yesterday I taught the Song of Songs & we discussed the line “love is strong as death.” I quoted Sonnet 147: “Desire is death.” a student chimed in: “Love is a battlefield.” gen x casts a long shadow.
Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going? —Tennessee Williams
Early in 2021, I found that my emotions were becoming a burden to me. What was strange about my predicament was that most days I also felt disturbed by my lack of emotion, or the puniness of what I did feel: peevishness where there ought to be grief, a washed-out melancholy that hardly rose to the level of mourning. I felt bad, and I felt – pace the grammarians – badly. My lukewarm misery hardly seemed worthy of its causes. (To name a few: my father’s health collapsed; my wife’s father died; a friend’s beloved child went in and out of hospitals; a friend died; our cat died; the planet’s warming; Bernie lost.) This feeling alternated with nightly spikes of intense anxiety. My chest felt too tight for air to pass through, and I watched, for hours, the stupidest TV shows I could find, hoping to distract my brain from its own churning – a churning that went on regardless of the content I fed it – that would, if I strove to think about nothing, churn about itself.
The best artistic evocation of that churning I’ve ever heard is Joy Division’s 1979 classic “She’s Lost Control,” with its simple drum pattern and ascending guitar figure that repeat themselves in a tighter and tighter spiral until the song mercifully fades out. The song is meant to evoke an epileptic attack, of the sort that its singer Ian Curtis suffered with increasing frequency in the months before his May 1980 suicide. As for what grief ought to feel like, the scale of the sadness that I longed for but couldn’t achieve, that, too, had been perfectly expressed by the same band, in 1980’s “Atmosphere,” with its slow pace and its echo-heavy production (courtesy of Martin Hannett, who also died young), the contrast between Stephen Morris’s cavernous drums and Bernard Sumner’s high, pretty, icy synth figures. Listening to it is like walking through a darkened cathedral. Curtis’s otherworldly, somehow-already-posthumous vocals and Peter Hook’s luminous bass lead you through.
So it hardly seems accidental that I reached for these songs in my distress. Joy Division are a known favorite among the mentally disturbed, and in any case, we tend, in depressing times, to revert to the music that we listened to in our youth, which for me is post-punk and new wave. But the fact that I found myself, one evening, not only playing and replaying old Joy Division clips on YouTube, but reading the comments on those clips – that I must chalk up to the positively humiliating effects of pandemic loneliness. To read the comments on anything on the internet – an article, a video, a photo of an unimpeachably cute dog – is usually a bullet train to despair. But that evening, I discovered that people who comment on Joy Division videos are delightful, responding to the impersonal intimacy of the music with an equally disarming, if less artful, vulnerability. One commenter describes the band as his “mental backup” during the years when he was “getting abused by a family ‘friend.’” Another person details the strange connection between the band and his father, who “always had problems in his life” because “he was a child that wasn’t planned.”
I once heard of a program in which prisoners read Shakespeare and then, rather than mounting full performances, discuss the texts, reading them aloud, repeating the lines to themselves and to each other. Are these the right words, at last? Have I found the speech that will explain me to myself? Commenters on “Atmosphere” do a similar exercise with that song’s chillingly equivocal refrain “Walk / in silence / Don’t walk away / In silence,” and with the devastating line that opens its first verse, “people like you find it easy,” a line all the more powerful because Curtis doesn’t specify who finds what easy. It’s a bitten-off accusation, one he’s too overwhelmed to finish making. A commenter named OMEN writes, for example:
My brother just recently took his life, i didn’t play this song in his funeral because its a secret Ode i play in my mind for him … He walked away in silence for the last 7 years of his life …
A commenter posting under the name Nathan Parsons says: “As a lifelong sufferer of depression that ‘people like you find it easy’ line has always struck a chord.” TheMusicalElitist – speaking for so many of us musical elitists – writes, “As an Autistic person, this is what autism feels like: the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world who find it so easy to communicate. I will always walk away in silence.”
OMEN’s post is not the only one to reference a beloved person’s funeral. One woman writes that her ex-partner had wanted “Atmosphere” played at his funeral; when he died, she tried to honor his wishes but was overruled by the family. “sorry ronnie it was out of my control,” she wrote. “I play this and think of you.”
