Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me by Bernard Sumner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As Bernard Sumner is the singer and lyricist of one of my top three lifetime favorite bands, New Order, I was particularly predisposed to enjoy his autobiography.
It was cool learning about the fundamentals of his life, and I was never bored, but his writing has the same clear, direct, opaque quality as his lyrics. He's always talking right to us, but he's a master of using simple language to mask and obfuscate his particulars, even if we know basically what he's talking about. So we follow through his rather sweet, sad, and rascally childhood in Salford, a borough of Manchester, with painful but handled family pain, his mild rebellions and growth in music, the formation and implosion of Joy Division, the rebuilding into New Order and global hits, the Hacienda and the dissolution of his contentious partnership with Peter Hook, and continuing touring and recording with New Order. It's all rendered sketchily, point to point, and emotions are expressed, but I don't know if it's his stiff upper lip or just the tonal evenness of his fundamental personality, but it's all quite factual and dispassionate, elided, skirted, and hinted at in coy ways, while still not shying away from actual events.
For instance, there are drugs and partying and late late nights and club life and overdosing and out of control abuse he describes offhandedly while barely copping to being involved with any of it at all, even as he admits that substances took him to very dark places. It's all so strangely disassociated.
The same goes for his fights with Peter Hook. They were friends and musical partners since grade school. Really, they're the kernel of the whole band, with Stephen Morris and Ian Curtis joining later, and then Gillian Gilbert being hired after Ian's death. So it's amazing how little Bernard actually focuses on Hooky. Their relationship is mentioned but never described. We have no idea how it functions, which grows increasingly odd as the cipher of a partnership strains and comes apart because of Hook's supposed jealousy. This is Bernard's take, of course, but it almost feels like Hook was never significant at all. It's true of so many of the relationships here; they're present but unfelt. The emotions are hidden elsewhere. In the music.
Quite bizarre, really, how he manages to tell us everything while still saying so little. Really, if you've listened to New Order's lyrics, you already know exactly how this dichotomy works. Yes, the lyrics are meaningful, yes, they stick with me and I sing bits in appropriate moments that suit the happenstances of my own life, but sometimes the words are detached and weightless, too. I wouldn't say empty, even as that's how they sound. I'd say sublimated.
But then, of course, the songs have all that gorgeous music, the antagonistic but precise layering of melodies, the pull and push of the guitar and synths and bass, which emotionally and visually develop the words, explaining them sometimes, commenting, emphasizing, or sometimes just building castles and cathedrals and other sonic landscapes around the lyrics.
Maybe that's what's missing from this book. The music. Bernard tells us his about his love for music, and he repeats that it's everything to him, but he can't explain it. He's a kind of savant. He lives the music and expresses it and that's enough for him.
Meanwhile, the included pictures reminded me how much I based decades of attraction on his beautiful youthful appearance. He was my idol. Thank you, Bernard.