Originally posted on djearlybird.blogspot.com, April 21, 2006. Today marks 31 years since Ian Curtis committed suicide. In honor, here is a piece I wrote a few years ago for my friend Eleanor’s one-off Joy Division/New Order zine, Twenty Years Too Late.
Twenty years too late? By the time I first heard Joy Division, I was just about 20 months too late. Which, in a way, is more heartbreaking.
In the summer of 1982, I was 16 years old, living in a lifeless semi-rural community in central New Jersey. Every bit the adolescent outcast, I’d learned to submerge my feelings of isolation and frustration in music and records. It started at age 12 or 13, when I developed an obsession with the Beatles. I started hearing new wave music on the NYC commercial stations, which led me toward more obscure sounds. Quickly, my listening habits progressed from obvious punk and new wave, through hardcore, smack into my first flirtation with British postpunk. I saw the intriguing band names in Rolling Stone and Trouser Press — Young Marble Giants, PiL, Gang of Four, Wire, and the Rough Trade label — and dutifully bought the records. As a 15-year-old, this stuff sounded like it was beamed down from Mars. I literally could not believe what I was hearing, and I certainly couldn’t pick out any reference points. It was as if the records had been created for me alone.
Six months earlier — summer of 1981 — I’d had my mind blown by YMG’s Colossal Youth and the Wanna Buy A Bridge? compilation. I dutifully started tracking down related bands in earnest. Pre-internet, the best way to do that was to listen to college radio, read Trouser Press, and write to the mailorder companies that advertised therein. The more research I did, the more it felt like picking through a recently-abandoned building in a spooky part of town. YMG, for instance, had broken up literally six months before I bought Colossal Youth. Other artists like PiL had already taken off in a more commercial direction. Not that I could’ve participated in this scene if I’d wanted to — I was a sheltered teenager without transportation or money, remember? — but still, it was strange and heartbreaking to realize I’d fallen for a bunch of bands that didn’t exist anymore, at least not in any form that I’d recognize.
The most extreme example was Joy Division – here was a band that not only broke up, but whose lead singer had committed suicide in the spring of 1980. That was almost 20 months before the start of 1982, which is where this memoir picks up.
As 1982 began, I still hadn’t heard Joy Division’s music, but their name kept coming up in articles and catalogs I read. All I knew was that their music was supposed to be depressing, and they’d turned into New Order, whose “Temptation” I’d heard on the radio. They were always on my list of bands to check out, but for some reason I never had. I know I saw their records in shops. One fateful Saturday morning that summer, I was at the Englishtown Auction and Flea Market with my family. It was a decent place to find records and T-shirts, though it always had a seedy edge — kind of like a NYC street fair transplanted out to redneck NJ. I would always break away from my parents and go to look at the record stalls. Browsing through a table of LPs and singles toward the edge of the flea market, I picked out a couple of singles I wanted — Altered Images’ “New Toys,” something by the Mo-Dettes. Sensing a chance to increase his take, the seller asked me, “Hey, do you like Joy Division?”
“Yeah!” I said. Actually, I’d never heard them, but I felt certain that yes was the right answer.
“I just got a live bootleg of theirs. Do you want it? Ten bucks.”
It was Komackino, and it was the most mysterious album I’d ever seen. The sleeve was plain white, and the inner labels were black and cryptic. The label for side “Outside” had the band name, album name, bogus catalog number (“JD01″) typeset in the Closer typeface. Side “Inside’s” label only had a distressed-looking Gothic woman kneeling in what appeared to be a cemetery. There were no song titles. Ten dollars was a lot for someone on an allowance, but I felt compelled to buy the album. I’d never bought a bootleg before. (Later, much later, I found out that Komackino was recorded at London’s Lyceum in February 1980.)
I threw it on the turntable the moment I got home. The sound quality was murky at best; it was as if the set was recorded with a condenser mike surrounded by layers of gauze. Through the aural haze, I could pick out bass and guitar riffs and Ian Curtis’ mournful baritone voice. I couldn’t understand a word Ian was singing, but it almost didn’t matter; it was as if he was sharing the most painful moments of his life and forcing me to listen. Side 2 ended not with Joy Division themselves, but rather the theme from “Hang ‘Em High.” Whomever put this record together had a sick sense of humor.
I wouldn’t say my life was changed by this record, but I was intrigued by how powerful, how affecting it was. That the sound quality was poor only enhanced my appreciation; it added a layer of atmosphere and dread that I never quite got from the studio albums I quickly bought thereafter. As much as I treasured Unknown Pleasures, Closer and the singles, there was a certain intrigue to my first taste of Joy Division via a crappy live bootleg.
I’ve had only one other Joy Division moment that can compare to that first listen to Komackino. That was seeing the Here Are The Young Men live videotape. Most of it consists of a specific JD gig caught on what appears to be video. The picture quality is blotchy, inchoate; the camera angle hardly ever wavers from its one specific angle. As the other three members drone away, Ian Curtis does his mad, frantic dance. He waves his arms in stiff, geometric patterns; the camera captures him like a search light. I have never been so unnerved by a live performance. I’m somewhat creeped out even remembering it now.
Remembering the scary footage in Here Are The Young Men, sitting here with my battered copy of Komackino, I’m convinced that starkness is the quality I most loved in Joy Division. This may be why I have comparatively little to say about New Order. For years, I dismissed them as inferior; who would listen to their dancy stuff when they could go right to the source? I appreciate New Order far more now than I did then, particularly Movement and other early stuff…but it helps to think of them as a different band, which after all is what they are.
- Seattle, 2002