In 1985, I was depressed.
This was to some extent the normal state of a teenager. But severe depression also runs in my family on my mother’s side – serious medication, and a suicide. I have been lucky to escape the worst of it – though I am never far from melancholy – but my 10th-grade year was the first of two semi-serious (in intensity, and duration) incidents of it in my life.
In both cases, my depression was triggered by what in hindsight was a positive change; a breaking of old habits. Since 4th grade, I had attended a school at which I was fairly unhappy. Didn’t care for most of the kids. Didn’t care for most of the teachers. And by middle school I had fallen in with the “bad” kids; “bad” in quotes, because most of the trouble we were getting into was pretty standard-issue teen stuff – cutting classes, vandalism, shoplifting/theft, sneaking a beer or a cigarette or (don’t ask me why) chewing tobacco here and there.
During my freshman year of high school an incident had occurred (nothing too dramatic, really; just one of those stupid things) that had made look at where my life was likely headed if I kept on my current path. I decided to break off contact with the crowd I had been running with. Turn my life around. Things were going to be different from now on.
Well, things were different all right.
To put it plainly, they sucked.
Because by then my reputation preceded me – it was a small school, private, very cliquish, with many rich families (my family was decidedly not rich; private financial assistance allowed me to attend). Teachers knew I was trouble, and no benefit of the doubt was extended to me (understandably, I might add). There were times when I got blamed (again, understandably) for stuff I didn’t do. As I said, I didn’t like a lot of the kids; but the ones I did like wanted nothing to do with me.
So I was depressed. I was trying to do the right thing, and I had never been lonelier in my life. Aren’t you supposed to be rewarded for making good choices?
Some depressed people sleep all the time – but my experience of it has manifested both times in terrible insomnia – no sleep, at all, for the many nighttime hours until I had to go back to school or work, exhausted, and face the disapproving eyes and walk the halls alone again, days and days on end in a blurry cycle of no past nor future.
(Does this all sound teen-melodramatic enough yet? Sorry – I am well-aware in retrospect that it probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed – and anyway, This Too Did Pass.)
One sleepless night in the long quiet hours, I was writing the same kind of navel-gazing nonsense that you’re reading now and listening to my old clock radio. I fiddled with it a bit, seeking companionship in sound, tuning it to what I later discovered was a listener-funded community station down at the left side of the dial.
And the song at the top of the post – “Cities In Dust”, by Siouxsie & The Banshees, is what I heard.
I was utterly transfixed. I had never heard anything like this in my southern suburban life. I’m not sure I breathed for four minutes; the radio was crappy, the signal weak, and I didn’t want to miss anything.
That voice, elemental and imperious; the way she sings “my friend”, somehow managing to make the words sound simultaneously sympathetic and threatening. That rubbery, sensuous groove and percussive and exotic bell-sound, set against the razor slashes of the guitar. The apocalyptic lyrical imagery, which at the time seemed to be about the looming nuclear conflagration that we all figured was coming any day.
(I would later realize the song was about Pompeii. I also took the lyrics to be metaphorically alluding to the musical apocalypse of which the Banshees and the other post-punk bands fancied themselves part; a scorched-earth kiss of death to the old music that – I thought then – just didn’t matter anymore. A disorienting paradox: future music about a distant past.)
Siouxsie & The Banshees – Dazzle (with footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey)
I went to the record store the next day to find any records by this band. I asked the clerk – an older girl, cooler than I could ever hope to be – what else was like that. She pointed me to all the usual suspects – The Cure and Bauhaus (who vectored me back toward Bowie) and Joy Division (who vectored me back toward the Pistols) etc., setting me on musical breadcrumb trails that I continue to follow backward and forward in time, to this day; all of those trails in my mental map & legend ultimately traceable to this song. I had fallen in love with songs before, but “Cities In Dust” is the first song I remember feeling like mine; like maybe it loved me back.
Below are two very different bands, The Jam and Joy Division, appearing on an easily-parodied Brit teen variety program called Something Else.
