On the 18th May it will be 40 years since Ian Curtis, lead singer and lyricist with the seminal band Joy Division, sadly took his own life in his family home at the age of 23. To mark the occasion writer Simon Tucker tells us about his relationship with Curtis’ words and the music of Joy Division.
“Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight”
It feels like Ian Curtis and Joy Division have always been there. Their debut album Unknown Pleasures was released the day before I was born and Curtis left this existence just a few weeks before my first birthday. Years later in a deep pit of psychic damage I would drawn a cosmic link to these completely unrelated incidents like they were a thread between the broken shards of my own mind and that of Curtis’ as he committed that most final of acts.
Forty years ago. 18th May. That was when Ian Curtis the lead singer and lyric writer for Salford / Macclesfield / Manchester’s (delete as applicable ) Joy Division died. The story of these four men, their lead singers death at his own hands, the music and drama have all been told and retold a thousand times so please don’t think of me as some distant voyeur peering in to that most personal of times or some music writer hipster changing the words around on a story as well known to certain fans as that of a nursery rhyme to a child. My story and why this anniversary has prompted this writing is from the skewered connections we can make with artists via our own misunderstandings and warped objectives. You see Joy Division were the soundtrack to my collapse into a mental breakdown, the sonic side dish to my cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and alcohol addictions and my near death as I also decided to peer in to the void of my own creation and dive head first in..
But before we get there we must start five years previously and the moment Joy Division slashed and burned their way in to my life.
“Just passing through, ’til we reach the next stage”
Stoned and restless I sat waiting for the BBC’s celebration of John Peel. I believe the night of programming was to acknowledge his turning 60 and aside from the documentary the part I was most looking forward to was the section where there were to be playing video clips of bands he had played on the radio and whose career he had helped along the way. This was surely to contain some of the finest music television I had witnessed on the BBC and my VHS recorder was whirring around making sure I would be able to revisit this footage time and time again.
With each band I checked off a mental sort of shopping list in my mind:
“not heard of them”
and so forth. I was loving the footage of (the) Pink Floyd doing Astronomy Domine, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band twisting the Blues with Electricity and early Bowie just looking majestic. Then something happened that sent shivers up the spine and inject me with a jolt of what I didn’t even know I needed.
These four pasty white men in suits and trousers looking like the dressed like the old blokes in my grandfather’s social club stood looking pensive. Then a driving bass riff played by someone who looked like he was 8ft tall and would batter you just to nick your last fag kicked in. All of a sudden the slightly bookish looking drummer launched in to a drum pattern that was a blur and seemingly impossible to play…I crept closer towards the television with the volume going up in stages. A guitar part was getting played by this teacher-like guy who looked like he didn’t really know what he was doing and then it happened…
Standing central all limbs and hooded eyes the lead singer gazed not at me but through me. His movements were fluid and odd, almost spectral. He looked drugged up but holy, Morrison’s stoned immaculate. As the song progressed he became more violent and was acting like he was slowly succumbing to an extreme anxiety attack. You could feel the words and emotions pouring out of his skin, through the screen and in to my being. The volume went up again..by the time he had reached the point in the song where he sang:
“Well I could call out when the going gets tough
The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough,
No language, just sound, that’s all we need know, to synchronise love to the beat of the show.
And we could daaaannnnnncccceee”
I was losing my shit as he seemed to be losing his. His arms were flailing everywhere and he was fighting some invisible enemies who must have been attacking him from all angles as he skittered side to side.
As soon as it was over I rewound my tape and watched it again and again and again. This was it. This singer was me and I was him. I don’t know why it happened but everything about him and the way he moved, acted, looked screamed connection. It was attraction and fear wrapped all up in one big emotional pill that I was swallowing whole. I had to know more.
“Strain, take the strain, these days we love”
At this stage of my life I had already been through one home lock-in rehab for speed addiction and was rebuilding my life via alcohol, cannabis and an actual job, in actual Cardiff. I hadn’t felt this good in ages so when I was in work next I ran over to Spillers Records on my lunch break and grabbed a CD copy of my first ever Joy Division album, Still. At the time there was a really lovely Goth woman who worked in Spillers and when she saw I was buying a Joy Division album she started telling me about how great they were and how a really good tribute band were playing in the city in a few months and how I should go as “it’s the closest you’ll ever get to seeing them”. I mumbled some awkward bollocks pretending like I knew everything about the band and what she was referring to about not being able to see them and strolled back to work chuffing on a spliff studying the minimal CD cover anticipating what delights were held within.
It took me an hour to get home from Cardiff to the Valleys in those days and the anticipation was eating in to me. I just knew I was about to have my life changed. I got home, ran upstairs, lit the obligatory five skinner and pressed play…and was left with the most confusing sensation. Was this really the same band that had been so visceral and threatening on the TV? This was not direct or fierce, it was eerie and stark. I wasn’t transfixed. I was scared. I knew nothing about Nazi connections or the literary references scattered throughout yet I knew there was something queasy and unsettling about the whole thing. Exercise One crept in like smoke suddenly making shapes, a ket-lurch rhythm dragging you in to a place you just didn’t want to go. Ice Age whip-snapped chasing its own tail always feeling like it was about to trip over its own feet. I sat and stared in a soap-bar and music induced state of paranoia. It continued with songs like the sheet metal slashing of Something Must Break and the gothic romance of Dead Souls which, with Atmosphere, was the only real comforting moments on the album as they felt ancient and married to a musical form I was comfortable with.
Why had this album so shook me? Over time I would realise that whilst the music was not what I was expecting it was the lyrics and vocal delivery of Ian Curtis that had really put me on edge as I just knew that here was someone who knew my defects and my obsessions, my addictions and my malady. Here was a young man singing a British white post-punk blues music and like the first time I smoked heroin I just knew that this relationship could be dangerous.
“This is the room, the start of it all”
I had allowed my Joy Division obsession to ferment slowly bubbling away under the surface. I had searched out news clipping and magazine articles. I had found out why the woman in Spillers had told me the tribute band were the closest I was going to get to seeing them. This singer I was so drawn towards had killed himself at the age of 23 which was only four years older than I was at this time and as my dangerous obsession with all things Ian Curtis grew so did my alcoholism which to everyone outside seemed fine and normal drinking behaviour but to me was just one more step to an early grave. I had tried to commit suicide when I was 16 and people had just put it down to typical teenage depression but the black hole inside me was now growing larger and larger and I was filling it with all manner of things from junk food to booze to sex. Secret ugly habits were slotting together and I was presenting different faces to the different groups I was around. I had left work and gone to college where I had met a woman and who I had started dating yet the relationship was extreme in its difficulty from the off. We had to meet in secret so I would take a bus then a train to Cardiff (“to the centre of the city where all roads lead waiting for you”) just to see her for half hour before heading to the pub where I would drink enough just to get some sleep on the train home. The strain was breaking me and I was getting uglier as my addictions started ruling my thought process and was helping me make some woefully rash decisions. Around this time I bought Unknown Pleasures, Closer and the Heart and Soul box-set (again all from Spillers) and the fear I had originally felt was replaced by one of dangerous comfort. Curtis felt like that fake drug friend who would encourage you to get more and more out of it for their own entertainment whilst they stayed sane. He also represented my ultimate fantasy. That mythical figure of rock star as poet. A tragic early death and a lasting legacy. This was my destiny I just knew it only I wasn’t in a band I couldn’t write lyrics or sing for shit. What would I leave behind? A few tears and a massive VHS collection. There would be no books written about me just a small column in the Rhondda Leader. I had to escape.
“In a new town, just clutching at straws”
I used my aforementioned girlfriend as my passport out of the suffocating Valleys thinking that a change of location would mean a change in my mental health (the fake promise of geographic sobriety many addicts have fallen for) and went to university with her in Lampeter. Before leaving she had bought me a copy of the Deborah Curtis book ‘Touching From A Distance’ and this was where shit turned really sour. I would play ‘Closer’ at least once a day zoning in on the goodbye of Decades and Isolation (“mother I tried please believe me / I’m doing the best that I can / I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through / I’m ashamed of the person I am”). Anyone who has suffered extreme mental health and addiction issues will understand the moments where it seems everything is relating to you and your circumstances. Adverts, radio, news, music and film all seemed to be written about you and directed at you. Touching From A Distance was my bible and whilst it was wonderful in its dissecting of any phoney mythology that had built up around Curtis it had only elevated him in my mind. All of his negative personality traits were my negative personality traits. His failings were my failings. I was also at the time convinced I was in love with two women and the situation, added to a failed abortion which nearly took the life of my partner (the original one), an increased intake of E and coke, daily drinking and a constant need to split myself in to a thousand pieces with the different groups I had began to hang around with was sending me in to a breakdown. I started to lie to and manipulate people. The walls were closing in fast and I was becoming a really horrible person setting fires to my friendships which would take years to heal (and in some cases they never would). I kept telling myself that this was inevitable and the end was in sight. Ian was my guiding light and our relationship had become toxic. We were willing parasites feeding each other’s misery. Yes I was using a deceased man as an excuse to act like a prick and take my own life.
Eventually it all did come tumbling down and all I remember before the hospital was playing the Heart and Soul box-set before Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (if you know you know). I had been drinking Stella all day long and then took a handful of tablets. I woke up the next day in bed covered in a dry black substance I would learn later was charcoal.
“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders”
It would take me a long time to fully recover from this moment of my life and I wouldn’t get fully sober for another fourteen years but the moment I woke up in hospital was the first tiny baby step towards a relative healing with the help of my now wife Laura who helped piece me back together bit by bit. Weirdly my first thought was not to give up drinking or drugs but to ditch Joy Division. I slowly separated myself from them not listening to them at all and giving my signed copy of Touching From A Distance (I had met and interviewed Deborah Curtis for my dissertation where she had been gracious and candid. I would never be able to thank her enough for her insight and honesty) to my head of department (who was also called Simon and who had saved my shoddy attempt at academia). Of course I would always be a fan and tell people how great they were but I just needed some space and then slowly over time things started to heal and my relationship with Ian Curtis and Joy Division would morph in to something far more healthier. I have collected and read all the books on the subject with one of the best being Jon Savage’s recent oral history of the band ‘This Searing Light. The Sun, and Everything Else’, I have watched the documentaries and the film Control and instead of seeing life-goals I am seeing a wonderful wordsmith, a shamanic performer and a deeply flawed individual who was seriously unwell physically and mentally. I feel sad that he got to that point and I am sad for those he left behind. In regards to the music, well I have never shaken off the black dog completely and he does like to snap at my heals now and then but instead of pulling my legs deep in to the vortex they act as a handrail for me to pull myself along through the darker moments of the day. I still have to be careful but now the music of Joy Division and the words of Ian Curtis help me by allowing me my moment of deep introspection and solitude before I file the records away again with a “thank you old friend”.
Ian Curtis died forty years ago on the 18th May and what I hope is that those who highlight the anniversary do so from a place of sadness and understanding. The date marks the moment a young man saw no way out and took that fatal decision, one that many others have taken since and will continue to do so. Ian’s words are those of a flawed and highly intelligent person so let us focus on the gifts he left behind wrapped up in the cityscapes of his bandmates and producer Martin Hannett and remember that behind every myth there’s a human.
“Some things I have to do, but I don’t mean you harm”.