The Music For Our Times – Workbook Revisited

The Street Hustle


This is the worst I have ever seen it economically in the country, worse than the depression like economy Detroit had in the late’70’s and ‘80’s, worse than New York’s economy in 1991, the year I graduated from NYU.  The anxiety and stress levels are beyond palatable; they are thick, coating everyone and everything.  It is no longer a matter of when or how the government will bail us out, more a matter of what banking/insurance institution is going to fail next and will we be shocked by that event.


As I look for work, or try to find anything resembling a shift for a bartender in New York City, I wonder what the rest of October is going to hold, fearfully.  My own stress level is above and beyond any rational expectations.  Sleep is hard to come by and my stomach is so full of acid, the blandest white rice is not helpful in soaking up the fear.  As the crisp fall air moves down from the north, enveloping the pavement and forcing New Yorkers into their black and gray sweaters and slacks, I scoured my CD collection, looking for the appropriate soundtrack to the season.  Anything Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, various folk and blues collections and, finally, ‘Workbook’ by  Bob Mould.  The first three are all based in the British Isles folk tradition where autumn is a celebrated season, although great listening, not exactly catching the timbre of the times.  The American folk and blues collections are closer to my gut but have too much outward hope for serious consideration in the beginning of what appears to be a soon happening depression.  All though all will be played in heavy rotation on my home CD player and IPod, no other album catches the depth of despair, desperation, searing anger and sheer indecision all the while considering that something better might just come along (not) than ‘Workbook.’


There was a time in the spring of 1993 when I felt the same way I do now, riddled with anxiety, fear and worthlessness, this time due to stoppage of my pursuit of my PhD. in street pharmaceuticals, acquisition and usage.  After six weeks of going cold turkey and making massive life changes, I found the need to engage a therapist to help me sort out my issues.  Her office was located in a lovely brownstone on the north side of West 29th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues just below the Penn Station hustle and bustle.  I was in rather rough shape at the time and was convinced that everyone I encountered could see through me.  In a vain attempt to make my life easier, I walked to my thrice weekly appointments from my West Village apartment up and down 10th Avenue, which seemed to have less foot traffic.  Well, less normal people on foot anyway.  There was the usual collection of prostitutes, pimps, odd mumbling denizens, construction and industrial folk and project dwellers.  These were the people I thought would understand me at that time or, at the very least, would ignore me consistently.  My soundtrack for these walks was the second side of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ by Bob Dylan and the entirety of ‘Workbook.’  The poetic angst of both men seemed to match mine at the time.


Bob Mould was the nominal leader of Husker Du, a seminal, melodic hardcore power trio of the 1980’s.  Although never breaking through to mainstream success, the Husker’s would go on to be, arguably, the most important influence on a generation of noisy pop song mongers, including a fledgling band in Washington state named Nirvana.  When the bad finally broke-up in 1987 amidst vituperative swipes of drug abuse, disinterest and all the other stuff expected of rock stars of any era.  And, of course, it all played out in the music press.  “Watching these guys break-up is better than your average soap opera,” a friend at the time said.   


Grant Hart, the other major creative element of Husker Du, released an EP entitled ‘2541’ early in 1988, airing his views of the bands break-up as seen through the eyes of a couple doing the same thing. The music was melodic, loud and messy; sort of Husker Du without the any of the discipline.  Mould’s swipe at his former band mates was eagerly awaited and came as a total shock.


The inner sleeve of the CD has a picture of a simple wooden chair in a stark room in front of an open window with white curtains.  A statement of emptiness that fits the tone and music perfectly as, except for the final track is played by a guitar, rhythm section and cello.  I remember being afraid that Mould was going acoustic. Was the great screamer of an era becoming the next James Taylor or worse, the guy who actually slept in the wet spot willingly?  Fortunately, no.  The music was stately at times and gentle others. It is, however, always unsettling and disquieting. 


The opening tune ‘Sunspots’, with its gentle, acoustic, Kottke-esque wash (and former background music to an HBO trailer) hardly prepares the listener for the barbs that follow.  ‘Wishing Well,’ with it’s cello hook and lyrics warning about the consequences of getting ones wishes fulfilled, is the albums statement of purpose.  The rest of the CD deals with vituperation and the desire for revenge (‘Poison Years’), the false lure of change for change sake (‘Brasilia Crossed With Trenton) and the possibility that hope cannot change anyone’s mind (‘See A Little Light’), finishing with a Richard Thompson styled noise fest detailing uncertainty and indecision (‘Whichever Way The Wind Blows’).  The most glaring misstep on the album is Mould’s choice to break the music down after the guitar fill on ‘Lonely Afternoon.’  “They’ve held me down for long enough/like a flower I need to grow,” Mould sings.  Yes, it is the stuff that bad Goth poetry is made of but I get why he did it.  Who says that spewing bile from an aggrieved spleen is the stuff of Stevens or Shakespeare?


Now 20 years on, the reviews are mixed.  Rolling Stone still loves the CD and Ira Robbins of Trouser Press feels it’s too much like a bad singer-songwriter piece.  Whatever side you come down on, ‘Workbook’ is an honest emotional document of autumnal music from one pissed off camper.  Only two days into October, 2008 and it is as refreshing now as it was in October of 1988.


As I walk from place to place, fearing the dole – or lack thereof – and wondering exactly what my prospects are, Mould will be right there with me as a reminder that, from time to time, all the same anxiety ridden garbage happens to us all.


What CD or song is helping you get through the uncertainty of the current economy?   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Every Friday, get 2 for 1 movie tickets when you use your Visa Signature card.

Recent Comments