Grant Hart performing in Minneapolis, 2009
Grant Hart performing in Minneapolis, 2009
Photo by Bill Wilcox via Flickr

Grant Hart's "The Main": A Survivor's Journal of Hell

Some songs, you hear them for the first time and you know they’ve changed your life, but you don’t know yet how. “The Main,” by former Husker Du drummer and singer Grant Hart, who died Thursday at age 56 from cancer, is one of those songs. It is one of the most haunting, beautiful, gut-wrenching, sublime songs I’ve ever heard, and its power has never diminished over countless listens.

Hart is best known for being the more melodic of the St. Paul, Minnesota-born Husker Du’s two songwriters, a counterbalance to guitarist Bob Mould’s bruising sonic assaults. His gift is evident in songs like “Green Eyes,” “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” and “Sorry Somehow.” But Hart could tap into darkness as well, like on the deeply disturbing track “Diane,” from Husker Du’s 1983 EP Metal Circus, which spoke-sung from the point of view of an actual murderer who was convicted of raping and killing a West St. Paul woman in 1981.

Hart didn’t have to imagine himself in a dark place for “The Main,” which appears on his 1989 solo debut, Intolerance. It came from his own struggles with heroin, the endless quests to cop in European red-light districts, apparently while on tour, and his fellow travelers in the gutters. It name-drops Jesus Christ and Thomas DeQuincy, a 19th century English journalist, essayist, and addict.

“She was so crucified by the end of the day/ With her head in her hands she decided to pray/ Jesus Christ topped the list of the most wanted souls/ Like DeQuincy he died with his arms full of holes.”

Imagine a sea shanty composed in heaven, about hell. That’s “The Main.” The DeQuincy verse, like the rest, are sung in waltz-time, over a thunderous, reverbed piano with pauses that hang heavy between the lines, to feature an organ line that drones throughout the entire song like a flatline. Then a choir kicks in for the chorus:

On the main, the main
Remember your name
Remember the things you and I became
Pigalle all the same
On the main, the main
Remember your name

The final iteration is, quite simply, a doozy. If you want to hear a recording of someone spilling their guts out onto the floor, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example. Hart’s voice by this time is shredded; what started out as sort of a warning or reminder has metastasized into sheer fear and desperation. And it comes after this last verse:

I was smack in the middle of Alphabet Town
There was life on the corners and death all around
You know hell is the worst place that I’ve ever been to
The hell that I went through
When I stuck it into the main

At that point, we’re beyond religious and literary allusions; we’re into the literal. This is a man telling us about his trips to hell. This is also a man telling us that he somehow survived those trips, but he doesn’t tell us how, because he probably doesn’t know. Every time, I get shivers.

I don’t know how hearing “The Main” for the first time changed my life. Maybe it was just as simple as being exposed to such rare, exposed-nerve beauty, and how that can sear itself into your consciousness. All I know for sure is that The Main is one of the most beautiful, poignant, harrowing pieces of music ever recorded, but it shouldn’t have been recorded in the first place – in a perfect world, there would be no addiction, there would be no reason for artists like Hart to nearly self-destruct.

In the end, it wasn’t “The Main” that got him, it was cancer. If Hart was able to produce something like “The Main” about his struggle with heroin, and create one of the most powerful songs ever, I can only imagine the power of whatever, up there, he’s composing now.

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