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Saved, again, by Joy Division

Are we sick of it yet? The shoveling and scraping and shoveling and roof-raking and, omigod, more shoveling?

When I say “we” I mean those of us with jobs (outside of working at Wolf Creek) and kids to get to school, the we with no one paid to come and clear a path for us. Those of us jockeying for a spot in a parking lot, where all order and sense has been buried under a foot of mush, where neat rows of cars have been replaced with Paul Klee’s haphazard lines. Those of us edging the nose of our vehicle out into the street, craning our necks in an attempt to see around the large mountain of gray snow piled up at the corner.

We are they that, watching a group of aliens in day-glo ski wear commiserating over a cold-case of beer in the grocery store, refuse (on principal) to clue them into the fact that they’re about to purchase three-two swill.

It’s not even mid-February and I can already tell there will be hell to pay. Tempers are fraying as school roofs come crashing down and gray-slush mountains continue to rise like creatures from a ’50s horror flick.

Standing in line to pay for provisions with another weekend of cabin fever, housework, writing and Robertson Davies (nothing like a Canadian novel to maximize the malaise), severely peeved that the sidewalk I’d just shoveled was once again buried in the bleh, I had the dubious pleasure of standing behind a day-glo alien. The cheerful creature was stocking up on junk food and three-two beer, all the while humming “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

Something in my mind snapped, like the jagged jaws of a fur trap, the mental image of a weasel being sliced in half giving me momentary relief. Momentary, meaning that a second later, my annoyance returned, more heated, homicidal, hyperactive. “Yeah, let it snow, you...,” I thought, searching for an appropriate epithet, “How would you like to be six feet under?”

This sounds overstated, I know, but at that moment I felt as though I was standing next to an AIG executive gloating over his multimillion dollar bonus while lighting his cigar with my bank statement.

I pictured myself pummeling the alien with my sack of overpriced oranges, his day-glo suit splattered in crimson and orange for a nice sunburst effect; justice for humming a Christmas song well past the holidays.

After all, the “sell by” date on holiday music expires on Dec. 25 — that’s the moratorium. Any holiday music played, hummed, sung or otherwise referred is justification for summary execution. Even the folks who celebrate Christmas a bit later (the Greek and Russian Orthodox, the Copts, et al) don’t violate the moratorium.

Therefore, even an ironic chorus of “Let It Snow” or “Winter Wonderland” or any other insipid holiday dreck should be dealt with immediately, and with unrestrained brutality; what is society, after all, without laws meant to maintain civilized behavior?

The alien’s indiscretion was made all the more egregious, however, by its insouciant disregard for the rest of us who shovel and slip and spin our wheels. While we dig and dig and dig, it was saying, “I get to play in this all day in this stuff and then take a soak, rub myself down with Dove cream and sleep like a lamb.”

Yeah, well, it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

The alien picked up its bags, still humming, apparently oblivious to its fate — most likely that of an October bull elk. Deep in the midst of tourist season, a few of us have still not filled our tags.

Trudging back to my pantry with the meager provisions procured for a dandy weekend of more digging, it immediately hit me that I needed to select music my mood called for; a savage breast sorely needed soothing.

No angry punk; my ire was on overload, locked and loaded. Nor did I feel up to any simmering R&B with tales of yearning and heartbreak — the sidewalk outside that continued to fill up with snow was fulfilling that emotional need. Some reggae might have provided some palliative effect, brightened things up a bit, but I was searching for something to mirror my soul, to speak for my moment of utter despair.

Scanning the stacks of disks, I eventually snatched out the perfect selection: Joy Division. Nothing was more necessary or immediate than the lamentations of a soul stuck in a much darker place than my own.

My introduction to Joy Division couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time in my life. Just finishing high school, I was deeply steeped in adolescent angst, at war with everyone and everything. Having assumed the persona of the dark, brooding poetic type (well-suited to the stereotypical ectomorph), I was the boy in black, hanging out in the back booth at Denny’s, smoking camels and drinking black coffee, a dog-eared collection of Baudelaire in my pocket, a William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac novel taking up space at my table.

Into this vast wasteland of teenage discontent marched Joy Division. Bleak, depressed, isolated and solipsistic, there was nothing in their music that expressed joy (the band’s name was taken from the term used by the Nazis for brothels created in concentration camps). Unable (or unwilling) to find anything remotely joyful at the tail-end of high school, satisfaction coming only from indulging every antisocial and antiauthoritarian urge, Joy Division provided the soundtrack for a life that felt it was hurtling past, and outside, everything deserving derision.

With songs like “Interzone” (taken from the nightmarish “other place” in Burrough’s Naked Lunch) containing lyrics such as, “In a group all forgotten youth/Had to think, collect my senses now/Are turned on to a knife edged view/Find some places where my friends don’t know/And I was looking for a friend of mine,” it is no surprise to me that, looking back on the dead soul I pretended to hold, such distant declarations of emptiness and despair would be so right, so relevant.

It was their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, that fed my dark need to disregard everything of value in the suburban dump where I grew up. Shopping malls as Bergen-Belsen ovens, television as a zombie ( to eat our brains), fast-food franchises as strychnine troughs, schools as robot factories, white picket fences as cattle pastures and the corporate track as abattoir, every negative trope I’d developed for the rejection of society was reinforced by the music of Joy Division. The song “New Dawn Fades” starts with the lines, “A change of speed, a change of style/A change of scene, with no regrets,” which was exactly what I was grasping for, attempting as I was to escape my middle-American hell.

The best cut on the album, “She’s Lost Control,” was the clearest indication to me, however, that Joy Division was tapped into the same wavelength on which I had tuned, describing a grand mal reaction to a toxic society and completely set adrift with that seizure.

“Confusion in her eyes that says it all/She’s lost control/And she’s clinging to the nearest passer by/She’s lost control/And she gave away the secrets of her past/And said I’ve lost control again/And a voice that told her when and where to act/She said I’ve lost control again,” describing lost a soul cast into oblivion by the very structure that held her in bondage. Sung over a sparse arrangement of a dirge-like bass line, automaton drum and a distant guitar, the lyrics capture an inescapable trap of insanity, the fear that the mind has gone, with no way to get it back. It made complete and conclusive sense to me.

A year later, Joy Division released their second album, Closer, and on the heels of the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (released after Closer) were booked to tour the U.S. The day before they were set to leave for the tour, lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide.

When I heard that Curtis had hung himself, things changed for me. I had entered college in Hawaii and attained a certain amount of Zen on the topside of a surfboard. The news of Curtis’s death brought home some important lessons — the price of taking one’s self too seriously is usually tragic. More than that, I was learning that the result of having all the answers was self-imposed ignorance in the service of arrogance.

Still, I continue to reach for Joy Division, in the same way countless bands did and do; The Cure early on, Interpol or The Horrors most recently, among so many. As profound as the darkness is in Joy Division’s music, it is also beautiful, sad and frightening. Anyone enamored with the poetry of Verlaine or Rimbaud, enthralled by the prose of Poe or Gogol, would appreciate, in theory, what Joy Division accomplished.

Short of beating a tourist to death with a sack of oranges, unwilling to step into the sandals of Sysiphus and shovel more snow, Joy Division saved me, again, as they had so many years before.

jim@pagosasun.com