Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (Factory, 1979)
All-Time Albums Series
This is my 20th entry in my All-Time Albums series. It is not even close to the most popular feature on my site but it is the one closest to my heart.
When I first decided to create this blog I wanted it to not just catalogue music, I wanted it to tell my stories through the music I care about. I wanted it to be a site where you could get to know me through the music I listen to.
It is easy for me to say an artist, an album, or an artist's song is good or bad. It is much harder for me to try to explain - in context - how I came to an album and why it affected me the way that it did.
I am not sure I am always very successful, but I want to be because these albums matter to me.
So, I wanted number 20 to be something special.
There are four albums that make me feel the emotional isolation of winter and gray skies: Unknown Pleasures; The Moon and Antarctica (Modest Mouse); Porcupine (Echo and the Bunnymen) and Ocean Rain (Same).
As I mentioned a few weeks ago (in my Power, Corruption, and Lies All-Time Album post) I found New Order before I found Joy Division. After the fact, through discussions with other music lovers, I found Joy Division (around 1987 I would guess). Around this time I was starting to investigate the darker side of alternative music.
Why? Because I was struggling with depression.
A great deal of my connection to Joy Division was forged in my discovery of Ian Curtis' backstory, in my exploration of his lyrics, and in my connection to the similarities between how JD music sounded and how I felt.
Joy Division music sounded like I felt
Joy Division's album looked as isolated in the universe as I felt (shout out to Peter Saville).
She's Lost Control
Like many people who struggle with depression, most people outside of my head space would have never known I was depressed. People struggling with depression (and in my case addiction) learn to hide behind masks that present the face we think people want to see.
There is also a constant stream of fears that provoke the wearing of these masks:
* If people knew what I was feeling they would never accept me
* If people knew what I was feeling they would have me institutionalized
Often you sit inside your head feeling entirely alone as you perform your social duties. This can also color how relationships function. I remember many times acting out the perfect romantic relationship scenes while inside I was deeply depressed or even suicidal.
I have sat in the shower for an hour trying to just get my head to a place where finishing the day out seems like a good idea.
I have tried to help friends that ended up committing suicide.
I have spent hours in terrible rooms and seen the scars. I have been the cause of and helped with some of those scars. I have been scarred myself.
Sometimes, we do need intervention and help. But we are terrified of it (and often for good reason - read below). And who wants to admit that they have lost control?
In my case, I also had panic disorder which can be very debilitating. So, I could often be found (if you could see inside my head) trying to control waves of panic while projecting to anyone around that I was totally fine.
One thing I always wanted (almost more than anything) was for someone else to understand and accept the struggle I was really going through. But it was hard (virtually impossible) to let anyone see what I was going through because I was 100% convinced nobody would accept what I was struggling with.
I was terrified to let people see my struggles. Like many men, my whole life was built around being tough, reliable, and strong. I had responsibilities and people depending on me. My career was built up around being a leader.
Joy Division sounded like I felt. Ian Curtis spoke to what I was feeling.
One of the odd stories about Ian Curtis is that he was working in a clinic or hospital and encountered the epileptic who inspired the song "She's Lost Control" only later to start to suffer from violent epileptic fits himself soon after.
I was not an epileptic, but I imagine panic attacks to be similarly debilitating (certainly less life threatening). I am not saying that they are equivalent as much as suggesting that because of panic disorder I can understand the loss of control over my physical body.
Luckily, I have found a much happier place in my life (it took decades and some immense struggles and crisis).
It might seem logical to think that the absolute last thing I should do suffering from depression would be to listen to "depressing" Joy Division music.
For me, it was a revelation, it made me happy. I knew that at least one person in the world got what I was feeling. I felt a kinship and a connection.
I also loved the music. I don't find Joy Division's music depressing as much as liberating. I feel they are raging against the darkness. In the cold, clinical, environment Hannett (producer Martin Hannett) created was a rage against the forces of inevitability.
Peter Hook was screaming NOT ME.
Love of Joy Division also led me to Bauhaus, Edward Ka-Spell, SPK, Dead Can Dance, Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey, Psychic TV, Foetus, even Skinny Puppy and Ministry (and many other bands simultaneously embracing and raging against the darkness all around).
It is so easy to poke fun at Goth kids and uniforms and this kind of music. But for me, and many people I have talked to struggling with these issues, this music is cathartic. I am certainly not saying that all (or even many) Goth kids are depressed. I am saying I was depressed and I listened to what I suspect would be called Goth music.
There are many people who for reasons of chemical imbalances, of addiction, or of trauma/tragedy struggle very hard with maintaining their acceptable masks.
I have written in this space before about the tragic treatment of the mentally ill in this country. The most regular way we "treat" people with mental illness is with jail and prison sentences instead of treatment.
If the standard by which we judge our civilization is how we treat those less fortunate, spend a few hours in the mental block of any of America's jails and prisons and get back to me with your grade.
I believe that every person is capable of great evil and great good. I believe that our biggest flaw is that we try very hard to pretend that bad stuff is what "other people do." We have a convenient amnesia (me too) and tend to see every incident in a moral vacuum.
"How could that person cheat on his wife (says the man currently cheating on his wife)."
"How could that person hit that man out of anger (says the man who hit many men)."
"How could that man be that crazy (says me who had been exactly that crazy at times)"
There are people who have had terrible things done to them and never recovered. There are people who do terrible things because they can't successfully navigate the things that were done to them. And there are people who just were born with chemical imbalances.
They are us, we are them.
Usually, I use this part of the article to go through and talk about the different great songs on the album. But, in this case, you have to have heard the album (and if you have not, shame on you).
What I am going to do instead is ask anyone who has had similar struggles to use the comment section or Twitter interactions to share stories and suggestions for how we can all do better.
Sometimes, I try to imagine what Ian Curtis was thinking before he committed suicide, I would not at all be surprised to find out that he was experiencing the exhaustion of feeling entirely alone in every room he entered (even rooms full of friends, lovers, and family).
The exhaustion of wearing the mask of sanity when you feel anything but sane.
I hope people will participate in talking, but if not I totally understand (been there myself, took decades for me to be willing to talk about this stuff). If you feel up to it, leave a comment!