CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL SCORE: (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 168, (7) Tracy Chapman 159 .......... FINAL FOUR FINAL SCORES: (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 154, (1) Joy Division 90 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 137, (1) The Cure 89 .......... ELITE EIGHT FINAL SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 74, (14) Low 60 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 85, (1) Elliott Smith 69 ..... THE CURE 65, (2) Radiohead 58 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 74, (1) Neutral Milk Hotel 44 ..... FINAL SWEET SIXTEEN SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 75, (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave 24 ..... (14) LOW 73, (2) Concrete Blonde (64) ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 78, (4) Gary Jules 44 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 74, (6) Kate Bush 53 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 54, (13) The Church 49 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 73, (3) Sinead O’Connor 35 ..... (1) THE CURE 109, (3) Tori Amos 86 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 76, (6) This Mortal Coil 50 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 96, (9) Mazzy Star 91 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 76, (7) Bob Mould 28 ..... (14) LOW 60, (6) Crowded House 51 ..... (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 65, (4) Alphaville 38 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 113, (8) Replacements 88 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 87, (3) Nirvana 64 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 99, (2) The Eels 62 ..... (3) GARY JULES 103, (12) Morrissey 63 ..... (6) Kate Bush 72, (3) Nirvana 53 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 66, (11) Ride 27 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 106, (5) James 44 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 95, (10) Smashing Pumpkins 40 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 80, (9) New Order 56 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 102, (7) Nine Inch Nails 99 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 61, (3) Indigo Girls 60 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 89, (5) Swans 40 ..... (1) CURE 82, (8) Tom Waits 68 ............... FINAL 1ST ROUND SCORES: (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 93, (12) Midnight Oil 38 ..... (7) BOB MOULD 63, (10) Peter Murphy 47 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 117, (16) Erasure 19 ..... (6) CROWDED HOUSE 98, (11) Leonard Cohen 54 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 199, (10) The Smiths 162 ..... (5) MORRISSEY 115, (12) Morphine 83 ..... (3) NIRVANA 137, (14) Slowdive 102 ..... (8) THE REPLACEMENTS 128, (9) Dream Academy 82 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 262, (4) Magnetic Fields 193 ..... (10) SMASHING PUMPKINS 165, (7) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 155 ..... (9) NEW ORDER 160, (8) Sarah McLachlan 78 ..... (1) JEFF BUCKLEY 204, (16) Bjork 92 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 78, (13) Echo & the Bunnymen 22 ..... (8) TOM WAITS 72, (9) The Pretenders 22 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 51, (11) Yaz 31 ..... (3) INDIGO GIRLS 71, (14) Pavement 26 ..... (9) MAZZY STAR 132, (8) REM 46 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 88, (15) Psychedelic Furs 34 ..... (4) ALPHAVILLE 71, (13) Dead Can Dance 36 ..... (14) LOW 120, (3) U2 65 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 63, (16) 10,000 Maniacs 24 ..... (2) EELS 50, (15) Counting Crows 46 ..... (4) GARY JULES 62, (13) Depeche Mode 19 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 59, (11) Sisters of Mercy 20 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 42, (16) Violent Femmes 12 ..... (11) RIDE 25 (6) Peter Gabriel 24 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 37, (14) Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 17, ..... (5) JAMES 24, (12) Red House Painters 23 ..... (7) NINE INCH NAILS 46, (10) Wilco 31, (5) SWANS 31, (12) Pet Shop Boys 18 ..... (1) THE CURE 50, (16) Gear Daddies 10 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 40, (15) Liz Phair 35


Thursday, March 31, 2016

As March Ends, We Thank You

Thanks to all of you who helped play out, root for, and publicize these games. Particular thanks to our Final Four analysts, Pam Houston and Rick Moody, and to the writers who helped to essay the Sweet Sixteen and Second Round, whom we'll iterate here along with the band/musician they wrote essays on, to as to provide a lasting index of some excellent writing:
And of course, thanks to you, our voters and commenters and tweeters and facebookers.

So the tournament this year is over, with Buckley standing atop a weeping field. It doesn't mean, however, that you can't play it yourself—or with someone you love—all over again, and this time you can make it come out how you want. What news stays news? This bracket. It is, after all, a self-diagnostic tool.

Watch this space for the next installment in 2017: March Fadness. Want to contribute a writeup or analysis? Drop us a line.

—Your Official March Sadness Selection Committee

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


is JEFF BUCKLEY's "Hallelujah!

FINAL SCORE: (2) Jeff Buckley 168, (7) Tracy Chapman 159

This was a beast of a game, with Chapman taking control from the tip-off and playing exactly the kind of game she wanted to: no-frills, no-pretense, no self-pity, slick technical basketball. You could watch it happening but be at a a loss as to how to stop it. She went into halftime with a 25-point lead, but in the second half Buckley came out just on fucking fire, hitting every shot he took for a moment, and cut the lead to 10, then to 4, and then he was on top. Hard to describe it as anything but dude was touched by something then, carrying something spectral even, maybe the ghost of Elliott Smith (who had intervened in a previous game, we think, and stuffed The Replacements' last-minute shot—we couldn't see anything but the ball in the air, time run out, and it must have hit something and deflected, but we could see nothing at all, and the ball fell harmlessly out of bounds and the game was over then).

Before we knew it, Buckley's "Hallelujah" was up by a dozen, riding votes largely from overseas (Italy, Poland, and Australia all came in and tilted Buckley when the Americans were asleep). Could it continue? It couldn't. Chapman got a stop, slipped a screen and nailed an open three, forced another turnover, another open three, and one more to get it back within a one possession game...

With time winding down, Buckley started showing signs of tiring—or losing his edge anyway. He missed an easy layup, and missed three straight free throws. Though both musicians are known for only one or two songs, Buckley has the deeper following, while Chapman is more widely known, largely for this very song. Buckley, conveniently no longer around to sully his reputation with release of new music (though we note he has an album dropping soon: we keep seeing the promos for it since the great data mind has datamined the fact that we keep listening to Jeff Buckley and sold our desires to third parties who conspire to know us and to sell us things even now), seemed keen on showing that he is no one-hit wonder. And he did, taking home the championship in the end by only nine points.

We could repeat some sports clichés here: how Chapman dug deep, how Buckley was in the zone, but that’s sad, isn’t it. We were frankly astonished by how deeply people felt about these two songs to get them here, to this moment, the crowning of the winner. What did it mean that these were the two songs that emerged from the whole bracket to play for the championship? Do we really prefer our sadnesses to be solo, having voted down two (1) seeds—both bands, both British, both heavy hitters—in the final four: Joy Division and The Cure? It’s hard not to lament some of those with tough matchups in the first few rounds: how deep could (9) Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” have gone if it hadn’t met “Pictures of You” in the second round? How did (12) Red House Painters’ “Katy Song” lose to James in their first matchup? What if The Replacements had beaten Elliott Smith in the second round? Or poor (10) The Smiths’s “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” paired up in a first-round match against our finalist “Fast Car”? And for a while, Mazzy Star looked like the band with the hot hand, after taking down a way-underseeded REM in a surprising first-round matchup, they took Joy Division to the buzzer, when Hope Sandoval’s desperation three rattled out. And what about tournament overachievers (14) Low (“Words”)? After knocking down U2, Crowded House, and PJ Harvey, they ran into what we thought was a sure winner, “Atmosphere,” in the Elite Eight, and there their fandom split a bit, we think: easier to pick Low over Crowded House, and even they knew that Joy Division was going to prove a stouter foe.

