Look, there’s no way I can be partial or unbiased about this record. It’s my favorite record of all time. It helped me get out of many a dark spell. It opened my ears to music beyond oldies radio and whatever mall punk was being handed over to me by Hot Topic (yes, I had a overly baggy pants and black t-shirt phase, don’t ask). Zen Arcade even helped me define what I felt it was to be an adult, and yes, even help me sort out questions of my sexual identity. It is the kind of life-affirming and life-saving work that anyone who has ever felt lost, dejected, hated, confused or self-loathing can put on and feel that they have at least three people in their lives that can understand them. Even though it’s rooted in early-20 angst, it’s far more worldly and universal than other rock operas that have been released.
Long ago before the contributors of this site were born (1984 to be exact), three haggard dudes from Minneapolis were slamming out relatively standard hardcore tunes in basements all over the Midwest. Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton were getting tired of yelling their heads off to a bunch of sweaty, smelly white kids in dank basements. Their lyrics were largely ignored over the guitar theatrics and relentless rhythms; there were maybe a handful of bands with enough balls to cover topics other than white-man-angst, so one can imagine the disappointment the men of Hüsker Dü’ must have felt when kids were punching each other to the mourning of a woman who had been raped and murdered just because she looked “available”. Frankly, they were bored with hardcore, more interested in expansive 60s rock like The Byrds and The inks. Rather than give up on making music completely, they decided to do the least punk thing (and subsequently most punk thing) since Blondie’s love letter and kiss off to disco; write a rock opera.
To save you diatribes about symbolism, thematic concepts and motifs, Zen Arcade is basically The Who’s Tommy but with about 6 tons more insanity, mental health issues, rape, drug abuse, cults, disaffection with consumerism, and fever-induced dreams. The world takes our protagonist from his broken home and just beats him until he has nothing left to show for his troubles than a worn out soul. Combine this with jazz interludes, classic rock bravado, pianos, broken furniture (really), warped samples, and hardcore’s desperate clawing for air, and you have one of the most deliciously varied musical documents in history. Even the first five tracks, rooted in punk fervor, quickly slide into acoustic confessions, tape deck hopscotch, and religious chants that work flawlessly.
Both guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart were still fumbling in the general vicinity of the closet at this time, and you can sense their frustration in their music; what is once a universal tale of maturation. While Bob was able to come out publicly with relatively little controversy (though that was during his stint in Sugar), Grant had to overcome some severe drug abuse problems before he delt with that other issue. After Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü’ became notably more pop-oriented, but still retained that sour and bitter edges that made them touching, articulate storytellers. Like their hometown “rivals” The Replacements, they were accused of “selling out” but would eventually influence a number of equally influential bands (next time you listen to American Idiot, pay attention).
I first listened to Zen Arcade on the Valentine’s Day I was 16 years old and listened to it at least three times a week for a year; the combination of sounds and styles was like nothing I ever heard before. When I was ready to explore my sexuality, it served as an anchor for perspective; “if these guys can be gay and do something with their lives, there is no way I can’t do the same.” Years later, I’m still blown away by the sheer scope of it all. A perfect experiment and document of universal experience, Zen Arcade should be listened to at least once by anyone who wants to be reminded of the sheer power of rock and roll.
Recommended if you like: Fucked Up’s “David Comes to Life”,The Replacements’ “Let It Be”, Fugazi’s “In On The Kill Taker”
Like it? Loathe it? Think I need to stop living in the eighties? Bring it to the forum!