“As we age, we grow embarrassed at our own seriousness, from remembering being that teenager sat in their bedroom, underlining words in a book. But as adults we can also forget the deep communion that music and literature can inspire, the sense of rightness clicking into place. Messages in a bottle, signals proclaiming who you are even as you first start to place yourself.”
–Sophie Mackintosh, The Guardian.
It seems impossible now there was ever a pre-internet time, an age when we were stranded in our corporeal selves with no digital corridors to wander; no meandering rabbit-holes of obscure interests to fall down; no social media to help us find our tribe.
Looking back, it’s a tired cliché: I was a depressed teenager with a self-destructive romanticism coiled in my brain, listening to music in my bedroom, or plugged into my Walkman, volume turned up as loud as my ears could tolerate, a buffer against the bleak Sydney suburbs. Always dreaming, waiting to escape. I was stuck with my schoolmates and neighbors, limited to the haphazard geographic boundaries dealt to me by fate.
Music became the torchlight by which I navigated the darkness, in search of a world bigger than the one I inhabited. I watched Rage, a late night Australian music video TV show, I listened to local Sydney independent radio station “Triple J,” I traveled into the city to visit record stores to buy second-hand vinyl, and the latest editions of New Musical Express (NME) all the way from England, its pages full of the glamour and intrigue of the bands that I swooned over: Joy Division, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure. I read editorials and album reviews, imagined the thrill of live concerts, studied the photographs of my idols. Then, I discovered the classified section of NME, the lists of people who listened to the same music as me. They were looking for penpals.
I scanned the lists for my best matches. I wrote neat letters on lined paper to girls in England, in Ireland, in Wales and in Scotland, folded the letters into envelopes, copied their classified number onto the front with the address of the NME office, affixed a stamp and walked to the nearest mailbox. I sent my hopeful missives all over the United Kingdom, enthusiastically listing my favorite bands. I tried to sound erudite and interesting, yet casual and witty. Then I waited. It took weeks, months. Eventually some wrote back—and they were genuinely excited to write to me, in faraway, foreign Sydney!
And then it happened, penpal gold: I opened an envelope to discover a stapled-together, handmade cardboard swap book. These precursors to social media profiles listed the names and addresses of girls from all over the world, alongside their fangirl dedications to beloved bands, pasted-in lyrics of their favorite songs, and other adolescent-critical personal information: pets, hobbies, star signs. The swap books had the same punk aesthetic of zines. I flipped through, reading the profiles, found a blank page and added my details, then posted it on to one of my penpals. The swap books tracked their way around the world. Once full they were returned to sender, bursting with new penpal prospects. Swap books led to an overabundance of penpals: I wrote letters every day, checked the mail box compulsively. I stopped writing to the ones with terrible handwriting, the lazy irregular writers, the ones who made too many spelling mistakes, the dull ones. I whittled down to a select and almost manageable inventory of global letter-writing friends.
Music tethered me to these girls, ley lines across the globe originating in Sydney, radiating out and across the equator, stretching to North America and Europe.
I sit alone in the flickering light of the television set. The camera’s shaky gaze ascends a decaying staircase. A door is opened by a disembodied hand. Driving guitar and a discordant drumbeat are joined by an eerie, wavering keyboard. In a crumbling rehearsal studio at the top of the stairs, where the roof sags and weak sunlight falls through the windows onto bare floorboards, four members of a band face away from each other, yet are caught in the orbit of their lead singer. This is Joy Division. The low bass baritone of Ian Curtis lurches in, his mouth pressed against the microphone as if to consume it. Curtis the civil servant; his vocals like a recitation of a bureaucratic memo. He stares into space at a fixed point we cannot see.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” all reverb and echo, ends abruptly. The room now empty, as if the band were an apparition. This music has held me at a cliff-edge, vertiginous, gazing into my own loneliness.