They did, but were no match for Chapman’s game. At least two of our expert panelists picked Chapman from the start, though neither got to advocate for her on the game pages. So what did we miss about Chapman to have given her such a low seed? Her song—her one song (though she had another hit much later, let’s be real, for most of us it’s “Fast Car” or nothing: even the geeky types who form the committee hadn’t listened to her past that other hit)—was so ubiquitous the year that it came out that we stopped listening to it. We stopped even hearing it: we just heard the phenomenon of it: yeah, yeah, Fast Car, My name is Luka, I live on the second floor (how easily we conflate phenomena!) and let’s get back to our Cure tapes and our Depeche Mode that let us really feel how we want to feel.

We hadn’t realized, as one commenter mentioned later in a hallway conversation, how “Fast Car” can be read as a direct response (in both content musically—how there’s a riff in “Fast Car” that seems to call it back) to John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” (a sad-ass song, if not one that qualifies as “college rock”) and thinking about it more, we were reminded how Mellencamp discovered Chapman, auditioning acts for Farm Aid, and ran across an unheralded Tracy Chapman, and put her onstage there, and the rest is history.

Or, well, “Fast Car” is history, and then a gap—not for her but for us, for most of us, this, let’s admit it, probably pretty white crowd (as an early commenter said, as a joke, we think, #MarchSadnessSoWhite: indeed! but on reflection all the bands that we listened to then who even loosely fell under the aegis of “college rock” were white: like we wonder—and other, smarter people have probably written about this: direct us there if you have suggested reading?—if college rock (which became, kind of, alternative as the 80s bled into the 90s) served as a counter to mainstream Top 40 radio in the same way that hip hop did?). Well, we don’t know what happened then. And we forgot about Chapman, consumed as we were with our own obsessions with the synths and with the Brits and with our excavation of all the alternatives to the hits—until “Give Me Just One Reason” reminded us of what her voice can do.

I realize I’m not writing about Buckley here, or not much. That’s because I’m a little tired of “Hallelujah,” by now, if I’m being honest, even as he’s gone on to win the thing.

It’s true that Buckley and Chapman aren’t exactly in the center of the college rock genre. As someone said on Twitter, these finals could have been played in a Starbucks in Overland Park, Kansas instead of here, in the Doc Martens March Sadness Basketball Arena in Tucson, Arizona. While that’s true, we take that to mean that Starbucks has better taste in music than you think, or that it’s eaten us, that the center of the culture has consumed the fringe, as it does. We’re reminded of that moment a couple years ago when we realized that we knew all the songs at Starbucks while we were sipping on our hard-earned lattes, that two in the last half hour alone appeared on our last motherfucking mix tape.

I freaked out a bit, I should admit. Wait, I said, does that mean we’ve lost our cool? Megan said: oh honey, I thought you knew. God damn, I said. God damn the sun.

Well, I am certain I will never hear Swans at Starbucks, but I did hear “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as I shopped at the grocery store in Michigan—in a Muzak version, no less. I knew then that something was over. Maybe the counterculture, whatever it was and how it helped us define ourselves then, lost, or did it just serve its purpose and recede? Or was it always just a pose? I don’t know. Even what I complain about, calling derisively Top 40 Mainstream culture in the 80s was never that monolithic, I don’t think. If you’re, say, five years older than me, or just a bit smarter than me, you probably already realized that. Sure, there were their share of crappy bands churned out on the major labels, but there were weird spikes too, one of them being Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which is a pretty god damn sad song when you really listen to it, if you can. And her story’s sad. It’s not as sad as the young accidental death of a dude whose dad killed himself, but it’s bigger, and it’s better, and it’s less susceptible to easy mythologization because she’s still alive, because she went on after she had that one huge hit, and she made herself a career, and she seems to have exerted some force on her legacy (that there’s no online streaming of the video for “Fast Car” seems to me like it must be her doing somehow, like her exerting some control over her life, or maybe I’m ascribing intention to what’s just an accident of rights), and whatever, Tracy, you wrote a fucking good sad-ass song and we thank you for that and for the fact that you’re still out there singing. So say we all.

Happy March’s end to you and yours. Thanks for coming along for the ride. One more post to come later on.

In the meantime, we leave you with a poem:

"My Sad Captains"
Thom Gunn

One by one they appear in
the darkness: a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand
perfectly embodied, all

the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos. They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.
They remind me, distant now.

True, they are not at rest yet,
but now that they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.

[listen to him read it live at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in 1972]

THE SAD CHAMPIONSHIP: vote by 3/31 9am





Here we are under the big lights, with one game left in March Sadness 2016. Bittersweet? You bet. In lieu of more writing, we've made a video (next) to helpfully recap our monthlong road. After that, the songs in question, followed by one last trip to the expert analysts' panel of getting-it-wrong and coulda been. Vote by tomorrow morning at 9am, at which point we'll announce the champion.





(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"


(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"


KC: *This Mortal Coil's “Song to the Siren” will be somehow etched into my gravestone.

RC: *Should win: Buckley. That recording is for the ages. Chapman's song never hung together for me—too slick. *Will win: Probably Chapman. The perfection that rubs me the wrong way about her song makes it extremely accessible, and it's had global impact, and very positive. *Shoulda been: New Order, Regret. I like a sad song that makes me dance. Also regret itself is a very uncommon sentiment to find so well expressed in art.

DCD: *My pick to sweep the whole thing from the very beginning was Chapman. It's the damned saddest song for so many reasons beyond my own personal experience, but I have a deep connection to that particular song on top of it being a heartbreaker.

PH: *Pam thinks Via Chicago and Ashes of American Flags are sadder, but she loves the way Jeff Tweedy sings/writes.

LL: *Since the Syracuse upset, #4 seeds have become more attractive to me. Also, between the original and cover, you've got just about the whole span in question (1983-2001)—maybe overemphasizing the "college years" over the sadness. Also, still think NMH has got what it takes.

MM: *Should win: Chapman, because it acknowledges the power of a big one-hit wonder to define an artist and then opens the mystery of why we enthusiastically respond to that artist's first endeavor, only to go so cold on the rest of their output. (Yes, I know she had that other song years later, but please...). Also, I think Buckley was up for the wrong song. I would have gone with "Lover, You Should've Come Over," but I think anything is genius if it features someone looking out of a window or a door. *Will win: Buckley, because those who know of his tragic circumstances also know that his dad died early too. If people want deep sadness, there it is. It's like Bruce and Brandon Lee. *Shoulda been: as a dutiful follower of the brackets, I listened to each song against its competitor and tried to judge fairly on those first merits rather than on reputation or what I remembered of the song. Sinead's song was the only one that knocked me on my ass and I could not get it out of my head for the rest of the day—the barely contained heights of emotion in her delivery were real surprises, exactly the kind of song that best represents "heard it, but don't really remember it." Wrenching, honest, and punished unfairly for not being "Nothing Compares 2 U." Bonus points for perhaps not being the third or even fourth song that a casual listener might list if asked to name her best work. Quoth Pam of Archer fame, "Holy shit snacks..." 

