Today’s birthday boy is Bob Mould, the main dude behind Hüsker Dü, which was one of my favorite bands of that little blip of 1985-88 or so . . . well, except for the Mekons who came on strong in 1987 and thereafter. Anyway, I know Mould has a new album out and I’d like to hear it and all, but . . . I have to go with what is still to me one of his top songs, from Flip Your Wig, the great follow-up to New Day Rising (1985).
“Games” kicked my ass when I was in college. That surging, churning sound, reminding me of vintage metal like Black Sabbath c. 1972, and those vocals delivered as though the guy is at the end of his tether. It’s a belligerent song, and there aren’t many of those I stick on my “must” list. But Mould has a number of those, come to think of it, and that’s something I liked him for back then. I didn’t generally think of myself as a happy camper but, y’know, whatever was festering underneath stayed there. I might look dark but I rarely let people have it. Mould, judging by songs like this one, is capable of letting people have it, as a form of self-expression.
But let’s not get off on the wrong foot. The main person he’s giving it to—reading him the riot act—is himself. It’s all in the first person, so it’s all about his own fucked-up self. And I heard it aright by letting myself stand in for Mould, to feel my bell rung by the shit he’s saying: “Memories go to reinforce / The things I have done for better or worse.” You might recall that I posted about “Perfect Example” for my anniversary, so, yeah, here’s another one with that “for better or worse” idea. A way of saying that what we’re “wedded to” isn’t only a partner, or rather it could be called, thinking of Delmore Schwartz “The Heavy Bear that Goes with Me.” Stuck with those memories that reinforce the better and the worse. And remember Lear: “the worst is not so long as one can say ‘this is the worst.’”
“I could surround myself with my props / Playing my part, getting caught up / In a game, that anyone can play.” Now, since this is the Eighties, probably the games he has in mind are video games, the way they kind of take over the lives of their players. But I wasn’t into that. The games I was playing were academic games, I felt—which is why I associate this song with college and the call of grad school. “Getting caught up in a game that anyone can play” was in contrast to something more original and creative—something that, as an artist, is a game that you play just as you are (I thought). The idea may not be so clear, but the following verse brought it on home to me:
I could be proud of things I have done
Pretend I don't have to try to be someone
I could say that I've done it all before
I could get wiser, I could get jaded
I could remember, I could just fade away
In a game that anyone can play
I was proud of some of the success I was having, and was willing to believe I could “pretend” I didn’t have to “be someone” (as opposed to pretending you are someone). And even the “done it all” had resonance as most of the people around me were still in some phase of the date or court game. So, yeah, wiser, jaded. Those things might go together. And the fading away into the game is the way I felt about, oh, you know, the shattered illusions of my youth, sorta thing.
Like I say, it’s a relentless song. With that buzzing guitar sound and Grant Hart’s galloping beat, that seems to make the song’s emotions come from some volcanic substrata—and there’s that feeling that you probably have if, as an artist, you have laid it all out there and got celebrated for your efforts: “The ones who said you’re great will find another way.” That even applies around here now, where I’m attentive to drama school students showing what they can do and, no matter how great someone is, that person will depart and we’ll “find another way.” The same applies to our heroes—and loves—of yesteryear, all those ghosts we won’t bother to revive again, thank you very much.
I could be sad, I could be lonely / I could still have some friends if I only / Didn’t play the games I had to play.
Those games are what come between him and his friends, those others who might be made to care, for a bit, but who ultimately will be sacrificed to the game. “A game, some game, that anyone can play.” Yes, a game is still a competition, isn’t it? And some will play it better or worse. And you’ll play it better or worse yourself at times. Unless you can leave it all behind, and find a different game. Maybe the one you can just play happily ever after with your friends. Some would call that “utopia” huh?
People say, “Hey, I was important too.”