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Avenues all lined with trees

Friday 1/24/20

Joy Division essay completed. 5555 words. One last bit to share. And again, remember: Most of them do not want you to see this. What kind of person would deprive the world of this?


Curtis didn’t normally write gnomic lyrics, “Ceremony” being somewhat of an exception, though here his words are elliptical, connecting ends with beginnings. “Notice for whom wheels are turning/Turn again and turn towards this time.” The immediate moment of now is what matters most, the song seems to say. The focus on the present. Or, the wheels of time, for a given person, coming to a full-stop in the present moment. When we turn towards someone—or, rather, when we note that we turn towards someone, or they to us—we do so for various reasons, but there is usually a larger point. We don’t turn towards someone, for instance, to say hello. We wouldn’t mention turning to them. We turn to someone to say words of greater gravity. “She turned to me and she said…”—we know it is not going to be, “Would you like a pickle with your sandwich?” Consequence hangs in the balance. We turn to someone to give them a look when we don’t have the necessary words that would express what is in our heart, our concerns, our friendship, our love. The effect in “Ceremony” is that we feel a song turning towards us.

There is a Joy Division bootleg called Out of the Room. I can’t say I know another bootleg like it. Dean Benedetti was a man who used to follow Charlie Parker around, lugging a tape recorder to Charlie Parker gigs. If he wasn’t Charlie Parker’s biggest admirer, I don’t know who was. Benedetti loved Bird so much that he often wouldn’t tape the ensemble sections of songs, only flipping on his machine when the altoist took his solos. I liked to think Benedetti was saving space so he could record more Bird solos, and if that meant he didn’t get full songs, that was a sacrifice he was willing to make, because he needed that undiluted Yardbird. I could listen to those Benedetti piecemeal all the live long day, as easily as I can listen to Sgt. Pepper or Schubert Wanderer Fantasy, works intended as integrated, continuous presentations of musical art. There is power in the piecemeal, as the best collage artists have always known, as Picasso and Braque must have joyfully declared to each other as they competed in the early days of Cubism, just as there is power in the disembodied. Full-bodied power.

Out of the Room captures Joy Division performances recorded literally out of the room, which does Dean Benedetti one better, I suppose. We are down a hallway, outside of the doors where the gig will be played, maybe in the men’s room, taping through a vent. You can hear the music and not hear the music simultaneously. I love Martin Hannett and his productions, but I am not sure I’d rather have them than this.

One of the taped performances is the soundcheck of “Ceremony” prior to that night’s gig at Birmingham University. Maybe an English major made it. I would think English majors would be quite into Joy Division. I have no idea and we will never know. They band soundchecked two songs, the other being our old friend “Decades,” which had concluded the yet-to-be-released Closer album, recorded back in March. One song was an ending, the other song a presumable beginning, but also an ending, in life, a new kind of start—the forever inception—in art.

I’ve heard a lot of soundchecks, but never one this intense. “Ceremony” is taken at a faster clip than in any other performance we will get to experience, like they cannot wait to arrive at the point when Curtis will absolutely scream, “I’ll take them on/No mercy shown/Heaven knows its got to be this time.” Again, that theme of the centrality of the moment. Hopes cannot be pinned upon anything from the past, cannot be pinned upon the future; the time, to borrow a phrase from Stone Roses singer and fellow Mancunian Ian Brown, must be now.

The song, in one way, is about disconnection. A woman attempts to communicate with the singer, but he cannot respond, he cannot even fully wake, he is too frail, too gone, even when she cries. What he can offer is a postscript to the moment of disconnection, a perpetual arrival, we might say, upon having taken a forever leave.

Ian Curtis’s lyrics almost always have urban settings, and commonly post-war settings, an England of rubble and darkness, cities yet to be rebuilt; or else urban centers that might as well come from Bladerunner, only a black and white Bladerunner, with more rain. There is not a lot of vegetation. Except here, this one time.

“Avenues all lined with trees/Picture me, and then you start watching.” This is the singer’s note to the person he cannot reach in what she views, would view, as the song’s central moment, but the central moment, the time it has to be—to paraphrase the lyric—has not yet occurred. The moment is not about a person, or a hand in a hand. The moment occurs when we realize what it is that someone who loves us deeply believes reaches us the most. They may be right, they may be wrong, but that is how it’s going to be.

Two days before he took his life, Ian Curtis rehearsed with Joy Division in their hometown of Manchester, his bandmates under the impression they were getting themselves locked in, tightened up, for their US tour. Again, a taper is on hand. A band wouldn’t normally tape a rehearsal, though you can find scattered rehearsal tapes from the likes of Dylan and the Stones over the years, but those were big, stadium-filling acts with huge amounts of songs trying to figure out what would work best on the road, making reference tapes of arrangements, that sort of thing. In other words, not Joy Division.

By a very wide margin, this is the Joy Division version of “Ceremony” in the best fidelity. The riff enters earlier than it had back in Birmingham, about three quarters of a minute into the song. The pace is beautiful—measured, controlled, but forsaking no insistence, conviction. Everything is clear, save one component—Curtis is singing slightly off-mic. He’s out of the room while in the room. Someone would normally sing in this manner for a guide vocal, which is not about the actual performance, but rather helping the musicians to get down their parts for when the whole package comes together. But Curtis has made a guide vocal the main vocal, how he elects to sing, approach the microphone. He’s like a refraction of his own sound, in the world and out of it, and I think that is what he wanted to leave on this tape. Not a mystery for someone to decode, because that would probably never happen, but for himself. And also for these people he was leaving with this song, because he was also leaving them a kind of forever guide vocal. A guide vocal in perpetuity. And I believe, more than anything, that is what we ask art to be for us, what we want it to be.

The sound is enveloping. It’s warm. I feel sunshine when I listen to it, though it was probably raining. I could check an old weather report, but I don’t really care. The avenues are lined with trees, as in a Maupassant Parisian novel, it is, indeed, this time, there is no mercy shown, because grace and truth take no prisoners, they leave the fields of weeds and bracken, the ugliness of life, of suffering, of the struggle to endure, strewn with blood, only this blood is the color, the comfort, of light, and I find this version immeasurably comforting.

Sumner tries a connective passage on his guitar—not a solo, mind you, but a little something different—and hits a bum note. They carry on. The bass doubles its tempo after the bridge, rounding us up to make our way to the song’s conclusion, as if we are wayward school children on a field trip to the theatre and the curtain is about to rise. “Picture me and then you start watching,” Curtis sings, with the full range of his baritone voice. The moment is at hand. And how long will the moment last?

This is how he leaves us, with a directive, a cited quantity (albeit a limitless one), a prediction: “Watching forever, forever/Watching love grow, forever.”

He sings “watching love grow” several times, the words having the same number of notes and the same rhythmic shape as the riff of the song itself. He is almost completely off-mic by the final time he sings it. The band restate the song’s introduction for the final portion of the coda, then stop. There will be no more because there was no more. Each of our most special moments are that way. Here is one that ended that does not end. And we all wake.

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