For their part, The Jam rip through “Eton Rifles”, every bit as sharp as the mods they were looking back to, valiantly attempting to rekindle the fire of The Past. It’s got a cookin’ bassline, and by the end Paul Weller is just throwing shards of sound off his guitar. It’s a great, exciting performance.
But it’s no slam on The Jam when I say that Joy Division were unequivocally The Future. From the iconic cover art of Unknown Pleasures (an image of pulsar radio waves taken from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy that looks a bit like a map of a mountain range) gracing their side of the stage, to the way lead singer Ian Curtis seemingly stares with haunted eyes at an event horizon that most of us thankfully can’t see, a singularity with a gravitational pull that he proved unfortunately unable to resist.
Watch his famously-jerky dance moves, alternately appearing as though he is being controlled from without, like a puppet on strings, or perhaps from within by spirit possession (he had been diagnosed with epilepsy earlier that year). He looks like he is barely suppressing the urge to panic and just run.
Starting with the insistent, electrifying pulse of Peter Hook’s staccato bassline, “Transmission” commands, not requests, a dance to the radio. Its cold rhythms are as mysterious and alien-yet-clockwork-regular as that pulsar signal on the album cover. Even Bernard Sumner’s lead guitar figure seems to be “switching”, like it’s Morse code, as it regularly cycles in a binary pattern up and down one octave.
But the signal’s integrity can only be maintained for so long. Entropy always wins in the end. Stephen Morris’ cyborg-martial drums trail off and wind down, all energy spent, returning again to absolute zero:
The Jam & Joy Division on Something Else
Joy Division seem to have taken inspiration from Wire. Wire’s “Dot Dash” single from the prior year also has a “binary” riff and some similar lyrics (Wire: “The chances smaller, the odds are slimmer” vs. JD: “Touching from a distance, further all the time”).
The “speeding/crashing cars” imagery in “Dot Dash” also prefigures JD’s “Disorder” (a word which also calls to mind entropy and signal/noise ratios, not to mention illness) – or maybe both bands are just drawing from the same Burroughs/Ballard well:
Joy Division – Disorder
Wire – Dot Dash
Wire sought to pare away and abstract punk’s back-to-basics urge to a sort of dadaistic minimalist code; rock as art installation or cryptic manifesto. Their influence stretches down both sides of the Atlantic – they sued Elastica over this one, their enigmatic songs have been covered by REM (“Strange”, on their suggestively-named breakthrough album Document) and Minor Threat (“1 2 X U”), and their no-fat approach to songwriting (16 of the 22 tracks on their lean debut Pink Flag don’t break the two-minute mark) has been cited by bands from the Minutemen to Guided by Voices.
“Map Ref. 41˚ N 93˚ W”, the catchiest song ever recorded about cartography, seems to anticipate a future in which systems both political and technological would increasingly seek to describe every last corner of our reality, making surveys and assigning GPS coordinates and laying claim not just to formerly-mysterious land, but to the unknown geography of human minds and hearts.
But the map is not the territory; messy reality doesn’t slot squarely into boxes. Like the way that the burbling 3-beat pattern of the liquid bass never quite fits into the relentlessly-ticking 4-beat grid of the drums.
And dig the way they get meta, snarking “Chorus!” when it rolls around at 1:35, their massed harmonies descending on approach to meet the word “altitude”:
Wire – Map Ref. 41˚ N 93˚ W
Interestingly, the kings of sonic abstraction in My Bloody Valentine chose to play their cover fairly straight, thereby proving that trying to out-deconstruct Wire is a fool’s errand – witness the shimmering “Kidney Bingos”, Wire’s late-80’s attempt at “pop”. A lovely gentle lilting melody, married to playfully stream-of-consciousness lyrics (I LOVE this song):
Wire – Kidney Bingos
Feel free to hold forth in comments about: Teen depression; your first musical love; temporal & spatial dislocation; signals & sonic abstraction; or whatever strikes your fancy.