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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

“The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”

Flannery O’Connor, who wrote some of the finest stories in the English language as well as two powerful novels, came from a wealthy family of old Georgia Catholics.  Her father Edward died from the disease lupus in 1941, but her mother Regina continued to run the family farm.

As a young woman at Georgia Woman’s College in nearby Milledgeville, she wrote and drew and edited a literary magazine.  After graduating with a social science degree in 1942, she won a fellowship at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she got an MA in 1947, and then went to New York.  Her friend Robert Fitzgerald described her then as “a shy Georgia girl, her face heart-shaped and pale and glum, with fine eyes that could stop frowning and open brilliantly upon everything.”

In late 1950, as she was writing her first novel Wise Blood, she began to feel a heaviness in her typing arms.  On her way home to Georgia for Christmas, she fell very ill and was herself diagnosed with lupus, which is an auto-immune disease where the body forms antibodies to its own tissues. At Emory Hospital in Atlanta she had blood transfusions and cortisone injections, and improved enough to return home to the family farm with her mother, although she was expected to die within a few years.  Soon after, Wise Blood was accepted for publication, coming out in 1952, although its grisly aspects alienated her relatives and neighbours, and its religious aspects alienated the literati.

As a result of the success of her first book, she won a Kenyon fellowship, and continued writing short stories and began her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away.  Her disease continued to wax and wane, as the hormone treatments continued.  In 1954 she wrote to the Fitzgeralds: “I am walking with a cane these days which gives me a great air of distinction…I now feel that it makes very little difference what you call it.  As the niggers say, I have the misery.”  The lupus, or the treatments for lupus, were causing her bones to degenerate, and she  soon graduated to aluminium crutches.

However, with her mother’s support, and with the increasing success of her work, including her first volume of stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, she managed to achieve a stable way of life, and even travelled to speak and give readings around the United States.  At home on the farm, she raised peafowl, ducks, geese and exotic birds.  Her second novel was published in 1960, and her mobility improved when she was able to drive around her district.   During these last thirteen years of her life, when she was living at the family farm, often house-bound, she also painted still-lifes and landscapes taken from her surroundings.

O’Connor’s fiction is usually set in a rural Southern setting, uses local dialect, and has grotesque elements, hence the label of “Southern Gothic”.  She herself said “the stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.”  Wendy Lesser points out  that “Sickness and dismemberment and ugliness and mental defectiveness and painful, irredeemable aging and its inevitable companion, death, are front and center in O’Connor’s view of the human condition.”  Racial themes are also prominent in her stories. I have always found her work uncomfortable, enjoyable, and very memorable.  There is also usually a strong strand of sardonic humour, which prevents it becoming overwhelmingly grim.  As well as her novels and stories, she was a very active letter-writer.

In 1958, at the urging of relatives, she went on a trip to Lourdes with her mother, and then to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII.  A devout Catholic, she nevertheless dreaded the possibility of a miracle.   While her disease went into remission for several years, she was stabilized, rather than cured.  Early in 1964, she underwent an abdominal operation, after which her lupus returned in force.  She died in Milledgeville hospital on August 3 1964, of kidney failure.


NPR discussion of her correspondence

Another article about her letters, with photos

Wendy Lesser, Southern Discomfort