Nostalgia Reality Check: Joy Division

When I walked into New York's Gramercy Theater for a show earlier this week, I wondered if perhaps I had accidentally wandered into my second high-school reunion of the summer.

Sep 16, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

When I walked into New York's Gramercy Theater for a show earlier this week, I wondered if perhaps I had accidentally wandered into my second high-school reunion of the summer. All along the walls were posters for shows that would have made perfect sense in 1986: OMD. Duran Duran. Howard Jones.

But I’m here to see a band even older than that: I’m here to see Joy Division. Or at least a quarter of it, anyway.

There was a time, when I was a teenager just starting to get into all-ages shows, when it seemed like every good band had already broken up, never to be seen again: I made a game of cobbling together whole bands by seeing separate shows played by their phantom parts. Going to a Love and Rockets show followed, months later, by a Peter Murphy solo show counted as having sort of seen Bauhaus; Lou Reed and John Cale, even years apart, was kind of like having seen the Velvet Underground. (During the time I was lamenting having Missed It All, of course, I was regularly seeing bands like Beat Happening, Throwing Muses, Tree People, Dead Kennedies, the Melvins and Nirvana).

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My teenage self would have freaked out to know that the dawn of the new millennium would bring with it an entire industry of reunion tours, so that the those who came of age between 1999 and the present could potentially relive the entire punk and post-punk canon, so long as they didn’t mind that the performers were, you know, the same age as their parents.

The Pixies and Pavement and the Jesus and Mary Chain were all within my own era, but who knew I’d also get to see Wire and Siouxsie; Peter Murphy, in a bat cape, with all the original members of Bauhaus? Who knew that Gang of Four and Mission of Burma would open for bands half their age, and rock twice as hard? And that artists like Sonic Youth and the Cure and Bob Mould wouldn’t stop at all, but just keep touring and making records, into their forties, then fifties?

By the rules of my recombinant band theory -- seeing dismembered parts of a band vaguely simulates having seen the whole -- for the past 30 years, you could see a band that included every living member of Joy Division -- bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris, and guitarist Bernard Sumner, now on vocals -- plus Gillian Gilbert. But it was a band called New Order, formed four months after their lead singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself the night before they were to leave on their first American tour.

Clearly, Joy Division never made it to America (one reason that you run into mercifully few people who claimed “I was there”; the only person I know who has ever seen a Joy Division show is 51 and British). And thus this show is a kind of nostalgia reality check for the guy playing it: Original Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, who, with some other musicians -- including his son, Jack; Moby, who will sing a few songs in LA; and Rowetta, formerly of fellow Factory records band the Happy Mondays -- is touring the country playing the music of his first band, while, unfortunately, embroiled in a messy break-up with his second band, which has been together for longer than Ian Curtis was ever alive.

Like another famous suicide, Sylvia Plath, Ian Curtis took the classic elements of his art, and lit it up with an incandescent oddness and singularity. Also like Plath, he has become a kind of shorthand for teenage depression; one can pass through a “Joy Division phase” while never quite seeing the work on its own terms.

My own obsession with the band began at 14, when Curtis had been dead for eight years, and flourished in the usual embarrassing ways: At 15, I wrote a short story about a girl who, naturally, wears black clothing and red lipstick and follows some strange guy around a smoky club; I ended it -- profoundly, I thought -- with the lyrics to “Ice Age,” which I misheard as “Nothing to hope/Nothing to fear” (in fact, it was the much more subtle “nothing will hold/nothing will fit”).

In college, I put a “Love Will Tear Us Apart” poster over my bed; on the other side, that photo of Ian, sitting on some kind of instrument case, smoking a cigarette, head down, pressing his fingers into his eyes as if he could shut out tortured apocalyptic visions.

The idea that I actually had sex under those conditions seems, in retrospect, both poignant and pretentious, but I was far from celibate in college, so it must have happened.