LCJO: *Should win: I love the love Chapman's been getting—a surprise surge. I think in part because of the quality of the write-ups she's been getting, but also on the strength of the song. It's cool that something that's more quietly regretful as opposed to flash-y sad has come so far. But I still think that both in quality of song, transcendence of cover, and sheer range of evocative sadness, it's Buckley. *Will win: I would be SHOCKED if he doesn't win. *Shoulda been: My write-in candidate, The Magnetic Fields, All the Umbrellas in London, and of the real picks, The Cure, Pictures of You (which did go far!). There's something arguably peaceful and reflective about Hallelujah while as Kathleen Rooney brilliantly put it, Pictures of You is pure melodrama; in the best possible sense, it's fabulously, wonderfully self-indulgently sad. Should have taken it. 

EP: *(But if it was a winner, would it still be a Replacements song? Discuss.)

KR: *(I think "Fast Car" is sadder because of its fearless evocation of the soul-destroying drudgery of privation and economic coercion by invisible / systemic forces, but I don't know if people will be able to separate the narrative of Jeff Buckley's short, not-especially-buoyant life from what's actually intrinsic to the song and the performance (although he also deserves points for making a not-super-sad song sadder than it is).

AS: *Because I once saw a drag queen perform that song while just sitting on a folding chair and just singing it and people were coming up out of the crowd and stuffing dollar bills in her overalls, weeping. So sad.

MV: *Should win: because no song used on The O.C. twice should qualify for this award. *Will win: Buckley because the The O.C. made lots of otherwise good people cry more than twice. *Shoulda because "if you're hurtin', so am I."


Good luck to both of the final songs. Let's have a clean game. That means you, Buckley.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An Interlude: Fenton Johnson on Pop

Well, this could take up several hours that right now I need to be spending on correcting dangling participles . . . . What comes first to mind is the particularity of pop music, which is its distinguishing characteristic—as Stephen Dunn writes in “Loves”:
I love how pop songs seem profound
when we're in love,
though they wound us too sweetly,
never seriously enough.
Each generation loves its songs because, speaking of sadness, those songs imprinted themselves at a critical moment. For folks now in their late 40s and 50s, one or several of the songs of the March Sadness bracket was playing somewhere near at hand at the moment of discovery of mortality, suffering, death.

But I’m in my 60s, and my people—I mean gay men—we didn’t listen much to pop music. I vividly recall expressions of incredulity among my friends when I revealed that I had played Bruce Springsteen when having sex—later that day someone slipped a Pet Shop Boys recording under my office door. We had our own music—disco—and we were proud that it was the object of disdain among the liberal college set. Disco belonged to Queens and queens, and the more derision heaped on it by the sophisticates and the straights, the more that proved it was ours. Sometime around 5 a.m. we shifted from the gold and silver lamé fans and flags to Maria Callas and Krista Ludwig, and it was a simple fact and expectation that every disco DJ signaled dawn and closing time with a bow to our roots via a seamless segue from Donna Summer’s Last Dance (OK, OK, I know) to Callas singing Vissi d’Arte or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Winterreise. Callas is not everyone’s cup of tea—that’s a different essay—but Patti Smith played Vissi d’Arte on hearing the news of Robert Mapplethorpe’s death, and that tells you something.

I liked all the March Sadness songs in greater or lesser degree, though none affects me as deeply or sounds so sad as Springsteen’s Downbound Train, not because Leonard Cohen’s / Jeff Buckley’s "Hallelujah" isn’t as great (or greater) but because I first heard Downbound Train when AIDS was emptying the discos and I was not much past 30 and Sylvester was dead, one of the first to go, and though Jimmy Somerville’s ethereal countertenor (hello—Smalltown Boy [The Committee regrets this oversight. —Ed] ought to be on the March Sadness list) was a good stand-in, Sylvester and his Two Tons of Fun were landmarks, creating funk culture from a mix of gospel and soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and anyone who doesn’t understand Sylvester as a phenomenally talented artist and gender-bender who chose to come out with his people rather than play straight hasn’t listened to his music.

So I say, bring back the disco, and play all four March Sadness finalists—no, maybe three; I’d cut The Cure for the reasons Pam Houston sets forthbut then, but then after Joy Division and Tracy Chapman and Jeff Buckley, segue to Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma with its incomparable, defying-death final note. Indeed no one shall sleep, and the great thing about YouTube is that we get to see that for Pavarotti, sex and God and singing are all of a piece. I liked all these March Sadness songs, but none sent chills up my spine like Pavarotti, even after I’ve listened to his recording of it dozens, hundreds of time. And his eyebrows are real.

The recipient of many literary awards, Fenton Johnson is the author of  a new novel, The Man Who Loved Birds, as well as a Harper’s Magazine cover essay ("Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude"). He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air.

Final Four Scores, Analysis, Preview of Wednesday's Championship

Both the (1) seeds are gone, defeated soundly in their Final Four games. This clears the way for a matchup maybe no one (except Pam Houston in her analysis of the Final Four games) saw coming: (7) Tracy Chapman, a huge underdog in the Sadness tournament, will face off against "dead guy legacy" (according to Rick Moody) Jeff Buckley in the championship on Wednesday. Wow.

As it turned out, neither game was even particularly close. Both Chapman and Buckley led from the first shot (a Chapman layup and a Buckley deep three coming off a screen) to the last, and neither The Cure nor Joy Division ever even got close from that point on. We don't know if the wider voting spoke to the more limited (or generational?) appeal of the two UK bands. Your votes for the Final Four came from mostly America, but also: the UK, France, Germany, South Korea, Italy, and Poland. It appears that with The Church eliminated, the Aussies felt less strongly about these pairings.

While it's tricky to generalize from only two games, it would appear that we prefer our sadnesses—at this point anyhow—solo and American.

The Final Scores:

(7) TRACY CHAPMAN 154, (1) Joy Division 90

(2) JEFF BUCKLEY 137, (1) The Cure 89

So the final will be a (7) seed versus a (2) seed, an original versus a cover, one living artist and one dead one, each with big reputations, but each being known best for only one or two songs. Each have blown up brackets in their march to the tournament final, and you'll get to decide which one cuts down the nets and takes home the trophy tomorrow morning, Wednesday, 3/30/16, right here. See you there. (We also have a brief interlude post coming your way shortly to tide you over until then.)

& here's your updated bracket:

Monday, March 28, 2016

Final Four Songs, Voting, and Guest Analysis from Pam Houston & Rick Moody

FINAL: (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 154, (1) Joy Division 90; (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 137, (1) The Cure 89

For the final four, we've invited guest analysts Pam Houston and Rick Moody to give us their expert opinions on the songs in the Final Four and their sadnesses below, following the songs.

