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Buddies, radio, Aaron Hernandez, Joy Division

Tuesday 1/21/20

Wrote like a motherfucker today. Just different level stuff. Over 4000 words, half of it going to an essay on the final musical months of Joy Division, the other half an essay on the Aaron Hernandez docu-series which I will finish early tomorrow. A little friend knocked at the door shortly before seven this AM, after I had been up for a couple hours working, asking if I wished to accompany her to Starbucks, so I did that. It was cold and she did not have a hat or gloves, so I offered her my Red Sox winter hat, which she said she would take. I went to give it to her as we were walking back--she cuts out a block early to head to school--and she said to wait, as she did not want my head to be cold, then I gave it to her when we said farewell.

Wrote the rest of the day and returned to Starbucks at night after Emma phoned, saying she was studying there, I should come by, and then I went outside of the Starbucks and did this segment on Downtown which is just loaded with information, told in a fascinating way, and all of it depresses me so much, because that person is doing the best everything. (I like when Kimball brings up stuff on his own outside of what we've agreed we will be talking about.) The best of every kind of writing and talking, all at once, day in, day out, and they are despised. Hell, I have like sixty followers on Twitter. Which is remarkable--like a demonic miracle--considering where I do what I do. For fuck's sake, you'd have more if you wrote for the Stop and Shop circular. I don't know how the fuck any of this is possible. But it's a great segment. Meanwhile, this is from the Hernandez piece. Profound. Find me any other sports writing in American that approaches it. The quality and depth of the ideas. The real truth. The absolute essential truth of matters. Complex ideas presented so that anyone can understand them. Today was a day that I would have given in and shot myself if I had a gun. I just would have done it.

Anyone watching the film will wonder why she stuck with him, all the more so considering that her sister was dating Lloyd, which sounds like a plot detail out of an opera. The heart wants what the heart wants, of course, and a cynic will also cite money, and while I won’t say that my own logic gainsays that of the cynic, this is undoubtedly an articulate, intelligent woman (which surprised me, frankly, having followed Hernandez’s downfall). There may be a streak of Lady Macbeth in her, but we are never really sure. In fact, we are not sure, from moment to moment, that these are bad people, including Hernandez, until we remind ourselves, “Right, he slayed people,” and “She has no problem standing by a slayer.”

To what degree are we this way? To a pronounced one, I would say. We retrograde morally through passivity, by what we go along with; this used to be called truckling, but to truckle now is also to abide because one is scared of being outed, attacked, or, horror of horror, losing followers. Under cover of darkness, as if as if cocooned in a protective world, the conscience part of Hernandez’s brain seems to have vacated its living quarters within Hernandez the man, which made me think of how we so often behave at night within the glow of our computer screeners. It’s as though Hernandez had a burner account of a life to go along with his regular, standard-issue one.

Themes meant to double as an indictment of an age are legion in productions of this scope, and what we are meant to understand here is that Hernandez was a marionette of machismo. Societal expectations of masculinity precluded him from being true to his natural sexual self, while the NFL’s Satanic pact with the business of violence helped to monster-ize him. In other words, the film nails societal truths, in one way, but not the way it purports or aims to, because the theme it in fact arrives at is the subsuming theme of our age: the pandemic of shirking culpability.

As an elite physical talent, there was not a team in America that would have renounced the football services of Aaron Hernandez, gay man, and that’s if we don’t give his hypothetical teammates the benefit of the doubt as being accepting, and I see no reason why we should not.

The culture of football, at the teammate level, is akin to a band of brothers; if you can play, if you can help the greater good, you are largely welcomed into the fold. This is the same reason that Hernandez, despite enough red flags to send a small community of bulls charging, was afforded his various opportunities, first in college, then the pros. The film argues that the NFL has the appeal it does because of our collective love of violence, but this is hogwash; even with our souped-up high-def picture resolutions on our giant TVs, violence in football is rarely discernible to the naked eye on television and certainly not like it was in the 1980s when defenders like Ronnie Lott and Lawrence Taylor roamed the middle of the field and could all but (legally) decapitate opponents.

