It’s been about two weeks since I picked up Peter Hook’s book Unknown Pleasures and I’m already done. This is quite possibly the fastest I’ve ever gone through a book. I’ve always read books with shorter chapters quicker. That has to do with my compulsion to only end my reading at the end of a chapter. If I had ten-minutes to go before the end of lunch hour and I have the prospect of a 20-page chapter in front me, I usually never take the shot. But with ‘Hooky’, you’re usually only about five-pages out from finishing another chapter. Plus he’s got a sardonic writing style that just greases things over easy, even during lunch hour on a workday.
But perhaps it also has to do with what he’s largely writing about. The start of his aspirations of being in a band, the eventual formation of Joy Division and the fun and travails from trying to make music with three other people who are not really like you at all. A lot of what he said just rewound me back 20-years. The endless hours of practicing and hammering out song ideas, traveling to shows, playing in shitty venues, the constant waiting for shows to start, playing to empty venues, getting stiffed on payment, the joys of hearing your music being recorded for the first time, disagreements with other bands, etc. I guess it’s comforting to know that even a seminal band like Joy Division labored in the same salt mines as I did.
I found music as a time when I was desperate to carve an identity for myself. I was a recluse in secondary school. I was not good at sports, I had no affinity for studying and I did not have the balls to be a delinquent as well. I was basically not orientated to be ‘someone’ in school. So I was searching for something outside of it, so I could in a way, win by not playing the game of school popularity at all. So I could scoff at everyone by being out of the system. I was looking for a way to express what I was feeling and finally finding it at the low-end of an open E note.
I remember the days when I breathed playing music. The silliness of discovering a three-chord progression and writing a hundred songs based around it. Detailing out concepts for songs before a note’s been written (‘Okay, let’s write a six-minute-long ballad’). Scribbling every interesting word or phrase you’ve heard in a notebook because it could be used for a song. Spending Saturday mornings with the boys, in someone’s room, just exploring song ideas. Spending all the money we had on jamming studio sessions that were tucked beyond smoky corridors, to play through dusty Peavey amps and sing through smelly microphones.
But we felt absolutely unstoppable. In the book, Hook recounted a theory Pete Saville had (this would be the same Peter Saville involved in the recent Burberry logo redesign shenanigans) that musicians stop writing great music when they learn about the formal process of making music. Because it means they stop taking chances and start adhering to the ‘rules’ of writing and playing music. It ultimately throttles the creativity out of the process. We certainly did not know the formal rules of writing music in a band when we started out. We were just feeling things out in front of us and taking things a step at a time.
But whenever we juiced up those awful amps, cranked up the volume and got into the groove, it felt like life was barreling forward at light speed and we were all struggling to just hang on. It’s hard to describe that feeling. The feeling of creating something collectively that was solely your own. That buzz, I don’t think I’ve experienced it since. The lack of knowledge of how things are meant to unfold and that we were just discovering things about ourselves and music as every week passed. That exciting sojourn into the unknown – it’s a kind of high, for sure.
There’s a line in Mad Men, when protagonist Don Draper was accused for being someone who ‘only likes the beginning of things’. There’s some credence for saying that is not too dissimilar from me and the bands I’ve been in over the years. If I were to offer myself just a superfluous review of my memories of being in them, the initial months and years of them tend to pop up in the highlight reel. For each of them, I eventually found a way to become disconnected from them emotionally. I suppose you could accuse me of being someone that didn’t fundamentally really loved playing music and I may not find the strength to offer you a convicted retort.
Perhaps music to me was a crutch I used during my teenage years to offer myself a convenient excuse to not belong to anything, but at the same time to also belong to something. And once I discovered something which could offer me that without having to lug a guitar to an obscure drinking hole, I dropped it. I don’t know. I am not sure if that’s true but perhaps there is some truth in that.
I’ve often been asked if I miss playing music. My answer will often jump immediately to a specific moment in my life. It was a weekday night. My church was located at a once-popular corner of SS2, PJ, just above a Shakey’s Pizza and opposite the popular pisang goreng truck. We had the lights mostly off at the church, but we had the amps cranked up and the PA was hissing. We had asked for permission to have a jam session and the pastor was okay with it. There were five, maybe six of us. We had been given an old, scratched cassette of a Pure Metal compilation. There was a track on it called ‘Warrior of Light’ by a band called Force 3. We were trying to play that song. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. I had a mic and I remember screaming into it. Yeah screaming, not singing. I had not learned to play the bass yet then so all I could offer to proceedings was my complete lack of singing ability.
Yet, I felt powerful at that moment, like my soul was finally afforded proper release from its shackles. Like I had been searching for something unknown all my existence and at that moment, I found it. Like I was struck by lightning and given divine powers. I was lost, but now I was found. It probably sounded like an otter being waterboarded with acid for people walking the street sidewalks below but to us, we felt like the greatest band in the world.
I miss that feeling. Does that count?