First, the game polls (you may also vote via @angermonsoon's Twitter feed). Games are decided by the aggregate scores of both Twitter and blog polls, cast by 9am Tuesday.

Final Four Game 1:
Tracy Chapman vs Joy Division
Final Four Game 2:
Jeff Buckley vs The Cure

Final Four: Which is sadder? Vote by 9am 3/29

Fast Car
make a quiz

Final Four: Which is Sadder? Vote by 9am 3/29

Pictures of You
fun quizzes
Trouble voting? Click here to vote directly.
Songs & expert analysis below.
Trouble voting? Click here to vote directly.
Songs & expert analysis below.

Before you give the songs a listen, you may want to get up to speed on our contenders. Here are links to our coverage, round-by-round, of each song in the final four:

(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere" • Elite 8 •  Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2d round • 1st round
(1) Cure, "Pictures of You" • Elite 8 • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round

Voting on both Final Four games ends Tuesday, 3/28 at 9am.

The Championship begins Wednesday, 3/29 at 9am.



(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere"


(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"

(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"


(1) The Cure, "Pictures of You"



The first thing to think about is what sadness is, and what it is not. It is not, for instance, depression, nor angst, nor disaffection, even disaffection wearing an ironic hat and ironic sideburns, though it is often confused with all of these things. I would go so far as to say that sadness has more in common with happiness, than it has with any of the above, in that the sad person, if he has an agile mind and an open heart understands that sadness is both a gift and a privilege of the living. Sadness is happiness’s twin, and its coefficient; both states pure, intense and impermanent. Happiness is made all the more precious by the inevitable encroaching shadow of sadness, sadness made all the more poignant, by the fact that we will get over it, whether we want to or not.

For a person who was not, in fact, a teenager in the mid 80’s, but a river-guiding, hunting-guiding twenty-something year old who did whatever she could to spend weeks and months in places so remote you couldn’t even get AM, Robert Smith’s eyeliner alone suggests that his gesture at sadness in "Pictures Of You" can’t possibly be more than that. Which is to say nothing of the highly processed guitar. That tinny mechanized effect that puts every measure of the song in the same emotional register suggests many things: slickness, disaffection—irony, certainly—but not sadness. The entire song doesn’t evoke even as much sadness as Buckley’s unhurried, subtle and expressive guitar intro on "Hallelujah"—those several measures of guitar—should Cure fans be willing to sit through them—evoke more real emotion of many kinds than anything in "Pictures of You."

I want to be clear that I like The Cure, and I enjoyed dancing to them in that thrashing straight-limbed Linus and Lucy way we all danced in the mid 80’s. But Buckley’s "Hallelujah", the second-best version of that song in existence (Cohen’s own version edging it out only slightly), rises and falls and swells into sadness, and then falls back again, while The Cure hits a predictable chord progression and stays with it without variation. To compare the lyrics of the two songs seems almost cruel, since the Cure song’s one notable turn of phrase—you were bigger and brighter and wider than snow—is buried in a stanza that is so syntactically inelegant, I am still recovering from the line "As I ran to your heart to be near" when I get to it, and almost miss it. Compare that to "I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch and love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah."

I understand all too well how, for the disaffected, these lyrics seem over the top. Absurd in their grandiosity and sentimentality. And if you don’t like those, you really won’t like "I remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too and every breath we drew was hallelujah." Those lyrics aren’t just sad, they’re sexy, because there is little in the world sexier than a writer who can appear to get sex and God and brokenness and power all mixed up together while remaining completely in control of each line. Every line of the Cohen song is filled with complexity of human nature, how love is about being broken, how brokenness creates the conditions for love and how love’s inevitable failure can do nothing but break a person further, while the Cure song is about looking at a girl’s picture and feeling bad. Buckley’s voice tone is perfect (though so is Cohen’s, in a much different way); he doesn’t try to make the song into anything, because the song is already everything, and he knows it.

When I heard that "Fast Car" had made it into the Final Four I thought, “Oh no!” because while I knew I could to listen to it, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to actually hear it given how many times I have heard it in the produce section of the Whole Foods, or the elevator at the gynecologist’s on the way to a pap smear, or in the waiting room of the DMV. But when I tried to put all of that out of my mind and focus on the song, the lyrics, the voice tone, I thought, “Hey, this really is sad,” if a bit obvious, if a bit unsubtle, if a bit simplified. What I like best about the song is its narrative impulses, the story it tells in only a few short stanzas. Here the dream is to move out of the shelter and into the suburbs, where the women shoulder the entire economic burden and the drunken men spend more time with their friends then they do with their children, and the only potential way out—the Fast Car of the comparatively upbeat chorus is revealed as illusion before we have even had a chance to believe in it. "Fast Car" is about America, and I think we can all agree that in March 2016, America is one of the sadder places there has ever been.

Suicide is also sad, there is no question about it. And had I been present to the music scene at the time Ian Curtis killed himself, the context of the song might overwhelm me to the point that would make me think the song itself was sad. But I wasn’t, and with all due respect—and I mean this—it is sad to lose someone you love even when you love them at the distance of celebrity—to those who were crushed when Curtis took his own life, I have to say I find nothing sad about the song itself. The lyrics are filled with more abstractions than an undergraduate poetry workshop, and we are back to the relentlessly repetitive and often generic chord progressions that make the 80’s the 80’s, the appeal of which those of us from the 60’s and 70’s never quite understood.

Jeff Buckley, of course, is dead too, by drowning, which makes holding the album cover in one's hands sadder than if we were still alive, but I am not sure it makes the song any sadder. What makes a thing truly sad (or fill in any emotion here) for me, are specifics. The kitchen chair, the baffled king, the minor fall and the major lift, Gabriel himself. What inhibits emotion is abstraction: Your confusion, my illusion, worn like a mask of self-hate. Those words create no feeling in me whatsoever: no images, and therefore no feeling.

Though word on the street is that "Atmosphere" will likely take the tournament, it will win because it reminds us of sad circumstance, and not, because it is, in fact, a sad song.

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published by W.W. Norton in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers, is professor of English at UC Davis, teaches in The Institute of American Indian Art’s Low-Rez MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.


Why do we love the dead guys? And their unfulfilled promise?

In a way you should love anyone but the dead guys, because the ones who stay alive, who continue with the work, there’s something more generous about them. They get on with it, they are dependable, they show up for their families and friends, they send thank you notes and remember birthdays, they go to little league games, or dance recitals.

But the dead guys and all the wreckage they leave behind are somehow alluring; somehow their siren song calls, and the plangent melody of it is very difficult to repel. Often we listen whether it’s the best thing for us or not.

Here you have two examples, each with his particular way of making an exit.

Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, hanged himself, with the band at the acme of its career, on the eve of an American tour, possibly because of difficulties in his marriage, but also because playing live was becoming increasing strenuous, by reason of his seizures. Saying that he suffered from depression, saying that depression caused his self-slaughter, is sort of like saying that an earthquake is cataclysmic, or genocide is traumatic. It may be accurate, but the language renders the impression inert.

