Saturday, March 28, 2015

See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould

Often boring, frequently annoying, never fun
These days it’s common for rock stars to begin their autobiographies by starting in the middle. Though their life story may be a straightforward, chronological narrative, it’s become trendy to single out one prominent episode from the artist’s heyday to serve as an introduction. In his 2011 autobiography See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Bob Mould opens with a story about how he and his partner got kicked out of a clothing optional resort in Palm Springs. Their TVs don’t work properly, Mould’s boyfriend goes to complain, an argument ensues, and the manager ejects them. As he’s walking out the door, Mould leaves the manager with an I’m-a-rock-star-and-you’re-not kiss-off, then stalks off to play the Coachella Festival. Really, Bob? This is what you want to lead off with? To its credit, the scene is indicative of the book that follows. It establishes Mould as a self-centered jerk and proves that he’d rather write about anything other than music.

Mould is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü. Later he had a solo career in alternative rock and briefly formed a band called Sugar. One factor that makes Mould’s story somewhat unique among rock stars is that he’s gay, and for most of his career he’s been pretty open about it. In See a Little Light, he recalls what it was like growing up gay in the ‘80s when AIDS first became a household word. He’s quite candid about his relationships, his eventual coming out, and his coming to terms with his own identity as a gay man. His story might possibly be inspiring to other gay men, but for everyone else it gets rather dull. Every minute detail of his personal relationships, from the deliberately provocative to the tediously mundane, is laboriously examined and re-examined. In my youth, angst-ridden songs like “Bed of Nails” or “59 Times the Pain” really spoke to me, but to hear a middle-aged man talk as if every relationship is a power struggle and every breakup is torture just comes across as rather juvenile. Even worse, once Mould embraces his gayness he can’t stop gushing about “cute guys” or “hot guys,” or praising his own physique or his “piercing blue eyes.” While sitting through all this, the reader can’t help wondering, what about the music?

Unfortunately, when Mould does write about music it reads like acknowledgements. He provides a roll call of pretty much everyone he’s ever met, but little is learned about all these dropped names other than that they all briefly crossed paths with Bob Mould. Every gig he's ever played gets a one-or two-sentence synopsis, but rarely, if ever, does the reader get any evocation of the joy, thrill, or fun of making music. For fans of Hüsker Dü, Mould works hard to make it patently clear that he has put all that behind him. With regards to Grant Hart, the other singer/songwriter in the band, Mould occasionally tosses him a backhanded compliment, but mostly he discusses his former bandmate as if he were enumerating grievances in a legal deposition. And poor Greg Norton! Mould has absolutely nothing good to say about Hüsker Dü’s bass player, refusing to even acknowledge he made the slightest contribution to the band. Mould sees Sugar as his crowning achievement (apparently they were huge in the UK?). Readers who agree with him on that judgment will be more likely to enjoy the book.

Often after reading a rock-and-roll autobio, I feel an urge to purchase that artist’s music, replacing old vinyl favorites with mp3s. Not so in this case. After reading this exercise in narcissism, I feel no desire to relive my days of Mould fandom. Instead, I’ll take a cue from the author himself and put the past behind me.
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