Category: Joy Division


The Ugly Truth

John Keats - if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar...

John Keats – if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar…

John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”

My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel.  The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.

Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.

And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.

“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.

I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.

But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.

Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.

Next: Hell IS a bad place be.

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The Basement Door

Joy Division is a band that only music critics and others very seasoned in rock history seem to know. But actually, everybody knows them, because they show up in just about every rock band’s music since 1980. Their influence is so far-reaching that it’s at a higher level, one where you don’t even know that that’s where it comes from. Without Joy Division, I can’t even imagine what the musical landscape would look like.

I can only wisely enter so far into Joy Division. When I listen to them, I cannot help but contemplate the sad and bankrupt state of this world, the carelessly evil things people sometimes do to each other, and perhaps most of all, the darkness within my own soul. And if I go too far down that road, if I descend that staircase all the way to the dank and dirty basement, I fear I may never come out.

I like Joy Division right where they are, in that basement. I can flit from room to room on the first floor, climb the stairs to see the bedrooms, and even go outside the house to bask in the sun – and I can also open the basement door, go down a few steps and sit contemplatively, listening.

A few bands who have followed in Joy Division’s extremely influential footsteps (and more who have taken it to the next level) rail and thrash, shriek and flail about, screaming all the while “I’M UPSET ABOUT SOMETHING!” They’ve taken distress, patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box and sold it in Best Buy, warranty included. Joy Division is remarkable precisely because they didn’t do that. To them, distress looks like Ian Curtis with his deadpan stare, tortured by demons of which we as listeners only have the briefest indication.

Joy Division - Closer - 7/18/1980

Joy Division – Closer – 7/18/1980

Curtis, frontman and doomed casualty of Joy Division, had epilepsy. It’s a very misunderstood affliction, probably because it’s so startling and troubling to see. Perhaps in this age of understanding for people who are different in some way, it has a softer definition, but back in the late ‘70s it was still pretty weird. Make no mistake, an epileptic seizure is a big deal, but the person having one needs medical help, not horrified stares (or fascinated ones – more on that later).

Closer is only their second album, but it’s also the last release they would ever put out. In addition to 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, there were a handful of singles, as well as their debut EP An Ideal For Living, released in 1978. The name Joy Division, which sounds strange to our English-speaking ears, is the name for certain women in Nazi concentration camps during WWII – they were racially pure women set aside for the sexual service of officers in the German army, in order to create a master, Aryan race. Joy Division caused even more stir with the cover for An Ideal For Living, which featured a Hitler Youth playing a drum. The question was asked not long after that: are Joy Division Nazis? (The answer is “no.”)

And then in 1980, exactly two months before the release of Closer, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house. The darkness and groaning melancholy of Joy Division’s music suddenly became starkly and frighteningly real.

Closer opens with the exceptionally dark “Atrocity Exhibition.” The lyrics talk of the public’s sick desire to see something horrible as a satiation of their dark nature. Ian Curtis first saw this when Joy Division became “that band with the epileptic.” A few times, Curtis had an epileptic seizure on stage, and he adapted his dancing style to emulate his seizures. Some people came to their shows on the off-chance that he would have a seizure. Curtis had a keen sense of phoniness, so he naturally was angry.

Though it’s a great song, “Atrocity Exhibition” is not the best lead-off track. It’s long, doesn’t do a great job of getting you to engage, and is catchy only because it’s so repetitive. But like all Joy Division songs, its value is in the atmosphere it creates, not the sum of its musical parts. And that atmosphere is palpable and intense – it’s a smoke you can reach out and feel, can breathe in and feel in your lungs.

After that comes “Isolation,” a study of what gives the song its name. It speaks of a fear that is with you “every day, every evening,” all the time. I know this fear – to me, it’s the fear of all of the world’s circumstances closing I around you at once, and being left with the paralyzing but undeniable fact that you’re not up to the task of dealing with them. They’re too much for you. You are inadequate. That fear still sneaks up on me occasionally, and when it does, it causes me to fold inward, to not move, to not try. Because if I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Ian Curtis, 1956-1980

Ian Curtis, 1956-1980

I identify with Joy Division and Ian Curtis immensely. A lot of people do, and that’s why JD’s music remains so popular among certain people. Curtis is a symbol that lets depressed and fearful kids (and the occasional 32 year-old…) know that they’re not alone and not the first. But Curtis’ story also alerts me to the dangers of descending too far down the pit of despair. It’s important to feel every feeling, but feeling any feeling too much can be perilous.

What sets Joy Division apart from the wide gamut of bands they’ve influenced is that they don’t try to pretend that the dark, billowy place to which they take you is cool, attractive, or in any way a good place to be. Their music is devoid of glamour, polish or contrivance. The void it leaves is filled instead with the depth of Curtis’ own despair. And it’s DEEP, man…