Jeff Buckley may have died accidentally, going for a swim in the Mississippi, and everyone will say that it was simply an accidental drowning, but the circumstances were not so tidy as to suggest that it was entirely accidental, and a deep reading of the life of the singer inevitably suggests more tonal colors than those suggested simply by the accidental. Additionally, Jeff Buckley is the son of a dead guy, the singer Tim Buckley, another example of promise unfulfilled, and so Jeff Buckley is a dead guy legacy, a second generation dead guy, whose death seems mandated by the work of fate.

The tendency in this situation is to want to read the work, the songs, as though the songs are premonitory, or as though the songs comment on the autobiographical narratives of the singers. In the cultural expanses of the world, this is a frequent tendency. “Riders On the Storm” somehow looks like Jim Morrison knew about his death; “All Apologies” somehow looks like Kurt Cobain knew about his death; Oblivion, by my colleague David Foster Wallace, seemed haunted by foreknowledge; all of those late paintings by Mark Rothko; Richard Farina’s novel is haunted; “Blues Run the Game” seems to prefigure another thirty or forty years of Jackson C. Frank’s life, “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” by George Harrison seems to describe his lung cancer from years before it felled him, “If Six Was Nine,” by Jimi Hendrix, actually contains that spoken section in the middle: “I’m the one who’s gonna have to die when it’s my time to die, so let me live my life, the . . . way . . . I . . . want . . . to,” and there is the recent example of David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” and on and on.

This interpretive action—in which the life is read backward as an effect of the artwork is natural, or, at least, it must be judged natural by virtue of its frequency, and is part of human consciousness as it attempts to reckon with art, as it tries to make art lasting and meaningful. By why always with the sad songs? Why always so sad? Why isn’t “Happy” by Pharrell Williams so premonitory, so luminously predictive in the same way?

In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud tries to boil the two titular conditions down to a single description, and it looks like this: “Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that libido shall be withdrawn from its attachment to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition.” So much awareness, so much sensation, so much drama flows from this simple condition that Freud describes. You have only, for example, to watch a couple of videos of Ian Curtis performing (there’s a very moving and challenging live performance of “She’s Lost Control” on YouTube) to find the telltale signs of this very real ache. Watch Ian Curtis dance. It’s the mourning that is at the very heart of being. In this way loss and mourning are at the advent of understanding that self is different from, e.g., one’s mother.

And perhaps what is at stake then is that the elucidation of mourning and melancholia, the capturing of it in song, or in some other artistic medium, somehow enables an audience to complete its own separation from the lost beloved thing. Maybe the condition of being estranged from the “loved object” is best purged by the explication of it in artistic products. Loss calls to loss, grief calls to grief, across expanses of time and space, and finds its audience, finds its welcoming committee. The arrow hits the target, and the audience calls out its hallelujahs. The maker of the art, who after all is only expressing a feeling, somehow cannot appreciate how clearly he or she has hit the bullseye, and the redemption can take generations, and thus the martyrdom of the maker of the work, the sacrifice, is required for the interpretation to be complete.

Milton’s “Lycidas” immortalizes this, from the mourner’s perspective:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
And Shelley’s “Adonais,” which memorializes Keats' death, so similar to Jeff Buckley’s, takes up the same strain:
I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"
The melodious tear is that very sound: loss calling unto loss, of grief calling unto grief.

When I was an undergraduate, I knew a guy, I think he was a med student, who took up with a young and ambitious and attractive gay man who was studying in the sort of art/film/semiotics ghetto where a lot of my friends were knights of higher education, and these two, the med student and the painter/filmmaker guy, were lovers for a year or so. Then the med student, who by then was painting mainly, did the unthinkable. He went back over the fence, and took up with a woman. It would have been, in those days, politically incorrect, but he seemed happy, having gone back over the fence, and who was going to talk him out of being happy. Life went on for some months, and we argued about Mao and Derrida and Bakhtin, but then the med student, now a painter, went missing, just went missing, and soon it appeared that the most dreadful thing had happened, that he had been murdered, in a park, late at night, not far from campus, a location known for gay cruising. I mean exactly what it appears I mean: O weep, for he is dead.

This was about the time that I would have been listening to Joy Division, and the very first singles of New Order. I remember Ian Curtis’s death, which happened at the exact moment that I became aware of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the single that cemented the gravity and importance of Joy Division. I didn’t get the song at first. The kind of peppy synth melody that drove it didn’t make sense to me, or rather the mismatch of stridently sad lyrics and uptempo music somehow didn’t call to that feeling. But the b side of the single “These Days,” with the weird synth phasing thing that runs throughout, did it, and that led to “Decades,” the last song from Closer, which became sort of an anthem.

The death of my friend in the last semester of my college years became the end of college, the end of college was the end of my friend, and the collapse was located in the fact that the story was never followed by some idea of justice. My idea of justice was that justice was a thing that never quite came to pass (“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders”), never quite delivered its goods and services. Justice was where there was no real causal link between events and events that came after. The incredible resignation of “Decades,” which is very like the loss and resignation of “Atmosphere,” dirge, threnody, drone, was like the abjection of grief and the end of undergraduate years. We wept for the guy, our friend, and the weeping didn’t palliate, and there was nothing to express to his family, except that he had been loved once, and there were things in life that were inexplicable. Another guy, known to all of us, become psychotic, and moved into deeper and deeper stages of privation, until he was living on the street.

To me, there is no music sadder than Joy Division, and even when the music is angry or occasionally kind of loud and fast, it doesn’t disguise that the basic orientation of the songs is to express that the relationships of daily life are power relationships in which disaffiliation and rejection are the inevitable outcome, in which every daily interaction has the risk of rejection and isolation liminal within it.

However poetical and Keatsian Jeff Buckley’s death is, it’s an unavoidable fact that “Hallelujah” was written by someone else, and that someone else, at this point, is a man in his eighties, of remarkable constitution and wit and unparalleled self-definition, whose unmatched songbook is not simply about loss and grief, but about a whole gradient of feelings and perceptions that skitter across loss and grief, a gradient of feelings in which there is laughter, joy, serenity, and transcendence. “Hallelujah” is such a great song, and so often interpreted (for good or ill) that even the author of the song has called for a moratorium on new recordings, lest its power should be fully depleted.

Incredibly, Buckley’s interpretation does nothing to diminish the song. In fact, his incredibly naked recording, which consists entirely of guitar and voice, is an able, free, and ambitious recasting of the song. The vocal rises through a whispered understated performance to something much more majestic and powerful. Considering that Leonard Cohen’s voice is nothing to write home about, technically speaking, Buckley somehow manages to find an opportunity in what is frankly a masterpiece, a song that any songwriter would wish to have composed, and that opportunity has to do with sheer interpretive capability. Buckley was a great singer. He was not as singular and idiosyncratic as his dad was (listen to Starsailor, if you have not), or perhaps not as willing to go out on a limb, but he was a very powerful and moving singer. You can ogle a hundred singers on any of those televised singing contests, and not hear one of them, not even one, sing a syllable with the poise and emotive power of Jeff Buckley.

But he didn’t write the song. Which means that “Hallelujah” is more about his considerable gift for selling the composition, than it is about self-expression. Interpretive singing is about being the audience and the composer at the same moment, it’s about trying to inhabit, perform the composition, but from a distance in which one first knows the song as a listener (as a mourner, in search of articulations of mourning). The lasting effect of Grace, therefore, so many years after its release, is in part not about the singer-songwriter model, the confessional model of music, but about the performative model of music. As such, the sadness of the album, an album which is not so sad as it is about desire, is about Jeff Buckley’s death, and if there’s a premonitory aspect to the album, it has to do with its coincidental preoccupation with images of the hereafter in the title song and “Hallelujah.” To think of “Hallelujah,” that is, as willfully about sadness and death in the same way as “Atmosphere,” or, indeed, any song by Joy Division is to confuse historical moments, is to put the cart several horse lengths ahead of the horse.

In summary, we love the dead guys, for the same disturbing reason that we love the dead girls, and that is that the living breathing person, the guy who is incredibly complex, who remembers the birthdays, and goes to the dance recitals, but who drives like an asshole sometimes, or who is just incredibly awkward in some social situations, this guy gets in the way of our own articulation of loss, in song, and novel, and painting, and film, because he’s not dead yet. And it’s awful that in some cases we need our artists to be dead, when to have them around would be so much better. I feel that way about them now, almost every day, that I would rather have them around, and maybe in that we can let the songs loose to tell their one emblematic story.  

Rick Moody's most recent novel is Hotels of North America. He writes about music at The Rumpus.

Now you decide. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Final Four is decided

Good games finishing up this morning, with one surprising outcome, being that (7) Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" upset (1) Elliott Smith's "Waltz #2" 85-69. This was a huge game, with a huge result, sending Chapman onto the Final Four, where she will play (1) Joy Division. Smith is the second 1-seed to fall, after Jeff Buckley took down Neutral Milk Hotel yesterday to punch their own ticket to the Final Four. The Committee was divided on their predictions for this game, and rightly so. The voting was close, with Smith and Chapman trading leads until Chapman went up by 7 just before halftime. Elliott Smith never tied it back up, and his run at the sadness cup ends here.

(14) Low, fresh off their huge upset over (2) Concrete Blonde on Wednesday, came into this game a little flat, but their traveling fans—best in the tournament in our estimation—got them into it. With a strong wind at their back, they got hot and hit shot after shot, and were leading at one point by more than 12, most of the votes coming from the Twitter poll (as you know, to make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote, we aggregate the Twitter poll with the blog voting). But shortly before halftime, Joy Division shifted into the zone defense, and that seemed to stymie Low, who looked gassed after playing with such little rest between games. JD took the lead and kept it, though Low made run after run to get back into it. JD ended up with a double-digit win, 74-60, and it looks like Low grew out of the glass slipper. That score's misleading: this was a hard-fought, tough game from buzzer to buzzer. Brilliant season and a very deep run by Low. The fans should be proud of their effort, losing to what might very possibly be an unbeatable Joy Division team that we think we'll see in the final and maybe cutting down the nets after it.

Here's your updated bracket:

So the Final Four is set: on Monday morning we'll see (1) Joy Division against (7) Tracy Chapman and (2) Jeff Buckley versus (1) The Cure. Our guest analysts will be here to offer their takes and analytics then. We have only three games left in March Sadness. Though your team may have been sent home and your bracket busted, there's still time to choose another hero to back in the last few days. Final Four games are Monday, finishing 9am Tuesday morning. The Sadness Championship is Wednesday. See you there.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday's Scores & Today's Elite 8 Games

We're trying to keep the analysis here short so as not to push the new game posts too far down the screen. We'll post more analysis this weekend since the Final Four doesn't begin until Monday.

Scores: (2) Jeff Buckley soundly beat a divisive (1) Neutral Milk Hotel 74-44. And (1) The Cure gets by (2) Radiohead 65-58 on free throws at the end.

But today's Elite Eight games each feature Cinderella candidates: first there's a scrappy (14) Low up against the legendary (1) Joy Division. Tough game, as Low knows:

But you got a shot, Low! As they say, don't stop believin' (also a good candidate for a song for Low to cover, AV Club style?). Your fans travel well, and we suspect there are more out there who listen in to this tournament. And there's (7) Tracy Chapman up against (1) Elliott Smith, which we think will be closer than anyone has a right to expect. Can Cleveland (Chapman's a Cleveland girl) pull off its biggest win of the year? YOU DECIDE... & Final Four on MONDAY


FINAL SCORE: (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 85, (1) Elliott Smith 69


By now you've probably read enough analysis of the Elite Eight songs already, but if you missed it, get up to speed, starting with the Sweet Sixteen coverage below. For this game we offer you our expert analysis of each song in eight categories. Ratings are of five possible teardrops, five being the maximum, one teardrop being the minimum. The Committee Members also offer their predictions below (which may or may not correspond with their votes).  

(1) Elliott Smith, "Waltz #2" • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(7) Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car" • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round


(1) Elliott Smith, "Waltz #2"


(7) Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”


FINAL SCORE: (1) JOY DIVISION 74, (14) Low 60


By now you've probably read enough analysis of the Elite Eight songs already, but if you missed it, get up to speed, starting with the Sweet Sixteen coverage below. For this game we offer you our expert analysis of each song in eight categories. Ratings are of five possible teardrops, five being the maximum, one teardrop being the minimum, meaning none. The Committee Members also offer their predictions below (which may or may not correspond with their votes).  

(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere" • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(14) Low, "Words" • Sweet 16 • 2d round • 1st round


(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere"


(14) Low, “Words”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thursday's scores; the ELITE 8 action begins today

Real brief update since I'm in the middle of finishing an article on sad songs & the tournament this morning to go live Monday on the day of the March Sadness Final Four. So today we had a major upset, with (14) Low holding off a charging (2) Concrete Blonde 73-64 in the last hour regardless of Megan Campbell's great advocacy for "Joey." Did we see them getting this far? To be honest, we did not, but we're pleased they did. In the next chapter, Low will meet (1) Joy Division in the Elite Eight Friday, since JD demolished (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave 75-24 in spite of an outstanding essay by Nicole Walker.

Today we have the first half of the Elite Eight, a battle of the 1s and 2s: (1) The Cure's "Pictures of You" vs (2) Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" and (1) Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy" taking on (2) Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah."

You may notice that for the Elite Eight we've put the polls first thing in the game posts (and The Committee offers its graphic analysis and predictions) so as to make voting a little easier. Do the decisions get harder and more wrenching as we get closer to the end of the tournament? Yes indeed they do. And that's where the bracket starts to tell you things about yourself.




By now you've probably read enough analysis of the Elite Eight songs already, but if you missed it, get up to speed, starting with the Sweet Sixteen coverage below. For this game we offer you our expert analysis of each song in eight categories. Ratings are of five possible teardrops, five being the maximum, one teardrop being the minimum, meaning none. The Committee Members also offer their predictions below (which may or may not correspond with their votes).  

(1) Neutral Milk Hotel, "Two-Headed Boy" • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(2) Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah" • Sweet 16 • 2d round • 1st round


(1) Neutral Milk Hotel, "Two-Headed Boy"


(2) Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”




By now you've probably read enough analysis of the Elite Eight songs already, but if you missed it, get up to speed, starting with the Sweet Sixteen coverage below. For this game we offer you our expert analysis of each song in eight categories that may or may not be meaningful to you in deciding your vote. Ratings are of five possible teardrops, five being the maximum, one the minimum. The Committee Members also offer their game predictions below (which may or may not correspond with their votes and the leanings of their hearts).  

(1) Cure, "Pictures of You" • Sweet 16 • 2nd round • 1st round
(2) Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees" • Sweet 16 • 2d round • 1st round


(1) The Cure, "Pictures of You"


(2) Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wednesday Sweet 16 Scores & Schedule

First, a reminder to vote on the last of the Sweet Sixteen games today: (14) Low vs (2) Concrete Blonde and (1) Joy Division vs (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave. Voting ends 3/24 at 9am Arizona time.

Or, if you prefer to just read the essays, then: Kenneth Caldwell weighs in on the merits of "Words" vs. Megan Campbell on the sadness of "Joey." And Nicole Walker reps PJ Harvey & Nick Cave, and also, randomly, William Blake, Bongwater, Velvet Underground, and Gordon Lightfoot vs. Kate Bernheimer's dive into old school days with "Atmosphere."

Or: your scores from the games that just finished:

(1) ELLIOTT SMITH 78, (4) Gary Jules 44
(7) TRACY CHAPMAN 74, (6) Kate Bush 53

Good news, then: Smith and Chapman will meet in the Elite Eight on Friday. I'll save the analysis for tomorrow's wrap-up. The March Sadness Elite 8 games tip-off tomorrow at 9am, and it's all the top seeds bringing it: (1) The Cure vs (2) Radiohead and (1) Neutral Milk Hotel vs (2) Jeff Buckley.

Sweet Sixteen Action: (1) JOY DIVISION vs (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE

FINAL SCORE: (1) JOY DIVISION 75, (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave 24


(1) Joy Division, "Atmosphere"

Analysis by Kate Bernheimer

Sometime in the early 1980s, my little sister bought a New Order record, most likely at our Uncle Alvin’s “Music and Camera Store” in Newton Center, Massachusetts. She danced to it a lot in her bedroom:

This was surprising. For quite a few years up to her New Order obsession, she had precisely two records she would play over and over again: the single of Kenny Rogers’ "The Gambler” and the soundtrack from the Broadway show Annie.

It wasn’t only her sudden style of dancing—her new way of being—that surprised me. The music surprised me. The music startled me. I couldn’t believe there were actually kids my age making music who felt the way I felt: SAD and BAD in the 1980s. There were other weirdos out there?

Around this time I miraculously became friends with Penelope and Sarah, two of the coolest girls I ever have met. I hung out with them as often as they would let me. Sometimes after school, we’d have tons of coffee and cigarettes at Pewter Pot:

Coffee and cigarettes deranged our already deranged minds. We didn’t know how to harness whatever feelings we were feeling. In tenth grade English class our sensitive, liberal teachers had us keep journals and hand them in weekly and we were told to write down everything that we thought and we felt and were allowed to fold over pages we didn’t want our teachers to read. Penelope and Sarah and I were suspicious. In a frenzy of inspiration (and possibly rage) we invented and described, in those spiral-bound notebooks, a wild Sapphic triangle among us, set in the suburban woods of Waban, our town. Carefully, we folded over the pages.

The next week we were called in by the teachers. They were very troubled by our affair, we were told. They wanted to help us. Of course they became quite angry when we told them we had just wanted to see if they were liars. And though we laughed about it for days afterwards, bitterness lingered. Who could we trust?

And it was in the 1980s that my wild older sister—in a bizarre stroke of kindness, or maybe my parents had made her—invited me to visit her at college for a weekend. The first night I was there, she dressed up in clothes I never had seen her wear in the suburbs:

That night she let me go with her and two of her friends to the college gymnasium to see an REM show. It was the first time I tried a particular drug that kept me awake all night, which was too bad as she had brought me back to her dorm room pretty early and gone out again with her friends, so I was awake and jittery and became rather frightened by how different (and how good) that night felt from the thousands of nights I had lived up to then in the beautiful but strangling suburbs. On the rotary telephone I called a friend who tells me now that I jabbered on for hours about how my life had been irreversibly changed by a band. The next day my sister took me to a hair salon and I got a perm and a mullet. (I don’t have a photo of that.)

Thankfully, or thanklessly, nothing is forever.

Which is the bold cliché that brings me to Joy Division’s damning and damn sad anthem of dread, “Atmosphere.” I first heard this song in the 1980s, during an incomprehensibly fogged and hurtful awakening.

It was around that time I sat in silence every day at The Faggot Table in the school cafeteria. The Faggot Table was well below The Loser Table. It was the bottom. We faggots didn’t even dare speak to each other. Who knew what would happen if one of us spoke. Some days a select few of us—and I was always among the select few—had our textbooks grabbed out of our hands as we left the cafeteria, by The Tough Kids (these were the kids who smoked in the breezeway with the teachers between classes, the boys whose laps the French teacher sat in during French class). The books were taken outside and thrown down a stairwell. The Spit Pit, it was called. We’d have to descend the concrete steps to retrieve them. And you can imagine what happened when we were down there; spit was involved, but sometimes “spit” was putting it nicely, if you want to consider the implications of that. My locker was sometimes decorated with lipstick graffiti in the morning: faggot, weirdo, lesbo, etc.

Joy Division made music for outcasts. (The band’s name derives from what the Nazis called brothels in concentration camps, a chilling detail.) Ian Curtis apparently thought he was a freak in part because of his epilepsy. He danced like an angelic matchstick on fire. He was sad. And like many outcasts he suffered sadness—a most important human emotion—in silence. His bandmate, Peter Hook, writes, “[H]e never wanted to upset you, so he'd tell you what you wanted to hear.”

Listening to “Atmosphere” one hears a sepulchral song of mourning and shame. And those tribal-sounding drums in "Atmosphere" have such urgency, especially in contrast with the mournful music—they’re so loud in the mix. Joy Division always made the underpinnings of the music important. The drums, the bass. The deep structure is very important. Who is down there? What happened to them?

A friend told me recently that Ian Curtis hanged himself while leaving Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" on repeat, for the people who discovered his body to find, another chilling detail. ”Don't walk away in silence....”—well, that's exactly what Ian Curtis did, with his suicide. He walked away in silence. By the time most people heard the music he made, he was dead. Those silences echoed in the music—and they pervaded the atmosphere of my late teens and early 20s. My friend Sarah walked away in silence. Also, on air. She leapt off of a building in Boston when she was 40.

But when we were seventeen, Sarah and I went to college together. It was 1984. We had gone to our college interviews together in matching pink mini skirts, pink sneakers, white shirts (the same outfits we’d worn to see The Go-Gos concert that year). In college, or so it seemed, Sarah flourished—wrote award-winning poetry, joined a band called Da Grotty and sang Nancy Sinatra cover songs in knee-high white boots, bleached her hair. Me? After desperately wanting to escape Waban, where we’d grown up (a town I still somehow ardently love), I found myself terribly homesick, anxiously taking the Peter Pan Bus Line home every weekend. That first year of college, Ronald Reagan was re-elected. I remember watching Walter Mondale’s concession speech with a bunch of stoned, snobby strangers in a smelly dorm living room (waiting for my turn at the pay phone to call my parents). Mondale gravely said on the screen, “Tonight especially I think of the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless and the sad, and they need us tonight.”

In some ways, of course, the 1980s were a time of joy for me, when I think of the music—the crazy all-night dancing to The Cure, Bronski Beat, Joy Division, New Order, Tears for Fears, The Replacements, REM. Music for outcasts. A place to belong. Yet still...there is danger, always danger, endless talking, confusion, illusion. Division. Danger, always danger. Don't walk away. Joy Division, I will always love you.

Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, and the editor of four anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt, was a finalist for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.


(5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave, “Henry Lee”

Analysis by Nicole Walker

Every year, Ander and Megan send Erik and me a CD/mixtape/playlist for Christmas. Between Erik and the two of them, they are compendia of musical knowledge, especially of the 90s. My lonely, sad (saddest!) brain cannot compete. But I do know a couple bands they don’t. I couldn’t find my Bongwater CD when we all lived in Michigan and spent a lot of time indoors listening to music because winter is real in Michigan. Instead of Bongwater, I forced them to listen to Gordon Lightfoot, whom they knew but whom they did not fully appreciate until I sang to them the many verses of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which takes place outdoors on Lake Superior near where Ander grew up, giving us a sense of the difficulty of being outdoors in Michigan (e.g. "The winds of November come early").

After we all moved to Arizona, they to Tucson, Erik and me to Flagstaff, they came to visit. I found my Bongwater CD and I made them listen to the whole of it indoors because it was winter and Flagstaff is not Tucson and winter is winter although not Michigan winter. 

When we got to the song "Nick Cave Dolls" I told them to listen closely as Ann Magnuson speak-sings, "Is it politically correct to even be here? / I mean, look what happened to Dorothy Stratton. / Then I decide... / 'Oh, the hell with it, I'm horny!'"

When, at the end of the song, Magnuson sings “They make Nick Cave Dolls now. I want one,” I say to Megan, “Now I know what to get you for Christmas.” Bongwater is a very indoor band. The epic song is about AIDS and Avenue A which where all the bars are definitely indoors.

Megan knows Nick Cave way better than I. I only know about Nick Cave’s haunting voice. To me, he is of the David Lynch, Blue Velvet world. I picture him inside Jazz Clubs. I don’t think he’s seen the light of day. In "Henry Lee," Harvey comments on his lily-white skin. They’re both pale as vampires—no outdoor danger here. He looks cute and he sounds good but he probably wants to break my fingers. I do not know what PJ Harvey sees in him. Why is she hanging all over him? Who is he to her? Where the hell is her daughter: big fish, little fish? Isn’t she supposed to be a role model? Harvey, descended from the Ann Magnusons and Laurie Andersons of the punk rock world, should not be so into him, although, admittedly, she looks like she’s about to eat his face. Possibly she is predatory. I can imagine PJ and Laurie Anderson together, singing as Nick Cave cautiously steps outside the club, “Sharkey says: I turn around, it's fear. I turn around again, and it's love. Nobody knows me. Nobody knows my name. You know? They're growing mechanical trees. They grow to their full height. And then they chop themselves down.” It’s better to get inside where there are no trees, mechanical or otherwise and where people know your name.

Sharkey and Nick Cave and the mechanical trees are going down. Harvey tries to get him indoors but, like Henry Lee, he finds he likes it out there, outside like lovers and heroin survivors and Elliott Smith, who is from Portland, which is a place as wet on the inside as the outside and who is also a contender here (although not against this song. Henry Lee is the saddest song. Please do not walk away from this one). According to Megan’s write-up, Henry Lee is short for heroin, or, rather, the bird is the heroin, sticking poor Henry Lee in the arm over and over again but that’s what nature will do to you in either bird or syringe form.

But I think, in this song, the outdoors are as dangerous as heroin-birds.

"Henry Lee"'s opening riff pays homage to Velvet Underground’s "Perfect Day" which seemed like it was going to be such a happy song: Sangria in the park, feeding animals as the zoo and then suddenly, “It’s such a perfect day. You just keep me hanging on.” You, lovely zoo-going partner, have gone from fun times to on-the-rope times. You, sunshine, are desperation. You, heroin, you double-crossing backstabber, are “going to reap just what you sow.” Things started so well but I believe the cautionary tale here is, don’t go outside with Lou Reed. Don’t go outside with either Harvey or Cave. Look what they encourage the bird to do to Henry Lee: "A little bird lit down on Henry Lee / Come take him by his lily-white hands / Come take him by his feet / And throw him in this deep deep well / Which is more than one hundred feet / And the wind did howl and the wind did blow.”

Throwing kids in the well. That’s what we do outside, the singers sing. Look what happens with the Violent Femmes, an indoor band if there ever was one, goes outside: "'Come, little daughter,' I said to the youngest one / 'Put your coat on, we'll have some fun / We'll go out to mountains, the one to explore.'"

But if your family's starving and this little one is just one more mouth to feed, well, then, "I led her to a hole, a deep black well: / I said, 'Make a wish, make sure and not tell / And close your eyes, dear, and count to seven / You know your papa loves you; good children go to heaven / You know your papa loves you; good children go to heaven.'"

Or even the sad, song from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I where the lovers are to meet at the Hanging Tree. Meeting outdoors is the fast-track toward a dying place: "Are you, are you / Coming to the tree? / Where dead man called out / For his love to flee. / Strange things did happen here /No stranger would it be / If we met at midnight / In the hanging tree."

Listen. It might be sad to die indoors but stabbing yourself in the stomach or succumbing to an overdose, your body wrapped around the toilet, is not nearly as sad as dying outdoors. Indoors, the hope of someone coming by, ringing you up, even the sound of voices on the television mean that you don’t die entirely alone. Or even better, maybe someone comes by in time to stop you.

But, as William Blake’s "The Little Boy Lost" knows, there’s no hope in the outdoors.
The night was dark no father was there
       The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
       And away the vapour flew.
The outdoors are the saddest dying place even if, in Henry Lee’s case, heroin is the bringing of the outdoors inside.

This is the saddest song. Henry Lee is a little kid outside in the world with no parents. PJ Harvey, Little Fish Big Fish swimming in the water, come back man and give me my daughter, has already lost one of her children. Nick Cave, barren and trapped in a too-big suit at the jazz club, can’t find his son. Out there, where there are real mountain lions and real bears and real heroin and real birds with plungers for claws, there is no one. There is no sadder thing than being lost in the howling and moaning wind with no parents and no way home.

Nicole Walker’s books include or will include: Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. As some have noted, she pretends to write about food a lot but then manages to mostly avoid the topic. [twitter] [facebook]