How Can Ugliness and Disharmony, Which Are the Content of Tragic Myth [and Punk Rock], Inspire Esthetic Delight?

Joy Division, Punk Rock, Violence, Despair and Transformation (Part I)

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

How can ugliness and disharmony, which are the content of tragic myth, inspire esthetic delight?
— Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 143
Why bother...with music so seemingly dead-end and depressing?
— Mikal Gilmore, Night Beat: A shadow history of rock & roll, 159

In other words, how is it possible to listen to the dark and despairing music of Joy Division and to somehow come out on the other side of despair, into a state of calmness and expansiveness?

Or, again, how can something lead to its opposite, or perhaps a better way of putting it is how does extremity (violence, trauma, despair) lead to the possible outcomes of varying degrees of transformation and destruction?

Manchester, England, 12/10/76: The day after the Sex Pistols' gig - Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, inspired by the ethic of DIY (Do It Yourself) noise and expression, go out and buy a bass guitar and an electric guitar. Thus begins the story that leads from punk rock to Joy Division, to New Order, and into the present. Hook and Sumner are soon joined by Ian Curtis (vocals) and Stephen Morris (drums). These four young men embark on a journey. The start in Manchester in the late 1970s - economically depressed, becoming post-industrial.

Manchester, England, 5/18/80 (On the eve of their first American tour): 
Ian Curtis leaves Manchester via Herzog's film, Stroszek, Iggy Pop's The Idiot, a pot of coffee, a bottle of whiskey and a noose. Thus ends the story of Joy Division, and, thus, begins the story of New Order. The remaining 3 band members form New Order and add Gillian Gilbert (guitar, synth). They become an immensely popular, internationally known pop/dance band. (While New Order enjoyed larger commercial success, Joy Division continues to enjoy critical acclaim amongst artists as diverse as U2, Manic Street Preachers, George Michael, Nine Inch Nails, Girls Against Boys, Moby, Low, and Tortoise. Joy Division did have a number of songs high up in the English music charts and their song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” was Rolling Stones' single of the year in 1980).

This is the story I would like to explore in the next few issues: 4 young men immerse themselves in the chaos and violence of punk rock, they descend into darkness, 3 of them emerge and add a feminine element and success follows.

Let us return to the late 70s - back to the 4 young men, ready to leave, leaving, but never leaving. And how does one leave, and yet never leave? Perhaps by entering the “dreamtime” the altjeringa or lalai of the Native Australians, “the creative primordial state, per which they fly to distant lands, or descend into the underworld,” (Holger Kalweit, Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men, 9-10). The dreamtime is the true reality which interpenetrates the profane reality in which we spend our daily activities. In the dreamtime, past, present, and future can all simultaneous exist and communicate. The journey to the timeless state of dreamtime can be therapeutic, instructive, or destructive, it is a place of raw power, raw energy that can just as easily burn as be a tool.

We can think of the dreamtime in the following quote in Dave Simpson's discussion of the drugged-out appearance of Curtis in his performances, that he was “giving himself over to the intensity that inevitably accompanied Joy Division's journey into the human psyche...Joy Division were about a cleansing, a purging of the soul,” (Dave Simpson, liner notes of “Joy Division, The complete BBC recordings”). This journey begins in intense interiority and eventually expands outward to communicate with the universal, with the dreamtime, and it comes into contact with a primordial fire which can purge or destroy, depending on how it is handled.

 Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders,
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in,
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying, 
We saw ourselves now as we never had seen.
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration,
The sorrows we suffered and never were free...
Where have they been?....

“Decades” (1980), all lyrics are taken from Deborah Curtis' book, Touching From a Distance.

Like so many things, this story starts with frustration and disillusionment. Like so many things, it starts with the interplay of idealism and nihilism. Like so many things, this story starts with punk rock and the Sex Pistols. And how does it end?

Weary inside, now our heart's lost forever,
Can't replace the fear, or the thrill of the chase,
Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings,
Open then shut, then slammed in our face...
Where have they been?...

“Decades,” (1980)

Let's go back to the beginning...12/10/76, (or should we say, 10/12/76). We start with 4 young men from London passing the torch (igniting, setting on fire) 4 young men from Manchester. the stagnation and frustration is replaced by the motivating forces of idealism and nihilism. Add to the retort the sounds of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle, and Iggy Pop; add the words of J.G. Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition), William S. Burroughs, and Nietzsche (the philosopher who uses a hammer). The band starts as “Warsaw” (recalling Bowie's “Warszawa,” off of Low, 1977), and they make some demo recordings. They soon change their name to Joy Division, which is reportedly the name of the barracks in the Nazi concentration camp which housed the female prisoners who were sexually used by the soldiers - from the novel, House of Dolls, by Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (cited in Jon Savage's, “good evening, we're Joy Division,” in the booklet from Heart and Soul. Joy Division, box set, 1997). Curtis had a preoccupation with the extreme and shocking, and these themes pervade his lyrics. Punk rock nurtured this cultivation of extremity in an effort to shake the audience out of their complacency (to awaken them).

