Monday, May 18, 2009

And the Chicken’s Still Dancing

It’s funny how perspectives can change over the years. You can still enjoy many of the same things and yet because you grow and expand as a person, you will likely appreciate them for different reasons than you did 5, 10, 20 years previous. Other times you can appreciate why you were into something so much, but the initial appeal is no longer there and often it’s better to leave that item as a warm memory. Today marks an “anniversary” for me that 10 or 15 years ago would have been vastly more important than it is now -- which is basically nothing more than a conditioned memory, something that registers simply because that’s the way my historically tuned mind works, but there’s no longer any emotional attachment involved.

I know, I know get to the point already. And here it is… Today is the 29th anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis, enigmatic vocalist of the band Joy Division who amidst a flurry of hard earned hype, a crumbling marriage, mental fragility and just before he was poised to maybe possibly really be somebody who was something…hanged himself in the kitchen of the home he shared with his estranged wife.
Ian Curtis 1956-1980

At the time he was 23, Joy Division were about to head out for their first US tour, had released one of most critically acclaimed albums of all time and had completed a follow up that would receive equal praise some two months after his death. Lots of ink has been spilled on Curtis and his band. Not a Shakespeare amount or a Beatles amount, but there are enough indie-alt-goth-Brit rockers out there to make it sizable. Folks are still trying to unravel the “why and wherefore” through his lyrics, which at the time just seemed dark but with hindsight appear to have been a cry for help. Ian Curtis has reached a state of cult stardom (not too long ago his grave marker was stolen) in the near three decades since his death that really has surpassed the person and performer he actually was, which is so often the case, or ever likely could have been. But I’m sure to thousands of fans around the world (and not too many years ago I’d have been one of them), today has been spent in reflection, listening to Unknown Pleasures, Closer, Substance, possibly Still and the various posthumous and more recently released live recordings, missing a man they only know through the bleak visions he conjured through his increasingly morose words.

I spent a good part of today listening to Frankie Laine, so obviously times have changed.

When I was a lad of 20 the story of Ian Curtis affected me very deeply because I felt akin to him in so many ways. His lyrics, the romantic tragedy of young death at his own hand, the yearning to be respected musically and as a poet, the need for fame and fortune and glory and everything that was promised in the rock n roll contract. I wonder had he lived if he’d have attainted the cult hero status he and Joy Division maintain today, or was his death at such a time in such a fashion really the only way he could achieve his much sought after infamy? Would Joy Division have reached the same heights as New Order? Or would they have become simply another footnote in the history of British independent music, another Stiff Little Fingers or Adverts or Saints, showing up on various punk and post punk compilations here and there, their records still in print on various knock off or European specialty labels, but never receiving the re-package, re-master, re-issue overhaul only designated to bands of mentionable merit? When I listen to New Order I sometimes try and place Ian’s voice over Bernard’s and with the exception of the Movement album and a handful of early singles, it would have never worked. As some cat in an interview for the New Order Story documentary said (and I’ll paraphrase as it’s been awhile); if you’d been a part of something that dark and something like his death had happened, you’d naturally want to turn to something lighter. So no, I don’t think Joy Division would have been the dance pioneers that New Order have become…but maybe they’d have been pioneers of industrial…whoops, they sorta already are.

Joy Division

But this post isn’t so much about the music, but I guess more of what Ian’s Death means to me now, 29 years after the fact and 15 years after I first got wind of it (a bit late to be sure). I have to say not much. JT Reese and I have discussed the merits of Joy Division and I think depending on our mood for any given day/month/year, we go from “Eh” to “Pretty great stuff,” but neither of us sees them for what we did when we were kids. And I think that’s ok. But having said that, there are things I can “thank” Ian for in dying as he did…and per a previous reference, one of them may be even knowing who Joy Division was in the first place, which was very important to me at one time and so worth it just for that. But now, smack dab in the middle of my 30s, a still new father, no more aspirations of becoming a rock star, evaluating my life so far and reevaluating the things I once thought important, I have to say that some of the things his death “introduced” to me have proved more enjoyable, meaningful and ultimately worthwhile than anything he ever did with Joy Division (sorry, dude), as follows...

Presumably just before he died he did two things… Listened to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watched Werner Herzog’s Stroszek.

In the height of my Joy Division mania I purchased The Idiot and listened to it a lot but never really got it…so I stopped listening to it. A few years later, post college, I pulled it out and tried the album again and I completely loved it. All the songs were familiar from so many repeat listens and yet were entirely fresh because I felt like I could finally appreciate the music under my own perceptions and not filtered through the eyes of some daft British singer over a decade before. The Idiot oozes sleaze and spook and danger. It’s the soundtrack to a night out on the town with the wrong crowd. If anything, it’s an anti-rock star album, which may be why Ian chose it as the requiem for his own death. It’s a complete about face from the wild and ramshackle howl of the Stooges and easily about ten times as intense simply because it seethes with an inner venom and a willful self-destruction. In the wrong frame of mind it’s easy to see how anyone would take a willing slip on a rope straight to hell.

Naturally this purchase led to picking up the Stooges catalog as well as Pop’s second solo album Lust for Life, the latter of which (so vastly different from The Idiot it’s almost like a different artist) has served me well on many a long road trip gliding along the lonely highways of any state USA.

But again, this is more than about music. In an interview, Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, in talking about Ian’s death, mentioned the Herzog film and quoted the final line, “There’s a dead man in the cable car and the chicken’s still dancing.” He said it in such a way as to make it seem relevant to Ian’s suicide. I dunno, I’ve still not seen Stroszek. But I’ve seen several other Herzog films and overall this opened me up more to the absolute goldmine that is independent and foreign film. In more recent years this search has guided me to my now all time favorite director, the Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman and an overall infatuation with Sweden that I know has more than one person wondering what my deal is. So it goes.

So while I may no longer receive the inspirational sweet-ache in the pit of my stomach I once did when listening to Joy Division or reading about Ian Curtis, etc, I can still appreciate the few things he opened up for me; namely the rush I still get when listening to Iggy’s The Passenger or Tonight at full volume, or the eerie chill down my spine from Baby or the menace I could become with Nightclubbing creeping through my head. Likewise, I’m haunted by the vivid, image-heavy dreams I sometimes enjoy after one of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which have in turn inspired me to dabble a bit in screenplay writing. So it now appears to me that rock n roll isn’t always about the music itself or the people who make it, but the inspirations that helped them along the way. Often those inspirations prove much more important, influential and enduring, you just have to peel back the layers. I’m sure some kid listening to Interpol will then stumble upon Joy Division (or the dozen other bands they lifted from) and from there find Iggy, the Velvet Underground, Krafterwerk, etc, etc. And if they’re as silly and obsessive as I was, maybe even Herzog and Japanese cinema and master Bergman as well. It’s the beauty of art, everything a sum of the parts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi William,

It's Benji (formerly of Acklen).

Thanks for sharing. I'm also a big Bergman fan (as you'll see me being interviewed by death on my blog).

I guess I'm mainly writing to share that I had a reciprocal experience to yours. I'm a big Bowie fan. Through Bowie I found Iggy's The Idiot.

Later when I found Joy Division, I initially wrote off Curtis as a younger sexier Iggy who committed suicide because he couldn't do coke with Bowie off the Berlin Wall while banging Lou Reed.

I still prefer Iggy, but I've come to appreciate a bleakness in Curtis's songs that I don't ever get from the aforementioned trinity. And, to use Jim Jarmusch's phrase, what a sad and beautiful world Ian sang about.

Did you see the bio pic? I haven't but I was wondering if it was worth seeing.