Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Just Walk Away

In the early hours of May 18th 1980, two months before his 24th birthday, Ian Curtis committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England and for many of us, life changed dramatically. Shortly before the end of Ian's life, his wife Deborah started divorce proceedings; Ian was no longer living at the family home. In April 1980 he was admitted to the hospital for an overdose of epilepsy medication. It's not clear whether this was a suicide attempt or a plea for help. What is clear is that by the last month of his life, Ian found the pressures on him greater than ever, not least of which was the band's first American tour. On Saturday, May 17th, Ian canceled arrangements to meet friends and returned to his home on Barton Street. Deborah was working the bar at a local disco and had left their daughter, Natalie, at his parents. Ian watched Stroszek, a film by Werner Herzog, and when Deborah's shift ended, she appeared at the door, they spoke for a while, then, at his behest, she left.

Alone again he listened to Iggy Pop and wrote a letter to his estranged wife. Then, in the early hours Sunday morning, he hung himself in the kitchen. His body was found by Deborah when she returned later that day. Some were left with the impression that he was dreading the American tour and the traveling involved. Others say he was looking forward to the tour with cautious excitement. A third view, advanced by Deborah Curtis, was that the prospect of touring did not worry him at all: he knew that he would not be going. Although no one can agree on whether Ian's suicide was long-planned or an impulsive decision, none will argue that his illness and drug regimen affected his judgment.

Joy Division was one of four essential post-punk bands that trace their origins to a now-legendary 1976 performance by the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Along with founding members of the Buzzcocks, the Smiths and the Fall, Mancunians Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook decided in the immediate aftermath of the Pistol's show to form a band. And while the DIY ethos of the Sex Pistols gave them the wherewithal to call themselves a band when they could barely play their instruments, the band they became was the first punk-inspired group to leave the punk-rock ideology behind. The critical step in that direction was the selection of Ian Curtis from among the respondents to the "Singer Wanted" listing they posted in a local record store. Curtis was less an aspiring rock star than an aspiring poet, and his moody, expressive lyrics veered the group's sound away from thrash and anger and toward something far more spare, speculative and melancholy.

The soundscape that Joy Division developed over the course of 1977-79 included the addition of the synthesizer—an absolute violation of the lo-fi punk aesthetic, but a choice that marked the beginning of what would eventually, be called the New Wave. Unknown Pleasures and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" made Joy Division cult heroes in the UK, and Ian Curtis's mesmerizing stage demeanor turned him into a post-punk icon.

Ian Curtis Handwritten Lyrics
Though he concealed his condition from his bandmates until he suffered a major seizure in their tour van following a gig in December 1978, Curtis was epileptic. Some have speculated that depression over his worsening medical condition or the side effects of his medication led to Curtis's suicide. Whatever his reasons, Ian Curtis took his own life just two days prior to Joy Division's planned departure on a potentially career-changing tour of America. Two months after Curtis committed suicide, the surviving members of Joy Division fulfilled a promise they'd made to one another by retiring their group's name and continuing on through the 80s with the name New Order.

Bassist, Peter Hook recalls: "After something like that, you don't know what to do. The only thing constant in our lives was practice. When we left Ian's funeral we said: 'See you at practice.' That Sunday afternoon I got the six-string riff to 'Dreams Never End,' which we recorded as New Order. We just put Joy Division in a box and closed the lid, but it enabled the remaining three of us to establish ourselves as New Order. Through New Order people continued to become aware of Joy Division.

"I know Joy Division will always be overshadowed by Ian's death. I remember driving to the tax office to tax my old £100 Jag when the chart rundown went: In at No 11, Joy Division with 'Love Will Tear Us Apart.' I turned it off. For us, Joy Division had gone.

"I think, as with Kurt Cobain much later, it was the death of innocence. Ian's daughter didn't have a father. Did independent music gain an icon? I'm too close to it. I had to view the death of Joy Division as a new start. All the battles we went through in Joy Division, we had to go through once again.

"Listening to Closer again, it's heart-rending. Ian created a wonderful testimony of how he felt at the time: apprehensive, fearful, but powerful. Not in control of your destiny: you can hear how that break evolved."