Fifty-fourth in a series…
20. Joy Division, Substance
In the fall of 1987, New Order released a compilation entitled Substance. Designed as a collection of all of the band’s singles up to that point, including the B-sides, the album served as a means for the band to provide greater distribution for some tracks that were fairly hard to get, especially on this side of the Atlantic. It also provided an opportunity for some light revisionism, with the band remixing or even full-on rerecording several of the songs, making the album a different sort of “greatest hits” release. It wasn’t merely an appraisal of who the band had once been, but a consideration of who they’d become, the distance they’d journeyed from, say, the original version of “Temptation,” released in 1982 (a little tinny and combative), to the freshly recorded take from 1987 (more lush, warmer, clearly built for the dance floor). At least in the U.S., Substance represented by far the greatest success the band had enjoyed, charting in the Top 40 of the Billboard album charts (around sixty places higher than their previous peak) and yielding their first Top 40 single with “True Faith,” one of the tracks recorded specifically for the compilation. Clearly there was value in mining their own past, and they had a pretty artistically spectacular past to mine.
Before there was New Order, of course, there was Joy Division. New Order members Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner were all in Joy Division with the brilliant, doomed Ian Curtis. Well, they were initially in the band Warsaw together (up until almost the moment the band first took the stage, they were actually known as the Stiff Kittens, but Morris wasn’t yet a member at that time), but that name was jettisoned because they were continually getting confused with fellow U.K. punkers Warsaw Pakt. They took the name Joy Division from the 1955 novel House of Dolls. The Joy Division was the name German soldiers gave to the portion of the concentration camp that they set up as a brothel, forcing captive Jewish women into sexual slavery. Paired with the beautifully grim music the quartet created, it was a name with more brutal irony than just about any band could bear. But Joy Division wasn’t just any band.
Almost one full year after New Order released Substance, a compilation with the same title but devoted to the music of Joy Division arrived. Compiled with roughly the same conceit of roping singles and their B-sides onto one disc, this Substance was an even more vital document than its predecessor. During Joy Division’s existence, they released only two full-length albums, both vital, and there had been just one previous collection since the devastating 1980 suicide of Curtis hastened the end of the band. That album, 1981’s Still, is comprised on leftover studio material and live recordings (including the entirety of their last concert, just over two weeks before Curtis took his own life), making it more of a clearing of the Factory Records vaults than an encapsulation of the band. Though Substance makes no real claims of being complete, it does manage the worthwhile trick of being defining in a useful way. In touching on every bit of Joy Division’s brief existence — from the first track on their first EP to the morose single released mere weeks after Curtis’s death, almost inevitably becoming the band’s signature song — it captures in an ideal hit-and-run fashion why the band was so thrilling and important. The necessary incompleteness is part of the charm.
On opener “Warsaw,” Joy Division sound like any number of their contemporaries in the punk scene (including Warsaw Pakt). The continuing Holocaust fascination is fairly unique (the song is about Nazi Rudolf Hess, including a reference to his eventual prisoner of war number in the cried intro “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!”), but otherwise songs that sounds like this were found on any number of vinyl offerings from angry young British lads. A major part of the appeal, then, is listening to the more familiar and celebrated version of Joy Division congeal. It doesn’t take long. By the collection’s third track, “Digital,” (originally found on the December 1978 EP A Factory Sample, along with songs by the Durutti Column, John Dowie, and Cabaret Voltaire) the richer tones and offbeat rhythms are beginning to appear. “Autosuggestion,” recorded in the spring of 1979 and released in the fall of that year, expands the sonic palette further with a spooky airiness, forlorn vocals, and guitar parts that sound like tactical attacks being developed through trial and error. “Transmission” closes the first side, and the sound is fully there. First released as a single in October 1979, the song is menacing, soaring, stirring, and propelled by a rhythm that recalls a racing pulse. Maybe it’s not the invention of post-punk, but it’s the sudden, thrilling perfection of it.
The flip side is escalating genius rattled by existential agony. “She’s Lost Control” is goth laced with with the residue of an industrial stew, the instrumental “Incubation” would make a great soundtrack to a dream state chase through a pace-deadening morass, and “Dead Souls” is a roundhouse punch in the darkness with lyrics florid enough to make Jim Morrison blush (“Where figures from the past stand tall/ And mocking voices ring the halls/ Imperialistic house of prayer/ Conquistadors who took their share”). Curtis seems to earn the drama, though. It’s not just knowledge of his ending that makes it clear he was genuinely grappling with a wounded soul. Substance ends with the majestic, gloomy romanticism of “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the latter song surely the one that defines the band for the majority of people. Their evolution was impressive, and, as it turns out, complete.
