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]