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Proposal for Joy Division book

Friday 3/5/21

This is the Joy Division book proposal. I'd like to throw myself into this project upon finding the right interested party. The book will be called The Sounds on Dust: Coming Alive to Joy Division.


I’ve spent the better portion of my life steeped in the music of Joy Division, which has also meant that I’ve read every Joy Division-related work I could lay hands on. They’ve always seemed to me to sidestep the centrality of the band’s ability, as a collective of artists, to foster meaning at the level of the individual. To work over the lens through which one sees the world, and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self, which to my thinking is the timeliest, brilliant aspect of what I’ll call the services that Joy Division provides.

In a wide-ranging career, I’m known for a lot of things by a lot of people. To some, I’m the writer of fiction in Harper’s and novels; to others, I’m film guy; to some, jazz person; to other readers, the op-ed guy; to an additional group I’m Mr. Beatles Writings fellow. I do write on that band a lot, but the older I become—not so much as in age, as in wisdom—the more I think that there has never been a rock and roll outfit to touch Joy Division, who, to put in the terms of this series, matter in the ne plus ultra sense of what it means for an artist to matter.

Previous Joy Division books (not that there are many) have a tendency to orient themselves around one of two points: the mental illness/depression/star-crossed life of singer Ian Curtis, with romanticizing accoutrements; and the Martin Hannett-actuated studio pomp and flare of their two albums, with more attention focused on the first rather than the last, in part because of the 33 1/3 entry on Unknown Pleasures.

My JazzTimes editor recently posted on Facebook about the power of Closer, the band’s second and final LP, opining that it was remarkable that a work of such bracing power was made by, in one regard, amateurs, and that they could make this work in part because they didn’t know any better. I think the point half-holds—Joy Division vitiated boundaries in ways that we as people, and some of us as artists, are loath to do in today’s society of the pack. People wouldn’t dare sound like Joy Division—even if they could—just as people are careful to cloak who they are, to stage manage life, for a kind of security that I think undercuts the individual, does them a brand of self-inflicted, self-eradicating disservice that Curtis and his mates could never have done to themselves as a band.

That’s not accurate, this idea of ham-fisted musicians, coaxed into finesse by Hannett’s studio alchemy. Drummer Stephen Morris, for instance, is one of the big-time trap-masters in the history of popular music, and was to Joy Division as Tony Williams was to Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, but with motoric emotional intensity. The band played with a kind of electro-dance post-modern humanness, that “went there,” as it were. Risked. Deeply, savagely at times, unflinchingly.

I think of this as marrow music. Sound in the deepest parts of the foundational parts of who we are, can be. We live in an escapist world, where even the vital news of the day has the escapist twist, the doctored narrative, the idea of logging on to a computer and thrill seeking, living vicariously through Twitter feeds laden with personal agenda to please one’s “base.” The base is never one’s self, and the base is also never an audience that might profit the most at the level of their respective bases as individuals.

But that was and is Joy Division, a band that I’ve found is heard differently at different points in one’s life, as if some of their meaning is time-delayed. When you are this way as an artist, you never leave off. It’s not just about the official albums, the singles like “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” For a Joy Division, there is as much in the lacuna, what others might view as the “in-between times.” And no book gets into this. Joy Division didn’t just leave a body of live recordings you can pit against anyone else’s—that of the Who, the field recordings the dogged Dean Benedetti made of Charlie Parker, Alan Lomax’s undertakings to document the great bluesmen in the Deep South—they left veritable albums from a spray of nights—and the basement of a German church on one afternoon—that were both of a piece, and autonomous. One could argue, in fact, that there’s a body of work there that, in some measure, goes beyond the near-perfect discography. The unreleased Joy Division oeuvre—easily located online—is a kingdom of wonder. It’s also a potent reminder that what is deemed as the “official” important art is often deemed thus for other reasons, and indolent reasons at that. It’s a throwing off of the mantle and burden of labels.

In our world of escapism, we’re always cultivating the various forms that facilitate egress. Checking out. Avoiding “through,” when we can go around, or, better yet—though not actually better—retreat, relabel, not deal with. Truth is autonomous, and yet we’ve co-opted this idea of “my truth,” the ultimate in oxymoron-making. I once published a book called The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and though it was sui generis, I always thought of it as my Joy Division book, in that theirs is the sound of through, we might say, if that makes sense. There is recognition of the abyss, there is the plumbing of the abyss, and if the far side of said abyss isn’t always scaled and escaped from, there is the accumulation of a very human form of knowledge, of perspective, that is life itself, perhaps even more so than what occurs externally in our daily lives, no matter if we’re living them in the best way we can. Joy Division are that sonic version of what F. Scott Fitzgerald called, “the extra that I had,” and they help us locate our own extra.

There’s more here. This is a band that can beat the bag out of almost any that has ever come before, in the battle-of-the-bands sense. Just as reading is a skill, so too is listening to music, and I think our skills in both areas have eroded. You see those viral videos where it’s “so and so listens to Captain Beefheart for the first time” and we watch their reaction. I haven’t seen a Joy Division version of this yet, but I can only imagine the faces. But this is band with a precise sense of rhythm, and a genius for melody. Enter their orbit, you hear sound differently, realize that for all of the envelope pushing, Joy Division can also be a popular going concern. That’s a neat blend. There’s wit, there is fun, there is absurdity, too, amidst the guts of life. There are unlikely roots and influences that people don’t get into, but everything I’ll do in this book will be in service to those larger ideas, while also helping people to hear this music as they’ve never heard it before, as I’ve learned to hear Joy Division. They are the antidote to the anodyne, and it is the anodyne that holds sway in our age and culture. We often orientate ourselves around things like us, or the the trivial, the half-assed, the jejune, people and works that don’t cause us to question anything we say, do, and we make this cynosure of mediocrity. Joy Division is the opposite of that. They buttonhole us and say, “Come on, fellow human, this is not all, not nearly, be truer to yourself.”

I made a list recently of art and artists that I think more of the further I go along in my own voyage of discovery. Orson Welles, Thoreau, Louis Armstrong, Robert Bresson, Radiohead. But foremost was Joy Division, and one must understand, I took to this band from the very first as hard as I had ever taken to anything, but not in some fannish way, rather a manner of “My goodness, what do we have here, this is something that matters.”

That’s the key in which I’ve always heard Joy Division, even as the mensuration canon of meaning has changed, because they pack so many layers. And it seems to me that the more the world changes, in the manner it does, the more Joy Division matters. Art isn’t just supposed to be something that you come to for leisure, a stack of tunes at the gym; it’s meant to inform the living of a life. Especially when we most need that informing. Not only does Joy Division matter, but gun to my head, soul on the line, I cannot tell you in good faith that any band matters more.

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