i've gained control
As if my job wasn't dead enough, I found myself drawn recently to three death-themed entertainments: the Fiery Furnaces (of course) song, "Duplexes of the Dead;" the book, "A Brief History of the Dead" by Kevin Brockmeier; and the film Control about the short life, the suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Where to begin with so much happiness?
Well, "Duplexes" is a great song, and still holding up well on the skir-charts. It has worried some due to a lot of backward-sounding guitars in it, as if we're still maybe concerned about "subliminal" messages? I'm not gonna worry about it so you shouldn't either. The backwards guitar stuff on this is nicely done, and you'll want to hum along, but unless you can hum backwards you're outta luck. I'm practicing though...
The song has a bit of the same vibe as the book Brief History, as it visions an afterlife more mundane than supernatural. The book is a mixed bag. Its one of those "great idea" books, that unfortunately fails on the level of a novel. Here's the cool idea: there is an afterlife where people (or souls) live very normal, everyday lives, living in cities, eating in diners, working jobs, falling in love. The catch is that they only exist as long as a person is alive on Earth who remembers them. Cute, huh? Until some kind of germ warfare breaks out on Earth and wipes out the entire population of the planet -- except one woman, who's memories populate the afterlife. Sounds pretty good, but I was very disappointed with the execution of it. There was a LOT of filler, and a lot of quasi religious boring stuff. Sorry, but I can't recommend it.
The film, Control is the bleakest of the bunch, shot in black and white (being a tragedy of course), nobody's expecting it to have a happy ending. I'm going to claim an especially close and long affiliation with Joy Division, having been floored by them back back back, (but easily five years after Unknown Pleasures was released), around 1984. At the time I was heavily into heavy music like Birthday Party and learning about American abstract expressionist art of the 40s like Mark Rothko. Joy Division seemed a manifestation of austere, gestural art that flirted with the sublime. The sound of Unknown Pleasures, thanks in large part, we've learned, to producer Martin Hannett, was to me (and my pal Vinny,) the aural equiv. of Rothko or Clyfford Still. I know pretty damn high falutin, but perfect for the 20-something art history, punk rock student. Still sounds that way too. The suicide of Ian Curtis, as has been often noted solidified JD as important "art" complete with its own mythology. There's a very well written article on Pitchfork about them here.
The film Control does dispel a lot of this haughty shit for me. Based on a book by his wife Deborah, Curtis is portrayed as a kid, a young, moony poet, one with a regular job, and strong, kinda normal, immature teenage feelings. This kind of counters the mind's image of that low, cryptic voice as older, confident, and dark. The film implies for instance that the song "She's Lost Control" isn't so mysterious, but a direct reference to a woman with severe epilepsy Curtis encountered at work and later learned she died of her seizures. He's horrified because he is stricken with epilepsy himself, in a time when no good treatment seemed available. His struggle with epilepsy is central to this film and is information I didn't have back in the '80s when I wondered where this music was coming from. Curtis saw himself reflected in the epileptic woman and she scared him to death. Maybe even literally. Knowing his suicide was coming became rather ponderous at times, like "is this it? is this?" The acting though is uncanny. The actors actually look like their counterparts and do actually play and sing the music, so its a dual triumph. Seeing 24 Hour Party People, a film which re-tells parts of this same story, yet from different angles, is a fun exercise in what is included and what is omitted. For instance Control dramatizes the perhaps apocryphal story of Curtis being struck with stage fright as the band is playing their opening number, and the singer from Crispy Ambulance (remember them?) is enlisted, or coerced for money, into singing. Party People makes much more of the Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks show in Manchester that spawned JD and so many bands. Both films seem to denigrate drummer Stephen Morris, who cannot have possibly been as ditzy as both films imply. Could he? I mean is almost invented an entirely new way of post-punk drumming, and married Gilligan Gilbert to boot. How ditzy could he be? There's an interesting scene where Morris is in Hannett's recording studio spraying an aerosol can in time to the music on "She's Lost Control," presumably to get that cool sssh sssh effect. A close listen to the track though leaves me wondering if that happened either.
The movie is a downer, but a good downer. Can't say I liked Samantha Morton's role as the fishwife-y Deborah Curtis, again weird since she's based on the woman who wrote the damn thing, plus I usually like Morton (see Minority Report, Morvern Caller); and also made me wonder what's become of their daughter, Natalie, who was 1 when her dad died. And here's her myspace page. Crazy.