Violence, rather, is internalized, in the form of CTE, which hardened various lobes of Hernandez’s brain, as we learn near the end of the series. Helmet-to-helmet hits have been legislated out of the league. They happen, but you pay a price for them, in terms of in-game penalties, suspensions, fines. They are accidental more often than not, whereas they used to be a goal, a technique, even.

People love the NFL not because of violence, but because in a society where so much happens for the wrong reasons that have nothing to do with reality, ability, justice—and much more commonly connections, Twitter followers, trading on race and gender for profit—the NFL is a meritocracy.

If you are good enough, you’ll have your shot, you’re not going to be buried as a third-stringer, you won’t fail to make a team, you won’t fail to earn your millions upon millions. Meritocracies create surprises, because they are the true free market system, in that the best among us, at whatever it is we do, get to reap; this makes success feel attainable, which ups competition, effort, the time invested in becoming the best, so we see surprises in the NFL, year in, year out. Many of us wish our lives were centered around notions of merit, and even those who do not, recognize how interesting a merit-based competition can be, from the standpoint of stoking human curiosity, so long as they do not have to partake of said competition. Thus the NFL is a form of escapism, a place we would rather be, in a manner not dissimilar to what Star Wars was when it first came out in 1977. Here is our galaxy far, far away, but located front and center in our current age, every Sunday.

And here is an excerpt from the Joy Division essay. Just another day. So depressing. I'd rather fucking suck, frankly, than be able to do all of this at this level a fucking price of being doomed? Hated? Poor? Wished dead? Because I can do all of this? That's fucking awesome. While being a good, selfless, perpetually giving person. Wonderful. What the fuck, God. Seriously, at this point, what the fuck are we doing here?

I’ve become pretty good at knowing what is real, not that I was ever bad at it. All of the art I have loved the most has possessed a through-the-roof realness quotient. Didn’t mean that one couldn’t compose a sentence of 400 words and have it be real and not pretentious, but you better be, say, Proust, if you’re doing that, not a creative writing professor trying to stitch together something to brag about—what the kids call a “flex”—over amuse-bouche at a fustian party nobody actually wants to be at save to try and impress somebody else.

Joy Division are not my favorite band—they might be third, fourth, fifth—but I have never heard anyone deal in greater realness than this particular Mancunian unit, particularly in the early months of 1980, before singer Ian Curtis ended his life—by hanging himself—on May 18, aged twenty-three, leaving a wife and child. Curtis took his leave of this world on the eve of what was to have been the band’s departure for their first American tour. They were to play small clubs, a natural setting for Joy Division, a collective one could never envision sweeping through stadia ala fellow Manchester acts like the Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis. In one glorious and gloriously intense lo-fi live recording, sourced from a venue called The Warehouse in Preston on the last day of February of that same year, Curtis can be heard making an in-between song announcement that the last coach for Burnley is about to depart, if any punters need to get home. Personally, I would have missed my bus and spent the night in a doorway for them, had I been there.

They were a band who felt far away from you—on account that no one in human history has sounded remotely likely them—and also lodged in your soul, as though said soul had been outfitted with guitar, bass, drums, mics, and voice, primed to advance upon your ears via your insides, not sound waves out in the world.

No one sang like Curtis. When I first discovered this music, I could not stop listening to it. I was in college, and over a winter break, my roommate took me to his parents’ house in the near-off suburbs. I sat at a computer, playing Joy Division’s second and final album, Closer, and as my friend’s dad passed through the room—he was a big fan of the Eagles, and would often cite how he could get to the school where he worked within the space of “Hotel California—he asked “What the hell is that?” (The volume was not very loud, given that I assumed no one was quite prepared for Joy Division—you had to be ready to hear them.) I was not sure what to say. I understood that he didn’t think of Curtis’s voice as natural, how one “should” sing, but I did not think anyone thought of Son House that way either, or Elvis at first, or Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong. So I just said that they were this post-punk band from England and he let out a “hunnhh.” The first time I heard them I let out a “What the f---,” which is not essentially different, I suppose.

