Sunday, 5 January 2014

Grant Hart Live: Milton, Sputnik, Burroughs, Amtrak and Apollinaire

William S. Burroughs
Links in song titles as usual.

Last time we saw Grant, he played a blistering show with the Burn Burning at the Monto, Water Rats. It was amazing to hear him with a full band again but tonight he’s solo once more, again promoting The Argument, his musical take on William Burroughs’s truncated version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Grant is not afraid of a concept or a broad canvas or a mythical theme. The songs on this album I think of as those ‘details taken from a painting’ postcards you get and I was hoping to hear a good few tonight. I wasn’t disappointed. Haven’t got the album yet and heard that Grant had some to sell but never saw any.

The Miller at London Bridge
The Miller is a pub a stone’s throw from the Shard side of London Bridge, easy for us to get to from South London. Big, rambling and full of nooks and crannies, with the pleasant and efficient bar staff all in Hallowe’en-themed costumes. The gig takes place in an upstairs room with a stage, a couple of tables and a few bar stools. See some familiar faces from previous Grant gigs. Learn that there are two support acts and Grant should be on at 10pm. I usually like to cut to the chase but my sister is less jaded so we go up to listen. Had a brief chat with Grant while they were playing but forgot I had cotton wool in my ears and couldn't hear him properly. Grant, ever the joker, claimed he had come as the infamous, elusive graffiti artist Banksy – no one knows what he looks like. He looks well, still has tons of thick black hair, some pulled back in a ponytail. If he dyes it, he’s doing a great job.

Early days
Bold Things from Ireland start the warm-up. They collect the firewood. Their songs are pleasant enough. They have a lot of tall twenty-something fans who stand right in front of us. Next up are Le Deux Furieuses. (I think it should be Les Deux Furieuses, girls.) They light the taper. They look distinctly art collegey but after a deal of preparation, involving back projection and a carved and lit-up pumpkin, we’re smacked by a sonic onslaught, which would probably have terrified the fans of Bold Things but which is welcomed by die-hard Hüsker fans. I end up quite admiring them and I think they’re surprised by the crowd’s positive reaction.

Grant today
When Grant eventually takes the stage to stoke the flames, he’s a little frustrated by some problems with a borrowed amp and is unimpressed generally as they are unable to turn off a strobe effect that’s giving him vertigo, saying something like it’s great if you enjoy taking it up the ass every night (don’t quote me on that) but, after jokingly offering people their money back (the audience demurs, won't be pulled down by the undertow, buoys Grant up with its enthusiasm), the show goes on. It must be so difficult travelling, using the equipment to hand, organising everything yourself, dependent on the goodwill, courtesy and commonsense of venues and other bands.

I’m not going through the whole setlist; I’ll post it at the end, just mention certain songs. Suffice to say that Grant could play and sing some of these songs perfectly in his sleep and it’s always good to hear them. You know the ones I mean.
'Hey, are you sure you're not taking my picture?'

There’s something about the next three songs that reminds me of the rhythm of the sea – constant but ever-changing, the same but always different, waves crashing against a beach; the way a lyric or refrain is repeated/altered. 

You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water
Always a rousing opener: inspired by this comment from a monk about a possible candidate for the next Panchen Lhama, ‘He is the reflection of the moon on the water but he is not the moon’, i.e. something lesser than the real thing, the truth but not the whole truth. The verses are variations on this theme: the insistence and repetition reinforce the point, like the sea rushing headlong to shore, the fourth line of each stanza a diminishing of the first three, like the backwash of the tide.
You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/But you’re not the moon
You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/But you’re not the sea
You are the shadows from the light of a fire/You are the shadows from the light of a fire/You are the shadows from the light of a fire/But you’re not the light
You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/But you’re not the rain

Grant dedicates this to Lou Reed (RIP) as ‘another satellite’ song – the song was built around the beeps from Sputnik, Lou Reed’s is of course Satellite of Love. I’ve got to love a song that uses the word ‘apogee’. Another charming, infectious melody; insistent, repetitive – an ocean tide.
Is the sky the limit?/What is the apogee?/
Is the sky the limit/For me?/
I only wish to love you/For you to notice me/
Now I dread how limited I can be

This is the gentler ebb and flow of a calmer sea. Becalmed.
The earth it hangs on a golden chain/
The earth it hangs on a golden chain

Paradise Lost
The songs he plays from The Argument are liberally interspersed with older material throughout the set and work as standalone tracks as well as to illustrate aspects of the story, as if you simply focused in on a character and his thoughts/intentions. Grant is able to slip between viewpoints and in and out of musical styles.

This quote from Pitchfork sums it up:
But the great thing about The Argument is that, not only does it make a Hüsker Dü reformation seem like an evermore remote possibility, it makes the whole prospect that much more undesirable and unnecessary. 

California Zephyr
Upbeat song about riding the rails. It’s such a romantic thing to do, not ride the rails but name your trains, and so evocatively too. Unfortunately using Amtrak is anything but a romantic experience. Only did it once and there was a twelve-hour delay!
Then a cab to the Bay Bridge Inn/
They check you out while they check you in

Milton by way of Burroughs by way of Hart
Shine, Shine, Shine
That fairground organ on the album track – let’s get on the merry go round. A sparkling Christmas bauble of a song.
We enjoy the life ideal/Running naked through the fields/
There’s no shame/No secrets unrevealed

Another song rife with connotations and literary allusions and a lilting refrain. It’s ostensibly about the remains of Apollinaire but with Grant, there’s always another level (and I’m not talking defunct British boyband). Here’s a little extract from a chat I had with Grant when this song was new:
I had been reading the life story of Apollinaire, … in the context of like viewing somebody at a funeral or ‘all that’s left’, only an outline … when they circle the body and things like that and I didn’t change anything … on … the studio recording of it because it’s nice that it bear those other meanings as well.
Supposing, too much to assume/Saying nothing but speaking volumes
Silence broken with shattering sounds/Books for no one, where are they bound?

Grant asks the audience to ‘pucker up’ to whistle along and it’s fantastic how many of them can a) whistle b) know the tune c) actually whistle in tune. Grant has been playing this live for ages so I was surprised that it was part of the Paradise Lost project.
What is it you’re seeking?/What would be your prize?
Is it no fair peeking?/If I look past your disguise

Someone requests Letting Me Out but Grant reacts as if he’s called ‘Let Me Out’ and says ‘The door’s over there’.

During this, an over-enthusiastic fan sings along off-key and very loudly (I find the two usually go together at gigs) and Grant notices and has to choose something that the guy doesn’t know next.
Oh well I put down the money/When I picked up the keys/
We had to keep the stove on all night long/So the mice wouldn't freeze

A shy woman asks my sister to pass Grant a note for her. It says ‘Please play All of My Senses’. His response: ‘Boring’. There are some songs Grant must be sick of performing (the die-hard Husker fans inevitably ask for the same ones and occasionally he obliges) but this isn’t one I’ve ever heard him try live.

Another song he never plays, out of respect, because it’s hard to separate the song from its provenance, is Diane but for those who called for it at the Miller, here’s a fantastic version from Sao Paulo. Sends chills through me.

Less suspicious
A crowd pleaser. This sounds like and works well as a sea shanty (on the 'high' main) while the lyrics also tell a story about drug dependency (mainlining), with a litany of red-light districts – Reeperbahn, Christiane, Pigalle (coincidentally always the location of our hotel whenever we travel) – and references to De Quincey and Christ. As the makers of Every Everything no doubt discovered, Grant is knowledgeable on many subjects but what astonishes me is the way he’s able to crystallise ideas and images into lyric and melody.
There was life on the corner/And death all around/…
Reeperbahn, Christiane, Pigalle, all the same/On the main, the main, remember your name

The song I wanted him to play (I Knew All about You since Then) is a great example of this talent and his Mary Poppins-style approach – a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Trenchant put-downs in wordplay encased in a sunny little tune so you’re suck(er)ed in without realising.

This was my belated alternative request because Grant couldn’t play the original one, for very good reasons. This video is from the actual night.
With her family far and in a family way/Well she told me that she missed 'em
It's hard to keep in touch/With just the US postal system
Grant changes the lyrics each time, this time he sings ‘useless social system’. It’s one of the things I love about him – a gig can go in any direction at any time – he keeps it fresh and the night is entirely dependent on his mood and how he interacts with the audience.

Still shimmeringly pretty even when slowed down and infused with bitterness as in this ‘mid-life crisis version’ from Zurich.
It's a great big world/There's a million other guys
I feel so lucky when I look/In those green eyes

Grant’s voice still has that pure tone, clarion-clear (as in this version of Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely; a burst of breathless energy); he still has that facility to fashion a memorable tune, his lyrics still blend the everyday with the erudite and I’m left pondering that eternal question. Bjorn and Benny put it better:
I've often wondered, how did it all start?
Who found out that nothing can capture a heart
Like a melody can?

Have guitar, will travel ...
Mercurial, maverick, articulate, undaunted, Grant Hart may be coming to a town near you – catch him if you can. 

The Argument is available on Domino Records and from Amazon of course.

Setlist from the Miller, London 31 October 2013
You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water
Admiral of the Sea came in here somewhere
California Zephyr
Is the Sky the Limit?
(From The Argument)
Shine, Shine, Shine
(From The Argument)
Awake, Arise!
(From The Argument)
Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill
Remains to Be Seen
Never Talking to You Again
The Main
You Are the Victim
So Far from Heaven
(From The Argument)
Letter from Anne-Marie
Golden Chain
(From The Argument)
Pink Turns to Blue
Underneath the Apple Tree
(From The Argument)
Green Eyes
She Floated Away


  1. For those in the Twin Cities, Grant Hart will be performing at the upcoming Rock N Jock Expo. The recent documentary Every Everything will be screened and Grant will follow with a live performance and meet & greet.

    Sunday, March 16th @ New Hope Cinema Grill (2749 Winnetka Ave, New Hope, MN)

    1. Sounds like fun. I passed this on to the Sugar list as there are a lot of Grant fans on it. Cheers.