Onstage at the Birchmere last week, Bob Mould set down his sky-blue Stratocaster and picked up a book.
It was the story of a teen who flees an abusive home, starts a band, hits the road, gets hooked, gets sober, goes solo, comes out of the closet, detours into electronic music, works a stint in pro wrestling, reinvents himself as a DJ and finally decides to write it all down.
It was his autobiography.
Performing songs and reading from his book for the first time ever, the 50-year-old punk legend punctuated his recollections with overwhelmed sighs. “It’s very reminiscent of May of 1989 all of a sudden,” Mould said from the stage, nervously pushing his glasses up his nose.
He was referring to his solo debut after the implosion of Husker Du, the hair-on-fire hard-core punk trio Mould formed in Minneapolis in 1979. Triangulating indelible extremes in melody, volume and speed, the band’s breakneck sound would ripple across the ’90s and beyond, influencing Nirvana, Foo Fighters and every band since that’s ever tried to coax an angry barre chord from an electric guitar.
Mould’s book — “See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody,” out Wednesday — captures Husker Du’s sonic gravity and its notorious infighting in fine detail. But it also recounts the traumatic childhood that came before and the fascinating career that came after — one in which Mould would leap from project to project with a fearlessness that belies the anxieties that mutated out of his struggles with his family, his addictions and his sexuality.
Reading it isn’t a struggle. Across 400-odd pages, Mould’s tone is purposefully even. He burns and mends bridges in the same clear, economical voice. At the Birchmere, it was hard to tell when he was reading and when he was riffing.
“I don’t want to bum everybody out,” he said at one point. “Lemme skip 10 pages.”
‘I knew it was all there’
The morning before the Birchmere gig, Mould is sweating outside a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, calmly reciting his credit card number into his iPhone. He’s ordering extra copies of his book for a tour that will visit six cities coast to coast.
Inside, iced coffee is served. Mould sips and explains why writing his life story was the most difficult project he’s ever tackled. “I wish it would have been as easy as just a week of talking about how cool I was and then having someone write it for me,” he says.
Co-author Michael Azerrad first met Mould while interviewing him for 2001’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which has since become the definitive indie rock history book. “I kind of call myself a literary personal trainer,” says Azerrad of his recent collaboration with Mould. “ ‘C’mon, Bob! One more! One more insight!’ ”
Mould says that without that push, the book wouldn’t have explored his turbulent childhood in Upstate New York and how it shaped his life and work.
“I came into this project really wanting to know why his music, especially his early music, was so angry,” Azerrad says. “I knew that it wasn’t some sort of empty artistic pose. . . . I think gradually he came to see that the book would be so much more meaningful if he gave more of himself.”
So Mould plunged into his past and began to spot patterns and threads that had eluded him his entire life — the self-hatred, the passive-aggression, the emotional chaos and music’s ability to drown it all out. “I knew it was all there,” Mould says. “How it all tied together? No.”
It’s a generous, sad and detailed account of artistic triumphs and disintegrated relationships: romances gone toxic, hard feelings over the breakup of his great ’90s band Sugar, the storied animosity between Mould and his Husker Du bandmates — namely, drummer Grant Hart.
“This might be the most dysfunctional situation I’ve ever been in, and I grew up in one hell of a dysfunctional home,” he writes of the band’s final meeting in 1988.
Mould says he wanted to be as fair and factual as possible. So he asked neutral friends to read the book closely and asked them, “Am I swinging an ax or showing people my life?”
Ax or no ax, he isn’t afraid to chop away at his legacy. In one passage, he confesses that “Zen Arcade,” Husker Du’s 1984 masterwork, “means a whole lot more to others than it does to me. I began to outgrow and move beyond those feelings almost at the moment I documented them.” Just a third of the way into the book, Husker Du is kaput.
“I wasn’t trying to tell the story of Husker Du. I wasn’t trying to tell the story of anybody but me,” Mould says. “For better or worse, that’s my first band. Great first band. Lots of stories to tell.”
But in the end, he still wishes he gave those Husker Du chapters the Husker Du treatment.
“I would have sped it up a little bit,” he says.
‘Sort of crumbling’
There are some great factoids sprinkled in these stormy pages:
Mould was on the shortlist to produce Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
Mould wrote the “Daily Show” theme music.
Mould was a professional wrestling fanatic who spent seven months writing scripts for World Championship Wrestling.
But the story seems to take its happiest turn in Washington — even if Mould’s arrival here marked the lowest point in his life. He and his then-partner of 13 years came to Washington in 2002, leaving their Tribeca apartment shortly after the World Trade Center was destroyed. The relationship was already on the rocks, and Mould’s recent foray into electronic music had evaporated his fan base.
“I had just watched my neighborhood blow up, I was watching my relationship blow up and I was watching my career blow up,” Mould says. “Everything was sort of crumbling at once.”
Mould hit bottom after the breakup but pulled himself up after befriending local electronic music producer Richard Morel. The duo started DJing a regular event at the Velvet Lounge called Blowoff, which moved to the 9:30 Club and quickly became one of the most popular gay dance nights in Washington. “I began to find out who I was and where I was supposed to be,” Mould writes of his roaring 40s in Washington — a triumph considering he didn’t come out until he was 33.
“My sexuality was an open secret,” he says. “I didn’t think at the time that it was germane to the music, so I created this sort of schism between my professional and private life. . . . In hindsight, it might have been nice to [come out] sooner. You can’t do it soon enough, truth be told.”
Then come the book’s Dionysian chapters as Mould finds his place in the bear community, a gay subculture where he finally feels comfortable in his sexuality and his masculinity. At the Birchmere, Mould describes this period as “my slutty summer.” The book’s most rock-star-ish recollections ensue — and in Washington, of all places.
Mould says he never should have felt so isolated in his sexuality. “So many people have come up to me in the past five years and said, ‘I was part of [the punk scene], but I wasn’t out, but I knew you might be,’ ” he says. “That’s pretty amazing. To do this journey I thought I was doing by myself . . . I really do get emotional about it sometimes.”
‘Serious’ but ‘gregarious’
At the 9:30 Club on Saturday, emotions are up as Mould and Morel set up behind the turntables for another edition of Blowoff. As Mould tinkers with the mixer, Morel says that Mould — who moved to San Francisco in 2009 — is a mere shadow of his irascible former self.
“On the one side, he has a very serious nature,” Morel says. “But he’s this really fun, gregarious guy.”
The doors open at 11:30 and men come flooding onto the dance floor, all beards and buffness. By midnight, a few have peeled off their shirts as songs by Escort, the Weeknd and Michael Cassette thump across the room.
No one dances with more abandon than Mould, who occasionally breaks his bounce to dole out hugs and handshakes to well-wishers bellied up to the DJ booth.
The once-angry young man never seemed happier.