Even as the book and music industries do battle on a field somewhere between media and reality for the title of Most Lost Cause, books by musicians have been doing very well — more specifically, books by rock stars of a certain age, with the likes of Steven Tyler, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Nikki Sixx and Sammy Hagar scoring recent bestsellers. It's testimony to fans' connection to the music they love, and also to the power of a particular kind of story: classic rags-to-riches romance pumped up with the pleasure/pain, creator/destroyer extremes of the late 20th century rock star.
The latest addition to the genre comes from a less mainstream name, though Bob Mould remains one of the great heroes of American indie rock. The driving force behind the mightily influential 1980s punk band Husker Du (and the more commercially successful Sugar in the 1990s), Mould is not particularly interested in the cliches of rock excess. There certainly are sex and drugs in See a Little Light, but Mould's major subject is his own psyche, as he attempts to make sense of the relationships he struggles with as a musician and a gay man, his compulsions (for drink, speed, a partner or, most of all, work — "I'm not one for vacations," he notes early on in the book), and his escape from a life as a self-described "miserablist." The result is a remarkably candid and thorough account of an artist's life, told in order from start to present.
The rise and fall of Husker Du was already chronicled by Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a classic book on 1980s underground music. (Azerrad is Mould's co-author.), Mould spends half of his own book exploring the band's legend in far greater detail. From a dysfunctional but supportive family in rural New York, Mould gets hooked on the Ramones and '60s pop and leaves for college in St. Paul, Minn., where he forms a band with Grant Hart and Greg Norton. Over near-constant tours and hastily recorded classic albums, Husker Du's singular style grows from amphetamine-fueled punk to a stunning amalgam of noise, emotional catharsis and pop songwriting. They become one of the first underground bands to sign with a major record label but soon fall out in spectacular fashion, having inspired a generation of musicians but failed to achieve mainstream commercial success. While Mould is justifiably proud of the band's achievements, the lingering burnout is palpable.
If the second half of the book lacks the dramatic arc of the first, it feels more urgently personal, as Mould finds himself with the time, money and maturity to remake his life. The story unfolds in a series of episodes as Mould wanders, talented and miserable, towards being at home in his body and the world. The solo albums and tours, the post-Nirvana MTV hit band, the excruciating breakups, the ecstatic embrace of dance music and gay identity, even (in one of the book's most entertaining chapters) the whirlwind stint as a writer for professional wrestling — it's the Odyssey as Behind the Music, or vice versa.
See a Little Light is a brisk and enjoyable read, but like any honest chronology it is subject to life's prosaic cadence of false starts, lulls and repetitions. And in squeezing 50 years of Bob Mould into fewer than 400 pages, Mould and Azerrad regularly sacrifice depth for breadth. They cover a lot, but at the expense of storytelling — which is tough in a music memoir, because the reader wants creation magic, and good stories offer the best (rare, slim) chance of encountering it, or at least of being entertained when it fails to appear. Ultimately, Mould captures something of his terrific will, which is a great gift. And for creation magic, there's always the album Zen Arcade by the band Husker Du.