant presence in the clubs and stage-equipped bars of Minneapolis and St. Paul, floating through crowds whether he was performing, often solo with a guitar, or not. Possessing a silver tongue with a flair for self-aggrandizement, Hart was always happy to hold forth with interlocutors, regardless of their source.
Ken Shipley, head of the Numero Group reissue label, which recently announced a years-in-the-making box set of remastered material from Hüsker's aggressive early years, describes Hart as loving "to stir the peanut butter" and "disarming and masterminding all at once."
As Hart told Thumped in 2012: "Any music that was ever broadcast is right now heading further into space at light speed." His and Hüsker's work might get there before everyone else.
Watch Grant Hart play live on KEXP in 2011: