This is the 72nd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Hüsker Dü was one of a few bands to emerge from Minneapolis’s 1980s post-punk and alternative rock scene. By the time Hüsker Dü broke up at the end of 1987, the band had released six albums in less than six years. During that time, the band pushed the boundaries of hardcore punk, defying how the scene should sound, feel, and look. Hüsker Dü might not have had any huge, recognizable hits, but the band influenced plenty of musicians who did, including Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Green Day.
Grant Hart, who passed away this week at the age of 56, was key to the sound of Hüsker Dü. Hart was the trio’s drummer, but he also was one of the band’s singers and songwriters. Hart wrote and sang many of the band’s songs, but not as many as guitarist Bob Mould. Hart said that was by Mould’s design, and that was one of the contributing factors to the band’s break-up. But Hart said that he and Mould attempting to outdo each other might have been what made the band good. In an interview with The AV Club in 2000, Hart said, “Maybe the tension of the band, the challenging of one from the other… You hear some live bootlegs, and Bob and I are working so hard to outshine each other that it just lifts the whole thing off the ground with peace and wonderfulness.”
Hüsker Dü’s first major label release, “Candy Apple Grey,” was actually the band’s fifth album. Released on Warner Bros. in 1986, the album spent 10 weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at Number 140. “Candy Apple Grey” had two singles: “Sorry Somehow” and “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely,” both written and sung by Hart. Neither song charted in the US, but “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” reached Number 96 in the UK.
The lyrics of “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” don’t specify who the “you” is in the title, but it’s easy to interpret the song as being about an ex-lover of sorts:
I’m curious to know exactly how you are
I keep my distance but that distance is too far
It reassures me just to know that you’re okay
But I don’t want you to go on needing me this way…
…The day you left me, left me feeling oh so bad
Still I’m not sure about all the doubts we had
From the beginning we both knew it wouldn’t last
Decisions have been made the die has been cast
Shortly after Hart’s death was announced, Billboard contributor Andrew Unterberger ranked Hart’s 10 best songs with Hüsker Dü. “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” topped the list. Unterberger said:
And if the singer/songwriter has a defining moment on record, it’s at the final verse, when he gets a call he can only presume to be from his ex, and a lifetime’s romantic exasperation culminates in a climactic couplet that one-ups even [The Replacements’] Paul Westerberg: “Please leave your number and a message at the tone/ Or you can just go on and LEAVE ME ALONE!” He sounds pinched, he sounds flustered, he sounds far too distraught to take any sort of satisfaction from the kiss-off. Like the generations of emo kids who’d follow in his example, he knows survival is as good as it gets in such a situation, and he’s just hoping to escape with that much.
That sense of being “pinched,” “flustered” and “far too distraught” comes out in many of the “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” covers. Many are faithful recreations of the original, sounding more like tributes to the cover artist’s heroes rather than any attempt to reinterpret the song. But it’s on some of the barer versions that Hart’s lyrics can breathe better without the pounding drums in the background.
Australian band The Hollowmen covered “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” for its 1989 album “So Long,” stripping back the guitars and drums. The anger and frustration of Hart’s delivery is gone, but that’s not to say The Hollowmen’s version is without force: the soft female vocals repeating the song’s title help punctuate the song’s point: “I’m glad you’re okay, so please just leave me alone.”
British band Catherine Wheel’s 1992 EP “30 Century Man” included covers of “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and Mission Of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” At the outset of Catherine Wheel’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” it’s scarily faithful to the original, such that it’s hard to tell if it’s cover. When singer Rob Dickinson comes in, he sounds like a hybrid of Mould and Hart, though by the end, he sounds more like the version of himself heard on Catherine Wheel’s “Waydown” or “Black Metallic.”
Scottish band Political Asylum’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” cover appeared on the band’s 1992 release, “How the West Was Won.” Between the acoustic guitars and the group vocals, it sounded like a group sing-along.
The 1994 compilation “Case Closed? An International Compilation ofHüsker Dü Cover-Songs” included Richies’ “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely.” The cover sounded like a slightly polished version of the original, like the audio equivalent of a photo at 90 percent opacity: the guitars were a little less fuzzy, the vocals a little softer, the drums a little less frenetic.
If Richies’ “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” was a slightly more polished version of the song, then Fireside’s cover was a slightly rougher, more lo-fi version. Appearing on the 1998 album, “Hello Kids,” Fireside’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” was louder, noisier, and messier than Hüsker Dü’s version. That’s a feat, given that the original had Mould’s epic distortion.
In 2000, Green Day performed “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” for an appearance on MTV. That version later appeared on the B-side for the “Warning” single, and in 2011, Green Day’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” cover appeared on a split 7-inch with Hüsker Dü’s original.
Green Day’s cover seemed rather straightforward, but that makes sense, given that the band’s members were huge Hüsker Dü fans. The cover is a tribute rather than a reinterpretation, and that is OK. No need to change a song by one of your favorite bands.
After Hart died, Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong posted an emotional tribute to Hart on Instagram, in which he quoted “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely.”
English band Parakeet recast “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” as a sunny shoegaze song, with Mariko Doi sounding almost cheerful as she delivered the chorus. Of all the covers, she might sound the second happiest to be saying “leave me alone.”
But it’s because of the cover by The Boston Boys and Emily Elbert that Parakeet’s version isn’t ranked the happiest cover of the song. Whereas other versions tweaked the song by stripping the noise or slowing it down, Elbert and The Boston Boys more than tweaked the song. Their reggae-tinged soulful cover was a complete overhaul. Elbert’s laid-back delivery over a jazzy arrangement transformed the song from being angsty and conflicted to being a joyful and defiant statement of independence.
Thrash metal band Prong’s 2015 album, “Songs From the Black Hole,” featured covers of some of the band’s influences. On “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” Prong amplified Hüsker Dü’s hardcore sound: the drums were faster and the vocals were more brooding, but more than anything, Prong’s version played up the guitars, making them crunchier, louder, and more distorted.
These covers point to the scope of Hüsker Dü’s influence, not just in the number of bands that covered the song, but in the number of genres represented. Hüsker Dü left a mark on each of these bands, whether it be the harsh sounds of Prong, the fuzzy production of Parakeet, the melancholy vocals of The Hollowmen, the blitzing pace of Green Day, or the reflective lyrics of Catherine Wheel.
In a remembrance for The Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot said, “Here’s what many casual rock fans may not know about Husker Du: Even if you took away Bob Mould’s songs and just kept Grant Hart’s, you’d still have a great band — one of the most important and influential of the last 40 years.”
Still, fellow Twin Cities bands The Replacements and Soul Asylum are probably more recognizable to the casual music fan, as Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” spent 26 weeks on the chart, where it peaked at Number 5, and The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” lent its name to a 1998 movie of the same name. If your friend who only knows Top 40 hits has ever heard a Hüsker Dü song, it might have been in the 2009 movie “Adventureland,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
But that’s a big if. And it’s a big shame.