Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ian Curtis (1956 - 1980)

I did not discover the music of Joy Division until a few years after the death of their lead singer, Ian Curtis, but it was love at first sight.  Songs of doomed romance like 'Love will tear us apart' expressed what most troubled teenagers were feeling.  Never was the gloom and despair and solipsism of youth better conveyed.  The poster for the album Unknown Pleasures decorated the door into the bedroom of my first girlfriend, and when we split up after a year and a day, I turned to Joy Division for consolation.

Ian Curtis grew up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, where he distinguished himself at school by his poems, if not by his hard work.  He won a scholarship to secondary school but left at age of 16 and did a series of administrative jobs.  These included working as an Assistance Disablement Resettlement Officer, where he was responsible for trying to help disabled people find work, in an era which was even less open to disability employment than today.

Ian Curtis married at age 19 and became a father at age 22.  By then, he had already met Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook at a Sex Pistols gig.  The resulting band was first known as Warsaw, then as Joy Division (after a novel which described the women whom Nazis forced to prostitute themselves at the concentration camps).  The band played their first gig as Joy Division in January 1978, and were soon signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records.  With their spare, brooding sound, their black clothes, and Curtis’ frenzied dancing, they became a post-punk sensation, and were to inspire most of the alternative pop music which came after them.  Curtis was both singer and lyricist, his dark songs drawing on his love of writers and musicians including William Burroughs, JG Ballard and David Bowie.

The manic dancing owed something to Curtis’ experience of epilepsy.  He was diagnosed in January 1979, and his symptoms were never successfully controlled by medication.  As his disease worsened, he would sometimes have siezures on stage, possibly triggered by the strobe lighting.  In his recent memoir, Joy Division bass player Peter Hook remembers "looking at Ian wondering if, or when, it was going to happen".  He records that Curtis’ onstage siezures left "some of the audience laughing, some scared, some cheering".

Curtis’ song, “She’s lost control”, describes the experience of a seizure:

Confusion in her eyes that says it all
She's lost control
And she's clinging to the nearest passer by
She's lost control
And she gave away the secrets of her past
And said I've lost control again
And of a voice that told her when and where to act
She said I've lost control again
And she turned around and took me by the hand and said
I've lost control again
And how I'll never know just why or understand
She said I've lost control again
And she screamed out kicking on her side and said
I've lost control again
And seized up on the floor, I thought she'd died
She said I've lost control again, she's lost control
Well I had to 'phone her friend to state my case
And say she's lost control again
And she showed up all the errors and mistakes
And said I've lost control again
And she expressed herself in many different ways
Until she lost control again
And walked upon the edge of no escape
And laughed I've lost control again
She's lost control again, she's lost control

Ian Curtis’ home life was increasingly difficult, particularly after he began an affair with a Belgian journalist, Annik HonorĂ©, and left his wife and child.  His siezures were getting worse.  The band were under great pressure after the success of their first album, Unknown Pleasures.  Joy Division were due to tour America later in the year.  All of them still had “day jobs”, but were writing, recording and performing on evenings and weekends.    During an intense period of work, they recorded their second album, Closer, in April 1980.

The following month, Curtis tried to kill himself with a kitchen knife.  Neither his fellow bandmates nor his record label were seemingly able to give him the support or understanding he needed, even after a second suicide attempt by overdose.  But equally, Curtis was an introspective and secretive person who did not share his feelings easily or ask for help.  Tony Wilson said later "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen... We all completely underestimated the danger.  We didn't take it seriously.  That's how stupid we were."   Another band member said "this sounds awful but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics." 

In the end, depressed, exhausted and under great personal strain because of the break-up of his marriage, Ian Curtis hung himself using a washing line in the kitchen of the house he had shared with his wife, on May 18, 1980.  His death helped propel him into legendary status, just as with the suicide of Kurt Cobain, or the  tragedies of Jim Morrison, Marc Bolan or Jimi Hendrix.  Perhaps the Romantic poets Keats and Shelley would be other apt comparisons for this tormented, disabled poet whose lyrics captured the ennui and angst not just of his generation, but of many since.

1 comment:

  1. Had no idea about Ian Curtis' life. Thank you so much for this information. Fascinating. Well done! jane Wardlaw, Tasmania Disability Lobby, Australia.