I remember the first time I saw a picture of Joy Division. It’s difficult to imagine, in this Age of Internet, what it would be like not to know what the members of your favorite band looked like — but once upon a time, it was a very real possibility.
It was 1996. I was 16 years old, shopping for posters in the record stores along Haight Street in San Francisco. I had already picked up a couple of posters featuring a few of my distinctly recognizable icons — Robert Smith of the Cure with his deliberately smudged makeup, morose Morrissey and his pompous pompadour. I didn’t need the Internet to tell me what they looked like. Like many music nerds in the 1990s, my friends and I collected LPs, t-shirts and band posters like our lives depended on it, and there had been a heated competition for who could find a Joy Division poster first.
The thing is, I had no idea what the band looked like. After the dramatic cemetery statuary on the covers of my “Closer” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” LPs, I had been expecting a band of brooding, black clad British lads with teased hair along the lines of Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy. Instead, I was brutally, cruelly confronted with a poster featuring four gawky-looking dudes with nerdy haircuts and button-down shirts. One of them even had a beard (shudder)! Why did my icon Ian Curtis have to be so dorky and awkward looking? I wrung my fishnet-gloved hands in sorrow, and suddenly understood why they never used band photos in their LPs.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy the poster. I went back to pretending that Ian Curtis looked like a cross between Robert Smith and Peter Murphy.
It wasn’t that the Internet didn’t exist back then; it was just that it wasn’t readily available for people who weren’t hardcore geeks, and some even viewed it with suspicion. I remember going to the public library to research Gary Numan, and finding nothing more than a few paragraphs in an ancient copy of the “Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records” that indicated the enigmatic musician’s obsession with flying planes and J.G. Ballard. I checked out every J.G. Ballard book the library had, and began drawing a series of bizarre illustrations based on his lyrics and the precious few photos scattered on the covers and liner notes of his LPs, found in record store dollar bins.
Has the Internet ruined the mysteries of adolescent idol worship? Is knowing less somehow more when it comes to preserving the idealized image of an adored icon? In my youth, every scrap of information, every photo or quote gleaned from out of print books, record album sleeves, and fanzines, was a rare and special treasure. Now there’s more information than even the most die-hard fan would want. There are times when I wish I didn’t know that Gary Glitter was a convicted child molester, because I can no longer enjoy his infectious bubblegum pop in the same carefree way I did when I was 15.
On the other hand, I can look at the same picture of Joy Division thirteen years later and think that they’re not that bad-looking after all. So is the internet to blame for my disillusionment, or am I just getting old?