I’d estimate that in 50% of U.S. college dorm rooms in the late 20th century you could find “The Kiss” tacked to a wall. Yes, including mine for a time. One poster I had that deserved better was an immense one of Joy Division, a group from Macclesfield, England (close to Manchester) and about whom the Anton Corbijn’s 2007 movie Control was made. The picture, in b&w like the film, was of the band but really it was four kids standing above the banner “Here are The Young Men.” I bandied that phrase about in my head constantly — it somehow captured what I felt like in college. I was a young man. And like Joy Division, I too looked at something in the distance, not really caring, just existing. I could enjoy being a young man, but the future was too close to ever feel comfortable.
Joy Division cropped up in other bizarre ways during my university years. In 1990, in Oxford, I and two of my flatmates joined by one fellow who lived next door played Unknown Pleasures almost as a ritual upon returning from evenings out. Sotted, our lungs filled with cigarette smoke, and the sandwich maker spitting out bits of jelly sealed inside toast, we sipped more Stolichnaya and listened to Joy Division until eventually Mark pressed on home, Martin dcided he’s had enough of the crazy Yanks, and Andrew headed for a late night bath. One evening in May 1990, I pulled out a copy of NME, the UK’s major indie music paper. On it was the face of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s lead singer who ten years earlier had hanged himself. When you’re 20, you still pay homage to anyone and anything that brings some semblance of meaning to your life, and we had the bright idea of lighting the picture of Ian Curtis on fire. In an ashtray, Andrew set it aflame, and it floated quickly into the air and out of our reach, landing in the entrance hall to the flat and searing a jagged splotch on the carpet. Months later a portion of the bill arrived for repair costs. Apparently they had looked beneath the welcome mat.
Regardless of our drunken antics Joy Division’s influence has carried on (listen to the Editors or Interpol, or just watch Radiohead or Galaxie 500 covering Ceremony), probably due in no short measure to New Order, the group that the remaining members of Joy Division put together. Watching Control, it’s not hard to understand the staying power of the band. There was just enough there to take them out of the punk era, yet smartly they stopped short of pop. The closest they came to it is the beautiful Love Will Tear Us Apart. That Curtis killed himself before it was ever released only added to the enormity of its appeal. There’s an earlier recording of the song available. It’s tempo is more upbeat, and some days it inexplicably makes me want to cry more than the later version. One rumor is that for the second version, the band told Curtis to try and sing more like Frank Sinatra. That might be true, but if it is, that tells me that even they had no real knowledge of what Curtis was going through.
I can’t begin to say what was in Ian Curtis’ mind. He was only 23 when he died. Control is less about the band than about a marriage deteriorating. Corbijn does something that I applaud him for — he doesn’t drift into melodrama or try and read too much into the songs. They’re heartbreakingly obvious in their pain and poetic in the way only a young poet can be.
Mother I tried please believe me
I’m doing the best that I can
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through
I’m ashamed of the person I am.
But if you could just see the beauty
These things I could never describe
These pleasures a wayward distraction
This is my one broken prize
Sometimes I miss feeling that pure.