[Minor spoilers ahead for people who don't know anything at all about Joy Division.]
The other night I got to see Control, the new biopic about Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, who took his own life in 1980 at the age of 23, thus sealing his status as an eternal rock legend.
I first learned about Joy Division from reading about his death in Creem Magazine, the summer after my 16th birthday. In fact, most of the cool music I first learned about was music that I only read about and never heard. I knew gobs about obscure bands like Joy Division and Panther Burns and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Gang of Four and the Alley Cats just because I'd read about them, because Robert Christgau had an opinion about them, and I rarely heard them because it was stuff that it was hard to hear at the time even on WTUL, and I didn't have much of a budget for buying music, especially expensive imports. But the short Creem blurb about Joy Division, their music, and Ian's death, accompanied by this haunting photo, really stuck with me. It felt like the Quadrophenia thing I talked about the other day, but taken to a much darker place, a place I hadn't been to yet but could see from here.
In college, I became one of those kids who lived in the Joy Division world a little too deeply. When I was 19 I used to say, in all seriousness, that I hoped I didn't live to see 30 and that I would make sure I didn't. I was moody, I was depressed. (And chicks dug it, at least a few of them, which was an added bonus. Mysterious moody bad boy. Until they would get sick of my morose shit and dump me, which then further fed the beast.)
Seeing Control was a big deal for me. And on the heels of last week's Quadrophenia epiphany, on the eve of my teetering sobriety anniversary, it affected me deeply.
From a pure film critic point of view, you could probably pick it apart for a lackluster ending, for the lack of depth of character of the other band members.
None of that matters to me. Greg Peters has called this, with a hint of derision, "The Passion of the Christ", but for me, in trying to newly process my memories of my life as a 19-year-old vaguely suicidal alcoholic, it really was exactly that. I needed to see inside Ian's head. I needed to understand. I needed to know why.
And why, as it turns out, was a simple garden variety love triangle. Ian got married too young, before his art and his importance had flourished, and he fell out of love with the mother of his child and in love with somebody who would have been his soulmate if only he had waited a few more years to meet her. And his epilepsy and other health problems prevented him from dealing emotionally with the complications of living in the fucked up situation he had place himself in. And one night, in a moment of great pain and pressure and confusion and weakness, he hung himself.
So when you see the movie and re-listen to the music in the context of what was going on in his life, you realize that what he did was pour his feelings and his doubts and his regrets into his songs. Literally. Literally in the extreme. When he writes in "Love Will Tear Us Apart":
When routine bites hard,
And ambitions are low,
And resentment rides high
But emotions won't grow,
And we're changing our ways,
Taking different roads,
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Why is the bedroom so cold?
Turned away on your side.
Is my timing that flawed,
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there's still this appeal
That we've kept through our lives
And love, love will tear us apart again
he is writing about his wife, and he knows his wife knows he is writing about her, and she knows that the whole world knows that he is writing about her. But he wrote and recorded it anyway.
As art, it is a profound piece of work.
As a way to treat a person you love...it seems morally questionable. Is inflicting pain like this somehow justified if great music or literature or art is the result?
Yet, if you strip out all the interpersonal relationship complications and all the regret and pain from Ian's lyrics, you're not left with fucking much else besides "dance dance dance dance dance to the radio". If all that emotional raw material was not available to him as a lyricist, then likely nobody would have ever heard of Joy Division, nobody would have ever made a movie about them, and I wouldn't be writing a blog post trying to explain why this is all so personally important.
So what the fuck does all this have to do with me?
Because I've been wrestling with these very issues for a long time. Some of you may remember that I did a big purge of some archives of my blog a year or so ago because I wrote some things there that hurt some people that I love very much, not expecting that they would ever read them. And so certain topics and certain people are no longer discussed here, because the risk is too great.
I have coworkers who have found my blog. My wife's coworkers and derby friends read it. My parents and possibly my brothers and for all I know my kids friends from school read this stuff. So my blog slowly constricts down to that which is safe, which is inoffensive, non-worrisome, and family-hour friendly. Circe said to me a few years ago, "your blog is just brochure-ware now...you post about bands you like and movies you saw and you link to funny pictures you found on the internet, but you don't actually say anything any more. Your blog is just a brochure of Ray". As if I were a hotel chain now, and this is just an inoffensive and inviting protrayal about what a fun and interesting guy Ray is. Hotel Ray is kid-friendly, serves crawfish ettoufee in the main restaurant, has Mission of Burma karaoke every Tuesday, and shows all the Red Sox games in the Sporty Sport bar on the mezzanine.
But it's just a blog, right? I mean, who cares? But the same conflict holds true for any kind of writing, and that is where I am really struggling. I want to be a writer. Published and all. I have one published work under my belt, a humorous little memoir about working as a float grunt during Mardi Gras in the 70's, which was published right after the storm by Chin Music Press. That story worked because I am pretty good at telling true stories in a funny and entertaining and only slightly embellished way. I want to write more; I've got a short story in progress, and a short speculative fiction novel taking shape in my head. But I write best when I write what I know, when I base my writing, at least loosely, on things that have actually happened to me or to people I know.
But other than a handful of humorous anecdotes, the really important, real literature-worthy things that I've experienced, are things that must remain private.
I can't do what Augusten Burroughs did in Running With Scissors or Dry. I can't just let fly on everybody I know, burn every bridge, and let the chips fall where they may. There are people involved, people I love, people I don't want to hurt. I want to write painful stories, but those stories are painful for other people too, not just me.
So I don't write anything interesting. I'm crap for making stuff up completely out of whole cloth. I can't do pure fiction the way somebody like Stephen King or William Gibson can. There has to be some of me in there or the words just don't come.
I don't know the way out of this conunudrum. I wrestle with emotional issues as significant as Ian Curtis...different ones, to be sure, but just as significant...but I am bound by duty to family and friends, and by rules of social and workplace decorum not to write about them.
I think I'll figure it out. Maybe I'll find my fiction voice one of these days. But right now it's fucking hard.
In the meantime, I am going to try, try really hard, to not let this blog be brochureware all the damn time.
[P.S. I feel I must add that if you read the above and try to infer anything about my marriage or my relationship with any of my family members or friends or any of my past relationships...if you think you know what specific people or events or experiences I am referring to...you're wrong. You just read my blog. None of you really know me. Not all of me.]