It’s no wonder that college radio embraced this record when it came across their messy desks. While I maintain that student programmers are likely to champion the new music at hand when they started serving their time on the left end of the dial, there’s also a instinct to indulge in nostalgia for the era that was just missed, certain of how splendiferous it would have been to be in the studio when that one bygone classic album first arrived. As New Order was straying further from those Joy Division roots (the first couple of New Order albums really do sound like extensions of the Joy Division sound, but “True Faith” is a distant cousin, at best), it had to be especially pleasing to drop the needle on music that had no hint of sell out. (1988 was the year of Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You.” Crying “Sell out!” was always a favorite pastime of college radio kids, but the metaphorical pump was especially well-primed.) Substance was a distant promise, not quite kept. It was oddly reassuring to have it whispered — or, rather, roared — into ears anew. Maybe the blistering future of music was yet achievable after all.
Rest in peace, Robin.
We lead off our home video segment with the release of one of last year’s most emotionally powerful films: the Penny Marshall-directed film AWAKENINGS. AWAKENINGS details the work of a doctor, played to perfection by Robin Williams, who takes on the perplexing case of several people who have been in comas for several years, but still have functioning motor skills. They’re able to catch a falling pen, or play an odd game of catch by propelling a beach ball to one another. Williams formulates a potential cure for these patients that succeeds in drawing them out of their comas, but it may represent only a temporary triumph. The first patient to be drawn out of his perpetual slumber in played by Robert De Niro, who snared an Academy Award nomination for his work. De Niro does a fine job, but he occasionally lets the quirks of the character take a control of the performance. He forgets to let us see the person behind the facial tics and muscle spasms. It’s the work of Robin Williams that really carries the film, though he was denied his third Oscar nomination. His performance represents his most solidly mature work to date, as his embraces every aspect of his character and totally submerges himself in the role. His mind is continually working and Williams lets us see every internal and external struggle his character goes through. More than anyone else, Robin Williams is the heart and soul of an amazing piece of filmmaking.
It’s been a long time since it’s happened, but I’ve seen my fair share of Wilco shows. I have a beloved cadre of friends that has a hearty representation of Uncle Tupelo devotees, and I spent a few evening hours during the mid-nineties watching the bands built from the splinters of that seminal alt country group. At least initially, Son Volt was the group that garnered the most acclaim, and I think they were the band my friends favored too. For me, the choice was always Wilco. To be thorough in this reportage, I wasn’t especially fond of Uncle Tupelo, an indifference that continues to this day. It makes sense, I suppose, that the one Uncle Tupelo song I like — and I really, really like it — is “The Long Cut,” a Jeff Tweedy-penned track off the band’s last album that sounds more like early Wilco than late Uncle Tupelo to me.
Another thing tipping my preference was that I felt Wilco was the significantly better band in concert, an important consideration when both groups were tracking through the college town I lived in and I wanted to join with my friends as they bought tickets for every stop. Besides being looser, rawer, and even a little funnier, I found that Wilco was always more likely to simultaneously enlighten and surprise me with their set list, especially in their choice of cover songs. I remember full well standing in the crowd of Madison’s Barrymore Theatre as Jeff Tweedy and company launched into their version of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song “Tell It to Her Heart.” Like anyone with a working memory of the seventies and eighties, I know a lot of Petty songs, but I didn’t know that one. I stood there listening and thinking, “I’ve gotta get this song.”
Though I’m not necessarily a skilled archaeologist of bootleg recordings, I’ve never found a live version of Wilco performing the song, but I did get my iTunes on the next best thing. It’s Tweedy along with future (and now former) Wilco member Jay Bennett performing at Chicago’s Lounge Ax in late 1994, after Uncle Tupelo broke up and before the first Wilco album arrived. Their take on “Listen to Her Heart” is close enough to the one that enthralled me that night in Madison, so many years ago.
Listen or download –> Jeff Tweedy with Jay Bennett, “Listen to Her Heart”
(Disclaimer: As I typed above, I believe this to be a bootleg recording, meaning that it’s not available through any means that compensates anyone who deserves to be compensated for it. Whoever bootlegged it in the first place doesn’t count. It could be a legit recording that’s somehow available and I simply haven’t found it. I’ll admit I haven’t tried very hard. Regardless, I share it here with the belief that I am causing no one fiscal harm and with the hope that it might inspire someone to purchase some Wilco music. Or Tom Petty music, for that matter.)
#21 — Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
It’s entirely possible — likely, even — that Anatomy of a Murder is far better known for the design work of Saul Bass that shapes the opening titles and the poster than for anything more directly connected to the actual narrative. That’s not an entirely lamentable circumstance as it is some of the most striking work ever delivered by a true master of his craft. Still, clicking the film off after Bass’s portion is complete deprives the viewer of one of the shrewdest depictions of American jurisprudence ever devoted to film, not to mention one of the most accurate (or so I suspect, lacking the true expertise to state that definitively). It also has a fascinating frankness about the lascivious crimes contained within its narrative, serving as more of a precursor to and predictor of the cinema to come than a summation of the acceptable film content of the decade drawing to a close as it was released. As directed by Otto Preminger, the film is grandly sturdy in the style of classic Hollywood and yet its darker fringes stealthily suggested just how much deeper cinema targeted at adults could dig.
