Friday, November 17, 2006

Here Are The Young Men...

On May 18th 1980, Ian Curtis hanged himself from the floor-to-ceiling clothes rack at his house in Manchester. The Idiot by Iggy Pop was found still going round on the turntable; the Werner Herzog film Stroszek was found in the VHS. He had argued with his wife, Deborah, in the early hours of that morning; their relationship had been souring for months, mainly due to Ian's infidelity and sometimes-cold personality. He was a severe epileptic, and prone to violent mood swings and extended periods of introversion. He was in a dead-end job he worked hard at to feed his family, and in a band he loved but whose future troubled him: they were gaining popularity as an astonishing live act, and, with debut Unknown Pleasures and various singles, a great recorded act; but Ian's epilepsy frequently cut short performances, and the band was headed for an American tour that he told the band he felt he didn't want to go on.

And despite all the logic of it, the situation congealing in the moment, the final decision - to leave the human race behind permanently - still doesn't quite make sense.


I'm the kind of person who learned everything they know from what is known vaguely as 'art'. Books, movies, music, paintings - I've spent enough time supping it all up to provide your average man with a lifetime of alphabetical sorting. I've spent days mining the seams of underground music, scouring for out-of-print poetry collections, written and rewritten in my head countless spiels on the relationship between Russian Orthodox Christianity and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. But I always end up coming back to several works and creators that I can't shake myself of. Taxi Driver, Albert Camus, and... well, four bands. Nirvana, The Fall, The Smiths, and Joy Division. After going through a phase during which my every move and thought was determined by the imperatives of art and philosophy - a time that was not very pleasant when looked at objectively - I've ultimately come back to the same place as everyone else: going with the flow of life. And here, those four bands still seem important; even more so now.

I'm normally a merciless proponent of underground and experimental music, but the fact that my favourite bands are all relatively famous says something about them, I think - that they really do speak genuinely of life, because they speak across time and to so many people.

And so it goes. Being one of the few moderately intelligent people at an all-male working-class secondary school, and, for my own reasons, naturally reticent, I learned what I knew about love from art. And my favourite love songs (still) are from those bands: 'Heart-Shaped Box' by Nirvana, 'I Know It's Over' by The Smiths, and 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' by Joy Division.

This last one is a bizarre case. It's not even my favourite Joy Division song (that dubious honour goes to 'Twenty-Four Hours'); Joy Division wrote better songs about relationships ('I Remember Nothing', 'Atmosphere'); and the song forms something of an aberration in their catalogue, with its almost synth-disco, Donna Summer rhythm, and direct, pained lyrics. It was one of the last songs Joy Division did (at the sessions for their second album Closer) and the first to be released after Curtis' death. It's their most famous song, narrowly missing the Best Song of the Last 25 Years award at the Brits (woopee), and is seen as one of the greatest modern torch-songs. Anyone who knows about Curtis' relationship with his wife notices the dark parallels: "Why is the bedroom so cold?/You've turned away on your side... You cry out in your sleep/All my failings exposed/Yeah there's a taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold." This is the plainest statement of the cold state of human isolation, of people being able to be together and not achieving it. This is the tail end of love - not love corrupted (as if love could ever be pure), nor love thwarted - but the very essence of love - "something so good" that "just can't function no more". And the more I learn of human life, the more that seems to be right. Life begins, we journey on different paths, and it ends.

I recently read the obituary of Malachi Ritscher, a well-known member of the Chicago experimental music scene. His life, his social status (a divorcee with very few close friends) and his abiding passion for the art no-one else would touch are such a worrying picture for me. A life without real love, of bitterness and the feeling of failure, a way of life different to those supposedly 'happy' - yes, I know this all too well. It's there in the effects on Ian Curtis' voice on 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - an unbridgeable gap between you and others, that no-one knows is there, except yourself. It's there in some of my writings. Malachi Ritscher lost the war with the world and with himself. He didn't see a future; he wanted out. Ian Curtis' reasons have never been fully fathomed, but I can see how the isolation created naturally by him and others contributed. I have the rest of my life ahead of me, but I know, at the worst of times, that it can go off course without much effort. I have to make an effort with human beings, unlike most people.

Curtis sang on 'Decades', the final track from Closer, lyrics that I've quoted more than enough in journals and to friends:

"Here are the young men - a weight on their shoulders
Here are the young men - well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chambers
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.

Watched from the wings as the scenes were replayed
We saw ourselves now as we never have seen
Betrayal of the traumas and degeneration
The sorrows we suffered and never were free."

I have the rest of my life ahead of me, but I sometimes wonder what that comes to in the end. It means opportunities - and the possibility of defeat. I'm determined to win the war, but it's gonna take time. It's gonna take time.


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