Friday, August 18, 2006
|Instincts that can still betray us
So, as mentioned briefly over at my own blog, I recently received a copy of Joy Division's Heart And Soul, aka "basically everything they ever did" - not that I didn't already own a hefty chunk of their work (and also not that I'm not still tempted by at least one more disc - come on, how can I not own a live version of "Atmosphere"?). I have been listening to basically nothing else all week; every day at work I get through at least two of the four discs before people ask me to listen to something, anything else, please, and it has been, so say the least, illuminating.
I won't deny a part (a large part?) of the appeal of Heart And Soul is that it is, or rather seems, complete; "here, this is everything, you have all of them now." Just as with their songs the existence of Joy Division came to sudden stop; as the allmusic review of H&S puts it, they both fell apart and collapsed. In at least some ways I prefer New Order to Joy Division, but the fact is there will never be an object that exists for them the way Heart And Soul turns the work of Joy Division over those four years into a kind of singular entity; New Order have simply done too much to be concretized in this fashion (yes, you could take all of their albums, b-sides, etc., and put it in one place (Andrew Unterberger did it, before Get Ready I believe, and it was 14 CDs) but it would be different for a host of reasons beyond the trivially tautological one).
And similarly, fittingly, Joy Division's music/image/art/career seems complete and singular in a way New Order's (and the vast majority of other bands') doesn't. The thing about the way we talk about the corpus of most bands is that we discuss it (knowingly or not) in a kind of ideal fashion, where we speak as if every individual song or moment exhibits the traits we wish to mention; of course there are always counter-examples, interesting discographical nooks and crannies, counter-essays to be written. But despite the fact that not every Joy Division song sounds remotely the same (and I don't just mean the divide between their icy remove and their darkly frenzied moments - see "Autosuggestion" for a relatively rare example of them bridging the gap), their music has this weird kind of darkly monolithic force (and yes, darkly; as Mark k-punk puts in an excellent post I'll be linking to shortly, "They were Gothic, but not Goths, surely") that means you really can't find exceptions; Paul Morley's wildly imaginative reading in the booklet for Heart And Soul makes some huge, overarching claims that wind up sounding and feeling real; there are very few throwaways or deviations in the catalog, for better and for worse.
Of course, as mentioned, I have been listening to little but them for a week, but the fact that I could/would do this is to my mind more proof of this quality of their music, not less; theirs is a sound and, yes, a worldview so starkly self-sufficient that you can crawl inside of it and get lost, and as long as you keep your head about you, as long as you remember what's up and what's down (as long, in other words, as you don't pull an Ian Curtis - remember too that clinical depression is above all else an inability to see other possibilities, and suicide often occurs when you believe that things will never be different again), there's nothing wrong with that. They may be anhedonic, pessimists in the Schopenhauerian sense, despairing of existence itself, but that is not necessarily a harmful thing:
I remember, in what must have been 1983, asking a fellow JD cultist (being into Joy Division for me was pretty straightforwardly a religion, a cult in the strong sense, a badge of non-membership in the teenage world of empty hedonism): 'Why is it that negative things are so much more attractive than positive things?'
Seems to me that its crucial to go all the way through the libido of the negative - to utterly resist the commonsense privileging of the vital whilst NOT getting Curtis syndrome. The r and r young death thing was so self-conscious --- from what Deborah Curtis says, Ian C was fixated on this since his own teenage years.
That comes from here, which is a follow up to this rather amazing, aforequoted post; both are worth your time. The latter, which I stumbled open while writing this post, interacts with what I'm saying here in all kinds of ways and I'm not even sure what I want to say makes sense without reading what Mark has to say as well. It didn't determine the content of my thoughts on Joy Division, but it certainly implemented large areas of the structure. It also highlights two extremely important things about Joy Division (well, many more than two, but two I specifically want to mention here):
JD followed Schopenhauer through the curtain of Maya, went outside the Burroughs Garden of Delights, and dared to examine the hideous machineries that produce the world-as-appearance. What did they see there? Only what all depressives, all mystics, always see: the obscene undead twitching of the Will as it seeks to maintain the illusion that this object, the one it is fixated upon NOW, this one, will satisfy it in a way that all other objects thus far have failed to. Joy Division, with an ancient wisdom (‘Ian sounded old, as if he had lived a lifetime in his youth’- Deborah Curtis), a wisdom that is pre-mammalian, pre-multicellular life, pre-organic, saw through all those reproducer ruses. This is the ‘Insight’ that stopped fear in Curtis, the calming despair that subdued any will to want more.
We should resist the temptation to be Lorelei-lured by either the Aesthete-Romantics (in other words, us, as we were) or the lumpen empiricists. The Aesthetes want the world promised by the sleeves and the sound, a pristine black and white realm unsullied by the grubby compromises and embarrassments of the everyday. The empiricists insist on just the opposite: on rooting the songs back in the quotidian at its least elevated and, most importantly, at its least serious. ‘Ian was a laugh, the band were young lads who liked to get pissed, it was all a bit of fun that got out of hand…’
It’s important to hold onto both of these Joy Divisions – the Joy Division of Pure Art, and the Joy Division who were ‘just a laff’ – at once. For if the truth of Joy Division is that they were Lads, then Joy Division must also be the truth of Laddism.
It is so, so important that Mark doesn't privilege either of these views of the band. I, unsurprisingly enough to many who know me, think of it in a Spinozistic framework; insofar as you consider Joy Division as Pure Art, these things are true, and insofar that you consider them as Lads (or, more simply, People) these other things are true. There is no contradiction there, merely different ways of looking at it. This is, admittedly, how we get away with saying these mad, beautiful, insane things about the band; Joy Division as Pure Art (or more accurately, as Art Object) is and always must be a complete idealisation, an abstraction. What we encounter when we listen to the actual music is never that abstraction; instead, all the things Mark, or Paul Morley or myself say about the band are mere shellshock, the attempt of the mind to explain this thing that has happened to it.
