Books: Touching from a Distance – Ian Curtis and Joy Division

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Touching from a Distance – Ian Curtis and Joy Division

By Deborah Curtis

“When he told me that he had no intention of living beyond his early twenties, I took it with a pinch of salt, assumed it was a phase and that he would grow out of it.  He seemed terribly young to have already made the decision that life was not worth living.  I thought that, as he matured, surely life would be so good that he would not want to leave it all behind”.

– Deborah Curtis (widow of Ian Curtis)

LOVE WILL TEAR US APART was written by Ian Curtis in 1979 and released by Joy Division in 1980. It remains one of my most favourite songs of all time.  And I’m not alone in my view – in 2002 it was listed by NME magazine as the best single of all time.  The song was also listed by Rolling Stone at number 179 in its top 500 songs of all time.  In May 2007, NME placed it at number 19 in its list of the 50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever.  It’s been covered by artists as diverse as The Cure, U2, Simple Minds, Jamie Cullum and Paul Young.  And in June of last year, the NME “celebrated the 30th anniversary of Joy Division‘s epochal debut Unknown Pleasures”. The cover had a picture of Ian Curtis – and inside was a special feature entitled Joy Division: 30 Years of Unknown Pleasures 1979 – 2009.

Despite all this, I’m willing to bet that not many folks have heard of the seminal Ian Curtis or the highly influential band, Joy Division (of which he was the vocalist and lyricist, as well as occasional guitarist and keyboardist).

Fortunately his widow – Deborah Curtis – has written a fantastic book that provides much information about her late husband and the band.  It also features an extensive Discography, Gig List and a fantastic Lyrics section.  These include the lyrics to all released songs, unfinished writings and unseen lyrics.  It also has – in Ian’s scrawled handwriting – the original lyrics to Love Will Tear Us Apart.  Published over ten years ago now, surprisingly Touching from a Distance – Ian Curtis and Joy Division remains the only in-depth biographical account of Ian.

Ian Kevin Curtis was born in the Memorial Hospital, Old Trafford, Manchester on St Swithin’s Day, 15th July 1956, although at the time his parents, Kevin and Doreen Curtis, lived in Hurdsfield on the outskirts of Macclesfield.  They had been married for four years and Kevin was a detective constable in the Transport Commission Police.  They were a close knit family who spent much of their time visiting relatives.  Ian seemed to have been liked by his relatives.

Ian was a very bright child from early age.  He loved books and was very keen to learn.  He retained a life-long interest in history.  He inherited his father’s love of writing and silent moods.  He also had a great love of music – in particular he was a great fan of the likes of the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, and David Bowie.  In his early teens “He always had a fascination for fame and the glamorous side of life, but the practical considerations that go with it escaped him.” He also idolised people who had died at their peak like James Dean, Jim Morrison (of The Doors) and Janis Joplin.  Indeed, “anyone who had been involved in the young, arty medium of any form of showbusiness and found an early grave was of interest to him”.

Like many teenagers he smoked dope and sniffed solvents.  Given that he told his future wife that he had no intention of living beyond his early twenties, it’s hard to know whether taking drugs was simply a phase he was going through or early sign of self destruction.

Deborah met Ian whilst school children in the early 70s.  Their first date was a David Bowie concert in Manchester.  From early in their relationship Ian’s duel personality was evident.  One the one hand he was “never more charming and loving” whilst on long rambling country walks.  As Deborah Curtis notes “The solitude and the silence seemed to make him happy”. He was also gentle, thoughtful and sincere.  “Ian liked to laugh with his parents and he pulled his mums leg all the time.  He would say something utterly ridiculous while just out of earshot and she would pop her head out of the kitchen with a look of disbelief, to see Ian sliding down into the chair in a silent, quivering laugh.  His jokes were always teasing, but never spiteful”.

On the other hand he was also prone to temper tantrums – he sometimes became inexplicably angry.  He totally dominated Deborah’s life.  She wasn’t allowed to wear fashionable clothes or make up.  In fact, he almost a fetish for having her body totally covered.  This was bizarre, as he loved of outlandish people.  For instance, although he wasn’t a homosexual, Ian expressed a great interest in homosexuals. “He had an intense interest in the way other people lived, especially those who led lives which were out of the ordinary”.

Despite this, they became engaged in April 1974, with Ian selling his guitar to pay for the ring.  Ian’s strong personality and enigmatic charisma swept aside any misgivings Deborah may have had about their relationship.  (However, characteristically, Ian later had a couple of tantrums at the engagement party itself!).  Later, both of them seemed to have reservations about getting married – Ian had already told a female friend that he knew he would be unfaithful – however they tied the knot in August 1975.

Life soon settled into routine and Ian became frustrated with his lack of involvement in the music business.  Although a Civil Servant, he’d always talked of a career in music, but nothing was happening for him.  Advertising for band members he met a guitarist called Iain Gray and eventually came across Peter Hook (Bass guitar and backing vocals), Bernard Sumner (Guitar and Keyboards) and Terry Mason (Drums).  The latter three had known each other since early childhood and were already in a band.

Watching the Sex Pistols perform in Manchester in June 1976 seemed to spur Ian on.

