It was twenty years ago, May 18, 1980, when Ian Curtis, vocalist/lyricist for Joy Division, decided to end his life with a make-shift noose in the kitchen of his home. Though reports from friends indicate that he was not outwardly depressed, the turmoil of his life (a crumbling marriage, an affair, epilepsy, side-effects of medication, et cetera) finally caught up with Ian, a mere few days before Joy Division were to embark on their first US tour. It was a decision that froze everything, if just for a moment (“just for one moment…”), implications and legacy as yet unformed; but just as swiftly defined. Joy Division ceased immediately, the remaining members continuing in another vein as New Order, whose first musical ventures moved unsteadily away from the omnipresent shroud of Joy Division. But the Joy Division mystique remains and prospers to this day, untarnished by time because the music they created, awash in dark nuances previously unheard and, more prominently, the world that Ian explored, dealt with timeless notions. Something we all can relate too, if we have the courage…
Ian’s worldview was somber, honest to the point of painful: a contemplative, revelatory examination of the human condition. Whether his lyrics were dutifully expounding on the travesties of history (‘Dead Souls,” Wilderness”), or slyly winking at his literary influences (“The Atrocity Exhibition” = J.G. Ballard, “Interzone” = William S. Burroughs), they always packed an emotional, visceral power and razor-honed beauty that seemed beyond the grasp of most lyricists. But it was his striking observations of the failings and frailties of self and relationships (with others, as well as the world around him) where he most clearly flourished. He refused to stoop to cliché, and approached the subject matter with eyes wide open, no matter the resulting inner turmoil. Despair has often been used as the definition of what Ian wrote about, but despair was only the tip. With flashlight in hand, Ian traversed the bleak corridors and dark recesses of the mind with a curious, unwavering eye dissecting all that we wish to keep hidden. An existence of such excruciatingly lucid thoughts and sensations often denied, was now brought to crystal clarity. It was not despair that drove Ian. His lyrics transcended despair, veering into a realm of solemn realization, and willingly allowing these visions to burn into his corneas. With notepad in hand, Ian’s observations were gleaned from the blinding glare, lyrics scribbled in a frenzy of unwavering veracity.
A few choice selections, reflections from the shattered glass mirror of the soul: “Instincts that can still betray us/A journey that leads to the sun/Soulless and bent on destruction/A struggle between right and wrong/You take my place in the showdown/I’ll observe with a pitiful eye/I’d humbly ask for forgiveness/A request well beyond you and I…" from “Heart And Soul.” “You cry out in your sleep/All my failings exposed/And there’s a taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold/Just that something so good just can’t function no more…” from “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “This is a crisis I knew had to come/Destroying the balance I’d kept/doubting, unsettling and turning around/Wondering what will come next/Is this the role that you wanted to live?/I was foolish to ask for so much/Without the protection and infancy’s guard/It all falls apart at first touch…” from “Passover.” “Existence well what does it matter?/I exist on the best terms I can/The past is now part of my future/The present is well out of hand/The present is well out of hand…” from “Heart And Soul,” again…(in retrospect, expressing a poignancy that is almost palpable).
The music was captivating, as driven by Peter Hook’s sinuous, mercurial lead bass guitar, Bernard Sumner’s broken glass plucked with brittle bone guitars, Stephen Morris’ robotic, locomotive, precision drums, and synths that scurry from the shadows, sometimes hulking and ponderous, sometimes feigning joy amidst sorrow. Martin Hannett’s charcoal hued, imaginative production helped accentuate the Joy Division sound: the sound of the tightly wound ‘everything,’ teetering on the brink of falling apart (even during the abundant moments of perfection), as witness by the tendency for the songs to abruptly cut off or slip into entropy meltdown. But these instruments and disparate sounds ascended out of the post-punk clamor at diametrically opposed trajectories, swinging back down like the aching branches of a weeping willow, an arching despondence that hovered over Ian Curtis’ haunting, compact, direct vocals. Vocals that conveyed the conflict within via juxtaposing calm, almost monotone recitations with the occasional eruption of fiery passion (especially in the live environment). Ian, always the focal point, held elusive control, even when his control was sifting like sand through his fingers, sand that pours, eternally, through the hourglass of infinity...
From the pre-dawn rumble and strangulation caress of Unknown Pleasures to the resigned, chiseled in iron poetry of the masterful Closer, to the singles (taut snippets—pages ripped from the notepad, fully formed and demanding attention) and various collections, the Joy Division mystique flourishes even now (Still), twenty years later. Because rarely has the human condition been exposed and cataloged with such minute detail, with such uninhibited abandon and unnerving accuracy.
Maybe soon I’ll have to post a blog dealing with my strange love of ellipsis, eh?
|Cover artwork for the brilliant, Closer. |
The photograph is from Bernard Pierre Wolff and is of the Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy, by Demetrio Paernio.