Remembering Grant Hart

Weeks before I got the call this morning that Grant Hart had died, word had spread that he was not likely to survive the end of the summer. His normally barrel-chested frame was eerily thin, and he had some serious ailment, was limiting its treatment to holistic medicine, and was not talking about it with hardly anyone.

His obituaries mostly focused on the importance of his work from the 1980s, and his hot-and-cold relationship with Hüsker Dü’s other frontman Bob Mould, but there was much more to Grant than that.

I hadn’t seen him in about eight years, but there was a time in the late 90s and early 00s when I saw him frequently, at his solo shows, on holidays, and occasionally just dropping by. If you called Grant back then to ask if you could use a Hüsker Dü song in an independent film, he’d probably tell you to fuck yourself, but if you called to ask if he wanted to see an Orson Welles film that evening, he’d say “What time?”

It was around this time I directed a music video for him, that my friend Heidi Freier both shot and edited. It’s below. (Heidi went on to book his shows for him for about ten years, with a much deeper friendship than I ever had with him.)

Grant Hart

Grant was a big fish in a medium-sized pond in the Twin Cities music scene, and he showed literally thousands of young artists how to be artists. You saw Paul Westerberg grabbing a coffee about as often as you saw Prince: never. The guys from Soul Asylum, when they were in town, you’d see at the liquor store or having a beer at one of their friends’ shows. Grant, it seemed, was everywhere: the 7th Street Entry, the Walker Art Center, Orchestra Hall, gallery openings, fundraisers, and birthday parties.

He liked having an entourage of younger musicians and artists around him, but when he held court you rarely heard him talk about the hallowed days of indie rock. He more often talked about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the lesser works of the Beat writers, or the differences between middle- and late-period Studebakers. I never once saw him touch alcohol, but he loved coffee and liked to roll joints, and if he enjoyed your conversation he’d leave one behind as a gift.

In recent years I’ve often noted that, unlike people my age, millennials tend to hear music without any generational axe to grind. In the 90s indie rock scene, if you had a secret soft spot for Paul McCartney or Crosby Stills & Nash, you whispered about it. Grant was too big for that. He bristled at groupthink in any form, and cared above all about quality.

Grant did not suffer fools, and liked to take down the proud, and was known as a prickly character in many circles. I suspect it was he who lit a sulfurous stink bomb in the most fashionable bar in town one Thursday night. When he launched into an impromptu critique of a well-liked artist, he’d find people around him gently shushing him, reminding him to be nice, but Grant lived by the principle that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t have a small town arts scene that runs on goodwill and expect your artists to be taken seriously nationally.

Like most homegrown intellectuals, Grant had some unorthodox opinions about politics. During the Lewinsky affair, I once heard him tell a sleeper cell of young leftists bemoaning the ineptitude of President Bill Clinton that anyone who gave out Leaves of Grass as gift to his lover was alright by him.

His vision of history was a Hobbesian slugfest between self-interested factions. I tend to see things more sociologically, like no one is in control, not even of their own actions, and I liked to call Grant out when I felt he was over-simplifying. Being on the receiving end of one of Grant’s tirades is not for the faint of heart, but I never once felt he was capricious or vindictive. He had a genuinely curious mind, and I can’t say that for all that many people.

Other local rock stars sometimes asked Grant why he stayed in the Twin Cities, implying that he was slumming it by rubbing elbows night after night with less-experienced artists. The question was preposterous to him. Why leave? He was a loyal working class son, both living with and looking after his parents as they aged. And he was everything he ever set out to be, an autodidact and a genius in his own category.

It was magic going out on the town with him in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Grant and his two or three smiling friends would show up, and doors would open. He was once scheduled to sing the national anthem before a minor league Saint Paul Saints game (He nailed it.) but took a minute to make sure security let the rest of us in with him. Minutes before, he was playing outside the stadium for people in the parking lot – the local musical act the ball team was showcasing. An octogenarian felt he was playing too loudly and got in his face to holler that he should turn his amp down. Grant stood his ground and shook his head. No way he was turning it down for anyone.

Good night, sweet prince.