The reader can explain easily enough what was going on with me that day. I felt for the dead-too-young Ian Curtis – a brilliant artist and flawed man, a Tory domestic abuser and a part-time social-service provider noted for his compassion – what I didn’t know how to feel for the people around me. It’s safe to mourn a dead rock star; it hurts to mourn a friend. Like most explanations of emotional life, this one sounds both logical and somehow disconnected from the experience it’s supposed to explain, in the same way that I don’t know how to connect my mild despair or sharp anxiety to their ostensible causes. When people make logic out of my emotions for me, it feels like they’re constructing mottes and baileys. My instinctive response might be summarized: People like you find it easy.
If I was displacing my personal sadnesses onto Ian Curtis, I wasn’t alone there, either. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, another wave of comments came: RIP Ian, and thank you. Someone posting under the name Daniel Day wrote, “Clinically depressed for all of my adult life. [ … ] I wish Ian were alive, so that I could walk with him … to tell him that overcoming the urge is worth every last second of every breath.” Maybe he’s reassuring himself, but the anonymous charity of his comment, placed where any number of young or middle-aged depressives might stumble across it, reassures me as well.
Thus I became an informal student of the YouTube comment threads on the punk and post-punk bands of the 1970s and 1980s, just as, in adolescence, I had been an informal student of the bands themselves. Born in 1978, I came to this music already a bit late, and I often felt isolated in finding the era artistically fertile as well as amusingly camp. Joy Division and its successor band New Order nicely symbolize the various forms of that fertility. They began as a punk band called Warsaw, making amateurish and – to the extent the listener deciphers the lyrics – aimlessly provocative music. (All three band names are, in keeping with the punk-rock ethos, a calculated attempt to offend the generation that lived through World War II, also known as Mum and Dad.) But bassist Peter Hook couldn’t hear himself over the racket Warsaw generated, so he played higher on the neck than usual, generating an unusual timbre. Such lucky accidents – the luckiest their encounter with Hannett, who among other things rigorously separated the instruments, creating a sense of sonic detachment and isolation that matched Curtis’s lyrics, and introduced a slight digital delay that makes the songs seem to echo themselves, like Beckett’s Krapp speaking over his old tapes – transformed a sound that was all outward force into one that was all inward reflection. After Curtis’s suicide, as New Order, the remaining members further investigated the power of machines, and now it was the contrast between the mechanical perfection of the synths, the high, awkward voice of Bernard Sumner, and the warmth of Hook’s bass that created dramatic tension. They started by leveraging the expressive power of amateurism; they continued by embracing an analytic coldness; and then, with the help of machines, they became unlikely, Warholian global pop stars playing catchy dance music. That is new wave in a nutshell.
Well, almost. You also have to factor in history. The kids who listened to what was first punk, then post-punk, then new wave, then the hopelessly vague “alternative rock” came to maturity at roughly the moment the promises of New Deal America and Family Britain – that you would outdo your parents with the help of the state – were dropped. They were shadowed by the memory of two spectacular but failed revolutionary moments closely associated with pop music: the hippies and the punks. These alterna-teens thus fetishized outcasts and rebels, but the examples nearest to hand were failed rebels. Even the terms used to discuss the music reflect a sense of failure: “Postpunk,” like “postmodern,” does not describe anything; it only records one’s helpless subjection to time – punk happened, and then another thing happened, because things have a way of happening. “New wave,” a euphemism coined by a record-company head who didn’t like the word “punk,” is even worse: wave after wave after wave, and they all crash. The gloriously singable refrain of the Sex Pistols’ greatest song was “no future,” and yet the future kept coming. New wave relates to punk as the compromises that enable us to live relate to the dream of impossible perfection. This is why even lesser new wave is aesthetically interesting: it is melancholy. It is the thing you do after the thing that was supposed to end everything.
The odd little non-community that I found within the comments sections of other bands’ videos, too, was shadowed by failure, by the capitulations that constitute adulthood. Responding to the joyous “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by the Go-Go’s, which features the band illegally cavorting in a fountain, a commenter makes the immortal complaint of age to youth:
47 now and watching this makes me cry. Such happy carefree times. Life will never be like that again. This brought me right back to those wonderful 80s when music was great and everyone wasn’t tied to a phone and social media.
Surely this records a disappointment that runs far deeper than Twitter.
A comment on Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” sounds like a German Romantic who has been rather flatly translated:
This song brings a kind of a sad, nostalgic longing of a magical time long gone … it is almost as if I want to relive it, but at the same time reminds me of the pain of something that can not be anymore [ … ] now it’s just a long cruel summer.
Say it to yourself in a Werner Herzog voice.