But what has happened to us has happened on the level of art, and art is always the realm of the ineffable, and so we all scratch the truth (hopefully), sometimes strongly enough others can recognize the truth they've encountered too. What's kind of wonderful about criticism is that writing about this even can generate, again, this kind of visceral impact, in fact the best of it has to; and so we're left reeling again (reeling was precisely my reaction to "Nihil Rebound: Joy Division", especially stumbling on it at work!). It's not as if Joy Division has a monopoly on this sensation, or that it must be somehow dark or tormented or anti-vital; every single album or song I love does this. But the reason I keep listening to Joy Division, over and over and over, is that they seem to posses infinite reserves of the stuff; "Insight" and "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Glass" and, yes, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" still give me that shock of the new, still excite and terrify and effect me in a way that doesn't seem to wear off. I don't care if there are 3-4 versions of "Dead Souls" or "She's Lost Control" not just because they're fantastic songs, but because they keep hitting me as if I'd never heard them before. ("The point about the return visit is not the infantile pleasure of repetition, but the possibility of surprise. A good work of art never stays quite the same: it ambushes you, outwits you." Rupert Christiansen) And if you don't think that's rare and precious I would suggest with no ego at all that you probably don't listen to nearly the volume of music I do (with no ego, because how is that somehow a good or proud or noteworthy achievement?).
In much the same way that film critics wind up loving films and directors that those who watch few films - not necessarily bad films, although they may be, but few films - think are too obtuse, too off-putting, too weird, music critics usually wind up liking weird shit. Not liking, really - needing. If I only listened to ten CDs a year, would I need Joy Division, or Eluvium, or Low (one of the few bands I could compare with Joy Division in the strength of their, again, not just music but view of the world) - hell, would I need Wheat? Teenage Fanclub? Rachel Stevens? Submerging yourself in the great stream of relatively similar mainstream cultural/artistic products makes you more receptive to the stuff on the margins, although hopefully still receptive to the best of that stream.
But, unsurprisingly, I've moved a little far afield. It's actually tempting to stay away from Joy Division's actual music, because so much has been said about them so well. Anyone attempting to grapple with what we might call the punk diaspora (or maybe the post-Glam or post-punk diaspora) needs to grapple with them, as well as anyone who doubts at all the primacy of the vital (or even, as I do, just doesn't want things to be so lopsided, so "positive" all the time, which of course robs the positive of its force), anyone who has ever had art hit them like a freight train - all of these people need, at some point, to grapple with Joy Division's work. Most of them, if they can manage the sheer force of the stuff, will enjoy the experience. This is a band who made one album that could secure their good name forever by itself. It took me ages to come around to Unknown Pleasures; but that's because I had the (mis?)fortune to buy a copy of Closer, one of the very few things I am tempted to call a perfect album, before I ever encountered that forbidding black sleeve. Again, those two slim works would have been more than enough to lionize Joy Division; the massive wealth exhumed on Heart And Soul for those of us born too late is again as good but in some ways purely unnecessary.
And yet, for me at least, absolutely none of the power of Closer depends on Ian Curtis' death. I was aware of his suicide when I bought the record, but I seemed to forget about it when I listened. Yes, he sounds "already gone" (although well-worn, that particular critical line happens in this case to be 100% correct), but in a way that really doesn't depend on physical death. Your take on suicide may vary, but I can't help thinking of it in all but medically-caused cases (i.e. clinical depression) as a stupid, selfish, cowardly act. So Curtis was either obliterating any claim he had to my respect at the same time as he obliterated himself, or else he was the victim of an illness. Pity or disgust. The man may inspire either, as well as myriad other emotions, but the music, the aesthetic object - how above all that it was and is. Closer is nothing less than every negative impulse of humanity, both good and bad. It is an album that it is impossible not to understand in some way as a human being, from "Atrocity Exhibition" to "Decades" and back again, fear/fury/despair/loss/knowledge/lacking looping around towards you forever ("forever" being a concept Joy Division have a very odd relation with, in a lot of ways). I can only think of Curtis the human in the abstract, when not experiencing the music; when I am in the grips of it there is only Curtis the force of nature.
One thing is certain; if there ever is another act with Joy Division's viscerality (coated with layers of abstraction, yes, but at the root of it, at the level where it connects - something primal and howling, expressed either through actual fury or negatively through the desperate show of abeyance Joy Division would put on), they will be wholly different. And when I listen to Heart And Soul I begin to share Mark's pessimism that there ever will be again. Listen to someone like Editors, whose debut I quite enjoy; ultimately it's "just" music. You can argue that Joy Division is more than that partly because of the weight of history and significance they have accrued, but The Back Room will never be another Unknown Pleasures (And also, what of those who were there at the time who felt the way we do about Joy Division, without history on their side?) (Also also, to be fair to Editors who as I said I like, I don't get the sense their ambitions were ever to make anything beyond "just" music, nor do I think they've failed at it; Mark may argue that their ambitions are too low, and it's a worthy point, but a different one.) That time, for better or for worse, has passed. We are left with some deaths, some deprivation, a wonderful legacy (in the form of New Order, on whom I could easily write as much, but I like you all, believe it or not), and one of the most shocking, terrible, powerful, and perversely enough vital oeuvres ever produced by anything related, however tenuously, to Rock and Roll.
|Posted by Ian
Friday, August 18, 2006 at 1:32 AM | Permalink