Set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the film centers on the court case for an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of committing the homicide referenced in the title. He owns up to the killing, but argues he only did it because the victim had sexually assaulted his wife. The lawyer who steps up to defend him is Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a slightly boozy, lackadaisical fellow who almost seems to pick it up as a whim, as if it were just another way to while away his small town, sleepy evenings. In a manner familiar from any number of other courtroom dramas, the case reinvigorates him, though, stirring a deep-set belief in the importance of seeking justice. As is often the case in Preminger’s films, the pleasure is less in the surprises of the plot than in the meticulous panache the director brings to the storytelling. This is especially true when Preminger gets to focus in on the procedures of things. His firmly planted attention always worked best when he was examining the mechanics of how things got done. The simple mechanics of a court case bring out the best in him, and Anatomy of a Murder manages to be riveting by sticking to the rigors of the law.
The film also benefits from some marvelous work by its actors. This is during the stretch when Stewart was trying to figure out his career path as he shifted every so slightly from beloved movie star to aging character actor. He’s utterly fantastic, depicting a man who is steadying himself like a foal learning to stand. Besides that, there are splendid supporting turns by Lee Remick (as the wife of the lieutenant), Eve Arden (operating with her trademark and unequalled withering wit as the lawyer’s secretary), and the consistently marvelous George C. Scott. I suspect playing scenes against Scott, as the prosecuting attorney, contributed mightily to the strength of Stewart’s performance. Though his best known and most loved performances often feel like grand solo turns (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the previous lauded Harvey among them), Stewart was often strongest when he got to operate in tandem against a formidable companion. Scott, as gruff and imposing of a figure as ever drew a studio paycheck, toughens up Stewart, giving him something to swing against. It suits the film perfectly, since Anatomy of a Murder takes a surprisingly tough-minded approach that provides indications of where movies would soon go.
Her friends, it seemed, called her Betty. I believe this to be the case because I once saw Lauren Bacall make an appearance on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson, the only host of that program who truly mattered, presided over it. He kept calling her “Betty,” always with a level of purely smitten appreciation that I rarely saw in the preternaturally composed entertainer. It wasn’t hard to figure out why this upstanding Midwestern gentleman might find himself a little bit swoony in the presence of her. She was decades past her debut as a willowy ingenue in the Howard Hawks wartime romantic drama To Have and Have Not, instructing Humphrey Bogart on the fine art of whistling and shimmying across the screen like a bombshell from a better planet. Still, she had a casual, almost automatic glamor, a command of everything in her vicinity, maybe even the air itself. There was the throaty, cigarette-scarred laugh and the piercing, amused stare that implied she was figure out exactly which little mouse before her was most tantalizing to toy with. Who wouldn’t beam back in helpless response?
Betty Joan Perske of the Bronx went to Hollywood and became Lauren Bacall, immediately embodying the sultry allure of the name. As much as Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, she seemed to rise to her new moniker, finding the hidden promise nestled within it to become the movie star that was needed in the time. She was a broad and a dame, practically shaped into being by the magic of Hollywood, as if the perfect femme fatale was needed for polished film noir offerings. She was startlingly gorgeous, but edged with a touch of danger, of uncertainty. She clearly wasn’t meant to be a damsel in distress. With the arch of eyebrow, she could intimidate every brute in the joint. It’s a given that her best performances were opposite Bogart: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo. Apart from the man she married (and who, by all accounts, she loved deeply), Bacall could come across as a little indifferent. After his death, in 1957, she had long stretches when she didn’t work in film at all. In some of those gaps she wrote, publishing three memoirs, or acting on the stage to great acclaim, winning two Tony Awards. She wasn’t prolific, but that seemed a matter of her choosing. If someone wanted to work with Bacall, they had damn well better be sure it worth her time.
Whenever she was on a screen, big or small, Bacall emanated class. Toughness, smarts, confidence and poise were all present, but above all was class. This was true in challenging works and in throwaway fare. She was one of the last ties to an earlier era of American movies, one that prized that quality, perhaps more than any other. She was there at the right time, in the right place, and, with the right tweaking, even the right name. Even so, I still like to think of her as Betty. Maybe that’s because it makes me feel a little closer to the kind of classic cinema splendor and beauty that’s fading like old celluloid. Maybe it simply makes me feel closer to the intriguing figure she cut. Either way, it makes the unattainable a little more tenderly real.