THE DAY I bought The Greatest Album of All Time, deep in the belly of 1984, my friend Mike and I skipped school and took the train into Manhattan. We were sophomores, smoking Winstons in the rear car, busy playing cool and making jokes and pretending like the city wasn’t clanking inevitably toward us. I wore my father’s navy field jacket, name and rank over the chest pocket. A butterfly knife he’d won in a below-decks card game was stuffed into my sock. I was tall, skinny, not a single hair on my chin, without question one of the biggest pussies on the Lower East Side.
But I wouldn’t realize that until years later.
We stepped, as always, from Grand Central directly into the sidewalk herd and funnel. Hippie buskers blocked traffic, singing to no one. Sunny Von Bulows elbowed their way past red-suspender business tools, trying to get there one second faster. Addidas loungers and random molesters lazily eyed the crowd for marks. Mike and I had seen The Warriors way too many times to chance the subway, so we set off for Times Square to score fake ID’s on foot.
Why did I chose Ross Scott? Why did I think the double-T signature made the name seem more authentic? You can tell by the picture that I thought I was right. About everything. Music, cars, girls, politics, good movies, bad movies, the proper way to pronounce debacle. Where did that look of utter certainly come from? It was without question wholly unearned. I was worse than stupid, nothing but a haircut and a sneer. It amazes me to this day, the deep and pervasive sense of knowing I was immersed in, like being steeped in warm milk. In any case, that cheap laminate did, on a surprising number of occasions, grant me access to both bands and whatever was cheapest on tap.
Newly legal, Mike and I headed for the Village, for a store too cool to have a sign. It was down a flight of iron stairs, one long hallway painted black. The clerks had safety pins yanked through their cheeks, accessories a decade past due, even the pale guy at the register channeling Gary Oldman’s Sid instead of Sid himself. But their inventory was unmatched by places five times the size and smelling six times less like piss. Huge import bins lined the walls, haphazardly stuffed with Manchester thrash and Garage Moog and Japanese shriek-pop. Crates on the floor held Black Metal picture discs and Deathcore cassettes and earnest Iowa Oi! We thumbed the stacks all afternoon, holding up rare finds, loudly deriding the sellouts and spandex remixes. After a long flirtation with Cause For Alarm, Mike finally bought Metallic KO. I was jealous I hadn’t found it first, but when I saw The Greatest Album of All Time, I immediately forgot about Iggy Pop.
The Greatest Album of All Time cost way more than I wanted to spend. Not only was it a double album, SST pressed so few copies it almost immediately went out of print. But the cover art was too awesome to be denied, a stack of crushed cars, a wash of color like silkscreen rain. Three figures stood with hands shoved deep into thriftwear pockets. They stared at their feet, bored, postures of isolation and disdain. The image might as well have been engineered in some Shanghai lab to flood my neurons with a single, undeniable command: We understand you. Buy us.
And so I did.
What exactly qualifies a slab of vinyl to be sanctified as The Greatest? Lyrical genius? Melodic invention? Total sales? The degree to which it later influenced Tom Waits? Sure, there’s the usual clowns voted by your classic rock station every Labor Day: Zeppelin IV and Hotel California and Dark Side of the Moon. Then there’s the titles that might actually warrant it, like Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and Here Come The Warm Jets and Electric Ladyland.
But the opinions of writers and critics, not to mention those with the time and inclination to call into radio stations, are meaningless.
Because The Greatest Album of All Time is unquestionably Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade.
Which may be a ridiculous assertion.
Except that it’s absolutely true.
At least in the sense of greatest meaning the most vital part of what it took to survive the year I turned sixteen. Sixteen being the age where music seems the least cynical, the least calculated, the most life-affirming, the most transformative. Every person has one album that perfectly measures that age’s well of self-importance. For me, Zen Arcade chews up the 80s like Fawn Hall’s panties and exhales it like Ed Meese’s rank breath: a failed montage, a skinpop of Ritalin, a spatter of white privilege and cheap greed across the bloody tiles. In fact, it’s possible that 1984 was the worst year to turn sixteen in all of American history. Or maybe that’s true every year. Either way, Zen Arcade is The Greatest Album of All Time because it’s the album that most completely encapsulates what it felt like to be alive when I fell somewhere between a walking fist and a walking hard-on. It was a time when I could make sweeping, ridiculously personal, tunnel-vision generalizations about music and life and art. And actually be right.
Twenty-five years later, I’ve cranked up the turntable, ready to give Zen Arcade a fresh spin. It’s something I rarely do, if only to forestall my favorite songs from becoming rote, and from memory oxidizing into nostalgia. I’ve picked thirteen tunes, in real time, jotting impressions during each track–just like the band did–all first takes and (almost) no overdubs. Essentially it’s an experiment to see if, in the intervening years, I’ve learned one single thing.
1. Something I Learned Today – Souza march time leads into a jabbing bassline before Bob Mould’s guitar shreds the fascia. Rage, wrath, rage. It’s like taking all the skinheads and noserings for a mad spin around an empty parking lot in a junker Buick. Instead of bowling. Taut to lazy to pathological. Coccyx-rattling. Can the harmonies be this good and still be punk? The answer may have been what did you learn today, but the question clearly is what are you doing, teen whiteboy, except sitting there complaining?
