Friday, June 25, 2010

Mt. St. Joy Division

I mark every May 18 with at least a personal moment of silence for the untimely death of Ian Curtis and a reflection upon the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, both of which occurred on May 18, 1980[1].

The latter event I recall, to some degree: I was almost eight years old, living in Siletz, and I clearly remember scraping with my hand some of the light dust that had fallen on Mom's old blue Maverick when we were living in the double-wide on Willow Court. I recall Mom admonishing me for actions that could potentially harm the delicate finish on the highly valuable and pristine metallic blue Ford Maverick.[2] What a silly little boy was I! I retained a baby-jar-full of ash for many years, until I left home after graduating high school in 1990 and it disappeared in the unplanned and random dispersal of my belongings as I transitioned into and out of the U.S. Navy.

The former event -- Ian Curtis' death -- did not register with me at seven years old. I didn't get in to Joy Division until I was about 16. It was some time around the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, so that would have made it 1989. I recall clearly that one of my sister's friends' friends had made a set of mixed tapes titled "Music for the Moderns," or some such, and I, in turn, recorded these from her. On this tape were songs from certain bands and certain genres that subsequently have become the soundtrack of my life. More than that, actually -- songs and genres that have subsequently helped me define my place in the universe.[3]

One of the songs on these mix tapes was The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" Fabulous song that has continued to be one of my all-time favorites, in spite of (because of?) its angsty melodrama. Another was a song by Red Flag[4] -- angsty and sooooo melodramatic; this song obsessed me for a few months. Yet another was something by Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. I still dig O.M.D., for their angsty melodramatic sound and also because they were originally a Factory band.

Ah yes, the mix tapes contained so many other great songs. Including Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

This song changed my life, and here is what I mean . . .

For awhile before the summer of 1989 I had begun to define my own musical interests. I had begun to differentiate myself from the musical sounds that were daily in my life and seek out and identify myself with music that I had chosen to listen to.

The first musical artist I remember remembering was Anne Murray. I must have been about 9 or so, because, as I recall, because I was living in the same place from where I collected the Mt. St. Helens ash. This music was something that Mom listened to, and, so, it was in my aural universe.

The first music I purchased with my own money was Twisted Sister's album Stay Hungry. This was in 5th or 6th grade, around the holidays; I remember this because I had been gifted a portable cassette player and needed a cassette to play in it. This interest in Butt Rock/Hair Metal was entirely a product of my cultural environment in rural conservative Oregon. I sustained this musical interest through Jr. High and into my Freshman year of high school, and expanded it to include Judas Priest and The Scorpions, most notably.

By my Sophomore year in high school I realized that the music that I had been listening to and that defined the soundscape for so many kids I knew just didn't fit me any more.

My good friend Clint and I played Axis & Allies from Jr. High through High School. Some time around 8th grade we would play this game -- which takes hours and hours, as some of you might know -- and listen to music. We would listen to the soundtrack for Pretty in Pink over and over and over again, and also Outfield's Play Deep, and Crowded House's first album.

Then, by my Junior year, I was listening to New Order's Substance and The Cure, particularly Disintegration[5].

Then came those mix tapes, and Joy Division.

Finally, I had in my hands sounds and lyrics that reflected how I felt and that provided comfort and support. No longer did I need to continue to listen to Hair Metal, Top 40, Country, or other "popular" styles that, to me, were completely vapid and meaningless. Now I could spend time and energy pursuing bands and musical styles that truly resonated with me.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that Joy Division resonated with me is that Ian, Bernard, Peter, and Stephen hailed from a working-class community in the midst of a long, slow, downturn -- a situation that defined Siletz at the time -- and they were trying to make sense of it all. I also value Joy Division because there is absolutely zero pretension in their music; they are firmly of a place (Manchester) and a time (late 1970s), and at the same time their themes, approach, and energy is timeless. Many, many, other bands one can define as "New Wave" or "Goth" that have evolved since Joy Division seem, to me, to have an aura about them that has at least a discernible hint of pretension, angst-for-angst's-sake, and posing; Joy Division is devoid of all this. I can still find enjoyment in some of these former bands, but I always return to J.D. for grounding.

Every May 18 I lament that we were not fortunate enough to be graced with the artistic output of Ian Curtis as he aged, changed, and found new ways to express himself. Who knows, perhaps he would have just dried up and become another boring Mick Jagger or Sting? I'm not too keen on the past 20 years' output of Robert Smith, and I think the output of Bernard, Peter, Stephen, and Gillian hasn't been noteworthy since the early 1990s, but I do wonder what Ian would have created, given the chance.

Every May 18 I also thank the universe for Ian Curtis' life (as brief as it was), and his creative output, because his work truly has helped me realize that I'm not alone.

[1] I'm over a month late with this beyond-the-self remembrance of the event, I know. However, here's an amazing set of images of Mt. St. Helens:

[2] He wrote, with more than a touch of ironic humor.

[3] Sounds a bit bombastic, but true to an amazing degree. Perhaps I'll write about it one day.

[4] Still around, I was surprised to find as I wrote this post.

[5] Which I still consider their best album . . . and it's been steadily down-hill from that point, in my opinion.



  1. Man, I hear you. I am fascinated by why I continue to listen to bands which I have, in a sense, "moved beyond" at least in terms of musical experience, temporal relevance, and perspective/point-of-view (or maybe the time in your life when you were EQUIPPED to relate to that POV) -- I think the crux IS related to history and relevance at the first time I heard them, but also, of course, how if a band's good enough, most of the things that "date" them fall away. A good song's a good song, no matter when it was written or who wrote it -- although if you're a fan, of course, it DOES matter, right?

  2. I have to add that I think music is especially hard to write about, so I admire your attempt to put a historical lasso around this particular influence. If you don't mind my saying so, I don't think you ever really pierced what you proposed as the central point of the blog, at least as far as the specific of "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Maybe explaining the relationship between that song -- which is awesome no matter WHERE you grew up -- and the area where you grew up is what really interests you. That's what it sounds like.

  3. Fantastic post. Ironic, as well, that just 2 weeks ago I watched "Control" and have been on my own Joy Division kick lately. We are still so spiritually connected James!

  4. Joy Division SUCKS!!!!!!

    O ya and for your information he was a friend of mine toooooo-not just a friend of a friend! Tee Hee
    It was Travis

  5. @Nairne: Good point. I was pressed for time and wanted to put up a post honoring (belatedly) the 30th anniversary of Mt. St. Joy Division. I plan to write more about my musical influences as time goes on. I understand the roots of my musical tastes as central to the evolution of my personality, aesthetics, and intellectual interests.

    Also, one of these days I'll re-watch 24 Hour Party People and Control, back-to-back, and write something in response.