But the passage of time brings joy as well as loss. I found myself especially moved to read, under David Bowie’s melancholy 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes”: “It feels really good to hear this song and be 5 years clean from heroin.” (The comment is attributed to one Buzz Lightyear.) People share their joys in these spaces as well as their sorrows. Under Modern English’s luminous Cold War love song “I Melt With You,” you can find story after story like this one, from a fellow who calls himself Cliff Cardinal:
I had a girlfriend since may 1981. This song i sang to her in 1983. That was 37 yrs ago. I was so in love with her, she was 14 and i was 16 when we met at an arcade in Santa Cruz at the boardwalk, 39 yrs ago. We got married in may 1986, had 4 sons and 1 daughter. We now have 10 grandchildren. Every time i play this song it just makes me melt and remember the time i had a girlfriend that was just drop dead gorgeous. She is still so beautiful.
The “melting” Cliff describes here isn’t what Modern English had in mind – the song is about experiencing nuclear apocalypse with your best girl by your side, or even closer – but it is the sort of melting I felt when I read his note.
Who knows whether it is ultimately pain or joy that stabs deepest, anyway? One evening, tired of being sad, I cued up what I thought was a safely cheerful, anthemic song, Big Country’s “In a Big Country.” Here is what I read immediately under it:
I was incarcerated in a state prison outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The local rock station played this song often. Always made me feel better. I am a free man now and appreciate this song so much more knowing where I came from.
A heavy joy, this comment, but a joy. What was even more heartening was the speed with which several other commenters affirmed this man’s good vibe. “Ah hope your life is good. Music can save your life it has mine and comedy x,” wrote Marian. She went on: “The internet can be such an impersonal place and I often wonder and hope for the people you see comment.” Me too, Marian.
Witnessing this exchange got me as close to weepy as I get. It was too much. So I went back up to the search box and typed in the happiest song I know – the ecstatic B-52s paean to no-frills two-person global travel, “Roam” – and, reader, I swear to you that this is what my eyes landed on: “Song came out when I was in my 20’s, they just offered me early retirement today, time to ROAM.” I hope that this poster, for whom I choked back a sob, is on a sunlit boat, watching what’s left of the whales.
I also hope she’s a real person. On the internet, you can’t be sure, and I’ve definitely read my share of what sounded like bots, or pranks, or malicious fictions. I felt a little twinge of doubt when a poster whose name appeared in Cyrillic characters shared the following information in response to Tears For Fears’s “Pale Shelter”: “I’m dying of lung cancer. Only this music comforts me.” “Pale Shelter” slaps, but really – no other music? Not even other Tears For Fears songs? At any rate, if this commenter is real, I apologize. But I will not apologize for doubting the very first response to him, her, or them: “Do not die!! There is a cure for you!! You can use soursop leaf tea!!!”
And in a year when multiple police departments have been caught committing social-media fabrication to counter protests, am I to believe that the following, which I found underneath Billy Idol’s greatest moment as a solo performer, really happened?
I was with my friend once at HyVee waiting in the long buffet line with a bottle of wine and dessert, waiting to order some sushi and chow mein to take home and they started played this song. Of course, we start singing along [ … ] Right as we were getting into it, I saw two cops standing behind us also singing along and bobbing their heads. One of them winked at me and the other one chuckled and suddenly they started singing louder with us and it ended up being an awesome short-lived karaoke party.
They go on to buy the cops dinner. “Despite everything that’s been going on in the world,” the commenter concludes, “it’s nice to have moments like these.” Now, maybe this happened! On the other hand, maybe there’s a police union’s intern somewhere who needs to let us Billy Idol fans dance with ourselves in peace.
These are the sorts of limits that online goodwill always runs up against. Art, and our sincere, artless responses to it, can evoke heart and soul – I was going to cheekily reference T’Pau’s 1987 hit “Heart and Soul” here, till I found that the coward who manages the band’s YouTube page has disabled comments – but we need flesh-and-blood presence too. The sages of the comment section acknowledge as much. The other day I listened to “Atmosphere” again, and noticed a comment I hadn’t seen before. Reflecting on Ian Curtis’s suicide, a fan wrote, with that mixture of kindness and acidity that the Brits have spent centuries perfecting: “Please talk to your wanker neighbour. They may be boring, but I prefer to speak to them than never have the opportunity.” That’s a truth. Who is my neighbor, though? During a rotten year, these strangers helped at least one remote neighbor feel less alone.