Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ian Curtis: 1956 - 1980

Thirty-two years ago yesterday, Ian Curtis hung himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield house. Today he'd be 55.

It's getting increasingly hard to talk about Joy Division.  There was a time when they were a footnote in the annals of rock history, a band remembered only by punks, music journalists, and people in bands.  But about ten years ago, the world remembered them.  Now, after three feature films (24 Hour Party PeopleControl, and the documentary Joy Division), the remastered and expanded editions of their records, and a dozen or so books, we're rapidly approaching a point where we've said everything about the band that needs to be said.  However, given the anniversary, and the fact that they're one of my favorite bands, I'll do what I can.

I bought my first Joy Division record, Closer, when I was sixteen.  At the time I was just starting to develop an appreciation for post-punk and new wave, and I was really just looking for something darker and moodier than what was going on in the charts.  Today I'm seven years older than Ian was when he died, and with each year that I put between myself and his last, I grow more amazed at and baffled by the fact that at such a tender age he was able to write those songs.  In fact, Joy Division's whole short-lived career could be summed up with one question: What the fuck just happened?  How did a boy with modest origins and an O-level education write lyrics of such poetic calibre?  How did a band with such meagre credentials from a poor industrial town give birth to one of the most distinct sounds in pop history in just four years?  Where did it come from?  Most importantly, why did he throw it all away when they were on the brink of international success?

Typically in the event of a suicide, the initial reaction is to wonder how it possibly could have happened.  However, as hindsight grows with time, you begin to wonder how you didn't see it coming. There's a beautiful moment in Anton Corbijn's video for 'Atmosphere' where one of the short hooded figures runs into frame carrying an enormous cone.  He loses his balance, and collapses under the weight of his burden.  That scene sums up Ian's life pretty neatly.  He'd rushed into marriage, home-ownership, and fatherhood, and was trying to juggle his domestic responsibilities while dealing with the pressure of minor rock stardom.  On top of that he was living with epilepsy, never knowing how much time he had left, and taking medication that further distorted his already mangled temperament.

On top of it all (and I really think we overlook this too often), he was a kid.  The years between fifteen and twenty-five are the most difficult times of a man's life.  You're in the world, and expected to play a part in it, but you don't know anything about the world.  You don't understand how things work.  You never know what to expect on a moment to moment basis, and when a crisis rears its head, it feels like holy armageddon.  When you couple that with a foundation of raging hormones, it's a wonder any of us make it out alive.  Ian was carrying more baggage than he ever should have been asked to handle, but I can't help but think that if he'd stuck it out a few more years, he could have pulled it together.

And on that note I'll leave you with my five favorite tracks (in no particular order):

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