As far as autobiographies go, Bob Mould delves far deeper into the emotional and psychological details of his personal life than most rock stars do. His new 400-page book See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody isn’t simply a collection of wild tales from the road or a meticulous chronicle of his various endeavors; it’s an intensely intimate revelation from the man behind the music.
I first heard Bob Mould in the mid 1980s when Hüsker Dü — his first-ever rock band — was reaching their peak with the albums New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, both released on the indie/punk label SST. His voice, guitar tone, and songwriting style was ferocious, aggressive, and emotional. Compared to some of the post-New Wave jangle-rock I was into at the time, it startled me. But just underneath the band’s roaring style were familiar pop sensibilities reminiscent of the most melodic and hook-filled rock and power-pop of the 1960s and early ’70s.
New York music writer Michael Azerrad covered much of Hüsker Dü’s career in a brilliant chapter in 2001’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, his impressive chronicle of ’80s indie rock. He accurately tags Mould as a key figure on the world of American alternative rock.
As Mould’s co-author on See a Little Light, Azerrad guides the songwriter through some of the expected routes (low-budget indie labels, fanzines, college radio stations, dirt-cheap tours, triumphant concerts) and a few unexpected detours.
See a Little Light kicks off with a rapid-fire collection of stories about Mould’s childhood in the snowy, rural upstate New York town of Malone. To say he grew up in a dysfunctional family is putting it lightly. He describes his TV repairman dad as a paranoid alcoholic with a habit of ridiculing others — “capable of pretty monstrous behavior.” His mom was the quiet, stoic, often-bruised-up martyr.
While there was no shortage of physical abuse and psychological games for the young Mould, he managed to develop a love for music at an early age. When he wasn’t playing street hockey in the winter and basketball in summer, he’d spin old 45s and second-hand LPs by the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Herman’s Hermits.
As messed up as things were, Mould’s family was actually quite supportive of his interest in music and art, and their support continued as he left Malone for college in St. Paul, Minn., where he formed Hüsker Dü with drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton.
In the early chapters of See a Little Light, the reader learns of Mould’s own drinking problems. “I started drinking beer at 13, and I went for many years without stopping,” he writes. “I can’t remember a day when I didn’t drink during that time.”
He shines light on other facets of his personal life as well, including his struggles to make sense of his relationships with friends, bandmates, and lovers; his penchant for stimulants and other mood-altering substances; his almost compulsive work ethic; and his awkward but dignified coming out as a homosexual.
Mould tells his stories with a candid, conversational tone, but it’s not all dour and morose. One of many funny tales from the road mentions that Hüsker Dü were once listed on a flyer in San Francisco as “Who Screwed You,” for example.
Mould carefully touches on every pertinent detail — whether it’s an account of a specific gig with Hüsker Dü or his short-lived ’90s band Sugar, an amusing encounter with one of his pop-culture heroes (Pete Townshend, William Burroughs, Joey Ramone, etc.), or a frustrating confrontation with a bandmate or boyfriend. In a way, much of See a Little Light reads like journal entries — but they’re intriguing and touching journal entries.
The post-Hüsker chapters meander, but they reveal plenty of behind-the-scenes info on recording sessions and band projects, from Sugar’s run in the late ’90s through Mould’s acoustic and electronica-leaning albums in the 2000s. “In order to have a new life, I had to have new music,” he writes. It’s a fascinating chronicle for devoted fans.
Ultimately, the heart of the book lies in Mould’s overall emotional journey, winding from the anguish and confusion of his youth through the therapeutic self-analysis and psychological epiphanies of his recent years. Things actually end on a positive note.
Fortunately, Mould’s writing style resembles his powerful lyrical style on disc. He’s a unique communicator, whether he’s raging against injustice and emotional abuse on Hüsker’s pinnacle double-album Zen Arcade or sharing his most embarrassing, painful, and uplifting life experiences via the written word.