In the bands early shows, Curtis acted out the aggression, extreme statements, and social criticism that were the punk fashion. Meanwhile, the rest of the band watched on, got lost in their playing, sometimes even turned their backs on the audience. Curtis developed a strange, flailing dance on stage and had fits of violence, slashing himself with broken glass and rolling around in it on stage. Blood and violence were not out of place at punk shows at the time (Nor was it new, Iggy had already been bleeding on stage in the early 70s...nor was it new, the “front man held in his extended right hand the small flint knife...the whole time the bull-roarers were sounding everywhere so loudly...the assistant circumciser grasps the foreskin, pulls it out as far as possible, and the operator cuts it off...a third man, sitting aside the boy's body, grasps the penis and holds it ready for the stone knife, while the operator, appearing suddenly, slits the whole length of the urethra from below...the boy is lifted away and squats over a shield into which the blood is allowed to drain, while one or more of the younger men present...stand up and voluntarily undergo a second operation to increase the length of their incisions,” (Joseph Campbell, describing the initiation rite of the Native Australian Aranda tribe Primitive Mythology, 96-97, 102-103).

Music mingled with violence and self-injury had quite an appeal to frustrated youth (and likewise to Native peoples desiring contact with the sacred). Joy Division's music started out fast and hard and looked outward at all that was wrong in society and sought to destroy it. “I wanna be anarchy...get pissed...destroy!” (Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the U.K.) “Remember, however, that the passion for destruction is also a creative passion,” (Bakunin, cited in Alvarez, The Savage God, 17).

Even in the rapid punk beat, Curtis' lyrics prefigure the change about to come - the shadow clamoring to break out of the unconscious, even as the feet shuffle and kick.

You've been seeing things,
In darkness, not in learning

“No Love Lost” (1977)

The scene gradually shifts from outward to inward. The punk beat gradually slows to a funeral dirge, a trance induction, Curtis' voice deepens and opens out into the emptiness of dreamtime, which is also a fullness. Curtis follows his guide, the calling voices, and in so doing he becomes our guide into “hells darker chambers.”

I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand...
It's getting faster, moving faster now, it's getting out of hand...
Until the spirit new sensation takes hold, then you know...

“Disorder” (1979)

Someone take these dreams away,
That point me to another day...
They keep on calling me,
Keep calling me,
They keep calling me

“Dead Souls” (1979)

“Punk stripped music of pretentions to express the central Oedipal lyric of pop, 'Fuck You'...For a couple of years all we needed to say was 'fuck you' but sooner or later someone would have to find a way to say 'I'm fucked.'  With all the intensity on earth,” (Tony Wilson recounting a conversation with Bernard Sumner, liner notes of the tribute album, A Means To An End: The music of Joy Division, 1995).

12/27/78: Curtis had his first grand mal seizure, which seemed oddly prefigured in his strange, jerking dance of an automaton gone haywire (one reviewer of Unknown Pleasures (1979) called the music, “death disco”). He began to have seizures during gigs, particularly from the phototic stimulation of the strobe lights...the audience enthusiastically approved of him collapsing in a fit and falling into the drum set as the music peaked. Curtis, however, became increasingly ashamed at these episodes of loss of control.

And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I've lost control again...
And she screamed out kicking on her side and said, 
I've lost control again.
And she seized up on the floor, I thought she'd die.
She said I've lost control...
And she showed up all the errors and mistakes...
And walked upon the edge of no escape...
She's lost control again.
She's lost control.

“She's Lost Control” (1979)

And he began to increasingly wonder at the crowds' thirst for bloodshed and destruction, apparently, his destruction (consider the scapegoat or the human sacrifice that purifies the group at the expense of the individual).

Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist,
Behind his eyes he says, 'I still exist...'
But the sickness is drowned by cries for more,
Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall...
This is the way, step inside...

“Atrocity Exhibition” (1980)

Yet, in the end, he decides to accept his role as guide into the realms of despair and darkness, and ultimately death...

Can't replace or relate, can't release or repair,
Take my hand and I'll show you what was and will be...

“Atrocity Exhibition” (1980)

And here we will pause in our journey until next issue...In the following installments we will explore various issues, violence/despair and transformation; Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces and the Sex Pistols; Jung's stages of alchemical transformation; the shaman's journey through death to healing; Nietzsche on music, tragedy, the balance of creation and destruction in art; Bataille's writings on excess and inner experience; cultural critics discussion on “ugliness” in art and music; the interplay of the individual on the stage and the emotions of the audience; movement inward/outward.
For those interested in further reading, or in tracking down the veracity of what I have written, refer to:

Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis, 1995 (Ian's widow).
From Joy Division to New Order: The Factory Story, Mick Middles, 1996.
An Ideal For Living: An History of Joy Division, Mark Johnson, 1984.
Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll, Mikal Gilmore, 1998.

And any of the various liner notes for Joy Division and New Order releases.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz