When Ian Curtis passed away in 1980, Joy Division – the band he left behind – had only recorded two albums, barely making a dent on mainstream culture in the process. However their posthumous fame and impact – two feature films, countless documentaries and published biographies – has created an influence which dwarfs sales. It’s an impact which should be remembered, but not – as fans proposed last week – through turning his final home into a permanent museum.
More than thirty five years on from his tragic, untimely death, the life and work of Ian Curtis seem to linger more prominently than ever. Joy Division have been elevated to a unique place in rock’s canon, a group who more than any other seem to channel the dark, chaotic creativity which swept through British music in the post-punk era. Yet Curtis’ true character, the frailty and beauty of his work, is often swept aside in favour of a false and somewhat misleading depiction.
As earnest and well mannered as the proposal may outwardly seem, the idea of purchasing Ian Curtis’ final house – the house where he took his own life – only feeds this further. Much of the drama and poise of Curtis’ lyrics lie in their ineffability, in their continual ability to sidestep interpretation. Continually at war with himself, these are words – in part – fuelled by an adolescence steeped in rock mythology, in an early marriage, in epilepsy, depression and the appallingly crude manner in which mental health was dealt with by the NHS in the late 70s.
Yet they also reflect a country which seemed to be coming apart at the seams, a place where long-held identities were being swept away: the crumbling, Victorian, industrial Manchester of the 60s replaced by the Brutalist, brutalising and enormously alienating modernity offered by the subsequent decade.
The stunning universality of his work mean that it’s wrong to pin Ian Curtis down to a specific time, to a specific place. Joy Division’s output came to echo in Berlin, in Moscow, in Detroit – anywhere where shadows grew slightly longer. Equally, it’s also wrong to define the singer by his final residence, to equate his life and work to the point where it ended. Speaking to the NME, Bernard Sumner said: “It’s a bit ghoulish and it’s a bit of a monument to suicide as well. I’m torn down the middle over it, really… To me it’s a place of sadness. It’s not really a place that I’d want to go to.”
But no doubt some fans would make this journey. The level of adoration applied to Ian Curtis has long since reached mythical levels, with even the singer’s memorial stone itself being stolen in 2008. Items from the singer’s final house have actually emerged online before, with the kitchen table from the room where Curtis committed suicide selling for £8,400 on eBay amid somewhat controversial circumstances back in 2013.
These are simply the extreme ends of a lengthy process. Joy Division t-shirts – particular those inspired by the graph on the front of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ – are a common sight on the British high street, with the band becoming a common cultural object, quite out of sync with their relatively obscurity during that initial creative arc.
There seems to have been an awkward re-writing of Ian Curtis’ life, a re-casting of the troubled singer as a Dionysian muse. 2007 film Control may well have been artfully shot, but it perhaps seemed overly willing to re-interpret Ian Curtis as the iconic frontman, as the chiselled cheek-boned voice of alienated youth tumbling forth across Joy Division’s incredibly intense, shattered, post-modernist rock.
Of course, there’s a certain grain of truth to this – after all, Control was shot by Anton Corbjin who knew and worked alongside the band. Yet fans would do well to read Deborah Curtis’ own book ‘Touching From A Distance’: a radically different interpretation, it casts the singer as an enormously talented yet deeply flawed individual. Like any human being, Ian Curtis was capable of enormous acts of kindness, of tenderness, of love – yet he could also be an appalling shit, particularly to his wife.
Alasdair Gray once wrote of Glasgow that no city can be real unless it is imagined. Joy Division helped to kick-start Manchester’s imagination, aiding the area as it struggled to re-invent itself in the post-industrial age. The band’s legacy is absolute: two astonishing albums and a handful of powerful, inspiring singles. It’s a slim yet nigh on perfect catalogue which stands proudly on its own merits and doesn’t need walking tours, oven gloves or even a museum.
The ‘Ian Curtis’ enshrined in fan myth is not only wide of the mark, but this process itself robs his work to a large degree of its fluidity and potency. Fans should be careful: through failing to allow recent history to drift away, they are in danger of removing some of the power of Joy Division’s work. Ultimately, the Ian Curtis story ends with a wife who has become a widow and a daughter who grew up without a father – and that’s something no one should go through.