This year marks the 30th anniversary of Hüsker Dü‘s great Zen Arcade. (Don’t count on a remastered version appearing anytime soon.) In case anyone else remains as baffled as I am by the story the concept album tells, here are a few hints singer and guitarist Bob Mould has dropped over the years.
Craig Lee, the late guitarist for The Bags and Catholic Discipline, profiled Hüsker Dü in the Los Angeles Times on the eve of a December 1984 Club Lingerie show. Lee’s article includes this contemporary summary of the Zen Arcade narrative:
The LP’s songs tell the story of a farm boy who runs away, wonders whether to join the army or a cult, becomes a musician and finally winds up at a computer company before waking up and realizing that it was all a dream. The narrative may not be that explicit, but Mould wanted the record “to leave things up to people’s imaginations instead of making concrete definitions. We didn’t want it to be a rock opera.”
A cult, sure: that must be “Hare Krsna.” The army, OK: “Newest Industry.” It was all a dream: “Dreams Reoccuring,” “Reoccuring Dreams.” Let’s see if Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Albums of the Eighties” entry (#33) adds any detail:
According to Mould, Zen Arcade is about a young computer hack from a broken home who dreams about killing himself after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose. Instead, he lands in a mental hospital where he meets the head of a computer company who hires him to design video games. “Then he wakes up and goes to school,” Mould said. “The only thing we never agreed on was the name of the video game. We thought it was Search.”
Girlfriend dies of drug overdose, check: “Pink Turns to Blue.” Mental hospital: could be “Whatever.” Video game, ah. . . Here’s what I take to be Mould’s definitive statement about the Zen Arcade concept, from his memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, co-authored by Michael Azerrad:
Zen Arcade started like all albums do: a few songs here, a few general ideas there. But at some point we realized that it could be so much more and ambition kicked in. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s write a semiautobiographical opera; let’s amalgamate the fact that Greg’s parents are divorced, Grant’s situation is this, and Bob’s conundrum is that, and weave it all together.” There wasn’t a conscious effort to construct a composite character, but that seems to be the end result of the writing for Zen Arcade.
The early ‘80s marked the beginning of video game culture, and we used that as the jumping-off point for the album’s loose plot: a bright kid leaves his broken home and heads to Silicon Valley to design a computer game called “Search.” We started writing songs and loosely creating characters: the kid who designed the video game, his girlfriend, Pinkie, his cigar-smoking boss. It built from late 1982 through most of 1983. Once we saw what was happening with the narrative, the flow of the album became clear, and it became easier to put things in order.
[...] Zen Arcade is regarded as this momentous work that requires deep explanation. The fact was, we were rehearsing and touring nonstop, not spending a lot of time thinking about it. We were doing it. We were living it. It was a visceral statement. It felt right.
It’s a very good record, but it’s the sum total of the experience, of that moment, that grabbed people. Now I hesitate to say this, but here goes: Zen Arcade means a whole lot more to others than it does to me. I began to outgrow and move beyond those feelings almost at the moment I documented them, but the fact that they resonate so deeply with my audience, the critics, and generations of fellow musicians—there is the reward.
After the jump, raw footage of the Hüskers ripping through three Mould songs from side one of ‘Zen Arcade’ at Philadelphia’s Love Hall in 1983