Hüsker Dü was was born out of the hardcore punk scene in the early 1980s but by the time they disbanded in 1988, they had made a lasting impact on more than just punk rock; they helped to usher in the era of Alternative rock of the 90s (Black Francis of the Pixies famously put out an ad searching for a bassist, looking for someone who was a fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary and Hüsker Dü). Unlike their contemporaries in the hardcore punk community, they did not eschew the music of the past (listen to their superb cover of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High). They began to embrace melody more and more, moving beyond the confines of the blisteringly fast, amphetamine-fueled hardcore punk of Landspeed Record. By their 3rd studio album, New Day Rising, the band had finally fully embraced the notion of writing melodic pop songs, though they were still delivered with a punk rock intensity with noisy, buzzing guitars and the vocals buried under it all.
Hüsker Dü was a three-piece for its entire duration, consisting of singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, and singer/drummer Grant Hart. Songwriting duties were split between Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Whereas Mould traditionally wrote gruffier, angrier punk songs, Hart pushed towards the more tuneful, pleasant-sounding songs. Unfortunately, Hart passed away in 2017 from a battle with liver cancer, but his legacy will live on through his incredible music. Hüsker Dü was amongst the first hardcore punk bands that I came to love, easing me into a genre that is not always palatable to someone raised on classic rock. I think Hart’s penchant for writing catchy songs as opposed to just angry blasts of intensity was a large part of my gravitation towards the band.
Perhaps my favorite Grant Hart song is “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” from New Day Rising. The song is anchored by the distorted hum of an amazingly catchy guitar line, and tells of Grant visiting a lady friend who lives in a cabin on Heaven Hill. There are a number of allusions to bourbon whiskey in the song, the most obvious pertaining to Heaven Hill, which is a distillery from Kentucky, specializing in bourbon. Consider the lyrics of the first passage of the song:
“There's a girl who lives on Heaven Hill
I go up to her cabin still
She keeps a lantern lit for me
And a bottle up on her mantelpiece.”
Whiskey itself is distilled in what is referred to as a "still," where fermented liquid (a slurry of water, sugar, and yeast, where the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol) is heated from the bottom, causing the alcohol to evaporate. The alcohol vapor rises and condenses (changes from gas back to liquid) at the top of the still, and is directed into a separate compartment, concentrating the alcohol. Hart is certainly making a call out to this process. Furthermore, there was a brand of bourbon called Cabin Still that was eventually purchased by Heaven Hill Distillery in 1993.
Hart says that his friend keeps a bottle on her mantelpiece, which we can assume is some form of bourbon whiskey. The last refrain of the song is:
“I'd trade big mountains and rooms full of gold
For just one look at the beauty of this woman's soul
Up on Heaven Hill is where I wanna be
That girl, that bottle, that mattress and me.”
Towards the end of the band’s existence, Hart struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. One wonders if part of the inspiration for the song was his struggles with addiction.
Rest in peace, Grant. Thanks for all of the music.