Tag Archive: death


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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Filthy Lucre

Pink Floyd’s journey through madness takes us to a brief segue from the end of “Time” (which is actually “Breathe (Reprise)”) into a gentle piano, the intro to “The Great Gig In the Sky.” Over the piano is laid a snippet from one of the interviews Roger Waters did during the album’s production. It speaks of how you shouldn’t be frightened of dying, and “any time will do.” These wise words come from Gerry O’Driscoll, the Abbey Road Studios janitor.

The only vocals on the whole track (other than the interview snippets) are those of Clare Torry, a vocalist that engineer Alan Parsons suggested. Clare wasn’t enthusiastic about it, since she was not a fan of Pink Floyd. It didn’t really get better for her when she agreed to come to the studio, as the members of Pink Floyd didn’t really give her anything to do; they themselves didn’t even know what they wanted. So she just said to herself, “Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.” She did two and a half takes, stopping in the middle of the third because she felt it wasn’t working and that she was repeating herself. But while she was losing confidence in herself, the members of Floyd and the production team were simply blown away. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the album, and even to this day her performance is amazing.

Despite the absence of lyrics, “The Great Gig In the Sky” deals with death and mortality. Death is scary at first, but so much of its bluster and noise is man-made. Something’s only scary if someone’s scared of it. Like “On the Run,” “Great Gig” shouldn’t be strictly thought of as a song, but a wordless piece of art that evokes a feeling without spelling it out for you. There’s a pigeonholing of music that says that only the words of a song can be about something. That’s an extremely limited way of thinking, and The Dark Side of the Moon proves that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The vinyl flip brings more sound effects, these ones from an old-style cash register. The song “Money” is a crunchy, groovy piece of rock in the novel 7/8 time signature. The odd time puts the listener a little off balance, particularly because “Money” is plodding and a little machine-like. When the guitar solo comes, though, it switches to 4/4 in order to make guitarist David Gilmour’s life easier.

The lyrics talk about the excesses money can bring, but more poignantly about selfishness. “Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.” They also make a rather infuriating mistake with the line, “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.”

Money is not the root of all evil. There is a great misconception out there that somehow the cause of all our problems is money, but that’s just not the case. Never mind that it’s ridiculous to focus on the badness of money and forget things like power, sex and self-gratification. It’s also ridiculous to say that an inanimate object could be the source of an exclusively human problem. No, the reason horrible things are done in the name of makin’ that dollar is not money itself; it’s us.

Jesus didn’t say money was the root of all evil, but a great many people think he did. In fact, one of the only things Jesus had to say about the subject was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” which basically means stop whining, pay your taxes, and get back to doing God’s work. The “root of all evil” thing is actually from the Bible, but not only doesn’t Jesus say it (Paul does), but instead of money, it’s love of money. The Bible talks a lot about splitting your loyalties and how you shouldn’t do it. You can’t serve two masters because you’ll hate one and love the other, and that includes money.

Pink Floyd has a similarly cautious approach to money here, not wanting to delve into the excesses that commonly follow success. Money can quickly become an obsession, and that leads to paranoia and madness, which is Floyd’s central theme on Dark Side. But it’s ironic that “Money,” a song that speaks very jadedly about monetary success, was Pink Floyd’s breakout hit and their first taste of the very thing “Money” cautions against. And with the Floyd’s next album, Wish You Were Here, they lament about the hole that money and “Money” got them into. And they didn’t really get themselves out of it until 20 years later with their final album, The Division Bell.

Next: “Us and Them” and the balance between the ugly and the beautiful.