The next day, I catch the train into downtown Sydney and head to the second-hand record shops of Pitt Street. I dig through crates of vinyl to find the monochrome covered copies of the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” 12-inch single and Joy Division’s 1979 debut album, Unknown Pleasures.
Like many of the bands I idolize in my teens, Joy Division is already mythic by the time I drop the needle of my cheap turntable on the spinning black vinyl. Still, I connect with the music, no matter that the lead singer’s remains had been interred at Macclesfield Cemetery before I’d even turned ten.
Joy Division’s music is steeped in the political despair of Thatcher’s England; class inequalities, unemployment, inflation, industrial unrest and the ever-present shadow of IRA violence. Joy Division was spawned in Manchester, a near-derelict industrial city that composted its socio-economic woes to grow a vibrant post-punk music scene in England’s bleak, gray north.
My home, the cultural wasteland of outer suburban late 1980s Sydney, is as bleak as Manchester, in its own way—flat, treeless, economically and socially disadvantaged. People are poor. Violence simmers behind the closed doors of brick veneer houses, in the shadows of railway underpasses, and around the dusty edges of darkened sports fields. The air is heavy with hopelessness. I languish in a fugue of terminal boredom.
Three weeks after the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” music video is filmed, Curtis will be dead by suicide. Joy Division rarely gave interviews and didn’t interact much with audiences; in the aftermath of Curtis’s death they will transcend their music, evolve from a band into a full-blown aesthetic of stylish nihilism (though any fan will tell you that Joy Division’s music contains both darkness and light, the poppy and the morbid; “funeral music that you can dance to,” as Richard V. Hirst describes it). But for Curtis, ever the kinetic, electric frontman, the dancing eventually ceased.
“Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
–John Updike in Self-Consciousness: Memoirs
Not only did the music of post-punk connect me to penpals, it also led me to books. All of my favorite bands loaded their lyrics with literary references, and name-dropped writers in interviews. I ran my fingers along the spines on the shelves at my school library, and when I could not find the books there, my downtown record store trips branched out to take in second-hand bookshops. I begin to accumulate beaten-up, yellowed paperbacks alongside my growing collection of vinyl.I am that teenager again, wanting to retreat to my bedroom. I want to make myself disappear, to make myself as small as I can.
Ian Curtis’s literary passions included Burroughs, Ballard, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre, Lovecraft and Hesse. He was a regular at Manchester bookshops, where he picked up science fiction, pulp and other eclectic literature. The influence of these authors seeped into his lyrics: religious overtones; currents of militarism, nihilism and horror, themes of fatalism and martyrdom. Curtis’s songs were often a pastiche of the books he read. He was known to retreat to his writing room at night—blue carpet, blue walls—with his books, taking notes while cigarette smoke coiled upwards to the ceiling. Curtis would pull out his notes at rehearsal with Joy Division and shape them into song lyrics, excavating his own simmering dread for his bandmates to match with guitar riffs and bass lines.
Joy Division led me to read Franz Kafka and William Burroughs; The Cure to Albert Camus; The Smiths to George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, John Keats and Oscar Wilde. The heady combination of books and music created thresholds into other dimensions. . . but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide of teenage gloom that overwhelmed me.
So I made a plan for permanent exile. I rolled the dice, but the devil handed me back over the threshold. I woke up. I kept breathing. I made a bargain with myself: another ten years.
Then, a few years later, I moved out of the suburbs. I packed away my adolescent self.
“Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation… there is a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.”
–Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia
Neuroscientists, neurologists and psychologists have researched and written extensively on the human brain’s relationship to music, mapped and measured the way it jump-starts memory and emotion. Music triggers the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain, lights up our circuitry like a string of twinkling fairy lights—it’s like the high of an ecstasy pill, or an orgasm.
Our musical memory persists long after other forms of memory and comprehension of self have disappeared into the ether. Music is etched into our brains like grooves on vinyl. Familiar music can jolt dementia patients out of torpor, dredging glimpses of themselves to the surface for an inhalation of oxygen before sinking back into darkness.
