Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade”: The HxC epiphany


Imagine yourself as the center of a tire. As the car rolls on you spin round and round, and over time it becomes a habit – you relax and let it spin, knowing full well the next rotation will be like the last. On the contrary, someone inspecting the situation from the outside sees you progressing onward toward the horizon. Until the tire slows, and you exit the orbit of habit in a completely new and foreign landscape, you can never fully gauge the big picture. In the context of the tire, you were spinning in place, but in the context of the car as a whole, you were deep in motion. Upon your realization, ritual soon becomes something far less superficial, and by stepping outside you acknowledge that the responsibility for the ritual is restored to you. It’s a responsibility some would shirk from, simply because of the unfamiliar territory the subsequent loneliness and accompanying uncertainty self-awareness brings. Yet, those who fear the disorientation of disillusionment can never see beyond their circumstances, and those who manage to overcome their disorientation find that you can never sit at the center of the tire ever again with the same piety and innocence. Husker Du’s 1987 release Zen Arcade is your little retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas, the fortress in the snow from which the world seems to build itself back up for you one clear crumb at a time after your dreams have been torn to shreds.

Structured as a biblical rock opera, the story begins with a boy running from a broken home, hoping to compensate for his pain with external euphoria and hedonistic pleasure, only to find that the world outside is a deceiving and empty place. His story is the perpetual paradox of being the center of a world in orbit that is constantly moving forward. It’s the seemingly contradictory forces of reoccurrence and progress occurring simultaneously; the collision of two opposing forces that result in an endless struggle from which meaning is born.

Where albums like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures expressed despair at their shattered ideals, Husker Du provides a kind of meditative cure for the listener’s angst.  Under the anger and restlessness, there’s a constant sense of hope that something better will come along if you just stay put and fight it. That fight against the temptation to derail from the painful truth is the essence of an angry Buddha scene for years to come. Whether it’s the metallic crunch of Quicksand, the heavy sermons of Rollins Band, or the sardonic post-adolescent commentary of Jawbreaker, all this Om Shanti Shanti shit stew stems from the fundamentally positive belief that it’s better to be miserably honest than joyously fake. They may sound angry or arrogant if you’re feeling intimidated, but what they pack in their electrically angular riffs and soul crushing rhythmic weight is nothing less than the raw force of the truth. They’ve managed to turn sincerity into an art form. 

Maybe Husker Du wasn’t the first to espouse this philosophy, after all, Rollins was a contemporary, but the protagonist frontman Bob Mould illustrates in Zen Arcade displays the perseverance in the face of all chaos and deceit that is the epitome of what puts Mould’s music up there on your record shelf in the same space as Schreifels, Rollins, and Schwarzenbach. Musically they’re all slightly different from one another, but they all address a similar gospel of righteousness. Throughout his tumultuous journey, our hero experiences both dejection and inspiration. In the end, in spite of all the sadness, he finds the willingness to confront the absurdity of his situation. It’s an approach to enlightenment rarely found in my terminally adolescent generation of self-contained wanderers suspended in denial.

They seem so sure of themselves in their photos. Hanging onto their homies like bow-legged drunks leaning up against a lamp post, only to find that the lamp post shifts and bends at its own will. The personification irks them, and they plan to whip them into the crutch they always wanted, the mother that weaned them too late, the one that they always hoped would let her nipples generously hang around their mouths forever. If you look deep into their eyes, you see their apprehension, their minds are always planning their next move, dropping their next desperate anchor, sensing an imminent collapse. In their most animated moments, you sense their infancy, the gleam of a child forever trapped in the overdriven anticipation of the womb. It’s a life spent fighting the inevitable triumph of gravity, and the inevitable knot of the fallopian tubes. But where to next, shipwrecked shits? Baltimore? ATL? New Orleans? Detroit? What poor decrepit wasteland must you occupy next to be seen as ahead of the curve? How much longer can you afford to pretend that your wings won’t be clipped? 

These people have no interest in enjoying themselves or helping other people enjoy themselves.  They are first and foremost concerned with keeping up the appearance of enjoying themselves. It’s a process that requires the assistance of the safe and heavenly voices of delusional groupies: whores of Babylon whose mindless approval temporarily medicates their allergy to introspection – a source of confidence they find far less reliable than the condescension and ideological persecution of others. Revolution’s sexy when it’s sleeping with them, but when it sneaks into the bed of another, it’s an astrological accident that won’t let them sleep nights. All the while some child soldier trips over a landmine in the Congo, and Shakespeare rolls over in his grave from dire boredom. O ye, O ye, how culture sweeps them this way and that, they’re victims of the violent trend winds of an internet generation that rapidly changes its mind thinking the world will continue turning on their every indecisive whim. They’re seduced by the luxurious promises of the peripheral, and soon they will be left behind. These people have no sense of priority or compassion beyond their own amusement, they’re reaching for a summit eroding faster than the Catskills, and they’re not to be trusted.

The absence of an article of clothing suspends their rush to judgment, a rush they can’t do without.  But life is far less democratic than art would like to make it seem. When we refuse to accept the lesson at hand, it’s often violently forced upon us. They should prepare for the chaotic physical sensationalism they’ve sulked in to subside apathetically, and ready themselves to be offered to the blessed and conscientious half way in sweatpants. True hospitality is not something you expect of others, but something you find for yourself. Bob Mould is the pastor that brings this hard truth to your confession booth. Like Yoko Ono in her bag, you will judge the spirit of the party on the merit of his character, not the sheen of his robes.  Under the interpretation of Mould’s keen and righteous ears, the only legitimate absolution can be achieved through rigorous training of the mind and a wholesome dedication to the revelation. A revelation set to a high decibel chemistry of your preferred wavelength, an insistence on finding your personal truth.

The wall of fuzz guitars on “Something I Learned Today” is a black coffee awakening.  It’s a blizzard of warmth, a sobering illumination of your insides against the bleak winter landscape without.  Mould’s barking vocals reach tantrum levels on “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” only to fade into the Neil Young-inspired sullen dejection of “Never Talking to You Again.” “Chartered Trips” signals the renewal of hope through escapism; you find discipline in the military only to find yourself relying on the spiritual guidance of others in “Hare Krshna” and “Beyond the Threshold.” You receive visions of a world that might await you if you just let go of your ego, a battle ensues inside on “Pride,” and peace lasts you but a minute. As you lose everything on “Pink Turns to Blue,” you succumb to the realization that no manipulation of your external circumstances will ever satisfy you, no self-abuse could ever release you, and no anger could cure you. You wake up from a restless nightmare only to “Turn on the News” and find that life’s hardest burdens still exist beyond your present realm of misery. You finally manage to step outside the wheel, and martyrdom waits.

For years now internet culture suggested through melting neon palettes and pixelated sensuality that permissiveness was the road to discovery. That meaning is best derived by conceding yourself to an assault of contradictory stimuli, defining enlightenment through sex, drugs, or any other kind of physical high. The response to a difficult and complex world of varying sensations and violently opposed ideologies was simply to resign yourself to mystery and compensate for a pathetic lack of quality activity with an anxious accumulation of quantity. In the process, aesthetic became the source of many people’s truth, but we now know it was nothing but a temporary cure for our ills. An aesthetic isn’t always the truth, but the truth is always an aesthetic. And the spiritualized hardcore philosophy Zen Arcade represents is nothing less than the god forsaken truth. You’ve hallucinated enough. Now go read a book.