When thinking of gay artists in popular music, the alternative rock genre rarely comes to mind. However, 53-year-old out artist Bob Mould can fairly lay claim to being an elder statesmen of alt rock. He was a co-founder of legendary punk band Hüsker Dü and, through his later band Sugar and a series of well-received solo albums, he’s been a guiding light in the alternative rock community for 25 years.
Mould brings music from his current album, Beauty & Ruin, to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall on Sept. 17.
While Mould may accept his identity as a gay icon, he’s much different from the stereotypical gay rock star. Sober since 1986, he eschews glitz and glamour. But he’s been a serious supporter of his community for decades — first in New York and Washington, D.C., and today in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where he’s an active member of the local “bear” community.
Mould released his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, in 2011. The book is a revealing look at the life of gay musicians in the U.S. punk scene in the 1980s, before it exploded into the grunge of the early 1990s.
Mould had a public reputation of being brutally angry if not actually scary. He famously lashed out at President Ronald Reagan’s perpetuation of public ignorance about the AIDS epidemic, calling it “the coal that fueled that train of discontent for hardcore (punk) for so long.”
“I was a young, confused homosexual living in a country that refused to acknowledge me as a human. That will make you angry,” Mould told Spin magazine.
Mould’s sexuality was an open secret for many years. He began his first long-term relationship in 1983 at age 22, but only came out in 1994 after journalists threatened to out him.
Mould co-founded the seminal punk band Hüsker Dü while a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1979. The trio came together over a mutual love of the Ramones. The band quickly evolved into a hardcore punk group and released the legendary albums Zen Arcade, Flip Your Wig, Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories before unraveling in 1987.
Hüsker Dü’s collapse came too soon to see alternative rock bands like Nirvana blast into the pop mainstream in 1991. However, Mould is quick to remind interviewers that he was on the short list to produce Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind, and without their commercial success, his post-Dü band Sugar wouldn’t have seen its debut Copper Blue become such a success in 1992.
As a child, Mould’s father was a major influence on his musical and personal development. He introduced Mould to pop and rock music through a collection of jukebox singles that remains a treasured possession. Mould bought the first Ramones album for his 16th birthday when his father took him to a record store and let him pick out his own gift. The elder Mould also financially supported his son’s early music career.
But the father-son relationship was often difficult, and it occasionally veered into potentially abusive territory. Speaking to NPR in June, Bob Mould said, “You know, my dad, he was a drinker. He liked to drink. Weekends could be tough.”
His father died in 2012. His latest album Beauty & Ruin addresses the past while moving forward into the present. It is structured around the four themes of loss, reflection, acceptance and future. That’s best seen with “The War,” which ends side one of the vinyl edition of the album, and “Forgiveness,” which begins side two. They give a clear audio representation of Mould’s difficult transition from reflection to acceptance.
He says that he’s finally left behind much of the rage that fueled his punk music in the 1980s. There’s a new sense of fun and even humor in his music. That might be a shock to some and a very welcome shift to others. Mould told GQ magazine in a 2011 interview that many of his fans “would prefer to see me miserable.”
Despite the changes in his personal life and outlook for the future, do not expect a Mould concert to be quiet. While there are likely to be acoustic touches, expect to experience music fast and loud when Mould takes the stage at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall.
Bob Mould performs at 8 p.m., Sept. 17 at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. Fourth St., with opening act Cymbals Eat Guitars. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling 414-286-3663 or visiting pabsttheater.org.