The music of our adolescence holds a special place in the brain, beyond simple nostalgia: psychologists call it the “reminiscence bump.” My pre-frontal cortex fired up when I listened to Joy Division as a teenager, my hormones surging through that intense period of self-discovery, and rapid psychological and social development. The music imprinted on me. While I can unthread and cast off other aspects of myself, the music remains, playing forever on a loop.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
–Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem
That bargain: another ten years. My twenties. Painted in black make-up, swaying in the heavy drift of machine-made smoke on the heaving dancefloor of a Sydney goth nightclub. Joy Division reverberates through the speakers. In this church, the communion with music is deep; we are devotees.
Another ten years. My thirties. It is soon after the birth of my first child. I am adrift in a fog of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. I join the local mothers group to trade war stories and eat cake, to fret over infant milestones and the unknowable minds of babies. A mounted “Unknown Pleasures” poster hangs in the living room of the mother hosting our get-together. Memory flickers and plucks familiar chords in my limbic brain.
Another ten years. My forties.
Reading We Were Strangers, an anthology of short stories titled for songs from the album Unknown Pleasures. Each of these stories explodes in divergent trajectories; they are unique in interpretation and form. The collection reads like a cascade of my anxiety-fueled dreams.
Drinking a shiraz, “Known Pleasures,” made by a local Australian winemaker. The label riffs off Joy Division’s album cover with its distinctive stacked plot of a pulsar’s radio signals. I am sharing the wine with my friends who are moving south to the Australian island-state of Tasmania. They are leaving Melbourne to escape the floods and fires of the looming climate apocalypse; they have forged their exit route.
Standing in the packed concert hall of the Sydney Opera House watching New Order. A giant video-screen behind the band projects boldly colored geometric patterns, white laser lights sweep across the crowd temporarily blinding me. The bandmembers are middle-aged now and, like me, so is most of the audience. Towards the end of the concert the band performs a few songs by Joy Division. The needle drops into the familiar groove and I spin back to my adolescence. I feel a jolt of grief for a long-abandoned version of myself; fat tears roll down my cheeks.
Mid-life snags me unexpectedly; it feels as liminal and uncertain as adolescence. This hairpin turn in the road throws me into a state of despair. I walk the streets of downtown Melbourne and want the gray asphalt to crack open. I want to be swallowed up, pulled down into the Earth’s core. I am that teenager again, wanting to retreat to my bedroom. I want to make myself disappear, to make myself as small as I can. I recognize the tune, feel the needle reach the end of the track and circle on a repeating loop, the vinyl crackling and warped with age.
My therapist tells me to imagine my depression is a vine climbing up my body trying to strangle me. She says I should visualize casting off the tendrils of the vine, stamp my depression into the ground and set it alight. But I can’t separate something from me that feels elemental and watch it burn.
Spotify serves up a Joy Division song on my morning tram commute, my mood predicted perfectly by algorithm: “Confusion in her eyes that says it all / She’s lost control / And she’s clinging to the nearest passer by / She’s lost control.”
This song is a requiem; memories stagger drunkenly onstage in search of the spotlight.
“But she expressed herself in many different ways / Until she lost control again / And walked upon the edge of no escape / And laughed I’ve lost control.”
I cry behind sunglasses hoping no-one will notice, carrying my past self around like an unwelcome ghost, while the future me remains indistinct, a shape I cannot fix on. Psychologists say that we look back on our former selves with embarrassment, as if they are very different from our present selves. We think that in the present, we have reached our peak of personal evolution and underestimate how much we will change in the future. They call this phenomenon the “end of history illusion.”
Ian Curtis listened to Iggy Pop’s album, The Idiot, on his turntable and filled his ashtray with spent cigarettes. By the time he had finished composing his suicide letter, he could hear birdsong heralding the dawn of a new day.