Today’s birthday boy is the doomed lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis. Born this day in 1956, Curtis ended his life on May 18, 1980, a few months before the release of the band’s second and final album, Closer, in July, 1980, and just before they were to depart England for a tour of the U.S.
I didn’t encounter their music, or at least not to any degree that made an impression, until 1983 when New Order—the band that Joy Division became sans Curtis—released Power, Corruption and Lies. That album came along to join the mostly dark and fairly depressive music that had been a hallmark of the early Eighties—such odes to joy as The Cure’s Pornography; Bauhaus’s The Sky’s Gone Out, Echo & the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, Shriekback’s Care, and the first Psychedelic Furs album. There were other outliers too—such as Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Juju and Gang of Four’s Songs of the Free. Maybe I’ll get around to more of that sort of thing, but for now, let’s talk, in measured tones, about the contribution of Joy Division.
Hearing them after all those other worthies was like discovering some kind of Ur-text. JD’s first album was released in 1979 and Unknown Pleasures is as unique a debut as they come. The bands above who date from that time were much more punkish in their early stance. Joy Division was already something else when they waxed their first long-player, in the year of London Calling, The Wall, Fear of Music, and—here’s a perverse choice—Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs. All of which I mention simply for context. Each of those albums, and Joy Division joins that club, is rather sui generis. A thing unto itself. Now, I’m also one who believes—or who will at least entertain the notion—that we find things when we need them or when we’re ready for them. In 1979, I might have found Joy Division simply too dark, but by 1983, back in the dismal prospects of New Castle, Delaware, well, they were just what Dr. Fate ordered.
But I didn’t buy a copy of Unknown Pleasures (the first side—the one that ends with “New Dawn Fades”—is great, the second side less so), but Closer, the one with the funerary statue on the cover. The album is unremittingly gloomy. We used to joke about songs that would make the playlist for a wrist-slitting party—Lou Reed’s Berlin comes to mind as a contender—but no matter how psychically stressful such albums might be, there’s still the sense the music was created with an eye to commercial potential. Closer has a moroseness that feels like neurosis; it’s not kidding or spinning out the trials of the soul for our edification. It’s on a funk. And the music—particularly something like today’s song with that metronomic pound and the guitar and bass pulsing in a groove—makes one admit you can dance to it, even if you might best do so in an isolation tank.
The deep depression of Closer lurks in every song. I know people like to speculate that Joy Division was going to go to America and take it by storm, maybe even be as big as U2! What a crock. This music will always have its faithful adherents, flocks perhaps, but it will never grab the general public. New Order did so, eventually, by cutting away almost everything that linked them to Joy Division. On their first album you can still feel the ghost of Ian Curtis suffusing their every utterance. By the time of Power, Corruption and Lies, they were going in that Euro-synth direction that would take everything with it.
The lyrics to “Isolation” brood. It’s a bouncy brooding song, granted, but it’s not really one of those songs where the catchiness of the tune belies the harshness of the lyrics. “Isolation” surges along with the feel that even dysfunction and this wan and heartless mood can get your toes a-tapping. There’s “painstaking devotion and love” in the opening verse, and what Curtis wants us to feel is the weight of such things. “No one here gets out alive,” Jim Morrison once intoned in a Doors song; Curtis often has a manner nearly as oracular as Morrison’s, and his deep voice and droning delivery make Morrison seem to trip the light fantastic by comparison. Suicidal? Curtis gives us his thoughts on those who “surrender to self-preservation” (interesting choice of verb): “A blindness that touches perfection / And hurts just like anything else.” What keeps you alive is your blindness to suffering—a blindness nearly perfect in its indifference or ignorance, but, there’s the rub, it’s a blindness that “hurts just like anything else.” It’s not good for you and it will cost you.
Then the verse that I daresay we all—I wasn’t even 25 yet—hear as “ours”: “Mother, I've tried, please believe me / I’m doing the best that I can / I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put though / I’m ashamed of the person I am.” Anyone who may be feeling they don’t measure up—whether the yardstick comes from mom or dad or from someone else—can feel how naked this is, in a way. I wanted to hear it with irony back then, and probably could have but for that final line. “The things I’ve been put through” as a complaint/cause is the kind of whining I’m not partial to. “Look what they done to me, ma.” OK, OK, life sucks. But to be ashamed of such things is to admit that they don't belong to you in the way Patti Smith says her sins belong to her, but rather that the shame of the things you’ve been put through accrues to you because you had to take it. Too defeatist? Maybe. But to be “ashamed of the person I am” leaves open room for all the negativity coming from within—not from Ma and Pa and their ministers in the world at large, but rather from the failure to live up to one’s own desires for self-worth. So we can begin to see how “self-preservation” hurts too, if there’s nothing to sustain it, no love of self or others.
And why isn't there? Because of “Isolation.” Being stuck only and forever between one’s ears.
But who would’ve thought it possible: Curtis throws us a bone, reminding us to “see the beauty / These things I could never describe.” Pleasures—a “wayward distraction,” and a “lucky prize.” I want to believe that playing in the band, singing, being part of the music are the pleasures that distract from the ongoing sense of isolation. And it’s true that his band members didn’t really seem to get what Curtis was on about, more’s the pity. The gift of the arts is their beauty, a quality that might seem a consolation, the way the pulsing presence of this song consoles—makes you feel better. But the downside is that that beauty is fleeting, and that it can’t sustain itself. We always come down from that high.