SHADOWPLAY

ian-curtisI jump out of bed and get dressed as quickly as I can in a practiced routine, clothes laid out neatly on a chair before going to bed, knowing how cold it’ll be in the morning. I ignore the gloominess of the tiny terraced house, the cracked bathroom mirror, narrow corridors, treacherous stairs carpet. I quickly eat my toast and drink my tea with just a grunt of acknowledgement to my nan, pull on my great coat and head for the bus stop. I am a young man and this is my World.

Stamping my feet on the frosty pavement, I take a deep drag on my ciggy. It looks even bleaker in winter ‘round here. Macclesfield is a dump. Meeting her, though. Something to look forward to. I turn up the collar on my coat to deflect the biting wind from my ears – a bargain from the army surplus shop – and shuffle forward into the warm of the bus’s interior, finding a seat upstairs. To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you.

I’m glad I put that advert in the shop window to be a singer in a band. Wasn’t sure at first, but now I’ve met those mad lads from Salford, maybe something’ll come of it. It’s stimulated my creative juices and given me a reason to turn my poems into song lyrics. What can you write about living ‘round here? There’s little colour in this grey landscape. The factory owners have fled, leaving dilapidated buildings and forgotten people, wandering about searching for meaning in this post-industrial wasteland. The Germans didn’t bomb here – they didn’t need to.

But I’m meeting her. She makes me laugh, with her cheeky Scouse humour. Our tribal cousins and football rivals – Liverpool – a port city with people coming and going, plus the Irish influence that crept westward along the canals, rail and roads to Manchester. Hell, they built it all. But they brought laughter and music and a positive outlook, to mix in with us bleak mill workers. So now we can be both dour and happy. Light and shade, we live in the shadows, we play at being thinking, rational humans, and kid ourselves that we have a say in our destiny. A kind of shadow play. She makes me laugh, though.

I’m waiting for her in the caf in a department store. Busy, clean, bright. I’m scared though. Scared that my eyes will roll back, my body will tense, I’ll black out and end up on the floor, twitching, sending the kids running to their mums. I can’t control it. Confusion in my eyes that says it all, I’ve lost control. The drugs just make me feel shit, grumpy, moody. Here she comes. I break into a smile and stand awkwardly to half-embrace her, hands on her arms, a peck on the cheek. I need her positivity like a shot of caffeine. She’s a nurse, and sees the good in people; a reason to save them; a reason to save me. I feel like I’m in the sea, swimming up to the light, and she’s there, in a boat, pulling me out. To the depths of the ocean where all hope sank, waiting for you.

She chats madly, and I think I’m falling in love. The way she flashes her blue eyes at me makes me feel more than I am, more complete. I hand her the letter.  Concern is etched into her furrowed brow as she reads.  A treatment plan for  your epilepsy, Mister Curtis, a course of medication. She squeezes my hand across the table.  She understands.  She’s on my side.  She cares.  Still, my spirits sag, my mind reels. I feel my immortal soul is dying.  In my twilight moments I see them, from across the expanse of time, and hear them calling me.

She has to go – she’s on shift. Good luck with the job interview she says. I say it’s not an interview, just a check-in at the Labour Exchange. It does what it says on the tin – exchanges your labour for cash. I wander through the city centre and end up in the record shops, flicking through albums and singles. I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you. Will my songs be here one day? Sometimes I feel so alone, even in a crowded place, I want to curl up in the corner, arms around my knees, head down, thinking. In a room with a window in the corner, I found truth.

What do you want to do? he says, smoking and not minding where he blows it. Not bothered, I say, and then – but I like writing. Oh, a writer are you? Then maybe an office clerk. He smiles like a movie villain. Think I’ve got something here… As the assassins all grouped in four lines dancing on the floor. Maybe I can use that. I did everything, everything I wanted to, I let them use you for their own ends.

That evening it’s rehearsals. I bring my notebook with my scribbled thoughts. Hooky’s fooling around and Bernie’s sullen and moody. We need a new drummer, he says.   We need a new name, I say. Warsaw’s too bleak. Yeah? Says Bernie. What else is there ‘round here but bleakness? Them grey pictures of post-War Europe describe the urban shithole we live in, and our music mirrors that. It’s only a backdrop, I say, although we’re its products and we can’t escape ourselves, I concede. Our music is our way of rising above the gloom, Hooky chips in, and bursts into a manic bass riff. We can lie in the gutter and look at the stars.  One day…

In the shadowplay acting out your own death knowing no more… I sit at a table and refine my jumbled ideas into song lyrics. I’ve got a new song, I say, and laugh, which gets their attention, as it’s not something I usually do – laugh out loud, I mean. What’s it about?  The usual – you’re born, live in a shithole and then you die.

In between, try and live a little! someone says.

