The Alien and the Intimate: The Writing of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s Poet-Frontman
By Esther YiJanuary 5, 2015
So This Is Permanence: Lyrics and Notebooks by Ian Curtis
TO LISTEN to Ian Curtis sing is to wonder why we sing at all. This sort of reflexive thinking is hard to come by when listening to, say, Whitney Houston, whose vocal gymnastics make “why” or “what for” seem beside the point. But Curtis’s voice is a blunt instrument. Should it have a color, it would be UPS brown. Personified, it would be a Freudian father figure or a mid-level bureaucrat. In the lower registers, the young frontman sounds like a bad opera singer, and you can hear the effort it costs him to get the notes out. The austerity forces attention on what’s being said and the fact of it’s being said.
What Curtis said is central to the Joy Division story. The three other members had their instruments; Curtis had words, and they were notoriously dense. Notable extracts from his lyrical vocabulary: “life,” “time,” “feeling,” “sensation,” “isolation,” “control,” “failure,” “stranger,” “blood sport,” “obtained.” The language tends toward loaded ideas, clinical terminology. The words for “Novelty,” an early Joy Division track, were written by Peter Hook, the band’s bassist, and it’s funny to hear a line like “You’ll just fall behind like all the other sods” sung by Curtis. This isn’t to say that “sods” is an inherently silly word, but rather that it’s slangy and casual, a Britishism that affixes the lyrics to a particular place. This is antithetical to Curtis’s style — and partly why a book like So This Is Permanence, the most comprehensive collection of his writing to date, can be published in the year 2014 with reasonable expectation of meeting interest.
Those who knew Curtis say that he would have been a writer if it weren’t for the band. His lyrics reference Gogol (“Dead Souls”), Kafka (“Colony”), Burroughs (“Interzone”). When he and his wife moved into their home in Macclesfield, they immediately refurbished a room as his writing space. Blue carpet, blue walls, and a blue sofa, upon which Curtis would sit with cigarette and notebook. At some point he tried his hand at fiction as well, but it’s hard to imagine Curtis’s words as freestanding narrative, unanchored in music. The lyrics were the seat of his vision, which alchemized with sound to unmistakable effect. When Curtis delivered his poetry of powerlessness and confusion in that blocky, proletarian baritone, he transformed into something like a possessed everyman, a street-corner prophet.
Curtis would step onto the stage in a button-down tucked into pleated pants, as though arriving straight from the Macclesfield employment exchange, the day job he kept to support his wife and baby daughter. But when the music swelled, he’d fling his arms in quick upper cuts and scuttle to and from the microphone, appearing bewildered by his own movements. Curtis had epilepsy in fact. As it worsened, his dancing often brought on seizures, and he would be dragged off stage and have his tongue held by a bandmate to stop him from choking. Curtis loved David Bowie and Iggy Pop, but his performance had little of his heroes’ feline grace and delicious inhabitation of the stage. Curtis was ruthlessly graceless.
But neither was he Johnny Rotten. Like other Manchester bands that got together in the late 1970s, Joy Division was fired up by punk’s anyone-can-do-it attitude, its flagbearers the Sex Pistols. Curtis, who understood that inspiration can be a cage, chose to keep his shirt on and practiced stern articulation where punk was screamy. Joy Division, photographed brooding against Manchester’s stark industrial landscape, developed a reputation as the fare of arty intellectual types and miserable twats. When Curtis hanged himself in 1980, the doom-and-gloom reputation seemed all but proven in court. He was 23. He was supposed to leave for the band’s American tour the next day.
Unsurprisingly, Curtis’s suicide has cast-ironed him into the tortured genius archetype and thrown a permanent shadow on his work. His lyrics have been bagged in plastic and presented to the jury. With that in mind, perhaps the recent release of So This Is Permanence presents yet another opportunity for morbid, torpid dissection — when, really, what’s engrossing about the book is how it physically documents the living, mad-dash energy of Curtis’s pen pushing.
The collection — edited by his wife Deborah Curtis and music journalist Jon Savage — features scans of Curtis’s handwritten lyrics, some recorded and others not, with comparatively few personal jots scattered throughout. All but seven of the Joy Division songs he authored are represented in the book. The insights are largely material. You can see the type of scrap written upon (“Macclesfield District Council Memorandum”) and the curvy scrawl that he usually set in all-caps. You can also see his edits, from the small tweaks (“Where is your past?” becomes “Where have you been?”) to wholesale eliminations that leave black clouds at the top of some pages. By and large, though, the lyric drafts hew closely to what you hear on the records.
All three of his bandmates have stated that they did not pay great attention to the lyrics when Curtis was alive. In rehearsals, Stephen Morris would begin with a drum riff, upon which Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook would add layers of guitar and bass. Meanwhile, Curtis would rifle through the notebooks and A4s in his plastic carrier bag and try out the words that fit best. So preoccupied were the others with their respective instruments that it was simply a relief to have someone supplying the words — whatever they were. “Who cared what he was saying as long as he said it like that,” is how Hook describes his attitude during rehearsals. “All I really heard was a scream.” Sumner goes so far as to say that they “studiously ignored what he was writing about.” When they took a closer look after Curtis’s death, the lyrics inevitably took on the character of a cry for help — “frightening,” “quite detached and aggressive” — that they felt remiss to have brushed aside.
The guilt is palpable in Unknown Pleasures (2012), Hook’s entertaining, if idly titled (it’s the name of Joy Division’s debut studio album), autobiography. He describes the guys as jape-loving “yobs” who didn’t understand the extent of their frontman’s epilepsy and domestic troubles (Curtis’s marriage suffered as Joy Division prospered, especially when he met a Belgian woman named Annik Honoré). It didn’t help that Curtis waved away his own problems, eager to move ahead with work and loath to inconvenience others. Here’s Hook reflecting on the band’s second studio album, Closer, released two months after Curtis died:
People turn round to you and say, ‘God, you’d been hearing these lyrics for weeks — why didn’t you realize he was so bad?’ You hadn’t. He wasn’t slumped in the corner with a lone fiddle in the background; he was fucking going for it. I suppose that’s the contradiction: on the one hand, he was ill and vulnerable; on the other, he was a screaming rock god. That’s what was confusing.
This broaches, of course, the age-old question of the divide between the life and work of an artist, of the temptation to project a unified personality where there is actually fracture. “Does singing about desperation come from being desperate or is it empathy?” asks Morris in his foreword to Touching from a Distance (1995), Deborah Curtis’s account of her rocky marriage to Ian. Her own stance is clear. Her husband’s “intentions and feelings were all there within the lyrics,” Deborah writes of Closer. “While he lived they were equivocal, but with hindsight all was disclosed when it was too late for anything to be done. Such a sensitive composition could not have happened by accident.”
In biographical accounts, Curtis is often described as a people-pleaser, saying the right thing to one person even if it contradicted what he said to another. The way Deborah tells it, his lyrics glowed with a truth that he couldn’t express through normal channels; therefore, as the Curtises’ communication broke down, she saw, not without some desperation, his writing as a safe house for the ineffable. Had they owned a cassette player, and had she been able to listen to the recording of Closer that Ian brought back from the studio, for example, she perhaps “could have gained an insight into what was happening in his mind.” Deborah wasn’t alone in holding up his lyrics to her life’s mirror in order to read them. Honoré, who stayed with the band while it recorded Closer in London, allegedly hated the album because she believed Curtis felt as guilty about their relationship as the lyrics suggested.
For Ian’s stone at the crematorium, Deborah requested the inscription “Love will tear us apart.” The band’s manager, Rob Gretton, had told Deborah that the song was about her (of course, we don’t have this directly from the source, Ian). Gretton was nonetheless “stunned” by her choice of inscription, Deborah writes, “but there seemed little point in changing it as it seemed to encapsulate all I wanted it to say.” It’s hard not to share in Gretton’s astonishment. Then again, hearing “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” you can see why Deborah took it so personally. Of the lyrics Curtis wrote, it’s possibly the most tangible in content and imagery. But the broader theme is one that underpins much of his writing: the simultaneity of alienation and intimacy. The speaker and his lover have “this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives.” But the moments of physical and communicative closeness turn into humiliations: “Why is the bedroom so cold? / You’ve turned away on your side” and “Do you cry out in your sleep / All my failings exposed.”
