# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 1 - ‘A small flame that burns very, very hot.’

  by Steve Miles

published: 3 / 7 / 2023

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 1 - ‘A small flame that burns very, very hot.’

In this special article spread over four parts, Steve Miles discusses the role of intimacy and belonging in music: how musicians and songwriters create a special sense of closeness with their audiences, and vice versa, whilst at the same time understanding that intimacy can sometimes elude even the tightest daily relationships. ‘I don’t want to turn around/ And find I’ve got it wrong/ And that I should have been/ Laughing all along’- from Magazine, ‘You Never Knew Me’ (1980). Along the way, across all four parts, he conducts an extensive and wide-ranging interview with The Hold Steady frontman, Craig Finn and hears heart-wrenching reflections from Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher, who is interviewed further elsewhere in the magazine. Gigs from 1980, 1981, 1984, 2003 and 2023 get unapologetically-belated reviews, while The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Magazine, The Libertines, The Fall, The Dandy Warhols, The Smiths and more are referenced along the way. ‘I don’t know/ I don't know whether I ever knew you/ But I know you/ I know you never knew me.’ This is the chorus of what is probably Magazine’s most delicate song, from Side One of ‘The Correct Use of Soap,’ released in May 1980. There’s a simplicity to the arrangement and a restraint to the performance, hinging on the sharp, rapt drums and the perfectly-judged ego-free contributions of a band at the peak of their confidence, that force singer Howard Devoto to lose almost all his wonted artifice and theatricality and lay his heart on the line. As the study of a relationship gone sour, of the push and pull of conflicting emotions, the song is a masterpiece, performed by a band who climb higher in my respect with every passing year. The album’s production is as tight and controlled as a finely tuned snare drum, a uniquely clean piece of work by the overrated junkie Martin Hannett, and a remarkably different vibe to his production on Joy Division’s records which at the time of recording the band apparently ‘hated’, or the ruinous mess he made of the final Buzzcocks’ singles (‘Parts 1-2’). The song is mentioned here, however, merely as a welcome mat for the themes this three-part article will explore: what friendship means in person, what friendship means by proxy (through art), how well we can ever know each other, and how much all that matters for our mental health. I was a shy teenager, and perhaps more than usually self-absorbed. I completely lacked any confidence in myself, but undoubtedly appeared more than usually arrogant. I yearned for deep, intimate relationships but found them for the most part only in music, film and literature. I found it hard to understand myself, but didn’t know it, and I found it hard to understand others, though I thought I did. If music didn’t say something interesting to me about myself or about other people, it didn’t interest me at all – and still doesn’t. It had to help me, and it still does. Less than a year after the song above was released, I went one night (to the same venue I’d last seen Magazine in) to see to a newish band who were still only about 20 gigs into their career play a short, bashful set that left me cold, in a sparsely-attended hall. After the gig, they mingled diffidently with those who had come to see them, dressed in everyday clothes and (to their great credit) lacking any celebrity mannerisms of any kind. To the intense young man that I was, this was the time to hold them to account for their underwhelming performance, so that’s what I did. I interrogated them as only a teenager as callow and zealous as I was could, and to this day I deeply regret the personal, probing questions I put to them. Only much later did I recognise how insensitive I had been, and over time, I’ve come to realise they were still just youngsters themselves. I’d been driven to talk to them for two reasons. First, because they disappointed me so much compared to the previous time I had seen them, and secondly, because of what had happened to them since. The last time I had seen them, almost exactly a year before, in the same place, they had been bewilderingly powerful: unforgettably intense and unsettling. But then, they weren’t quite the same band. In fact, that earlier event had seemed chalk and cheese to this night’s tepid affair. The earlier gig had also been irritatingly short, but that time it was because their singer had to be helped off, I think mid-song, after seemingly being overcome by exhaustion and emotion. Even the badly out of tune keyboard sounded somehow right that night, as if the feeling mattered so much more than the technique. There had been no mention anywhere in the news, or even in the music press, about what had happened to the singer at the end of that first gig, because at the time the band I saw were a relatively little-known outfit, who’d only recently turned ‘professional’, and their first album hadn’t even come close to troubling the charts. There hadn’t been a huge crowd, after all, and nobody much had seemed to care about the way the gig ended. But all that had changed completely in the intervening year - their second album (which the band were recording at the time of the first gig) had made big waves. For a large part, this was because just before it was released – and only ten weeks after that abruptly-ended gig - the lead singer died. His name was Ian Curtis and he had taken his own life. The band I was watching this night were the newly-launched New Order. ‘Words meant such a lot to Ian – if he put a record on, we’d have to listen to absolutely everything. He used to talk about what the lyrics meant and the story behind them. He didn’t like songs that didn’t mean anything.’ – Deborah Curtis, 2014. I think Ian Curtis’ suicide may have had a genuinely quite significant impact on me for some time, even though I didn’t know him at all except through his music. No-one I'd ever spent so much time thinking about had died before. Death had only entered my life through a couple of classmates’ parents and some relatives I didn’t remember, while suicide had never really been on my radar as a thing at all. But the inevitable deification of his despair in the press that followed, together with the cover, tone and content of the album that came close on its heels, ‘Closer,’ (released July 1980) cemented in me a connection between depression and self-harm that I didn’t manage to really escape from for more than decade and a half after. All of that I didn’t fully see coming. And yet, in some ways, having seen him six feet away from me, burning himself out from the inside just two months before, none of it was a surprise at all. It felt somehow inevitable. And his songs seemed so profoundly personal, so soul-baring, that, as a listener, you felt you knew him better than you knew your family or your friends, who never shared their feelings as openly or with such clarity as he did on his records. So that’s what I wanted to talk to his former bandmates about – how they had felt, were they shocked, were there any signs, how did they decide to carry on? Questions which were far too personal and far too raw to be asked by some small, smooth-faced schoolboy they’d never met before. But I suppose I felt entitled to ask them because Curtis’ death had become such a commodity in indie culture, and because his lyrics seemed to exist in a space where you could and should talk about such things. Sadly, I don’t remember what they told me, except that they were patient and polite. But they’ve since been asked a million similar questions in the more tactful and appropriate space given by time and their consequent massive commercial success. The apparently perplexing thing is that those subsequent interviews have revealed that Curtis’ bandmates, though they loved him, didn’t seem to have paid half as much heed to his lyrics as his fans did. Even his wife, Deborah, told the Guardian in 2014 that she didn’t know the words of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Joy Division’s posthumously-released single, and a mordant living-post-mortem of their marriage, until after he died. “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is reality,” she said, adding that hearing the album for the first time was ‘shocking’ to her. ‘Because the lyrics were so dark. So very dark. You just think, ‘How come he couldn’t talk to somebody about it?’ Drummer Stephen Morris has said, ‘It was a great period for the band, but Ian’s personal life – that was all going badly. In retrospect, when you listen to it in light of what happened, it seems bloody obvious. I honestly didn’t realise that he was writing about himself. I just said, ‘These are great lyrics, Ian’. That makes it a bit difficult to listen to now.' So here you had, in wonderfully chastening hindsight, a young man with an intense internal emotional life; a man bitterly conflicted in his personal affairs, deeply interested in the darker sides of the human condition, and recently diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition, who used a microphone, a notebook, a strangely-shaped guitar and a genuinely unique style of dancing, to exorcise and dramatise his own personal demons. And he was doing so in a way that flew straight into the behind-the-scenes lives of people like me, into my innermost self as I lay on the carpet with the stylus sending that forlorn voice into my headphones. A voice that was boldly confessional: I heard the despair in his heart as he sang, ‘Mother I tried, please believe me/ I'm doing the best that I can/ I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through/ I'm ashamed of the person I am,’ (from ‘Isolation’, track 2 on ‘Closer’, 1980) while my family watched the misadventures of vets in the 1930’s on the TV in the opposite corner of our living room. To the other three lads in Joy Division, he was their mate, a Macclesfield pal who had a laugh with them down the pub. He was a bandmate who shared their dreams of giving up his day job at the Employment Exchange and making it big in music. It’s perfectly natural to see lyrics like, ‘Existence, well, what does it matter?/ I exist on the best terms I can/ The past is now part of my future/ The present is well out of hand’ as somehow detached from that relationship, separated by the music from the man they knew, as maybe inhabiting an fictional world rather than the inner world of the author. So here’s the conundrum: a dedicated fan who listens - with a thirst for candour and a yearning for comradeship - to a confessional songwriter like Curtis will spend far longer thinking about the emotional world of the singer than the songwriter’s own family or friends. For Curtis’ family and friends, the songs were just a small part of the man they knew – a Man City fan who burps and farts and has a mortgage and a baby and sulks and jokes like everyone else. For the fan, the lyricist who bares his soul is ALL that Curtis is: a fellow traveller in the world of the ‘heart and soul’. In turn, the inner world of the fan’s own family and friends probably remains an ‘unknown pleasure’. They feel much ‘closer’ in some special way to the singer. In her book, ‘Touching From A Distance’, Deborah Curtis wisely and wistfully concludes that, ‘While [Ian] lived his lyrics were equivocal, but with hindsight all was disclosed when it was too late for anything to be done.’ So, can we really know anybody else, if even our best friends and spouses sometimes don’t know the things that matter to us most? And how do we get to know each other better? The question, as evidenced above, is made all the more difficult to answer by the absolute certainty I feel that singers/songwriters and artists of all kinds can often be better, closer soulmates than most of the people we share our days with. To help explore this I turned to Craig Finn, the literary lyricist and idiosyncratic singer with The Hold Steady, who was gracious enough to give me some of his time earlier this year, along with Amelia Fletcher, whose 90’s band Heavenly recently played their first gigs in nearly thirty years. Both artists spoke freely and openly and you will hear from the both over the course of this multi-part article, though it is Craig Finn who you will hear from most as Heavenly also feature elsewhere in this magazine. But even if you don’t know or like either band, there’s plenty to enjoy! I first met Craig very briefly at a Rough Trade album launch gig earlier this year, where the band played an expert set and then signed autographs. I’d never seen the band before, and three things struck me: First, how sensitive and collaborative the band were as musicians, as befits a band celebrating twenty years together. Secondly, how absolutely everyone in the crowd seemed to feel they were part of the band in its widest sense, with a shared sense of belonging as part of The Hold Steady community. And thirdly, how much that togetherness was reciprocated by the band, who seemed willing to spend as long as the audience wanted to talk to them, and thoughtfully provided free, fine-quality prints for fans to get their autographs on. None of that, however, is news: the most cursory research shows the extraordinary devotion and comradeship of the ‘Unified Scene’ that makes up the fans of The Hold Steady. ‘The Price of Progress,’ the album they were launching, is the band’s ninth album over twenty years, and the significance of that anniversary is high on Craig Finn’s radar. He is clearly deeply proud of the band’s longevity and success, and very aware of the legacy and heritage that they have accumulated. ‘It's probably mostly for me to say like, look how far we've come,’ he says, referring also to a planned ‘coffee table’ book, ‘The Gospel of The Hold Steady’ due out this summer, with stories from the band and their fans. It matters to him, and his fans, a lot to know and remember which album came out when and in what order, and what it meant to them at the time. ‘I think that's one of the ways the Catholic thing rears its head,’ he adds wryly, defining himself as a ‘lapsed’ believer: ‘through these rituals and anniversaries. That’s part of growing up Catholic, you know - even in the shows there are certain hand gestures I do at a certain time of every song, and some of the fans do them with me, and it's one-part Catholic mass, one-part Rocky Horror!’ He's not about to change the basics of the formula that has brought them success, not just because it sells, but because it works – both for the band and for their fans. But equally, the band is always looking to evolve. Craig says, ‘It's our ninth album. So you get to making the record and you say, ‘Have we done this before?’ And you try to find new avenues for it. Josh Kaufman, who’s been producing these records, is very good at saying ‘Let's do something different here.’ I think we had a lot of fun making it: it's our ninth record, you know - we've already built this thing. Let's have fun, let's do things.’ The creativity of the band is apparently easy and relatively conflict-free, as you might suspect for a band that has lasted two decades. ‘I write all the lyrics, but three different people, Tad, Franz and Steve are giving me music, so it comes kind of quickly; if each of those guys writes 3 or 3.33 songs, we've got a 10-song album. Even though it takes a long time to do all the recording, the mastering and the overdubs, the creative part comes together pretty quickly and there's still a lot of fun in that part. I think that that comes through.’ Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the whole twenty years of the band. From the stage at the Rough Trade album launch gig, Craig told a gruesome story about ‘Bristol memories’ and became, ahem, confessional. ‘It was our first big tour in 2007 that we came over here and I was behaving like a complete asshole. And I got so wasted I started vomiting so hard that I burst a blood vessel in my eye. So my whole eye was red, but it was weird because it didn't happen immediately, it happened the next day, sort of delayed, which meant that I actually didn't do this in Bristol, but I discovered it here first, so it was you (looks at crowd) left holding the bag.’ As if to prove the current solidarity of the band, one of the others chimed in: ‘Just to be fair to you, Craig, you weren't the only one behaving like an asshole!’ To which he replied, ‘I can only identify myself. There were some other culprits, but I was the only one who vomited, so whether or not I was the worst, I looked the worst!’ Me being me, of course, I asked him about that when we spoke. ‘That was probably more like ‘Boys and Girls in America’ (their third album, 2006) time. We’d been touring the States a while but then we got to go to England and every show was sold out, there was this idea of like, you have to do it all you know: if they give you a bottle of whiskey, then you got to drink it, right? And then at some point you say, ‘Wow, that bottle of whisky sure is coming easy’. Like, ‘I bet if I don't drink it tonight, it'll show up tomorrow again, or maybe I can have one drink, which is all I really want’. And you get used to that they're always gonna give it to you if you're going to be in a rock band.’ It struck me that the intense scrutiny over everything the band did from devoted fans might be a curse as well as a blessing, more now than ever in the age of social media. For while the Internet allows the very kinship the Unified Scene exemplifies, it also means that Craig, like many modern creatives, knows his audience, and their reactions to his work, much better than most artists in history. ‘I don't know that I feel much pressure that way,’ he says, ‘I feel like it's more of a confidence that I can play to my instincts. You know, people like this, you know? I don't have to reinvent it; this is who we are and there's more of a confidence and a comfort that people will enjoy what we do. And I think that there's also a kind of a balance between, ‘Okay, let's do try to do something new,’ and ‘Let's also realise that what we do is cool… we don't have to, make a techno record or anything like that!’’ I asked him if he ever felt that he couldn’t change what he did because of the need to make a continuing living? ‘No, I don't really feel that because, well, two things: I don't know that I can do anything other than what I do, you know? I mean, there's the solo records (he’s released five to date) but I don't know where I would get to a more commercial thing. But, also, I think this sort of joy and happiness and even contentment is sort of contagious. Like when we're trying our least hard is in some ways when the best stuff happens and when people react to it the best.’ That’s not to say that they don’t move forward; they do, intelligently. ‘The Price of Progress’ is musically less MOR than any previous Hold Steady record and a great starting point for those of a more indie disposition. And while Craig’s trademark narratives normally concern characters who ‘make bad decisions and pursue them belligerently to their logical conclusion’, some of the songs here break new ground. ‘Distortions of Faith,’ for example, is a three-verse novella about a singer with a private plane playing a gig that goes wrong in a corrupt regime. ‘It definitely is a different character. I mean, it concerns a popstar, so that's someone I've never written about before… I mean, I’ve traditionally written about more desperate characters, but that person is desperate emotionally. The story is about her going to play a show for a dictator in a country that's had a lot of unrest, and it goes very poorly and they make an escape, which I thought was a very, I don't know… There aren't many private planes in The Hold Steady world!’ Craig went on to explain some of the reasons behind his subject field having grown wider. ‘Do you know George Saunders? He’s a great writer, someone I very much admire. His new book is called ‘Liberation Day’. I was reading it while this record was already in the can, and there was like a hint of revolution in the air in these stories he wrote, and I sort of thought, ‘That's kind of what I was trying to do’. I mean, that song, and the sixth song ‘Birdwatchers’, take place in other places (to his normal output), and it's kind of like talking about income inequality, and late-stage capitalism. You know, I didn't want to say we're going to revolution, but I wanted it to be creeping… I wanted it to be a whisper on the wind.’ I asked him if he would ever consider writing full on political songs? ‘I could try to do that this afternoon and I'm almost positive I would delete it, because it would just not feel like something I can do. You know, if someone, some sloganeering songwriter said, ‘Can you help me with this?’ I would say, ‘I can try…’ but I just don't think that's aesthetically really my thing. The Clash is probably in my top three favourite bands, you know, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I couldn't do that, you know, but I admire it.’ ‘I might have been more open to trying it when I was 25. Which is probably where Joe was when he wrote a lot of the songs, you know? I think at 50 you’re kind of resolved to the idea that the world is pretty complex.’ But might it be that some people who like The Hold Steady don’t pick up on the subtler political messages at all? ‘Right. I mean, well yeah, I will be at Springsteen on Sunday night with a lot of those people, that aren't getting Bruce's message, especially when the tickets get to be as expensive as they are! I think that there's always the push and pull and, like a lot of us, I sort of feel like I understand less as I get older. I understand a little more about a few things, but you know, there's still a lot of great mysteries. But making a record is in some way like marking your height against the wall in an emotional and spiritual sense. Like, ‘This is where I am. This is where I was.’’ It’s a really great analogy, and one which bears thinking about: how much of art is that simple thing of a pencil line on the wall to see how you've grown, but in an emotional or intellectual sense rather than in feet and inches? And here’s the thing, it’s really hard to do that for yourself. You need someone to hold the pencil and tell you to straighten your head. You need someone to help you sort your life. In part two of this article we explore these ideas further, examine the links between religion and fandom (and a lot more) with Craig Finn, and ponder the effect of gigs by The Smiths, The Libertines and The Dandy Warhols as we seek to find an answer to the question of why and how music matters so much.

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 1 - ‘A small flame that burns very, very hot.’

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In this special article spread over four parts, Steve Miles discusses the role of intimacy and belonging in music. He begins by remembering encounters with Joy Division and New Order, and starts to conduct an extensive and wide-ranging interview with The Hold Steady frontman, Craig Finn.

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