For most of my Music and Cocktails posts I’ve looked to different sources to gain background information about the particular song, or artist, or band about which I was writing. I began researching Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” in much the same way as I always do, yet I quickly realized that most interpretations of the song, as well as its importance to the band in general, were written from the standpoint of lead singer Ian Curtis’ depression and subsequent suicide. It’s understandable. The song was originally released in March of 1980 as a single in France, but was re-released two months later after Curtis took his own life on May 18th. It was the song that BBC Radio host John Peel chose to play after announcing Curtis’ death on the air. It is, in fact, the song that is most often played at funerals, although I admit that I’m not sure who keeps that particular statistic up to date. I found myself wondering how the song would have been interpreted if Curtis hadn’t died, and even how Joy Division itself would have been viewed. Journalist Teddy Jamieson from the Scotland Herald called Curtis’ suicide a “rigid, implacable, [and] violent full stop. And the stain of that one singular event seeps back into every song, every word, every photograph, every aspect of the story. Retrospectively all of it now leads to that ending.” Since Curtis killed himself right before the band’s first American tour was about to begin, it’s hard to really know what would have been next for them.
Having always loved this song, I really wanted to write a post that would offer more insight, but I found myself caught in this same wormhole of only being able to see it one way. The lyrics seemed to support it. He’s wearing “a mask of self-hate [that] confronts and then dies.” He implores us, “don’t walk away, in silence.” I’d almost given up on the idea when I remembered that my youngest son, Connor, is the foremost expert that I know on all things related to Ian Curtis and Joy Division. He and I sat down to have a conversation about “Atmosphere,” that helped me to view the song differently. Connor certainly agrees that Ian Curtis was falling apart emotionally, but he sees the song to be more about deception than depression. At the point when Curtis wrote “Atmosphere” his marriage was falling apart, and his epilepsy was worsening to the point where he was having two seizures a week. He was lying to his wife by continuing to have an affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré. He was hiding his epilepsy from his fans by incorporating seizure-like movements into his dancing, to the point where it became his trademark, even though the strobe lights and certain drum sequences began to cause actual seizures that required that he be carried off the stage. He’d reached the point of being physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, yet he continued to perform, unable to be honest even with himself. His “walk in silence” reflects that lack of honesty, and his admonition to “always see the danger’ in doing so becomes even more meaningful when looked at with this understanding.
That being said, there is no question in Connor’s mind that Joy Division was Ian Curtis, and could not go on without him. Because of his death, the band was never given the opportunity to explode onto the American music scene, which is the very thing that catapults so many artists to stardom. For this reason, there’s not a lot that’s known about them, and so they remain shrouded in and defined by mystery. Their story is mainly told through black and white photos taken by Anton Corbjin in his book In Control, and through their album covers. (Corbjin also went on to direct the film biopic called Control, which focuses on Ian Curtis.) Connor feels as though this lack of information allows a more intimate relationship with Joy Division’s music. Because we feel compelled to create our own narrative, we dig deeper, and are drawn more completely into the songs and the lyrics. “Atmosphere” is a perfect example of this. It’s impossible to listen to the song and not be hypnotized by the combination of the drums and Curtis’ signature deadpan, deep-voiced delivery of the lyrics. In the end, Joy Division was a post-punk band with a songwriter who loved philosophy and literature, and crafted incredibly intellectual lyrics that had layers of sophistication that was missing from a lot of the music from that era. In that sense, they will always live on, and so will Ian Curtis.
For today’s cocktail, I wanted to assemble an unusual group of ingredients with flavors that were also layered and sophisticated. I began with a base of Laphroaig Select which always has a mysterious quality to it because it has such smokiness with just an underlying hint of sweetness. I then added a fortified wine called Rivesaltes that is made in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Its flavor is similar to that of an aged Tawny Port, so it tastes like fruits, raisins, honey, caramel and nuts. In short, it’s absolutely delicious, and worked wonderfully with the Scotch. For my final ingredient, I decided to use a Quadrupel Ale from Ommegang Brewery called Three Philosophers which echoed these same flavors, but because it’s a beer, also had the effect of adding crispness and tang. Two dashes of DRAM Citrus Medica bitters and a lemon peel expressed over the drink added balance. The end result is a surprisingly complex cocktail with layers of flavor that pull you in right from the start, very much like “Atmosphere” does. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the song. Cheers everyone! Happy Wednesday.
Walk In Silence
Add all the ingredients to a shaker tin with ice and shake until very cold. The beer’s carbonation will cause pressure to build up so release the shaker a few times to allow it to escape. Strain into a port glass. Express a lemon peel over the drink, twist, and garnish. Enjoy!