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When, in my early 30s, I spent a weekend in London, I bought “Touching From a Distance,” the memoir written by Deborah Curtis, whom Ian married when both were teenagers, then left widowed with a one-year-old daughter. Though she clearly adored him, Ian seemed like an unflatteringly controlling husband, worn down by disease and indecision (he had epilepsy and was having an affair with a Belgian journalist at the time of his death); the story less romantic and more plainly tragic.

But a few years later, when one of my closest friends died, I spent months lying on the couch late at night, alone with a glass of wine, playing and replaying “Ceremony,” the last song written by Joy Division and the first recorded by New Order, which my boyfriend, knowing how both me and my friend had loved the song, had bought for me on vinyl.

Listening to Peter Hook’s bass tumble around Bernard Sumner’s guitar, it seems hard to imagine that the two now never speak.

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Back at the show, the very first song we hear is New Order’s “Regret,” accompanied by a clip of Bernard Sumner. In place of an opening band, it seems, we are being treated to an educational film strip on the history of Joy Division and New Order, projected from Peter Hook's laptop onto a little white screen over the stage (several times, the frame freezes to an image of his desk top).

This seems like an exceedingly odd way to greet an audience that has followed your band with cult-like devotion for more than three decades, and somewhere around the time they start projecting clips of little Ian silhouettes thrashing their way across volcanoes and mushroom clouds -- which look like anachronistic artifacts of the acid-house era -- the bellowing begins.

Hooky!”

Wanker!”

“Hooky is a wanker,” is, in fact, a long-held term of endearment for Peter Hook, and, soon enough the wanker himself charges onstage, decked out in a Union jack Joy Division T-shirt. He looks like a 55-year-old man, but he looks good. He still has all his hair, though some might question the decision to wear it in a faux hawk.

No one can question Hook as a bass player -- he is quite simply among the most influential of his generation -- but he has never been known as a singer in either of his bands. In fact, the first time someone attempted to cover Curtis’ vocals -- members of Crispy Ambulance and A Certain Ratio stepped in at a show held the night after Curtis had a grand mal seizure -- it literally ended in a riot.

When Curtis died, it was Sumner who stepped in; though to hear the difference between Curtis’ moody baritone and his gentler, wispier take, you need only compare the Joy Division and New Order versions of “Ceremony.”

Hook, however, matches it well. He seems to understand that he is singing to the faithful, and, for the most part, he duplicates Curtis’ inflections in ways that those who have spent decades with the original recordings will recognize. But it’s not mere mimicry; he adds something of his own: Fury or savagery; whatever it is, this guy has demons of his own that he is pouring into the lyrics of his dead bandmate.

I am watching the stage over the gleam of two guys’ bald pates; to my left is a woman in her 50s training a video camera steadily at the center of the the stage. Perhaps she is an old lover? A friend? The men to my right seem around my age -- thirties -- and shambling drunk.

Before the show one turned to the other and said, “You know, I always blamed the woman.” Which woman -- the wife or the mistress; Debbie or Annik -- he didn’t say.

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There are more men than women, many black-framed plastic glasses, but the show is all ages. I see plenty of people in their 20s and even their teens. But let’s just agree: Punk rock, even post-punk, is now middle-aged music.

This is not to say it is irrelevant; just the opposite. Joy Division is the kind of band that always seems available to new listeners in the present tense. Three decades later, when even their imitators have spawned imitators, the band feels more relevant than ever.

The drunk guys spill beer on my sandal and hiss the names of the songs to me in case I might not be aware (which makes me want to start rattling off the Factory catalog numbers of my original recordings); the sing-alongs come only for “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; some guys near the front get thrown out during “Atmosphere” for some mischief I don’t quite see; the band never does play “Ceremony.”

But there is something eery, and right, when Peter Hook, 55, sings “Decades,” written by a man who died at 23, more than thirty years ago:

Here are the young men, with the weight on their shoulders

Here are the young men, well where have they been?

Yes, punk rock began as the music of angry youth. But there is something to be said for the rage and disappointment and dogged survival of age. That something can be said in music, too.