A pleasant and unexpected surprise comes during the credits of Control when the Killer's cover of "Shadowplay" comes up. Its a great decision, as wrong as it is right, it speaks volumes about doing an Ian Curtis biopic in 2007. The song itself is a great cover, re-inventing "Shadowplay" in the Killer's own mold, as a good cover should do, while paying homage to the orig. I nabbed their "Hot Fuss" from lala and can't say their other work is as impressive. But its only been one listen.
This also came on the heels of seeing the documentary, Moog on cable. (I never really believed "Moog" was somebody's name. But there's no denying it now). The film is packed with Moog enthusiasts like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman (two fallen heroes of mine), and sports a weird little soundtrack with some Stereolab, and a great one-off song by someone called "Electric Skychurch" called "Endless Horizon." Now this band, or guy, or whatever is almost strictly new age ('newege' coins Penn Gillette), but this song was worth a .99 iTunes download.
Wait. I'm not done with Joy Division! They may have been the second most important band to me after the Who. In college I was completely obsessed with them and their mystique. Didn't we just hate/love that Joy Division famously offered no information at all about them, their songs, their label, on their records? only the austere, Peter Saville covers, beautiful and completely appropriate to the music? You could stare down "Unknown Pleasures" for weeks, hoping some clue would pop out of those wavy lines, yet there was none. You knew this was the right move, applauded them for it, but were frustrated. Who were they? What did they look like? Who played what? Lyrics? Forget it. Few bands have this kind of committment to an aesthetic idea.
After "Unknown Pleasures," the 12" single "Atmosphere" did the most damage to me. That song, that slightly desolate, slightly beautiful cover art, crystallized a perfect moment in time, more emotional than can be written about coherently -- by me anyway. But there were others like me, Joy Division adherents in Pittsburgh, (PA's own Manchester) and four of us decided to take matters into our own hands and "form" our own Joy Division. We arranged a one-shot concert at the Electric Banana. Not a tribute band mind you, not a cover band, just our own Joy Division, with yours truly on vocals. I know, hilarious. But apart from me, instrumentally, it was a super group: Mark Miller on drums, Steve Heineman on bass, and Vince Curtis on guitar. If these names don't mean anything to you then you didn't live in Pgh during the famous "second wave" of punk rock. A heady time indeed.
It was not easy covering these songs. We only gave ourselves a short time to learn a dozen and play them well enough to perform. I, as a chubby, wrong, Ian Curtis was the weakest link. My voice, if you've ever heard it, may be low and scary, but is a far cry from listen-able. Sometimes given the right material it works, but I have certain regrets about the way I handled my end there. I did however parse the lyrics on my own, having no Internet back then (what?!?) or CDs for that matter (are you kidden?!?) Just needle on record over and over again. I came pretty damn close, too, looking back. Anyway, as a concept it was great fun. We made Factory-esque posters announcing Joy Division -- no explanation of course, and there were people out there who thought it was somehow real. We got a big crowd at the Banana, some of whom were pretty damned disappointed I showed up in front of the mic, and that the real Ian Curtis hadn't come back from the dead to play the show. But we had no sympathy for stupidity on that level. Tapes do exist!
I also fooled around with the song "Transmission," cutting it up and splicing in other songs, for no good reason really. I tried to create a band for this song, "Frank Lloyd Wrong" but myspace deleted it due to its unoriginality. However the song, or piece is BACK on the always entertaining DRILL site, HERE. You can also hear how badly I sing on "Your Pollution."
I also own, apart from my coveted "Atmosphere" original Factory 12" single (with its heartbreaking snowy landscape) and the Factory 7" Love Will Tear Us Apart," a rather anomalous copy of their 7" "Ideal for Living" which was printed under their first name, "Warsaw." From what i can gather it is a bootleg of sorts, issued post mortem in 1981 from tapes owned by a Manchester label called Chaos Cassettes and "sanctioned" by the band's management (although if you've seen these films, you realize that means nothing). It is a reference to the real 7" from '78, pre-Factory that looked the same but had the name Joy Division instead of Warsaw. The tracks are different too, so it does qualify as a boot. There were only 2000 of them pressed. I seem to remember a dude at Jim's Records in Bloomfield selling it to me for about $3, cause he didn't know what it was, a rare occurrence at Jim's. The next time I was in, Jim himself gave me a disapproving look but to his credit, didn't press the subject. For me it was like discovering a Rothko at a yard sale. Sublime.