2. Broken Home, Broken Heart – Poppy as hell while being a million units moved away from pop. A bucket of angst that slops across the foredeck, complete with hellbilly solo. Distortion eddies in waves, leading into a totally unexpected…
3. Never Talking To You Again…twelve-string acoustic guitar number. You can almost smell confusion smoldering like locked brakes from the collective turntable. It’s a bitter rant against some lost or never-was lover. One of the first songs I tried to learn by ear, could never get the rhythm right, but had the sentiment down flat. A big fuck off to anyone you might have (probably incorrectly) felt betrayed by.
4. Chartered Trips - Hey, you want to write lame, rhyming lyrics about hating TV and how dumb living in the suburbs is? You want to traipse out all that tired shit about Nazis and cops and Reagan’s bedtime monkey? Leave that to punk’s uninspired, pointlessly angry second tier. Bob Mould knows a critique of his own bullshit has infinitely more power than taking random shots at society. There are no solutions, but there is plenty of material in just recognizing the mess you wake up as every morning.
5. Dreams Reoccurring – Proof that you’re now neck deep in the most ambitious punk album ever. The only option is to keep rude comments about Meatloaf and pinball wizards to yourself. Heavily distorted backward tracking soundscape evokes sky-kissing Electric Ladyland. Recombinant guitar scree, bassline breakdowns, and heavy blackboard smack goes straight to the pineal gland.
6. Indecision Time - An oak-mulching intro that’s the perfect rebuttal to an entire industry’s gimmicky hits, an overblown solo that falls somewhere between Billy Zoom and a teeth-grindingly cranked Eddie Van. Born in the USA and When Doves Cry dominated the radio while this played on a handful of college stations, a few select dorm rooms hoarding the natural antidote to Bruce’s factory mumbling and Prince’s tiny purple erection.
7. Hare Krsna - Hey, have you ever wanted to trepan a dose of agnostic waltz directly into the brainstem of a transcendent Hare Krishna doing his Free Eggplant/Donation Please sidewalk dance? Well, now you can. Let alone smell every ounce of the patchouli and feel every penny in the proffered hat. The great bass/drum interplay carries this beyond a joke into a tone poem. Strains of psychedelia, production tricks augmenting weepy glissandos, a declension of sweeping open chords. It’s full of the sort of meaningless meaning that’s red meat to one out of ten prepubescents.
8. Pride – I saw the Hüskers the year after Zen Arcade‘s release in the basement of a Firestone Tire store. I was fifteen. They played this song and I will admit that I totally and completely lost my skinny-moshing shit, like a groupie firing on four cylinders of Snickers and gas station coffee. I literally lost my mind, pouring sweat, wearing ankle high triple-striped tube socks and red shorts, jumping off tables and off stages, becoming one with the crowd, screaming and moaning and singing off-key, one of those very rare times in my entire life that despite my obvious mania, I was absolutely positive I was in the right place, at the right time, and genuinely did not give one iota of one fuck what anyone thought of me. A very rare thing indeed.
9. The Biggest Lie – Sounds at first like it’s going to be a forty minute prog travesty about a castle in Scotland, but then Bob pops the clutch and starts screaming “the biggest lie, you always lie” over and over like he’s trying to convince someone with the power to bury him in a very deep and dark hole not to.
10. Standing By The Sea – This goes so far beyond a bunch of dudes with a case of Old Milwaukee standing around a bonfire in a field, the exact place where I spent a majority of my high school years. This tune separated me from them, from there. It’s the one thing I didn’t want to share, too obscure or just too private to explain. With a cleaner recording and one more hook, this could be Tears For Fear’s best tune.
11. Somewhere – The lodestone of the album, almost sunny in its staccato delivery. The kernel of this song is that despite its insipid lyrics, “somewhere the dirt is washed out with the rain, somewhere there’s happiness instead of pain” it ends up tying together the album’s various themes. Sometimes genius needs to be delivered in the simplest, anti-clever and nearly banal format.
12. Pink Turns To Blue – “No more rope and too much dope, she’s lying on the bed. Angels pacing, gently placing, roses round her head.” There was a time when I thought that line was the height of profundity. In fact, I wrote out the lyrics by hand and gave it to a girl in my chemistry class and it didn’t feel the least bit ridiculous. That weekend we made out in her yellow Torino parked behind a ball bearing factory. I slid three fingers into her bra, one for each stanza.
13. Turn On The News - Ominous piano overtones. Background TV noise. Parents arguing over taking out the garbage. A wash of distortion morphs into a two-chord stomp. The lyrics at times ridiculous, rhyming refugees with disease even less artfully than Tom Petty, but also heartening in its refusal to express falsely complicated sentiments. A chunky riff sounds lifted directly from Rush’s twenty six minute noodle-opus Working Man. The solo becomes a cauldron, carbon bubbles floating to the surface. Han Solo flash-frozen into a block of graphite. A warning. Wake up! America is crashing down around itself, a Parkinson’s-ridden martinet is president, the usual coups and cash-assassinations and corporate wars play out as they have since the founding of the all-encompassing phrase founding fathers. There is no moral infrastructure to the universe, there is no meaning, everything falls apart, begins again. Songs are just songs, musicians are just people with whom lonely teenagers form imagined kinships in a metal circus, a new day will rise, we will all eventually be warehoused.
Zen Arcade sounds exactly the way it always did.