Husker Du’s “Eight Miles High” is the sound of the human spirit trying to tear itself from the flesh, to escape its own certain destruction. It’s better then “A Day in the Life,” better than “Kashmir.” It’s better than “Sympathy for the Devil.” It’s the greatest rock record of all time.
The original “Eight Miles High,” by the Byrds, is a great song, a justifiable classic. Trippy and spooky, with a gently propulsive bass line and chiming, interwoven guitars, a wash of intricate harmony, it sounds like being high, like being high in the Sixties: light and dreamy, with a wistful languor, nostalgia for an age yet to come… “some laughing…some just shapeless forms…”
But there’s no comparison with Husker Du’s version—they’re different beasts, bred for different purposes. You can posit simple contrasts: the Byrds are the Summer of Love, Husker Du are the day after Altamont. The Byrds are good Sixties acid, Husker Du Eighties biker speed. Husker Du’s version couldn’t exist without the Byrds version, and not because they needed the source material: Husker Du could write great songs all on their own. It’s because part of the cover’s power lies in the contrast with the original: the sad death of the Sixties’ fever dream, the hopes dashed and then mocked.
Husker Du start the song with a crystalline ring of harmonics. Bob Mould attacks the brooding bass introduction of the original with a massively overdriven guitar. Then he hits all the crazy scales and they’re off, racing ahead of themselves. They play the first verse pretty straight. You can hear the words, kind of. Mould is singing, not screaming. So far this could be a standard revved up punk cover of an iconic track. It could still be a goof, a joke.
Then, after a stomping break, they launch into the second verse and everything is somehow more open, more desperate. Mould starts to lose his cool, he starts to slur the words. It’s clear now that this isn’t a joke or a whimsical trip: this is desperate business.
The original isn’t like this. It isn’t about being broken, trying to hold it together on a truck rattling downhill with no brakes. Husker Du make this song: they see the truth in the heart of it and prise it out. They turn it on and ride it to the end.
In the breaks Mould hits the raga rock scales and it seems like he’s going to lose it, like he doesn’t have the chops, but of course he does, because Husker Du were the best. They’d been at it non-stop for seven years and they could play anything. And this cover version is almost a throwaway, something they knocked off before they recorded Zen Arcade. A clearing of the throat. They just had it in them.
You can feel the desperate energy, the drums clattering like a tray of cutlery thrown down the stairs, and yet relentless and steady. It’s the sound that people who don’t know punk rock will mistake for sloppiness. They’ll just hear the distortion and the screaming and the ride cymbals and dismiss it.
And in the last verse Mould goes beyond words, his voice an inarticulate roar. It’s the raw sound of human despair, all the frustration and disappointment. All the times you’ve lost, all the dreams you forgot about, all the times you knew you would lose and you did. And you can’t express it.
Nothing works. Nothing helps. You just hurt and hurt.
The song doesn’t fix things. It doesn’t tell you how to make it all right. The song just bears all that sorrow within it. The human tragedy, and our triumph, our only option: holding on. Just holding on while the train hurtles out of control, off the rails, over the bridge.
And that’s all there is. There’s nothing else. We don’t really get to win. Not the way we want to: by living forever, or getting all the gold. We only get to live with grace, or try to.
And that’s enough.
I’m an optimist, of a funny sort. I’m also a determinist. I believe the world is okay, even if I can’t understand it, even if it breaks my heart. I believe that everything is as it must be. I believe free will is an illusion, and that everyone is doing their best, even when their best is terrible. This helps me love people, or try to.
And while I don’t believe in a Creator, I do know that humans are part of a manifold dynamic process of life, infinite, immeasurable. If you want to call it God and say we have a spark of Godhead within us I won’t fight you too hard on it.
But I also believe in the Buddha’s great insight: life is stressful, painful, unsatisfying. Suffering is real. Each human is less than an atom in a vast machinery but this doesn’t diminish the lived experience of sorrow and loss.
And “Eight Miles High” gives voice to this awful truth, the inchoate scream of the Self yearning for fulfilment. Always hungry, never whole. The fierce thrill of human creativity and technique struggling to express our unassuageable pain: the cry of the newborn baby, the children separated from their parents or, sometimes worse, not separated. Abused, abandoned. Our broken hearts,the lovers who leave us, who cheat, who die. Our children who grow up and go, the monotonous march of days, the humiliations, the petty cruelties. Our intractable predicament, our longing to be free.
“Eight Miles High” reflects our deepest sorrow. It’s a mirror, held by a friend who speaks our pain back to us, who understands. Who walks our path with us, all the way.