Ian Curtis/ Kurt Cobain

Watched the Anton Corbijn biopic of Ian Curtis (Joy Division’s singer who committed suicide in 1980 at age 23), Control.  Enjoyed it a lot.  The musical performances, all recorded by the actors, are pretty uncannily good and Sam Riley is a dead ringer for Curtis.  If they toured as the Unknown Pleasures, a Joy Division cover band, I’d definitely go.

I had one thought about the parallel between Curtis and Kurt Cobain, probably a comparison drawn a million times before.  There are various links (beyond the fame and suicide), i.e. they both suffered from medical problems: Curtis’s epilepsy, the treatment of which was pretty hit or miss at that point, and Cobain’s chronic stomach problems, both of which contributed to abuse/misuse of prescription drugs.  But the movie left me with the sense that for Curtis as for Cobain, sudden fame led to a psychological crisis having to do with communication and self-expression.

I get the sense that for both men music was tied up in a fantasy of total transparency and connection with a listener/interlocutor.  They both had trouble communicating with real people, lovers and friends, but had an amazing power to speak to people through music.  It seems likely that for both men the desperation that preceded the suicide was tied up in part with a feeling that they now had a huge audience hanging on their every word that did not in fact understand them in the least.

Many of Joy Division and Nirvana’s signature songs are about the desire to be understood and the failure to communicate.  “When the people listen to you, don’t you know it means a lot?” (“Novelty”); “Walk in silence, Don’t turn away, in silence…. Don’t walk away” (“Atmosphere”); “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/ And he likes to sing along…/ But he knows not what it means/ Knows not what it means” (Nirvana, “In Bloom”).

Watching both men sing, you feel that part of their genius lay in a special talent for taking the basic technology of the microphone and recording technology and infusing it with a sense of complete intimacy.  They are whispering or screaming in your ear.  Control begins with a 17 year old Curtis lying on his bed listening to a David Bowie album; for kids like Cobain or Curtis, there is no voice they listen to more intently than the pop singer’s.

So my thought is that for Curtis and Cobain, this kind of mediated intimacy meant so much that when they became the star, Bowie (important for both of them), the voice that is in your ear as you fall asleep, it was hard to handle the crushing realization that this could feel false, not in fact linked to any true communication or insight, just showbiz.

Of course they both suffered from serious depression as well, so maybe this is all just unwarranted pop (literally) psychology.

4 Responses

  1. Except, what if depression were definable as a syndrome involving difficulties with mediated intimacy? Such a definition might not be too far from the object relations theory of the depressive position, no? While rock star activities very much look like a compensatory swerve to the paranoid/schizoid position …

    In re NIRVANA …

    “It seems inevitable for us karmic individuals, trapped in the rounds of
    samsara, that even the invocation of nonkarmic possibility will be karmically overdetermined. It will have all too many uses, too many causes, and
    too many effects. Clearly it can function as evasion, as the notion of the
    Aesthetic is now commonly seen as functioning. You might even see it as
    overdetermined by our depressiveness itself and by our pedagogical neediness.
    At any rate, that these elements can be closely proximate is clear. To
    me, though, apparently a vision of nonkarmic possibility, however subject
    to abuse, also illuminates some possibilities of opening out new relations
    to the depressive position.”

  2. This reminds me of how I used to fall asleep in bed in grad school reading awesome, insightful crit of 18c lit and culture, and then after having published a book of such criticism… there is nothing but emptiness. In fact, all I have done is drained the magic out of the works of J Paul Hunter.

  3. Don Quixote, is that a cry for help? Your scholarship is not empty!!

  4. PAUL HUNTER : DON QUIXOTE :: ANGUS YOUNG : KURT COBAIN

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