Yeah, after all, it’s been a good day.

If you like this, then try my new novel, Devil Gate Dawn…

http://myBook.to/DevilGateDawn

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JOY DIVISION: A ROCK DOCUMENTARY (BBC iplayer)

Joy Division

In the late 1970s the two big post-industrial cities in England’s North West corner – Liverpool and Manchester, were manfully struggling to stay alive.  Ignored and despised by central Government, a population proud and defiant dared to shout, “We are still here!”  It was impossible to live there at that time, as I did, and not be affected by the economic collapse that opened the door for the divisive politics of Thatcherism.  A cynical new era characterised by greed and selfishness was being ushered in, and many artists were making their feelings felt through art and music.

I have often asked myself why I was drawn so strongly to the music and imagery of Manchester rock band Joy Division.  On the surface, their music is gloomy and petulant, riding off the back of the punk rock anti-establishment, anti-everything that has made life a struggle in the grim North.  But for me, their music was strangely uplifting – defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, and a determination to have the best life possible in difficult circumstances.  The positive energy that comes through their music inspired a generation of young post-punk rock fans, and still resonates today.

From the lilting love-gone-wrong lyrics of the beautiful ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to the rolling drums and pulsing beat of ‘Twenty Four Hours’.  Yes, lyrics tinged with regret and hurt, but ultimately smashing through the gloom to a brighter day.  There was hope, and through it all we must keep going.  Sadly, for singer Ian Curtis, the heavy weight of life’s problems proved to be overwhelming.  He couldn’t square the circle; he couldn’t go on any more.  He committed suicide on the eve of their first US Tour, just when they were on the verge of making the Big Time.

OK, the TV documentary points out that he was in the middle of a love triangle, and his suicide by drug overdose followed a showdown with his estranged wife.  He had a complicated love life and was battling medical problems – crushing depression and worsening epilepsy.  The impending tour was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the thing that finally pushed him over the edge.  With hindsight we can say that we should have seen it coming – the lyrics of their final album – Closer – can be interpreted as one long suicide note from Curtis – asking over and over again for help.

We heard him, through his music, and were drawn to his battle – a battle against environment, health and emotions.  Wasn’t it like that for all of us?  Trying to come to terms with an angry and increasingly divided society.  Ian Curtis spoke to me.  That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw Joy Division on stage, supporting the Buzzcocks, at the Mountford Hall in Liverpool in 1979.  He was so absorbed in his own performance, it was mesmeric.  He commanded you to watch him, and everyone in the room did.  Punks stood and watched, not sure how to dance to their distinctive music.  ‘She’s Lost Control’ a powerful memory, with Curtis’s strange, twisting butterfly dance, like a man trying to escape from a straight-jacket.

I bought their records and got into their music, fascinated by Ian Curtis’s lyrics – a man of his time, shouting to be heard.  The band had developed what many others had failed to do – their own distinctive rock music style – brooding, northern and compulsive.  I was a member of Eric’s Club where most of the up and coming punk and post-punk bands played.  I went to see Joy Division there and a repeat of their first album set – Unknown Pleasures.  Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.

In early 1980 the younger brother of one my friends called on me with a strange request – would I accompany him on a coach trip to Manchester to see Joy Division at the Factory?  No one would go with him, and he really wanted to see the band.  He was sixteen or seventeen at the time and I was nineteen.  I agreed, and we bought out coach and gig tickets from Probe Records in town.  Boy, was I glad I went on that trip.  April 1980 at the Russel Club (The Factory) in Manchester.  What an amazing set – all their second album stuff, including brilliant versions of Twenty Four Hours and Atrocity Exhibition.  Add to this, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Transmission, Dead Souls and Shadowplay, and you have the set of a maturing rock band, ready to take on the World.  I bought a cassette of the gig on the way out.  This was real.  This was special.

Barely one month later, Curtis was dead, and the band and fans were left devastated, picking through the ruins of what might have been.  I read Paul Morley’s obituary in the NME with a tear in my eye.  It was a personal loss, a bereavement in my wider cultural family.  The band decided to continue, releasing their next scheduled single, ‘Ceremony’ under a new name: New Order.  The ‘b’ side – ‘In a Lonely Place’ is a wonderfully melancholic farewell to their tragic friend.  With this single there was a belligerent sense that life goes on, and the band must play on.  Ian would have wanted it, and they still had plenty to say.

‘Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders’, sang Curtis.  Young people making their way through life…the challenge is to keep going – don’t give up.  Continue to develop yourself and look for opportunities.  Work is a means to a better life, but stay true to yourself, your beliefs, ethics and cultural identity.  I wish Ian had found the help he needed to continue the fight.  A casualty in the ongoing battle to survive and make sense of it all.  Thanks, Joy Division.  You helped show me the way through the urban jungle to a brighter day.