Bob Mould comes of age at live show in L.A.
On Wednesday night, outside the Coronet Theatre, my friend Erik and I remarked that we had never seen Bob Mould. All those years, all that music and somehow we had missed him. No Hüsker Dü shows, no Sugar, even though, for much of the early 1990s, the latter was my favorite band. Even though, without him, the indie rock movement (the Pixies, Throwing Muses, Nirvana) would have never gotten off the ground.
As Mould would recount later, from the stage of the Coronet, a promoter once told him that if his timing had been better, he "could have been Pearl Jam." The crowd -- a mostly full house -- laughed. For him as well as for us, I suppose, timing has never been the point.
Mould was at the Coronet under the auspices of Cafe Largo, for an evening of music and spoken word. His memoir, "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody," was published last month (see our review); the title comes from a song on his 1989 album "Workbook." He opened with the song, playing solo on a blue Stratocaster, then sat down to read selections from his book. The prose was adequate, some incidents more interesting than others ... but let's be honest: Prose was not why we were here.
To his credit, Mould seemed to understand that; he chose passages that had to do with songwriting, beginning with his state of mind after the 1988 implosion of Hüsker Dü. In the wake of that, he began to write the songs that would eventually become "Workbook," and after his first reading, he performed a few, among them "Lonely Afternoon" and "Wishing Well."
This was the pattern of the evening: Dip into the book, talk about his history, then play music that reflected what he'd read. He did four Sugar songs (the highlight of the night, especially the effervescent ear candy of "If I Can't Change Your Mind"), and closed with a brief Husker set, including "I Apologize."
The intent was to produce a kind of cabaret, with reading, music and stage patter adding up to a three-dimensional portrait of Mould's personal and creative life. If it didn't quite work out that way -- without his guitar, he tended to drift, as if not quite comfortable, not quite sure of himself, and he seemed uneasy speaking directly to the audience, which only made him ramble more -- it did offer a vision of one way rock 'n' roll can age gracefully, with an eye on the future and the past.
Mould, after all, was once an icon, playing stadiums in Europe and packed theaters in the United States. Those days are long gone, but he has kept making music, kept putting out records, playing smaller shows. It's a model pioneered by Bob Dylan, another guitar player from Minnesota. Mould joked about that at the Coronet, but he also made the heritage clear.
What does a musician -- or, for that matter, any artist -- have except for his or her work? That was always the missing component of rock 'n' roll as fantasy, and yet, as Mould makes clear, it's the only thing that counts. He writes about it in his memoir, the idea of moving beyond image to some kind of personal reckoning, and despite his digressions Wednesday night, he embodied it on stage as well.
After the show, a line snaked into the Coronet's courtyard as people waited to have books signed. Mould had not yet emerged when we left, but he had made his point. It didn't matter that the cabaret idea did not quite hang together; what he was offering was a vision of a life in art. That's inspirational any way you look at it, and thinking about it, I understood my timing hadn't been so bad after all.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Bob Mould in 2005. Credit: Nasty Little Man Publicity