Outreach fails (“I tried to get to you”). Miles lie between two people standing nose to nose (“Me in my own world, yeah you there beside”). Dancing in your room to the radio — a “live transmission,” as Curtis informs us with killjoy precision — is actually an act of disengagement: “Staying in the same place, just staying out the time / Touching from a distance, further all the time.” That last line might be the best encapsulation of Curtis’s theme of displacement at the moment of contact. And what better stage than the self for feeling this way? For feeling lost precisely when you should feel at home? Curtis often sings of numbness to “the pleasures of a normal man,” seeming to pinch his own skin as he observes himself from outside:
I’ve walked on water, run through fire,
Can’t seem to feel it anymore.
It was me, waiting for me,
Hoping for something more.
Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else.
As might be expected, Curtis didn’t have explanations for his lyrics (“I don’t know what they are about. It depends really…er…”), but the closest he might have come is when he told an interviewer that “some of the things come out of confusion” and proceeded to recount feeling overwhelmed by his freedom after finishing school. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? he remembers thinking. “It was awful.” The idea pops up in one of his few non-lyric notes, in which Curtis loosely describes confusion as the “overactive, culmination of ideas, feelings.” If an album can reveal a person’s psyche, then you might say that Unknown Pleasures (1979) is confused, while Closer (1980) is not confused about being confused.
The first words of Unknown Pleasures: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.” Tucked into nebulous contexts are localized images — “in a room with a window in the corner,” “on the tenth floor, down the back stairs,” “four, twelve windows, ten in a row” — so that the specificity is more destabilizing than orienting. The perspectives are multiple (“I’m watching you, I’m watching her,” “who is right, who can tell”), the senses are gorged (“lights are flashing, cars are crashing,” “a change of speed, a change of style”).
Closer has a clean, dead weight. The scattershot energies of Unknown Pleasures are strained through a net and centrifuged into a hard bullet. Joy Division’s final album has a scientist’s regard for its own terror — brutal, unblinking. Here’s a verse from “Heart and Soul”:
An abyss that laughs at creation,
A circus complete with all fools,
Foundations that lasted the ages,
Then ripped apart at their roots.
Beyond all this good is the terror,
The grip of a mercenary hand,
When savagery turns all good reason,
There’s no turning back, no last stand.
The disillusionment is decisive. But Curtis’s resignation rarely feels listless. The lyrics on Closer have a quality of sadomasochistic excavation: you sense Curtis digging as far as possible, to “the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know,” only to find that “beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all.” The words are electric with awareness, almost earnest — there is resignation because there once was pursuit. It’s this earnestness that makes Curtis’s writing tender and expansive under what can seem like mere bleakness. Closer’s closer, “Decades,” is a thing of terrible beauty:
Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders,
Here are the young men, well, where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in,
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying.
We saw ourselves now as we never had seen.
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration,
The sorrows we suffered and never were free.
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
In her biography, Deborah recalls hearing the lyric “I remember when we were young” and thinking that “Ian sounded old, as if he had lived a lifetime in his youth.” When she asked him if the lyrics for “New Dawn Fades” (a different song on Unknown Pleasures, featuring lines like “A loaded gun won’t set you free”) reflected his true feelings, he “refused to confirm or deny any of the points raised and he walked out of the house.” Can he be blamed? Curtis was young, but, as “Decades” suggests, age has nothing to do with the number. The magic of art is that it countenances all feelings, that we can see “ourselves now as we never had seen” — the rightful bearers of trouble and imaginations, in no need of justification in hell’s refinery. Art does not see 23 years. Art sees decades. Where has Ian Curtis been? A place where he left behind that name and became someone else. That’s why it’s a place we know, too.
Esther Yi is a writer in Berlin. Her reportage and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, Cinema Scope, Bookforum, and other publications. She lives online at estheryi.wordpress.com.
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