Closer was released after Curtis’s suicide, in mid-July 1980 (Happy Summer!), having been recorded in March, with the legendary Martin Hannett producing. Bands sometimes hated what Hannett did to their sound. Joy Division bassist Peter Hook was one such musician, believing Hannett, with his cavernous echoes, electronic effects, bizarre soundspaces, knocked the life out of the group’s artistry, which he maintained was best heard live. He is correct, there are two Joy Division beasts—actually more than that, as we will see—but the overlap between the live version and the studio version is the essential core of the band itself: A most intense form of emotional probity and emotional probing. You always know it is Joy Division within the first three notes of hearing them, regardless of milieu.

The title was the perfect one-word musical pun, even better than the Beatles’ Revolver (being both a reference to what a record most fundamentally does, and also a nod to getting shot at with a new manner of sound), and you could pronounce it to indicate that here was something representing the last in line, a dominant finality—the closer—or to signify proximity, as in, “We are now closer to you.”

I need half the fingers on one hand to count the number of albums better than Closer. It’s pure control, every last note marshaled for max efficacy, arrow upon arrow to the dead center of a bull’s eye in the appropriate nerves, the now-open heart. Initially, Joy Division strike us as rudimentary musicians. No one is going to mistake their technical prowess for Miles Davis’s second Great Quintet or the Who raging in their cohesive grandeur on tour in the States and Europe in late 1969-early 1970. Songs are built up from Hook’s bass lines, but those same lines are downplayed in the studio; the result is more miasmatic, a music, frequently of deep pain, that accretes. I believe a black hole exists inside all of us, and I think Joy Division did, too. Happy or not, there is always a black hole, because without it, I’m not sure we could experience the tragic in art, feel more alive because of those experiences, be better equipped—resilient and ready—to process the world around us and within us, rather than be knocked down—or apart—by that tragedy. The black hole is lit up by this art, and when it is lit up, that which we fear within us becomes less scary. I call this lighthouse witnessing, because we are active in bearing witness, we are a partner of the art, we travel towards it, the beckoning signal in much darkness.

Bernard Sumner’s guitar playing is rudimentary, but it appears and flourishes in the right spots, and is thus rudimentary in the manner of the sun on gray days when light palliates while striking a balance with shade and shadow, which is often the best we can ever hope for. He plays riffs and fills; Joy Division was not a band for whom solos would ever matter, because it was the totality of presentation of the songs that held sway. You’ll see that in a lot of the best songs ever written. Consider the Beatles with “A Day in the Life,” "She Loves You,’ “Hey Jude.” The compositions are too strong to give away any of their allotted time to a solo. We behold, solely and purely, the song itself.

Every Joy Division song is that way. Stephen Morris may have drummed with all of the virtuosity of Captain Caveman, but he was a fierce keeper of the time, much better at it than drumming masters like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon, and he could push and pull tempo as if his drum tracks doubled as their own compositions, even exercises—percussive etudes—in temporality. He could also play with an energy that could summon you to a fire and have you throw yourself in without nary a question asked, if that was its bidding, trusting that the beat would pull you out again before you were so much as singed.

It is the sound of his drums we first hear on Closer’s opening number, “Atrocity Exhibition.’ They are played live in the studio, put straight on tape, but they seem to be processed from the get-go, on a loop, bounding from the bottom of the mix to the top, scaling a rock face, jumping down again into shoals below. The only other time I’ve heard drums do anything remotely like this is with Little Walter’s 1954 B-side, “Mellow Down Easy,” and “Atrocity Exhibition” is, indeed, a form of the blues, albeit a very, very different one: Dantean blues (both the song and the Italian poet provide words to welcome us to a hell; “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” in one case, “Welcome to the atrocity exhibition” in the other), from a world sufficiently desolate as to be post-human, which also brings something essentially human home to the gut of all of us. It’s a form of sonic ensnaring, counterpointed by the bass—a walking bass line akin to what we find in mid-century Duke Ellington—and Curtis then entering to intone, “This is the way/Step inside.” It’s not easy to disagree with him, not easy to walk away. We are here in the land of Joy Division, and here we will remain, as this is the land of your own personal black hole, which we all have, and which, paradoxically, we all need.

