As someone who suffers from two fairly severe mental illnesses (depression and music geekdom), I tend to take my therapy almost as seriously as I take my music.
I stopped seeing my first therapist when she told me that she had never heard of The Smiths. As far as I was concerned, it was a professional failing on her part. She was a psychologist who primarily dealt with troubled and snotty young people in a college town and she couldn’t even speak our language. How many times had some maladjusted misfit muttering Morrissey lines gone unheard or misunderstood because this woman didn’t have a basic working knowledge of one of her population’s most beloved moping aids? When I expressed dismay at the alarming gap in her musical vocabulary, she told me that she listened to Blur, but I really didn’t see what good that did. No one’s going to express their innermost feelings and secrets by quoting “The Universal” or “Song 2.”
I knew that I was getting somewhere with my current therapist when he told me that I didn’t have to listen to Joy Division anymore. I considered it the first major breakthrough that I’d ever experienced in therapy. He thought that I was being sarcastic, but the truth of the matter was that it had never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, one does not simply stop listening to Joy Division. Listening to the seminal Manchester post-punk gods was my professional responsibility as a music writer. And it was also my personal obligation.
I first heard The Smiths’ song “Rubber Ring” when I was 12 years old and it hit me hard. I was absolutely devastated by Morrissey’s suggestion that “the most impassioned song to a lonely soul is so easily outgrown” and I decided that I would never let that happen. I vowed that I would never forget the songs that made me cry and the songs that saved my life and, although I didn’t really believe that I’d ever be dancing and laughing and finally living, I also promised that I would hear Moz and his colleagues' voices in my head and think of them kindly if I ever made it there. And years after I stopped listening to Morrissey about life, the people of China, seal hunts or, well, anything, I held true to that.
Joy Division, more than any band, were my rubber ring. They were the ones I turned to during my frequent bouts of misery and despair. They were the only ones who understood me. I certainly couldn’t rely on their fellow miserable Brits to wallow with me. There was a wry smirk and a hint of self-awareness hiding in the undercurrents of most Smiths songs, and a Cure listening session always came with the risk of a blisteringly mirthful “Friday I’m In Love” or “Mint Car” if you strayed too far from Disintegration. But there was no genuine joy to be found anywhere in Joy Division’s oeuvre. Beauty, yes. Even the most angry and angular of early tracks like “Warsaw” and “No Love Lost” have a gorgeous haunted quality to them. Almost every lyric that Ian Curtis ever wrote expresses the most brutal things that can happen to a brain and a soul with both precision and poetry. And few songs will ever approach the aching perfection of “Atmosphere.”
All of that gothic beauty is relentless, though, and it started to wear on me. At some point, the very things I loved so much about the band became the things that dragged me even deeper into despair. My chemically-imbalanced brain and my teenage penchant for melodrama made me incapable of listening to Joy Division with any perspective at all. I began overidentifying with both Curtis’s lyrics and with the portrait of him that his widow Deborah painted in her book, Touching From A Distance. The only release that I could see, either in his art or in his life, was death. My rubber ring was becoming my concrete shoe.
I still listened to them, though. Sometimes I did it out of actual desire to hear “Komakino” or play along to Peter Hook’s melodic bass lines (when you’re a bass-playing loner who wants your efforts to actually sound like much of anything in isolation, Joy Division songs are really your best bet). But mostly, I did it out of duty. They had once meant the world to me and I couldn’t just turn my back on that. Morrissey said so.
Then I started going out with (and eventually marrying) an older guy who took me to the occasional "80s night" and my Joy Division guilt and ambivalence deteriorated into spite. I resented watching other people dance (dance dance) to music that had been such a private and personal thing in my life. Like a petulant child, I just didn’t want to share it, even though I didn’t really want it for myself anymore, either. That resentment eventually extended to retro nights as a whole.
Which was how I ended up in my new therapist’s office on the eve of another event, ranting about my ridiculous Joy Division issues and telling him that the only thing sadder than a borderline suicidal girl using “Shadowplay” as a shoulder to cry on in her bedroom was a bunch of grown men and women lurching around to the utterly undanceable “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” chasing the beat and their youth with about the same amount of success. Which was how he ended up listening patiently to the whole mess and ending our session with a soft and simple “Sarah, you don’t have to listen to Joy Division anymore.”
I felt stunned at first. And then I felt so fucking relieved.
I quit Joy Division cold turkey. I put my CDs away, and while I couldn’t bear to delete their music from my iTunes library entirely, I did start skipping the songs when they played on random. I was tempted once, when I came across a video of actor/musician John Simm (who played Joy Division and New Order’s Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People and occasionally plays roles in my dreams) singing “Digital” with New Order at a 2009 show in London, but I couldn’t make it past the minute mark. Other than that, I haven’t listened to more than a few seconds of one of their songs since. I miss it, sometimes, but I just can’t bear to hear any of it anymore.
I used to think that one great thing about being a music-loving loner and misfit was that artists and songs became your friends, your confidants and, yes, your rubber ring when no one else was there for you. I still believe that, really, but now I realize that a relationship with a band can be just as toxic and ill-fated as any human one. And sometimes, regardless of your history, you have to walk away before your love for them tears you apart.
Follow Sarah on Twitter - @fodderfigure