Inspired by the energy of punk – he later took in acts like The Damned, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Nick Lowe and Iggy Pop – Ian phoned Bernard Sumner who made the snap decision to recruit him into the band. In early 1977 they decided to call themselves Warsaw (taken from Warszawa on David Bowie’s Low album).

Their first gig was in May 1977 alongside the Buzzcocks and the punk poet John Cooper Clarke.  The review in Sounds was disappointing but the NMEs Paul Morley spotted their uniqueness and potential: “There’s an elusive spark of dissimilarity from the newer bands that suggests that they’ve plenty to play around with … I liked them and will like them even more in six months’ time”.

After this Ian spent all his spare time writing and Warsaw started the gig circuit and played at various small clubs.  Again they were championed by Morley, who noted that Warsaw were “easily digestible, doomed maybe to eternal support spots.  Whether they will find a style of their own is questionable, but probably not important.  Their instinctive energy often compensates for the occasional lameness of their songs, but they seem unaware of the audience when performing”.

As Warsaw became more popular they were offered more gigs especially at Rafters a small bar in Manchester.  They needed a new drummer to replace Terry Mason who never really mastered the art.  They found Steve Morris – “the missing piece of the Warsaw jigsaw”.

A performance at the Electric Circus in October 1977 earned them a place on the Virgin 10” compilation album, Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus.  Warsaw’s track was At a Later Date where Ian speaks out in support of the then jailed Rudolf Hess.  (Other bands featured on Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus include the Buzzcocks, Steel Pulse and the Fall).

This recording only seemed to whet Ian’s appetite.  He “was often frustrated as he felt that fame for his band couldn’t come fast enough”. Thus in an attempt to promote themselves they self financed what was to be Joy Division’s first record – an EP called An Ideal for Living. (Warsaw had to change name to Joy Division shortly after Short Circuit as there was already a London-based band called Warsaw Pakt).  The sleeve – which doubled up as a poster and was drawn by Bernard Sumner – proved controversial as it featured a member of Hitler Youth.  Released in 1978, An Ideal for Living included the tracks Warsaw, No Love Lost, Leader of Men and Failures.

The name change also seemed to signal a change in musical direction – although Joy Division weren’t a punk band they were inspired by its energy.  “Joy Division worked hard to produce a new, tighter image.  The frantic punk-style songs disappeared and were replaced with strong melodies and lyrics worthy of closer inspection.”

These lyrics were often melancholy.  Perhaps they reflected the stresses and problems faced by any newly wed couple – as Deborah notes they had “very little spare cash for socialising and trying to keep the heating bills to a minimum meant that only the living room was warm”. Or what about living with Ian’s grandparents for a while?  “Living like a mole made it very difficult to study and, as winter approached, we huddled together in the same room every evening to keep warm”.

Added to these stresses and strains was Ian’s epilepsy.   Touching from a Distance virtually gives a blow by blow account of every epileptic attack Ian suffered.  After a gig, he established a routine of not going to bed until he’d had a fit.  Additionally, when his daughter Natalie was born (in April 1979) he was reluctant to hold her in case he had a fit and dropped her.

June 1979 saw the release of Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures.

This contained such iconic tracks as She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay and New Dawn Fades. Ironically, Unknown Pleasures was reviewed in Sounds under the headline Death Disco. “The reviewer wrote a short story around the album; his opinion was that if one was contemplating suicide, Joy Division was guaranteed to push you over the edge”. Who was to know that a year later Ian Curtis would have taken his own life?

In this review, I’ve concentrated on the early part of his life – until Touching from a Distance was published, much of it was still unknown.  I think it gives useful insights into his later behaviour.  I didn’t want to dwell on his later life – this was when Joy Division were at the height of their fame and the musical journals of the day have covered this period in-depth.  Indeed, the last year of Ian’s life is minutely chronicled by Deborah Curtis in the book.  The pressures of endless gigs, his ever erratic mood swings, his medical problems and his infidelity.

Chapter 13 – My Timing – must have been emotionally draining for her to write.  For here she bravely describes the exact moment she came across Ian after he had committed suicide: “I took a step towards him, about to speak.  His head was bowed, his hands resting on the washing machine.  I stared at him, he was so still.  Then the rope – I hadn’t noticed the rope.  The rope from the clothes rack was around his neck”.

This really is courageous writing.  His suicide – and some of the rumours surrounding it – must still haunt her.  Debra Curtis was a young woman with a small child when Ian died. I’m not too sure how – or, indeed, if – she has ever managed to get over this tragedy.  One thing is for sure, however, and that is that Ian’s death was a terrible waste of such a great talent.  Like many an artist he seems to have been a tortured genius.  This book also demonstrates that even so-called ‘superstars’ are human as well.  We all have our contradictions, doubts, vices, strengths and weaknesses.  Ian Curtis certainly had his.

As a final tribute to Curtis, I’ll leave the last word to the journalist and broadcaster, Jon Savage.  Savage is best known for his award winning book, England’s Dreaming, the most comprehensive and definitive history of punk music.  In the Foreward to Touching from a Distance, he writes: “Ian Curtis was a singer and lyric writer of rare, mediumistic power: his songs and performances for Joy Division conveyed desperate, raging emotions behind a dour, Mancunian façade.”

– John Field

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