I view Closer as one album-length song, with multiple parts, a sonic tapestry. To step into any one part of the art is to step into all of it. The album is almost always discussed as a whole, which I find telling, as though we are collectively loath to reduce it to individual three-four minute components. But let us consider the closing number to Closer, “Decades.” The keyboards wheeze and creak as though they have been leased from a haunted house brought to life by the sound effects department of a 1940s radio play. The pulse-beat of the song is Curtis’s voice, the tonal center; the instruments shift and follow in its direction, down a pathway, or, if one prefers, towards a beacon. His refrain becomes a mantra, plaintive, but of an uplifting spirit, for it seems that this is a spirit that cannot be quelled in its quest. I have no idea what Morris plays—unaccompanied—to count-in the song; it sounds like he is banging together a couple of electric bricks. The synth oscillates between two chords—one foot going in front of the other, again and again.

Joy Division were the masters of this sort of sonic funneling, getting you to go where they wished you to, where you might not go on your own. By the time Curtis would do his thing, his voice seems both a complete surprise and a necessary inevitability. The first time I heard this song, I knew exactly what Curtis was doing: He was taking my hand. The two-chord refrain drops out of the mix, a holding pattern of bars in the form of post-punk basso continue fills the space, prepping us for Curtis’s return. He has thus far sung of lost souls, the confused but persistent, the busted but insistent. “Where can they be?” he sings, again and again. He sings it for minutes when his vocal recommences, but he could sing it forever, so far as we, the listeners, are concerned. Morris’s snare drum has a tintinnabulous echo-effect, like he is keeping time on a brass halo. The song fades out in this groove, a comfort and a challenge. There is lighthouse witnessing, this is lighthouse listening. Come unto us, it seems to say; come unto yourself.

Astoundingly, the musical trade magazines at the time would write-up Joy Division as a dance band. You could, I suppose, dance to some of their music, which Curtis did from the stage, in spastic movements mirroring the fits of epilepsy from which he suffered. But the dance is an internal one, an Argentine tango of emotions, set to futuristic rhythms, less the stuff of shuffling shoes under strobing lights than vibrating Existential questions and, salubriously, answers; if not outright, then in the form of what Joy Division’s music most makes us feel: Hope. A hope on account of how sensate we remain, despite our attempts to banish that sensitivity. Sometimes we remain fundamentally human—alive and feeling—despite ourselves. Joy Division helps.

A lot of what we consume now we do so in the hopes of not feeling—we opiate our hearts. The Netflix binge, the endless stream of GIFs on social media, the stultifying ritual of the perpetually pressed like button. What blows my mind about Joy Division is how palatable they make raw emotion seem, and how comforting, too.

There’s a lazy tendency to believe that Curtis, who wrote the lyrics, was doing a version of autobiography, but the artist who creates work only he could create, which resonates with many, creates within an inner space, a kind of emotional and spiritual enclave, not from transcribing specific life events. They create from inside a pocket of knowledge I will call wisdom. That wisdom can be filtered through their experiences, but in order to have universal relevance, it cannot come straight from their experience. That’s the paradox of making the greatest art: One gives entirely of one’s self, but that self is also in some degree separate from what occurs day in, day out, in a life.

Closer is Joy Division’s masterpiece in a truncated career that never much dipped below the masterpiece level, with any record, EP, single, live performance, but it is not their greatest achievement as artists. It is an easy one to access, which we can all do readily with our assorted music apps or YouTube. But within the Joy Division mythos there exists a song—also from the final phase of the band’s career—that we might think of as fractional. That is, it exists—sort of—but not fully as something, like, say, an official piece of music, or even a good-faith recording. This particular work would become far better associated with the band that Joy Division became after Curtis’s suicide in New Order, who would utilize the composition for their first single in January 1981. They moved forward by going back, because having experienced Joy Division—and this was no different for the band Joy Division in effect birthed, as for any listener who has heard Joy Division—they understood that here was something you would always take with you, because the future was not just something you build, it was something you took on.

The single was called “Ceremony,” a Joy Division song through and through, the lyrics allegedly penned by Curtis while in the hospital recovering from one of his breakdowns, his bandmates attempting to pick up his spirits by setting music to his words.


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